Asylum housing ‘must be fixed’

21 December 2018

Parliamentary report criticises quality of homes for refugees

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A PARLIAMENTARY report that condemns the Government’s housing for asylum-seekers is “not surprising at all”, the Church of England’s refugee welcome co-ordinator, Nadine Daniel, has said.

The Home Affairs Select Committee published the report Asylum Accommodation: Replacing COMPASSon the efforts to replace the contract for housing asylum-seekers — on Monday. It castigated the Home Office for failure to show “greater urgency” about improving the conditions that vulnerable people are forced to live in while their claims for asylum are processed.

The conclusions are the latest in a series of critical reports by the committee. Two-and-a-half years ago, MPs accused the Home Office of showing “appalling” prejudice by sending the majority of asylum-seekers to low-cost housing in urban areas such as Glasgow, Stoke, and Middlesbrough, and avoiding resettlement in richer constituencies (News, 11 March 2016).

Today, relations between local authorities and Whitehall are at an all-time low over asylum-seeker housing, the new report warns.

“The Government must act now to reset its relationship with local authorities on asylum accommodation, and, as a first step, it should consult local authorities on the full details of the proposed contracts before they are finalised,” it says.

Ms Daniel said that the entire asylum-housing system was crippled by a “perfect storm” of insufficient funding, a paucity of housing stock, and a surge in asylum claims in the past six years.

Besides pouring more money into the process to clear the backlog of people, however, there also needed to be a culture change in Government and on the ground, she said. “Some departments in the Home Office are passionate about helping people. But once you get talking to the Border Agency, they are still very much the hostile environment.”

The same was true of the private-housing providers, she suggested. National staff were committed to the cause, but too many local housing managers were disdainful of the struggles that asylum-seekers have with learning English and adapting to a new way of life.

Ms Daniel knew of refugees who had been threatened with being moved unilaterally to a new city, hundreds of miles from their friends and support network, after complaining about the poor quality of their housing. “There’s an attitude of not really seeing the human being,” she concluded.

The parliamentary report also criticises the Home Office for failing to take seriously the problems with the housing stock that asylum-seekers — many of whom are fleeing torture, war, and abuse, and suffer from mental-health problems — are forced to live in.

“The Department has a duty of care, and must show a greater urgency about the degrading conditions in which very vulnerable people are being housed under its contracts,” the report says.

“We must remember that this is fundamentally about providing safe accommodation to individuals fleeing desperate circumstances,” a member of the committee, Stuart McDonald, said. “The new asylum accommodation contract must be the beginning of comprehensive reforms that bring an end to the constant examples of mouldy, damp, vermin-infested conditions that asylum-seekers experience now.”

Despite the failings, Ms Daniel said that there were numerous good-news stories of churches’ stepping in to welcome and support asylum-seekers in various ways.

“A lot of good work is being done under the radar by individual churches. [Some churches] are really pushing the boat out in terms of welcome, in the teeth of really fierce opposition from local government and Tommy Robinson types,” she said.

Some procure free English lessons for refugees, while others provide practical assistance in the lengthy process of claiming asylum. Some C of E parishes have hosted other Christian congregations from around the world, mainly made up of asylum-seekers.

Elsewhere, several dioceses have set up projects whereby clergy with spare rooms in their vicarages and rectories can offer them for free to asylum-seekers, who are barred by law from renting from the private sector themselves (News, 16 December 2016).

“There’s a lot going on, but it’s a case of one church at the top of the hill not knowing what another church is doing at the bottom of the trench,” Ms Daniel said. She is working on national guidelines and resources so that dioceses and parishes who want to get involved will know where to go for help.

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