Refugees are at risk of homelessness and destitution in the UK
We should be proud to give refuge to those who flee persecution and seek safety here but too many begin their new lives in penury, and the system is to blame, says Kate Green MP.
Today I’ll be introducing a debate in Westminster Hall on the treatment of refugees once they’re granted refugee status.
Much of the debate about asylum seekers concentrates on the application process. Prolonged delays, poor decision-making, the irrational and cruel use of immigration detention, the meanness of financial support (so-called NASS payments) rightly attract fierce criticism. But what’s less attended to is that even once asylum is granted, many refugees continue to experience hardship and homelessness. What should come as a moment of relief from fear, and the chance finally to rebuild a shattered life, instead becomes the start of a new nightmare.
The problem lies fundamentally in the incredibly short ‘move on’ period, which allows refugees a mere 28 days after they’ve been granted refugee status to leave Home Office accommodation, and move from NASS to mainstream benefits. In that time, they must obtain their national insurance number, open a bank account, receive their biometric residence permit, navigate a complex benefits system, find somewhere to live and, if they’re able to work, a job, while settling into their new life. For many, mentally traumatised, still struggling with their English, disconnected from mainstream services, it’s simply too much to cope with. And the system itself makes things harder: their first universal credit payment won’t be made for over a month (though advance payments are available, this isn’t straightforward), while local housing allocation rules may not give priority to new refugees. All this places them at risk of homelessness and destitution.
The government knows there’s a problem here, and has been attempting several measures to deal with it. National insurance numbers are now included on the biometric residence permit the refugee receives, and this usually arrives within days. The post grant appointment service will smooth the referral to Jobcentre Plus to make a first benefits claim. But it has been hard to find out how successful the pilot for this service was – parliamentary questions from Baroness Ruth Lister met with a bland and uninformative response. Meanwhile, 35 asylum support liaison officers are now being appointed in a number of local authorities, funded from the Controlling Migration Fund, but it’s not clear how their work will be monitored and evaluated, and what difference they’ll make. The government’s Integrated Communities Fund is also intended to provide support for refugees, but again there’s little detail as to how.
The government points to faith and community groups and charities who support refugees, and many do great work. But the state shouldn’t be abdicating its responsibility to support those to whom it has given refuge; the government has an obligation to properly settle those with newly granted refugee status, and to ensure they receive the support they’re entitled to. Leaving them penniless and without a roof over their head is immoral, inhumane and perverse.
One policy change that campaigners believe would make a significant difference would be to extend the move-on period from its current 28 days. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2018 extends the period someone can be deemed threatened with homelessness to 56 days, the universal credit waiting period is five weeks, and the move-on period should be extended in line with these timescales. From this October, public authorities will be required to refer those at risk of homelessness to the local authority – this provision should be extended to cover providers of asylum accommodation too. Most importantly, we need joined-up, whole-system support across national and local government for those newly granted refugee status, including the provision of dedicated one to one support, rather than leaving refugees to negotiate a complex landscape of support for themselves.
We should be proud to give refuge to those who flee persecution and seek safety here, proud to say refugees are welcome in our country. But too many begin their new lives in penury, and the system is to blame. Today’s debate offers a chance for ministers to put that right.
Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston.