one small window…

on the world: a view on human rights

Pale Shelter: Refugees in the UK

In November and December 2014, French NGO Secours Catholique (Caritas France) carried out a number of interviews with residents in the “Jungle”* in Calais, France; 54 interviews were collated in a report published in March 2015. Contrary to popular myth, the report found that the United Kingdom was not the intended destination of the vast majority of interviewees. With an average trajectory lasting over two years and the overwhelming majority fleeing war and persecution, more than half had initially attempted to find safety in nearby countries, particularly Libya and Iran, but had left those countries because of conflict or persecution there too. The UK and Europe became an attractive prospect only when all other avenues had been exhausted.

More recent research (September 2015-January 2016) carried out by British academics with over 500 refugees and migrants in a number of European countries made similar findings with respect to “the initial drivers of migration from countries of origin and those which propel people onwards beyond the immediate neighbouring countries”.

Refugee crisis

Contrary to former Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim about “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”, the pull factor is not so much a passion for cold, damp weather, long, dark winters or Premier League football as Britain’s lucrative arms export industry, foreign policy and cosy relationships with foreign dictators.

The “swarm” simply does not exist. As the number of refugees and displaced persons worldwide soared to a record 65 million in 2015, almost 1.4 million asylum seekers applied for refugee status in the European Union, Norway and Switzerland. The UK managed to buck the worldwide trend by taking in only 3% of these applicants, ranking tenth among these 30 states. Of the 32,414 asylum applications made in 2015, 64% of initial applications were rejected and appeals were only allowed in 35% of cases where they were made.

For those who manage to survive war, persecution, violence, gross human rights violations including torture and rape, who endure the perilous journey across deserts, mountains and seas, arrival on the shores of this green and pleasant land is often the start of a new ordeal, one that can be as humiliating and dehumanising as other parts of the refugee’s trajectory.


Protest outside Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre: the largest such facility in Europe

Like many other European countries, Britain’s twenty first century attitude to its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention has largely hinged on a policy of deterrence through the criminalisation of asylum seekers and refugees. Many asylum seekers arrive without identification documents to prove who they claim to be and are then subject to language testing for determination of origin which guesses their nationality based on language skills; a wrong assessment sees the asylum claim rejected. For many more others, their first glimpse of England is from within an immigration removal centre run by the prison service.

Asylum seekers

Although a decision on an asylum application should usually be made within 6 months, the process can take much longer and with appeals can run into many years. Without the ability to work, the asylum application period is frustrating and precarious. The government has a statutory obligation to provide support – housing, cash, healthcare, and free education for children – to destitute asylum seekers and their dependents. In practice, the current rate of £36.95, reduced in August 2015, per person per week is inadequate to cover basic needs such as clothing, travel and toiletries; single parents and families are particularly hard hit. For refused asylum seekers, short-term support of £35.39 is given in the form of a card that is only useable in certain shops.

Support for destitute asylum seekers, including accommodation, is provided by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), part of the Home Office. Under the government’s dispersal programme, most asylum seekers are sent to areas of the UK where “there is a greater supply of suitable and cheaper accommodation.” Much of this accommodation is substandard and sometimes not fit for human habitation. Asylum seekers are not given a choice and those who reject their placement have all support cut off. Housed in already deprived areas, asylum seekers are susceptible to physical and verbal racist attacks which are not uncommon.

Administrative failings can mean that many destitute individuals and families are unable to access any government support at all. The issue becomes more problematic for refused asylum seekers. Some support is available for those planning to return home, but for many, there is no home to return to, regardless of whether the Home Office believes them. Their only support is from local groups and organisations like the Red Cross and the Refugee Council. In England, refused asylum seekers are not entitled to free NHS services.

A 2016 Red Cross report found high levels of hunger and homelessness among asylum seekers in South Yorkshire, which worsens physical and mental health problems and leaves them more vulnerable to exploitation, particularly sexual exploitation and rape in the case of women and LGBTI asylum seekers. The Red Cross states that destitution is on the rise among asylum seekers and refugees; in the first six months of 2016, it helped almost 5600 people, a rise of 16% on the same period in 2015, even though the number of applicants has not risen as much. The Immigration Act 2016 introduced new provisions that will make it more difficult for asylum seekers to access support.

Refugees & the Transition Period

At the end of a successful asylum procedure, applicants are granted refugee status or humanitarian protection, usually for five years which can be renewed thereafter for a similar period if it is proved that the threat remains. As a refugee, an individual can work or claim unemployment benefits and housing benefits. A positive refugee decision is a huge relief but here too problems arise. Over 15% of those helped by the Red Cross in the first half of 2016 had been granted refugee status and had permission to remain in the UK.

