This week is Refugee Week – a celebration of ‘the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary’ around the world. These are difficult times for those seeking sanctuary across the Global North. In the UK specifically, asylum is a contentious and politicised issue, and we only rarely hear and listen to the voices of people who seek asylum. In research for the report we are launching this week, we worked with a group of people with personal experience of the asylum system and organisations supporting them in Doncaster and Halifax in Yorkshire, two dispersal towns. We asked questions about the housing that people in the asylum system in the UK are placed in, and the way they are being supported, or not. We found a system that was complex, fragmented, and fragile, and set apart from the mainstream welfare system. 

Those receiving asylum support have no choice over where or with whom they live during the processing of their asylum case. People seeking asylum are generally not allowed to work, and financial support is substantively less than welfare benefits, leaving people reliant on foodbanks and third sector support organisations.

The Home Office has been criticised for its handling of asylum applications, including a substantial backlog, and a growing number of people waiting for a decision on their asylum application for longer than six months. There are also long-standing issues around the quality and adequacy of asylum accommodation, including widespread use of ‘contingency’ accommodation, a lack of adequate and timely support to those seeking asylum, and poor communication and stakeholder engagement. People in asylum properties feel they are not being listened to when they report issues or problems in their accommodation. They are struggling to survive on the financial support they are given.

In our research, we found that dispersal housing in Halifax in particular was often of poor quality. It was difficult for people in the asylum system to report issues, and it often took a long time for repairs to be carried out. In Doncaster, asylum dispersal housing is increasingly procured in outlying villages, creating a fragmented geography of micro-dispersal, which makes it difficult for people in the system to access support, and for support organisations to provide support to them. Volunteers from Doncaster Conversation Club were struggling to support people who were living in villages with few or no services and were unable to afford to take the bus to central Doncaster.

Photos by Rasha Kotaiche

We recommend that support for those seeking asylum should be incorporated into the mainstream welfare system rather than provided through the current separate system. Alongside this, priority should be given to reducing asylum application processing times and enhancing decision-making. The Home Office should also improve coordination and communication with all stakeholders in the asylum system. People in the asylum system should be allowed to work across the board, not just in jobs on the shortage occupation list. This would enable people to live dignified lives free from destitution. It would help decrease social isolation and mean that people can contribute in meaningful ways to their local communities.

Meanwhile, our research suggests that conditions for people while they are waiting for the outcome of their asylum applications could be significantly improved in the following ways:

  1. Those seeking asylum should have a choice of accommodation and location, e.g., to enable them to settle close to co-ethnic networks, friends, and families;
  2. Inclusion and sustainable communities should be a key priority in the accommodation procurement process. This would mean consultation with local authorities and communities, and careful consideration of availability of services, support, and local transport;
  3. There should be consistent provision of adequate, localised induction for people when they are moved to dispersal accommodation;
  4. Accommodation should be adequately furnished with minimum standards to include Wi-Fi, televisions, and vacuum cleaners;
  5. Reporting of issues in asylum properties should be straightforward and the system should be responsive so that disrepair and infestation issues are tackled promptly.

As the tone of the debate around asylum has become ever shriller, it is worth remembering that of the world’s 82.4 million forcibly displaced people (including internally displaced people), the vast majority, or 86%, are hosted in developing countries, most often neighbouring countries. Turkey (population: 84 million) hosts 3.7 million refugees, more refugees than any other country. By comparison, in 2020, a total of just over 214,00 refugees, people who had pending asylum cases, and stateless persons lived in the UK. In the year ending September 2021, the UK (population: 67 million) received 37,562 asylum application, equating to 8% of asylum applications across the EU+.

The UK government recently launched two schemes to welcome people fleeing the war in Ukraine, invoking a so-called ‘long and proud history of welcoming migrants including recent arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and Hong Kong’. Migration scholars have long argued that this oft-repeated claim is ringing hollow, and that today’s ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, is related to Britain’s unfinished reckoning with its imperial past (see, e.g. Ian Sanjay Patel’s We’re here because you were there). For instance, the government is currently engaged in a legal battle to allow it to deport people seeking safety and sanctuary in the UK to Rwanda, depending on their means of arrival. In the most recent UN Human Development Report, Rwanda was ranked in the ‘low human development category’, positioned at 160 out of 189 countries and territories, and with more than half the population living in ‘multidimensional poverty’. The plan to deport people fleeing war and conflict and seeking safety in the UK to one of the world’s poorest countries has been met with fierce criticism including from leaders of the Church of England, who say it is an ‘immoral policy’ that ‘shames Britain’, and called instead for safe routes to the UK.

As Faith and Sanaa El-Khatib, two of the co-researchers who worked with us on the report, wrote in another blog on these pages last year:

My name is not ‘asylum seeker’. Yes, being an ‘asylum seeker’ is a part of me, but I’m more than that. I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend. Society labels asylum seekers as if we are different, as if we don’t belong. Yes, we are different. We are stronger than everyone else. The sacrifices we make on a daily basis are unimaginable. But have you ever wondered why people are seeking asylum, why are people leaving their country? Everyone has their own dark, upsetting reason to flee their country. But, it’s starting to seem as if asylum seekers are less than humans.

We are people. We have rights. So, respect and feel for us. Welcome us and call us by our names, because my name is not ‘asylum seeker’.

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