Funeral poverty is a serious issue here in the north of Ireland; this is due to funerals getting more expensive, the postcode lottery around burial costs, and the lack of government support for funeral costs. There is a funeral payment from the social fund which can cover some costs associated with the funeral. However, asylum seekers are not eligible to apply for this fund as they have no recourse to public funds[1]. People living off £38 a week can hardly be expected to save for a funeral, they are already living in poverty. Unfortunately this does not make asylum seekers immune to death, nor their loved ones to loss.

The options available to asylum seekers are; borrow money, rely on family, friends, and charitable donations, or have a ‘pauper’s funeral’. Borrowing money is a dangerous option for asylums seekers as they will not be able to borrow from reputable lenders. Many asylum seekers are not in the position to rely on family and friends, for many reasons; that the amount of money needed is so huge, and that their family and friends may not be able to give this kind of money. That leaves them with the second option, a pauper’s funeral. The Welfare Services Act 1971 states that local district councils must make suitable arrangements for the disposal of bodies[2]. Even the language in this act is undignified. It is a fundamental part of the grieving process to be able to bury loved ones in a respectful way. Between 2008 and 2015, local authorities spent £180,000 on pauper’s funerals for 90 people[3]. This works out at around £2000 per funeral. Would this money not be better spent in a council funeral fund that allowed people to make their own arrangements?

People are working towards alleviating funeral poverty, but it is vital that asylum seekers are included in the conversation. Asylum seeking women make up 12% of all maternal deaths and 0.03% of the population in the UK. Further research has shown similarly high levels of perinatal deaths to asylum seeking women compared with perinatal deaths amongst the population[4]. Asylum seekers are overrepresented in the mortality rates considering how few there are as a percentage of the population. Yet they are not able to access any help to pay for funerals. I remember the first meeting I sat in that had a focus on funeral poverty, held by Marie Curie. Myself and another colleague from Housing4All highlighted how funeral poverty affects asylum seekers even more as we cannot access any grants available to people with access to public funds. Many in the room were shocked by this and agreed to further meetings to specifically discuss this issue.

Housing4All worked alongside the Law Centre NI, Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey, and other stakeholders from the refugee and asylum community to raise awareness of the issue and push for the specific inclusion of asylum seekers in discussions on how to alleviate poverty.

The Law Centre made progress recently and gave us some good news; Belfast City Council agreed to waive cremation fees for all children under 18 years from a Northern Ireland address and to waive burial fees for residents of the city to children under 18 years. This decision was agreed by full council on the 1st October 2018. This surely does come as a relief to Asylum seekers though nobody likes to think about loosing loved ones.

This is great progress in Belfast, to see asylum seekers rights specifically recognised in policy. Although this is a modest development, and there are still other huge costs associated with funerals, we welcome it fully and will continue to fight funeral poverty. If you would like to join the campaign and help us fight funeral poverty contact H4All or write to your MP on the matter.