Diane Abbott: Refugees must be protected from forced homelessness and destitution

Continuing government failures are pushing people seeking asylum in Britain onto the streets. The shadow home secretary lays out how it must end.

It was revealed last week that the Home Office is leaving refugees seeking safety here in Britain homeless, forcing families further into poverty.

The issue will now be raised in Parliament in a Westminster hall debate.

In a new report Refugee Action analysed 162 applications for asylum support made between May 2017 and May 2018 through its projects in Birmingham, London and Manchester.

In one shocking case cited in the report, charities and solicitors had to step in to prevent a woman, who was six-months pregnant, becoming street homeless after she waited more than three months for a response to her family’s asylum support application.

Another woman waited 170 days for an asylum support decision – during which time she gained refugee status and never received the help she was entitled to.

This is despite legislation setting out the Home Office’s duty to prevent people seeking asylum becoming destitute while their claims are processed.

It’s important to know that this is a process which can take years and during which the vast majority of people are banned from working, meaning that how and what support they are given, and how long it takes to make decisions, is extremely important.

Specifically, these new figures show that people at risk of homelessness and with no means of supporting themselves are waiting three times longer than they should to receive Section 95 support.

Section 95 support provides housing and a small amount of money (just £5.39 a day) for essential living costs, including food, clothing and transport.

Additionally, this support is only available to people who can demonstrate they will be destitute within 14 days, but people are waiting an average of more than a month and a half (46 days) to receive support.

Within this group of people some are waiting far longer. Five people waited over 100 days before their application for S95 support was granted.

The report also found that people applying for Section 4 support, which is available to some of the most vulnerable families, who have been refused asylum, waited an average of 36 days for a decision on their application.

As these people are ineligible for emergency accommodation, Refugee Action is currently supporting people forced to sleep on park benches, in mosques or on friends’ sofas, while they wait weeks and in some cases months for Section 4 support.

As has been picked up in parts of the media, IT failures have compounded the problem.

Specifically, when the Home Office’s new system, ATLAS, was introduced in March, average waiting times soared by 325%, from 12 days in February to 51 in April.

Mahmoud Salem, who fled persecution in Egypt due to his Nubian minority status, was homeless for two and a half months while he waited for Section 4 asylum support, during which time he slept on the floor of his mosque and relied on friends for food.

This report comes a year after the publication of the well-publicised report ‘Slipping through the cracks’ which looked at the impact of long delays on people seeking asylum.

One year on, according to the group, the Home Office has failed to act on Refugee Action’s key July 2017 recommendations.

These recommendations were, firstly, that following its own guidance and policy on asylum support, the Home Office should make decisions on Section 95 within the destitution test timeframe of 14 days, and secondly putting in place a transparent approach to decision-making on asylum support.

As Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, said, “forcing people who have fled violence and persecution into homelessness and poverty in Britain is morally indefensible.”

These cruel delays are further evidence of an asylum system in urgent need of reform to ensure it is fair, effective and compassionate.

These findings come along side previous criticisms of the system of – and state of – housing for those who apply to be a refugee in 21st century Britain.

In this area, a 2017 report from the Home Affairs Select Committee described some of the conditions as simply a “disgrace,” with reports of people being placed in accommodation with infestations of mice, rats and bedbugs.

And in their response, the Refugee Council’s Chief Executive Maurice Wren highlighted that in addition to “the committee paint[ing] a grim picture of poor conditions across the board… it’s particularly shocking that mums-to-be are being prevented from obtaining the urgent medical care and the nutritious food they need during pregnancy. There’s no simply excuse for putting the lives of women and their babies at risk.”

It is simply unacceptable in 21st century Britain that people fleeing war and persecution are being placed in such disgraceful conditions, whether that is in unacceptable forms of housing or even being forced into homeless.

Last week’s report has played an invaluable role in highlighting this issue – now the government must act.

Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. 

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