What every asylum-seeker dreams of, prays for, longs for. To be granted asylum, to be safe, to be able to start a new life in a new home.
If asylum is granted, a brutal countdown starts. People have 28 days before payments stop and they are moved out of their homes. The UK Home Office calls it the “move on” period.
So, in a language that’s not your own, in a system that is unfamiliar and which is likely to seem hostile if you’ve already had to battle with it since arrival, without a network of friends and family around you, perhaps with small children in tow, and struggling with the traumas that led you to seek asylum in the first place, you now have to:
- Read and understand a five-page Discontinuation of Asylum Support letter
- Chase up your Biometric Residence Card — that’s compulsory identification for every new refugee living in the UK.
- Get a National Insurance number.
- Make a decision about where to live in the UK.
- Obtain proof of address and an identity card to open a bank account.
- Apply for benefits.
- Apply for social housing if it’s an option, or find a private landlord willing to take on a refugee, get hold of references, money for a deposit and the first month’s rent.
- Get access to Find a computer with wifi and a printer to apply for an integration loan.
- Travel to new accommodation with belongings.
The stories with which we are all familiar of benefit claimants repeatedly falling foul of delays and sanctions now apply to the refugee too.
Lydia Noon tells ‘Kia”s story:
On the day Kia’s 28 day ‘move-on’ period was up, an employee from private housing contractor G4S came to her shared house to get her key.
Her last Home Office payment of £10 arrived ten days before her financial support was stopped. When she packed her suitcase and walked to the nearest bus stop on 23 March, Kia had just £6 in her purse. She was still waiting for her National Insurance number and hadn’t applied for benefits.
Kia counted out £4 for a daysaver and took a bus to Birmingham’s Neighbourhood Office to ask for help.
She arrived at 9.30am when the office doors opened. The housing officer couldn’t see her right away so Kia took her suitcase and sat in the waiting room. There were three other people there, says Kia, also waiting to be allocated a place to live. Lunchtime came and went. Too scared to use her last £2, Kia didn’t eat or drink anything all day.
More than eight hours later, the housing officer finally saw her. He asked her questions about her health then told her there was no accommodation available. He scribbled down an address for a B&B and told Kia to go there.
“I’m in tears, it’s late, it’s wet and freezing cold. I don’t know where I’m going,” Kia recalls.
She got the bus as far as she could and her friend booked her a taxi for the last leg of her journey.
Too scared to use her last £2, Kia didn’t eat or drink anything all day
When she arrived at the run-down B&B, located near a motorway, Kia gave the receptionist a letter that the housing officer had handed her. She had a shower but nothing to eat.
“It was a nice room. I can’t complain,” she says.
Every morning there was cornflakes and juice.
In three weeks, Kia ate three times, when a friend came to visit and brought food.
“I’m a bit to blame because I should have acted,” Kia sighs. “But when you can’t express yourself, you can’t explain what you’re going through. I should have started chasing this Job Seekers Allowance thing during those 28 days.
“If I had known what to do, what to ask for, I wouldn’t have gone hungry.”
Still Human Still Here primarily work to address the huge problem of destitution for refused asylum seekers. But they too report that newly recognised refugees end up destitute because their section 95 asylum support is cut off before they are able to access mainstream benefits or start working.
Despite repeated efforts to solve this issue through procedural improvements, the evidence shows that the problem has got worse in recent years and that very significant numbers of refugees are ending up destitute after the 28 day move-on period expires. For example:
In 2015, the British Red Cross supported over 9,000 destitute refugees and asylum
seekers of which 1,155 had refugee status (13%). This represents a significant
increase on 2014 during which they supported 7,700 destitute refugees and asylum
seekers of which 700 were refugees (9%).
In 2015, 38% (225 people) of those housed by the No Accommodation Network
(NACCOM) were refugees who were made homeless after obtaining leave to remain.
An increase from 36% (186 people) in 2014.
Theresa May, as Home Secretary, set out quite explicitly to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants. But asylum-seekers and newly recognised refugees are caught in that same hostility. They encounter it in the requirement that private landlords verify the immigration status of their tenants, and face fines if they fail to do so, thus creating not only an administrative barrier if the refugee is unable to provide all of the required documents, but a strong incentive for the landlord to refuse tenancy to those who can’t immediately provide unequivocal evidence of British nationality. They encounter it in the requirement for the same checks to be carried out before they can open a bank account or access health treatment. They encounter it in the inadequate or simply wrong advice that may be given by advisers at the Job Centre and elsewhere – advice which they are not equipped to challenge – for example:
Some centres refused to accept JSA/ESA claims until after the grace period had ended, meaning that new refugees were forced into destitution before they can even start their claims for mainstream benefits. One service in Barnsley spoke of a couple who were wrongly advised by the Job Centre that they could not attend a work-focused interview until after their Home Office support had been terminated.
The vulnerability of the asylum seeker, the many Catch-22s which make it so difficult for them to survive whilst waiting for their status to be confirmed, let alone if their claim is refused, are shocking enough. What we may be less aware of is that the longed-for refugee status does not mean that the threat of destitution, homelessness, lack of health care and so on is lifted.
As ‘Kia’ said, ‘If I’d known what to ask for, I wouldn’t have gone hungry’. And if it weren’t for the voluntary organisations working to support both asylum seekers and refugees, things would be much, much worse.
There’s another thing. In the past anyone recognised as a refugee would have five years’ refugee status or humanitarian protection, after which they could apply for permanent settlement (indefinite leave to remain), which was normally granted fairly automatically. Now new guidelines (March 2017) from the Home Office say that all who apply for settlement will be subject to a ‘safe return review’, to see if the country they left is now deemed safe for them to return to.
This means that the refugee, having overcome immense barriers to reach safety and to be granted refugee status, now faces the threat that if they cannot convince the authorities that the homeland they fled is still not a safe place for them, they will be returned there.
The awarding of refugee status should bring with it the promise of stability and security. It is a chance to build a new home, to study or work, to become a part of the community. …. These changes put an end to that hope of stability, and introduce an additional layer of bureaucracy, uncertainty, and evaluation at the hands of a dispassionate state. All of the difficult administrative hurdles to get status in the first place will be repeated. There is no question that this will have a devastating impact on the mental health of those who have sought to make a new life in the UK.
How can a refugee plan for their future, given this uncertainty? How can they begin to feel truly part of the community? How can they be part of our shared future?
These are just a few of the organisations working to support asylum seekers and refugees in the UK:
UK Refugee Welcome – People to People Solidarity is a network on Facebook that connects volunteers around the country with asylum seekers and refugees who need practical help or advice.
The Red Cross support around 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers each year who are destitute.
Refugees at Home is a charity that connects people who have a spare room with refugees who need one.