Upon being granted refugee status, refugees are given a letter informing them that they have a 28-day grace period to transition into the mainstream welfare system; they are given a biometric resident permit (BRP) and a national insurance (NI) number which entitles them to apply for work and benefits. If they are provided with accommodation as asylum seekers they must leave this accommodation.

NASS is supposed to provide assistance with the transition but this is not always the case. Simple administrative blunders such as delayed mail and wrongly spelled names or details can mean that the relevant information does not arrive on time or at all, leaving new refugees who have had their asylum support cut off with nothing. A 2016 Refugee Council report highlights some of the problems new refugees face.

Once they have received their BRP and NI number, refugees are faced with a new set of challenges exacerbated by their lack of knowledge of the legal system and often of the English language, and the public authority’s lack of knowledge of their situation. Signing up for benefits requires a bank account. This can be problematic as if a person’s only proof of ID is a BRP, the bank may consider this insufficient under its rules, or may not recognise these recent forms of ID, leading to delays or refugees simply not being able to access the benefits they are entitled to.


When looking for work, refugees are entitled to Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA). While this is usually sufficient to cover basic needs, refugees face the same difficulties in dealing with Jobcentre staff as other jobseekers. They are pushed into seeking jobs and undertaking training even though they cannot speak English properly or which are completely mismatched to their skills. Vulnerable refugees have to deal with the frequently rude and unprofessional conduct of Jobcentre staff and often do not understand why their benefits are sanctioned. Although Jobcentre staff have access to a telephone interpreting service to communicate with non-English speakers this is often not used.

Many, particularly older, refugees are qualified professionals in their countries. Several schemes exist to help refugees back into professional work such as in the NHS in Scotland and refugee professionals in London.

The situation can be difficult for younger asylum seekers; some have had no formal education at all. A young man or woman arriving as an adult at the age of 20 in the UK may have left their home many years before, thus missing out on vital years of schooling or had their education interrupted even earlier through war or internal displacement. Getting into or back into education, work or training can be more difficult for them.

Technology and digitalised services can also prove an obstacle. Job searches and council housing searches are usually carried out online; for those without experience of using computers or QWERTY keyboards, the process can be much longer and far more laborious. Just like many young British people who can skilfully use a smartphone but are computer illiterate, a lack of computing skills is a challenge. Refugees can take free English and computing lessons at local colleges, however Jobcentres sometimes sanction benefits if they take courses instead of looking for work.

Most refugees are keen to enter the job market and do not wish to live on handouts. Work is an opportunity to integrate into the community around them, regain a degree of normality and achieve their ultimate aim: to rebuild their lives. After the traumatic experience of flight and displacement, the sense of self-worth and dignity afforded by work is therapeutic.


Perhaps the biggest obstacle that makes it difficult for new refugees to find work and integrate is housing. While those in receipt of JSA can cover their basic costs and needs, housing is more expensive and a nationwide crisis. Racism elsewhere and better job prospects draw many to London. Homelessness is a serious problem for refugees, particularly for those who are single.


“home” for too many people in London

Eligibility for temporary or permanent council housing requires a person to have a local connection, meaning they have lived in the area they are seeking housing in for a certain amount of time over the past few years and that this can be evidenced, and that they have a priority need, which is strictly limited and quite exclusive. These criteria exclude many refugees.

Private housing can also be difficult to access. The inability to provide a deposit for accommodation on the small amount of JSA a refugee receives, lack of awareness of UK housing laws and an inability to read or understand the terms of a tenancy agreement leave refugees vulnerable to exploitation and missing out on opportunities. Many landlords will not consider tenants who cannot speak English. Refugees may also be unaware that there are special loans and funds they can apply for.

Temporary shelter in hostels and night shelters may be accessible via homeless charities. Without an address, access to medical care can be difficult as well. Some special schemes are available to help accommodate refugees through the Refugee Council and Rooms for Refugees.

The problems new refugees face cannot be solved in 28 days. Prior to the Immigration Act 2016, which places strict new restrictions on asylum seekers, it was suggested that the 28-day grace period should be extended. Some refugees find themselves homeless for years; the problem is not so much the length of the grace period as the (lack of) information given to local authorities, public services and support organisations to understand and deal with refugee issues.


