Asylum-seekers left destitute by the government's tough new benefits crackdown are not legally entitled to council housing while their claims to refugee status are processed, a high court judge ruled today.
Refugee charities fear the test case decision means that people fleeing from persecution in their own country will have to choose between returning to the place where their lives are in danger - 'or stay in the UK as beggars of the worst kind'.
Mr Justice Popplewell expressed both reluctance and concern as he ruled that four friendless and penniless refugees, deprived of emergency welfare help under social services regulations designed to curb bogus asylum claims, were also not entitled to housing as 'vulnerable' people under the 1985 Housing Act.
Asylum-seekers caught by the benefits clampdown could still claim housing if they fell into any of those categories.
But able-bodied but destitute people were barred from receiving help.
The judge said the four applicants for judicial review had argued that their destitute position amounted to a 'special reason' why they should be helped.
But he declared that 'financial impecuniosity' could not, under housing law, amount to a special reason, as this category only covered victims of floods, fire or some other emergency.
But the judge stressed that he had reached his ruling 'with some considerable doubt' and had spoken to the Master of the Rolls, Thomas Bingham, one of the country's most senior judges, to pave the way for the case to be heard by the court of appeal as a matter of urgency.
The case was 'a matter of very great importance both to these and other applicants and to local (housing) authorities', Mr Justice Popplewell said.
Asylum-seekers were now being left on the streets 'with nowhere to go and nothing to obtain food or nourishment'.
The judge added that he had been told: 'They cannot get blankets or anything to keep themselves warm. They simply have the clothes they arrived in, and that is the extent of their belongings.'
The four applicants included Joseph Kihara, a Kenyan said to have fled to the UK in February after being tortured; Lydia Araya, an Ethiopian who also arrived in February; Dragomir Pavlove, a Bulgarian who arrived in March, and Telekeja Ilunga-Ilunga, who fled from Zaire.
The judge said all four had asked the Refugee Council for help after exhausting their meagre funds.
The charity, as it had limited resources, could only house them for a few days and they now faced life on the streets.
The judge said the reason for the problem was social security secretary Peter Lilley's introduction last February of new regulations.
The new rules ban asylum-seekers who fail to apply for asylum immediatel on arrival in Britain from receiving income support, housing benefit, or from enjoying any part of the welfare 'safety net'.
They are also prevented from working for six months.
The ban, effecting some 30,000 refugee claimants a year, also extends to all those who decide to appeal once their claims have been turned down by the Home Office.
Pending their appeal against today's ruling, the four legally-aided applicants will be temporarily housed by the authorities which refused them accommodation and opposed their applications for judicial review. These are Westminster City Council and the London boroughs of Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham.
A spokesperson for the Refugee Council later expressed 'obvious disappointment' at the ruling and said the number of destitute asylum-seekers was climbing into the hundreds and the charity did not have sufficient funds to help them.
She said: 'Even though the numbers are going up and up, we have not been given any extra resources by the government to deal with this situation'.