In this article, Barrister Eleri Griffiths explores the reality for refugees who survive the UK asylum process, how to help them with housing, and dismantles misconceptions about why refugees are here
Eleri Griffiths examines the situation facing refugees who have endured the UK asylum process only to find themselves facing homelessness and destitution in the UK, and discusses the options available to them.
The distressing plight of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution from around the globe feels closer to home than ever as immigration policy continues to dominate headlines and political debate. The international horror at photographs of a three-year-old washed up dead on a Turkish beach seems a distant memory as calls continue for the UK to pull up the drawbridge and intercept boats of migrants crossing the English Channel.
The causes of their plight are myriad, and the horrors faced by those desperate enough to brave whatever dangerous route they have chosen out of their home countries are sometimes unimaginable.
However, this hardship does not end once the perilous journey to the UK finishes, and even after being granted the right to stay, the situation can take a further dangerous turn as the threat of homelessness is the reality for many who have been granted asylum.
According to UK government statistics, 31,589 asylum applications were made in the year to March 2019. The UK offered protection to 17,304 people at the point of initial decision in the same period, of which 40% were children. Yet, the idea that at this point life becomes sheltered and protected for those refugees is misconceived.
A survey conducted in April and May 2017 by the Refugee Council of people who had been granted refugee status since 2016 and had used the charity’s integration services showed more than half of the respondents had slept rough or in a hostel or night shelter in the period after they were granted refugee status.
To summarise, people seeking asylum in the UK (as opposed to those who have been identified for resettlement before arriving in the UK) are given accommodation by the government but usually banned from working and given just over £5 per day to live on. Once granted asylum, this support stops after 28 days, leaving those refugees who make it through the asylum process having to rapidly navigate the realms of state benefits or seeking employment.
The same Refugee Council Survey above showed nearly a quarter of asylum claimants had waited more than 4 weeks for a national insurance number and the government’s own website says that Universal Credit (the new, consolidated mainstream benefit in the UK) usually takes around five weeks for a first payment. Therefore, even those who take action immediately when granted leave are likely to face difficulties and delay.
This is an extremely vulnerable position for anyone, let alone one already destitute, in a foreign country, with limited language ability and often having experienced substantial trauma before arriving.
Asylum claim decision-making itself is criticised for being flawed, delayed and of poor quality. Those who are unsuccessful with the Home Office and want to challenge its initial decision rely on an appeal to tribunal to assess their claim.
This can itself be a protracted and complicated process.
Experts are often needed to provide evidence on medical conditions, psychiatric symptoms, assessments of torture claims and scarring, and conditions in a particular country for those in the position of the asylum seeker. Routinely, they will have their account rigorously tested and scrutinised in a public courtroom before complex arguments on the law are made before a judge reaches the decision. Rarely is the decision made there and then, and the person will face a further agonising wait for a letter in the post telling them the outcome of this life-changing decision.
And of course, an asylum seeker might have been detained in an immigration removal centre for some or all of that time.
News that the Home Office is seeking to scrap its target of processing ‘straightforward’ claims within six months, as reported by The Guardian on 7 May, is therefore deeply concerning. However, in practice claims are often not straightforward, and the length of time taken to decide it can already be far longer, sometimes years, even where the asylum seeker is an unaccompanied child or vulnerable.
The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, who monitors and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Home Office’s immigration, asylum, nationality and customs functions, reported in 2018 that on inspection of properties provided for asylum seekers, 43% overall were assessed as “not fit for purpose” or “urgent”. Evidence submitted included poor property standards and frequent references to defects, damp, dirt and vermin.
Life for applicants during this time, surviving on £5 per day and unable to work, is difficult enough, but when the government support ends, instead of a life of opportunity, refugees have few options.
Unless there are children at risk or really vulnerable adults, the absence of recourse to public funds is an obstacle for Local Authority intervention until refugee status, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave is given. Even then, they become eligible for housing or homelessness help from the local authority but not necessarily afforded any priority, so they join the same long queue to secure accommodation as countless other eligible housing applicants.
People, who came to the UK seeking a life of safety and stability, are therefore in danger of slipping through the cracks into deeper destitution.
Of course, the situation is more desperate for those whose asylum application fails. As the BBC reported on 12 June, hundreds of failed asylum seekers in Glasgow are again facing eviction after Serco re-commenced it’s controversial ‘lock-change’ practice, evicting failed asylum seekers at short notice and handing back properties under its care to their owners as leases end and its contract with the UK government to provide housing for the Home Office finishes later this year.
Donating to charities may be the first and most convenient recourse for anyone who wishes to help. Others help house refugees by temporarily hosting them in their own homes and providing both shelter and pastoral support for people in desperate need. These arrangements can be temporary, lasting for a few months, whereas other charities and individuals will host a refugee for years while cases are fought through the courts or a refugee attempts to find employment. Offering time volunteering at the many organisations carrying out extraordinary work in the face of funding cuts and increased demand is another option.
Each of these illustrate the commitment of communities across the UK to overcome the infamous hostile-environment policy adopted by the government.
Navigating the unwelcoming and complex UK asylum system is a daunting prospect, and anyone who is in doubt about what their rights are should seek advice from an appropriate immigration or welfare rights adviser, many of whom work on a legal aid, charitable or pro bono basis.
Working on asylum, immigration, and housing matters