Alongside housing, the main issue for refugees is language. Having studied English at school, many refugees did not bother to hone their skills thinking they would never visit the UK or need to use English. An inability to communicate and understand the world around them makes refugees more vulnerable. Interpreting services, adequate or otherwise, are seldom available or used.

An inability to understand English adequately locks them out of housing, employment and social opportunities. It makes it difficult for them to convey their concerns and problems to others. An inability to communicate is isolating and can worsen physical and mental health problems. Even where help is available, it can be difficult to access. Many refugees do attempt to learn English and take classes but when facing homelessness and destitution, this can fall down the list of priorities even though it worsens the other problems they face: English is necessary to access housing and employment but it is difficult to find the time or space to learn when one has nowhere to sleep.

Refugee industry

The refugee crisis has long been a lucrative market for various entities from European agencies, such as Europol and Frontex, who need it to justify their budgets to the people smugglers bringing people across the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Channel. In Britain, although some lawyers and law firms offer pro bono services to asylum seekers and refugees others see them as rich pickings. Asylum seekers are entitled to legal aid as they cannot work. Once they become refugees most have to pay for services themselves. Lawyers exploit their situation – lack of awareness of the legal system and language skills in particular – to charge exorbitant fees for minor services, such as charging a large fee for an “interpreter” to attend who is in fact a paralegal at the firm, unnecessary administrative tasks and helping them to fill out routine paperwork. Not all refugees are destitute and wealthier asylum seekers/refugees can be particularly vulnerable to exploitative law firms.

Special needs

In addition to the problems that other vulnerable and destitute people may face in the UK, refugees have problems that are unique to them and are often immaterial. While looking to rebuild their lives, it can be difficult to discard the life they have left behind. Many have families left behind in war zones or families members who are refugees in similar precarious situations elsewhere.

Refugees cannot consider themselves safe abroad. The largest number of asylum seekers to the UK in 2015 came from Eritrea; the Eritrean government has long been accused of spying on dissidents and refugees abroad. Ethnic and religious tensions that led to conflict in the first place can follow communities abroad. While the media fuels unfounded (to date) rumours that Islamic State militants are flooding into Europe among refugees, complaints of war crimes made by refugees in some European states have led to arrests of militants linked to governments in countries such as Iraq and Syria for these crimes. Furthermore, not everyone from a particular country or ethnic group is a refugee; for example, Sri Lankan Tamils have reasons to seek refuge whereas Indian Tamils do not, nor do the majority of Sri Lankan Sinhalese (majority community of Sri Lanka).

Conflicts that people from outside of these communities may be oblivious to must be taken into consideration, particularly in providing interpreters, where trust is a key issue.


Homelessness and poverty are traumatic experiences. For many refugees, regardless of their material status, the experiences they have had have led to layers of trauma, almost of all which are undealt with. For those who are lucky enough to access help, the focus is often on the initial trauma that led them to flee: war or torture in detention.

While many have physical scars, and wounds that have sometimes been left untreated, almost all have hidden scars that cannot be seen. Not everyone has directly experienced war and but the additional stages of their trajectory can add layers of traumas that also need professional treatment: detention in a neighbouring country, a racist attack elsewhere in Europe, the trauma of detention or a refugee camp in Greece, Italy, France or Spain, witnessing fights and deaths in these places, and the precarious situation and racism faced as an asylum seeker here in the UK.

More than one third of asylum seekers in Europe have been tortured. With cuts to mental health services, available assistance has been drastically reduced and centres closed. The experience is then compounded by negative experiences and rejection in Europe and elsewhere.

Many refugees have reported that their physical health has also deteriorated largely due to the circumstances in which they are living.

Due to misrepresentation in the media, public apathy and an inability to state their own case, much of what refugees suffer is in silence and away from the public gaze. As migrants and the destitute they become a further marginalised community within already marginalised communities. While support is available this is largely through voluntary-run grassroots efforts and some larger charities offering specialist help.

Moves by the British and other European governments to curb the refugee crisis cannot succeed when their own policies fuel and perpetuate the crisis. In order to deal with the consequences, one first has to look at eliminating the causes. Most refugees would remain in their own countries if their safety and security could be ensured there.

Since August 2016, I have helped to run a drop-in advice session once a fortnight on Sundays at Crisis Skylight in London which is open to all homeless refugees (you need to become a Crisis member first). All views here are those of the author and do NOT in any way represent those of Crisis.

* The “Jungle” refers to a number of camp settlements for migrant groups and individuals in transit in the Calais region over the past 20 or so years. The “Jungle” which was dismantled in October 2016 was opened in April 2015.

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