What is an Aspen Card and why does it need reform?

An 'Aspen Card' is a debit payment card given to UK asylum seekers by the Home Office. The Aspen Card provides basic subsistence support, but purchases on the card are closely monitored by the Home Office, making it an insidious surveillance tool.

Key points
  • An 'Aspen Card' is a debit payment card, issued by the UK Home Office to asylum seekers.
  • Asylum seekers with ongoing applications (called 'Section 95') can withdraw cash on their card, people with failed applications (known as 'Section 4') can only use it as a debit card.
  • The Home Office can see exactly what has been purchased, and where and when it is purchased.
  • The Home Office can and have taken punitive measures against asylum seekers whose spending patterns don't reflect their invisible and arbitrary rules.
Aspen Card

The UK Home Office provides basic subsistence support to people who are in the process of applying for asylum, as well as to those whose applications have been refused and are appealing their cases, in the form of an ‘Aspen Card’ - basically it’s a debit payment card, which can be used in any shop that accepts VISA debit payments. At the time of writing the programme is managed by corporate giant corporate giant Sodexo, but the administration of the payment system is soon going to go to a new provider.

The Aspen Card operates differently depending on the status of the recipient. People whose asylum applications have been refused are moved on to ‘Section 4 support’. These individuals receive accommodation support if they meet ‘the destitution test’ and £35.39 per week (current rate) for subsistence through the Aspen Card payment system, which they can use for chip and pin payments only - crucially, they cannot access cash. Those whose asylum claims are ongoing, on the other hand, can apply for ‘section 95 support’ under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and are provided housing, if they qualify, as well as £37.75 per week (current rate). Unlike those on Section 4, they are allowed to withdraw cash.

Shortly after the Aspen Card system was rolled out in 2017, it was reported that the cards were being used by the UK Home Office to monitor the expenses of cardholders and track their location. The consequences for asylum seekers of being cut off from support or being forced out of their accommodation are devastating, but living under government surveillance has wide reaching personal, psychological and sociological implications as well.

In order to bring this to light, we conducted interviews with three people living in different parts of the country who were users of the Aspen Card and were willing to share their personal experiences of their Aspen Card purchases being monitored by the Home Office, and the consequences they faced as a result. Those testimonies were collected before the current pandemic. You can watch or read their testimonies on our website (testimony 1, testimony 2, testimony 3)

Through our research, we learned that monitoring and surveillance of people’s Aspen Card usage (alongside other Home Office reporting obligations, check-ins with housing officers and other forms of immigration enforcement, put extreme psychological pressure on people seeking asylum in the UK). Being monitored, watched and controlled by the Home Office through the mechanism that is supposed to provide you with basic financial subsistence, can have a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing by causing stress, additional trauma and paranoia. Subjecting people who are fleeing persecution to government surveillance and control can be deeply triggering, as it can reproduce the very feelings of insecurity they are trying to escape.

In the interviews we conducted, asylum seekers we spoke to highlighted the different struggles they faced and the different ways in which they tried to resist Home Office surveillance. They reveal how differing access to legal support, varying levels of English language proficiency and experience with the immigration system impact the way people live and experience Home Office surveillance and its consequences.

The testimonies also point towards how monitoring through the Aspen Card is part of a wider system of surveillance and control deployed by the UK government as part of the hostile environment policy. The UK Home Office’s deployment of the Aspen Card risks limiting asylum seekers’ mobility and disregarding their social and cultural needs, for example, to attend religious places of worship and see family members outside of the geographic area where they are 'allowed' to use their Aspen Card. The testimonies provide an insight into how the UK government may have used the data from the Aspen Card to 'catch people out'.

The three people we interviewed were on Section 4 support at the point at which we interviewed them, and they were all enrolled in the UK Home Office Aspen Card programme. Unable to withdraw cash, their movements and expenses were able to be tracked by the Home Office.

Asylum seekers are fleeing conflict and persecution. As you will hear from those testimonies, some of those people arrive in the UK because they were being surveilled by their own government and the police. The Aspen card system and the realisation that their purchases are monitored by the Home Office perpetuates this constant surveillance and has had a devastating impacts on their mental health.

Asylum seekers are in effect forced into a terrible pact where they have to trade the most basic level of subsistence with their privacy and dignity.

This research is a result of a collaboration between Mishka, an expert campaigner by experience with a focus on asylum and refugee rights and UK immigration detention, Grace Tillyard, doctoral researcher in the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department at Goldsmiths University of London, and Privacy International.

We wish to extend warm thanks to all the caseworkers, asylum support organisations and interviewees who collaborated on this project.