on the world: a view on human rights
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that a record 65.6 million people worldwide became refugees or were displaced in 2016, a figure higher than the entire population of the United Kingdom. In the same year, bucking the global trend, the number of asylum applicants in the UK fell by 7% on the previous year to just over 30,603. Of these applications, 66% were initially refused and only 29% of applicants were granted refugee status. According to the Refugee Council, “The percentage of decisions made in 2016 to grant refugee status was the lowest in the past 5 years”.
For the lucky few, being granted refugee status should come as a relief. Instead, it is often the start of a new ordeal. The challenges that lie ahead for new refugees include integration, finding work, family reunification, learning English, homelessness, medical care and racism. Yet these problems are exacerbated by the growing destitution among new refugees, who have not been granted this status under a special government resettlement scheme, such as that for some Syrian refugees.
In early 2017, the Red Cross reported a 10% increase in the number of destitute asylum seekers and refugees they helped in 2016, compared to 2015: 21% had been granted refugee status. The number of hungry refugees sleeping rough across the country is growing.
Unlike asylum seekers, refugees are entitled to work and apply for mainstream benefits, such as housing and unemployment benefits. Under the Asylum Support Regulations 2002, upon being granted refugee status, asylum seekers provided with accommodation while their claim is considered, are given a 28-day grace period, often called the “move on period”, as of the date of the decision letter, to leave this accommodation and find their own.
The Home Office body that provides asylum support, and accommodation, the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), is supposed to provide help in finding new accommodation, yet that usually just means signposting the new refugee to the local council, if at all. On the basis of the local connections rule for allocating social housing, councils often then decide that refugees are not a priority and are placed on a waiting list. In the meantime, refugees, who often cannot speak English and are unfamiliar with British laws and bureaucracy, are left out in the cold, on the streets, to fend for themselves.
Private housing is often not an option given the language barrier, lack of familiarity with housing rules, lack of funds to pay a deposit, and the inability to read and sign a tenancy agreement. Cut off by language, an unfamiliar culture, often without friends or family, agencies like the Red Cross and the Refugee Council step in to fill the void left by the local authorities. Many turn to homeless charities like Crisis, and more recently, to families and individuals who open their homes to homeless refugees and asylum seekers through voluntary schemes such as Refugees at Home and Rooms for Refugees. The help offered, however, is usually temporary. Finding permanent housing, especially for single people, can take years.
It is not simply a lack of housing. Upon being granted refugee status, refugees are given a given a biometric resident permit (BRP), which serves as an identity card, and a national insurance (NI) number which entitles them to apply for work and benefits. They are expected to sort out their claims in this 28-day period. Problems arise here too. Something as minor as a misspelled name on a form can prevent a BRP or NI card being issued for months, leaving the new refugee without any access to funds. The loss of address after 28 days and misplaced mail can also mean that the refugee never receives these items.
Even with the correct paperwork, problems arise frequently. A bank account is necessary to access benefits; however, in many banks, staff do not recognise the BRP as a valid form of ID. While some banks, such as Lloyds, are more amenable, the process of opening a bank account is a lottery.
In addition, at Jobcentres, the lack of awareness staff have of the situation of refugees can lead to delays in being able to access benefits. Some refugees are left cut off from access to funds, and thus money for food and toiletries, for months after their status is decided. Like other migrants, many refugees who were qualified professionals in their own countries, are at risk of exploitative labour situations.
Hungry, homeless, isolated from the community around them by language and culture, and susceptible to racist attacks, this is the welcome many refugees receive in this country. Offering protection to vulnerable people fleeing persecution must not end with granting them refugee status.
In 2016, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees launched an inquiry into the experiences of refugees in the UK. The resulting report, published in April 2017, UK conceded that “Very little time, if any, has been given to considering what happens to refugees once they have been granted protection by the UK Government.”
Reflecting on the situation refugees are in during the move on period, the report recommended that the time period is extended to 50 days. A 2014 Red Cross report suggested that the period is extended to 40 days to avoid the situation of destitution new refugees can find themselves in for days or even months.
Extending this period, however, is ineffective unless the various agencies– local councils, Jobcentres, banks, housing departments, etc. – work with others, such as refugee charities, in a coordinated manner to ensure everyone plays their part. The patchy and fragmented provision of services refugees are entitled to exacerbates the current situation.
The report refers to the Refugee Integration and Employment Service (RIES), a scheme run across the country from 2008 until 2011, when funding stopped, that provided support and advice to refugees for over one year to find housing, work and learn English. The scheme cost less than £2000 per refugee assisted and helped over 12,000 people. In the same year, the Refugee Council lost over 60% of its government funding. The situation has deteriorated since then. The report calls on the government to introduce a “cross-departmental National Refugee Integration Strategy” to assist all new refugees.
The report was published shortly before the recent general election was called. Dealing with the growing number of destitute rough sleeping refugees and asylum seekers is unlikely to be a priority for the government or local authorities. Many refugees are torture survivors and have to deal with the traumatic experiences they have been through as well.
Refugee status is granted for an initial five years. The ability for refugees to feel protected and stable in the UK received a further blow in March 2017 when the government announced the end of its automatic settlement process for refugees. The status will have to be reviewed after this period. Thus, for most refugees, who have successfully cleared the minefield of Britain’s difficult asylum process and have overcome the harsh circumstances of becoming a refugee, the road never ends. Government policy could ultimately see it lead back to where it started.