Second exodus may add to plight of UK refugees

By Annabel Turner
14 Jan 2011

More than two months have passed since the government announced that the budget for social housing would be cut by more than 50 percent, making it one of the worst affected areas under the coalition’s Spending Review. And many of the UK’s 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers live in social housing.

4.5 million people already on the waiting list for social housing will initially bear the brunt of the cuts to housing benefits, being expected to pay up to 80 per cent of market rental rates.

The idea is to create revenue for 150,000 new and 'affordable' social homes - meaning that the poor are to pay for the poor. And the plans to lower the cap on housing benefits will price many out of the UK’s affordable housing schemes altogether, particularly in central London. The push for social housing to be 'temporary' and 'short term' will mean that all social housing tenants remain in vulnerable circumstances until they are forced to find alternative, private accommodation. The plans in their entirety can only be viewed as a reverse of the UK’s previous social housing scheme.

The effective social cleansing of London seems imminent. As these plans are implemented over the next five years, the poor will inevitably be priced out of central London and into the suburbs. At the same time, the push for private investment in the UK is being vehemently encouraged, a move that will place London’s already unaffordable housing far from reach.

Along with almost every local government across the UK, London Mayor Boris Johnson spoke out against these cuts back in October. Consequently, the government has delayed introducing the cap on housing benefits by nine months, now set to begin in January 2012. But this does not reflect an ideological victory for the protestors or even a significant change in the coalition government’s grand designs. It is merely a response to the fears of local governments, especially outer city local governments, who do not have the practical means available to deal with the fall out envisaged by these cuts.

So while in recent weeks, student demonstrations have grabbed the full attention of everyone across the UK, those most cruelly affected by the coalition’s cuts remain in the shadows. According to research carried out by the Citizens Advice Bureau, 18,000 households in London will be affected by these caps over the next four years. The majority of these households are families with children. It is the poor, the young, the elderly, the isolated and the vulnerable that will be most severely affected.

And amongst them will be many refugees. Over the past ten years, tens of thousands of people seeking asylum have arrived in the UK from Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK is also home to many more refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Burma and Iran. Almost all the refugees who have arrived to the UK over the past two decades will be affected by the planned changes to social housing.

At present, once an asylum seeker is granted refugee status and indefinite leave to remain in the UK, they receive the same entitlements as all UK citizens with regards to social housing. Individuals can apply for temporary accommodation pending the results of an asylum application, but this must be vacated almost immediately once refugee status has been approved. Refugees must then adhere to the majority rules and register as homeless, join local council waiting lists or seek private accommodation. As with all of the UK’s social housing applications, families with children or dependents are given priority.

The new cuts may well create an exodus of London’s poor from the inner city. If this is so, for the refugees and asylum seekers living in London the plans will create a second exodus. Many will find their housing benefits are reduced, while their rental costs increase beyond their means. Many will be forced to relocate away from where they have only recently founded roots and begun to establish lives. Many asylum seekers who are currently living in hostels and guest houses will be shipped into more remote locations.

Refugees and asylum seekers arriving to the UK have already endured often unimaginable hardships, both during their journey, and since their arrival in the UK. Many have fled from war, violence and persecution. Many are dealing with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Many become isolated and must overcome language barriers, stigmatism and discrimination.

And this comes against a backdrop of increasing restrictions on refugee and migrant entitlements in the UK. The government has already announced a cap on immigration this year. The £500 million planned reduction in funds to the UK Borders Agency, as well as cuts and changes to Legal Aid will inevitably reduce the level of support services presently provided.

With local governments and communities facing average cuts of around 40 per cent, local organisations working to support refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are soon to be confronted by dramatic reductions to their funding.

Earlier this year the government allowed Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) to fall into administration. This was based on a ‘bureaucratic’ loophole that meant the organisation went into bankruptcy awaiting payments from the Legal Services Commission itself. Since 1992, RMJ has assisted over 110,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and the closure left behind the open cases of more than 10,000 clients. The appeal for short-term assistance with rents so that RMJ could redirect these people towards alternative help was also declined.

In June, the Ministry of Justice announced that asylum seekers would have to pay to appeal against failed asylum applications , making it impossible in most appeal cases.

The Spending Review states they will be “continuing recent tightening of entitlement to support”. To this end, the government plans to remove minors prior to the age of 17, before they have the right to apply for asylum as an adult.

Earlier this year, the UK Borders Agency also announced they will build a £4 million 'reintegration centre' in Kabul, with the aim of returning those unsuccessful in their asylum applications to Afghanistan. This came with the news that they plan to forcibly return many of the 4,200 unaccompanied child asylum seekers to Afghanistan through this scheme. The obvious safety and welfare concerns raised by these proposals were voiced by various UK human rights organisations.

In December, Nick Clegg announced that holding the children of failed asylum seekers in immigration detention centres would end completely by May 2011. Following this, Charities raised concerns that detention centres with 'supervised accommodation' were doing nothing more than re-branding an inhumane policy.

If the UK government is unwilling to take more responsibility for two continuing wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan; if it is not willing to reconsider its role in conflict around the world, especially considering the UK’s arms exports; and if it is so willing to close the door to refugees and asylum seekers who are desperately seeking refuge in the UK then can it be forced to remember those who are already here?

The Coalition’s Spending Review revealed an assault against the UK’s social welfare system as a whole. The unions are joining students and supporting wider protests across the country. However, many of those most brutally affected by the Spending Review are those most unable to speak out against it. Many of the refugees and asylum seekers in the UK literally do not have an English voice to speak out against the challenges they are facing. Among the significant objections to the cuts to social housing, the impact on refugees and asylum seekers must be emphasised. A reminder to this government of its human responsibility to all the refugees and asylum seekers in the UK is urgent.

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© Annabel Turner currently works in a West London based refugee organisation. She holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London.

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