Over the past few months there has been a lot of information, discussion, government announcements and media coverage related to asylum seekers and refugees. At times it has felt overwhelming to unpick what all the changes might mean and how they impact people experiencing, or at risk of homelessness. To help try and unpack this, we have provided an overview of the three main policy announcements made by government that may impact on people you’re supporting.
Of course, the context in which these new announcements have come, is one which is already hostile, consigns asylum seekers to poor quality accommodation, and even when people are granted status, they are given only 28 days to secure accommodation. There is little wonder many end up at the doors of homelessness services.
What policy changes have been announced and why are they concerning?
Changes to asylum application processing
In late February 2023, the Home Office (HO) introduced a “streamlined” asylum processing model to address the backlog of asylum claims. The processing model applies to asylum applications made before June 2022 i.e., before the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act, by people from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Eritrea.
The processing model (which is already in effect) requires asylum seekers with open applications to complete a questionnaire rather than attend an interview before an asylum decision is made. To date, the questionnaire has been sent to around 12,000 asylum seekers.
Homeless Link welcomes the decision to speed up the decision-making process as we know many people have been stuck in the asylum system for a long time, but we have concerns about implementation. We are particularly concerned about the requirement for asylum seekers to communicate their circumstances by completing 50 questions. These questions range in complexity and have not been translated into relevant languages, they must be completed, and returned by email or post within 20 days of receipt. If the deadline is not met, the HO may issue an extension or withdraw an application, leaving asylum seekers with undetermined immigration status’ and without government support.
There are concerns from the homelessness sector that the processing model does not take into account asylum seekers who may be homeless, experiencing mental health problems or trauma, or those who may not speak English. Disappointingly the Government’s response to this concern has been “non-Government organisations and other support networks [can]… help [asylum seekers] respond to the questionnaire”. This response has not only showed government expectation for overstretched charities to plug the support gap it has left behind, but for charities to do so when they are severely restricted in the support they can give.
Asylum seekers who are homeless or without a fixed abode are in an even more precarious position as they are unlikely to have knowledge of or received the questionnaire. In both these cases, there is a high risk that asylum applications will be withdrawn, and affected individuals will end up with undetermined immigration status, no offer of accommodation, and homeless.
If you are working with someone who has received a questionnaire, you may find this guidance developed by the Refugee Council helpful.
End of Afghan refugee bridging support
The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Johnny Mercer announced on 28 March the end of bridging accommodation for Afghan refugees who arrived in the in the UK under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme and the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. To date, Afghan refugees who arrived on the two schemes 18 months ago have been accommodated in bridging hotels.
The Government will begin writing to individuals about accommodation offers at the end of April. Individuals will be given one offer of accommodation and three months’ notice before hotels close. If the offer for accommodation provided is declined, an alternative offer will not be made, and refugees will be left to find accommodation independently.
While the Government has announced it will provide funding to local authorities to support evacuees in relocating, we don’t know what this support will look like. We are however concerned that if individual needs are not considered in relocation plans (for example, evacuee’s current location and support systems) many refugees will be unable to take up the accommodation offered and become homeless.
Illegal Migration Bill
The Illegal Migration Bill, which was introduced by the Government on 7 March 2023, has received an outcry from migrant, homelessness, and human rights organisations. If enacted, the Bill which seeks to “prevent and deter unlawful migration” will restrict asylum seekers who enter the UK by “irregular means” (i.e., small boats) from accessing the asylum system irrespective of individual circumstances. This means asylum seekers will automatically have no recourse to public funds or welfare support from the moment they arrive in the UK.
Although we don’t know if the Bill will pass unamended in its current form, we are concerned that it will lock particularly vulnerable people arriving via unsanctioned means from rebuilding their lives, having means to supporting themselves, or accessing crucial support.
On 25 March 2023, Homeless Link joined 53 other organisations in signing an open letter to Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove. The letter express’s our deep concerns about the worrying impact the Bill will have if enacted. We will continue to monitor the progression of the Bill and work with our members and the migrant sector to highlight our concerns and push for policy change.
What do these policies mean for homelessness services?
We know that the withdrawal of government support through these policies, the effect of poor asylum accommodation, and treatment of refugees under the Nationality and Borders Act all increase the risk of homelessness and destitution amongst this particularly vulnerable group. We also know that when this happens, homelessness services step in to provide support to people who have nowhere to turn.
We know that options to support asylum seekers and refugees are limited and appear to be rapidly decreasing with the introduction of more restrictive immigration policies. With government announcing changes every week, it can feel like an unending uphill climb. We also know the presence of homelessness services in communities across the country means there are still options for this vulnerable group. Most importantly, there are still options for you, you are not powerless, you can…
- be empathetic, respectful and promote a culture of welcome when supporting migrants,
- keep up to date with migrant services in your area and signpost people to these services (useful links: NACCOM, Migrant Help, Praxis and Refugee Council).
- read our roadmap report to find out what your local authority (LA) should be doing to support asylum seekers, refugees, and those with undetermined status,
- hold to account and influence your local authority to make changes,
- help us to influence government by letting us know how policy changes are impacting your services and the people you support.
Collectively these actions will go some way to making a difference. We will continue to monitor developments, listen to our members, and feed into sector calls for the Government to withdraw restrictive policies and carefully consider building a system that supports migrants to rebuild their lives.