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Refugee Week: How can we improve the Asylum system?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 June 2022

In Doncaster, much of the dispersal housing lies in outlying areas with few services

Mette Louise Berg

Photo by Rasha Kotaiche

This 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 housing, 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 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 organisations.

The Home Office has been criticised for its handling of asylum applications, including a substantial backlog, and a growing number of people waiting more than six months for a decision. There are also long-standing issues around the quality and adequacy of asylum accommodation, including widespread use of ‘contingency’ accommodation, inadequate support, 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 help.

We recommend that support for those seeking asylum should be incorporated into the mainstream welfare 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. 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 and to contribute in meaningful ways to their local communities.

Meanwhile, our research suggests that conditions for people awaiting the outcome of their applications could be significantly improved in the following ways:

  1. A choice of accommodation and location, e.g., to enable asylum seekers to settle close to co-ethnic networks, friends, and families;
  2. Inclusion and sustainable communities to 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. Consistent provision of adequate, localised induction for people when they are moved to dispersal accommodation;
  4. Adequately furnished accommodation with minimum standards to include Wi-Fi, televisions, and vacuum cleaners;
  5. Straightforward systems for reporting problems in asylum properties 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), 86%, are hosted in developing countries, most often neighbouring countries. Turkey (population: 84 million) hosts 3.7 million refugees, more 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 applications, 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 ‘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. 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 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’.

Mette Louise Berg is principal investigator on the Nordforsk-funded Migrants and Solidarities project, which funded the research on which the article is based. Financial support from the UCL Grand Challenges is also grateful acknowledged.

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