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Oxford study: Prepayment technology provided by the Home Office is socially and financially isolating UK asylum seekers

Published on
11 Mar 2024
Written by
Sophie Bennani-Taylor and Professor Nasar Meer
New research finds prepayment cards provided to UK asylum seekers are having highly detrimental impacts on their wellbeing.
credit card and hand

Oxford study: Prepayment technology provided by the Home Office is socially and financially isolating UK asylum seekers

A research team from the University of Oxford and the University of Glasgow has found that prepayment cards provided to UK asylum seekers by the Home Office are collecting their data and controlling their behaviours in ways that have highly detrimental impacts on their wellbeing.

The research details the restrictive and isolating impacts of the Asylum Support Enablement (ASPEN) card: the prepayment card UK asylum seekers are issued with.

The research draws on analysis of 53 documents (including policy papers, legal reports, web pages and Freedom of Information Act correspondence) alongside semi-structured interviews and focus groups with 21 participants. These included asylum seekers, refugees, and advocacy organisation staff in Glasgow, as well as staff from Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) – the company that supplies the card.

The research highlights four key ways that the technology is harming UK asylum seekers:

  • Through collection of their purchasing data which invades asylum seekers’ privacy and makes them afraid of buying the ‘wrong’ thing
  • Through the card’s fluorescent orange colour which makes asylum seekers highly visible in public spaces, exposing them to abuse
  • Through the card’s highly restrictive rules (including prevention from shopping online, receiving money from friends or family, buying necessary goods such as warm clothing, and making it difficult to buy religious or culturally-appropriate foods)
  • Through the card’s lack of consistent functionality, which means that despite already struggling to live on around £40 a week, asylum seekers are often left with no money at all. Here, they must find help from resource-stretched charities to buy food and other supplies for themselves and their children.

Sophie Bennani-Taylor, DPhil Student at Oxford Internet Institute and first author of the research said: “While much has been said about the potential for AI or Machine Learning to alter the fabric of society, the ASPEN card serves as an important reminder that even mundane technologies such as prepayment cards retain a significant capacity to inflict harm: most notably through social exclusion, financial precarity, and the heightened visibility of a marginalised group.

Our research shows how elements of the UK’s Hostile Environment have become embedded in the ASPEN card: a prepayment card provided to UK asylum seekers. It demonstrates how the digitisation of welfare payments creates highly opaque conditions of data collection and new modes of social control.”

The prepayment technology provided by Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) has moved from its use in the UN Refugee Agency’s Cash Assistance Programme in Greece to its adoption by the UK Home Office.

This research finds that the same restrictions highlighted by prior research in Greece[1] – including lack of mobility and constraints over what goods and services can be purchased – have made their way into the payment technology imposed on destitute asylum seekers by the Home Office.

Co-author of the research Professor Nasar Meer, University of Glasgow, emphasised: “Uncoupling the social welfare of people seeking asylum from the rest of society is a policy choice. The lived realities of what it means for people caught in the systems that flow from this choice, as this research shows, are harrowing and should compel us to revise our entire approach.”

PFS was fined in 2022 by the UK Payment Systems Regulator for engaging in cartel behaviour in prepaid cards issued to vulnerable people.[2] The researchers argue that this record indicates a persistent pattern of exploitation of marginalised groups, raising questions about the Home Office’s decision to continue working with the company in the provision of prepayment technologies to UK asylum seekers.

Download their paper ‘Processing payments, enacting alterity: financial technology in the everyday lives of asylum seekers,’ published by the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Notes to Editors

For an interview with the researchers or further information, please contact Sara Spinks/Roz Pacey at or 01865 287237.

About the Authors

Sophie Bennai-Taylor is an ESRC-funded DPhil student in Information, Communication and the Social Sciences. Her doctoral research examines how digital identification platforms shape access to rights, resources and political participation.

Professor Nasar Meer is Professor of Social & Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. ​ He was co-Investigator of The Impacts of the Pandemic on Ethnic and Racialized Groups in the UK (UKRI, 2021-2023) and Principal Investigator of the Governance and Local Integration of Migrants and Europe’s Refugees (GLIMER) (JPI ERA Net / Horizon-2020).

About the Oxford Internet Institute

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.

About the University of Glasgow

The University of Glasgow is a top world 100 University (THE, QS) and was the Times and Sunday Times Good University of the Year 2022. The University is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of leading UK Universities and has annual research income of more than £180m.



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