The Home Office policy relating to 7-day support cessations for new refugees is a major cause for concern.
Until recently, newly-granted refugees were provided with a 28-day notice period to vacate their asylum accommodation and secure an income and accommodation. We are extremely concerned that the Home Office has reduced this to only 7 days, and the impact this will have on communities and services.
The refugee “transition process” or “move on period” is already fraught with risk. Newly granted refugees must navigate new entitlements and complex systems – often in a different language – in a short period of time. The risk of homelessness and destitution is very real and the provision of specialist support is vital. The previous 28-day window, although tight, provided breathing space to set up a bank account, make an application for Universal Credit or find a job, and find alternative accommodation such as private rental or social housing. With support from Belfast City Council, the Law Centre published the Refugee Transition Guide in different languages to help refugees with this process.
The UK Government, under pressure to reduce the spiralling cost of providing asylum support to the record-breaking 175,000 people still waiting for an asylum decision, has pledged to “reduce the backlog”. It is no accident that people are waiting for longer and the backlog is increasing – the Home Office has scrapped its 6-month target to process claims and their caseworker productivity has taken a nose-dive.
To achieve their aim, ministers have introduced a number of measures in recent months: Streamlined Asylum Claim Questionnaires (to decide claims from certain national groups without the need for a substantive interview), an expansion of the reasons a claim may be withdrawn, and a reduction in the time refugees are given to leave asylum accommodation – now just 7 days.
This policy has trickled in over the past few weeks and we are now seeing the impact on people here in Northern Ireland. Single adults, young people, and families who should be celebrating the start of their new life after being granted refugee status must now brace themselves for homelessness.
As the only dedicated service, transition specialists like Extern Refugee Floating Support team are inundated with requests for support, though their work is not currently funded beyond the bounds of Belfast. We have heard of refugees approaching the Northern Ireland Housing Executive for emergency accommodation and placed in airport hotels with no facilities or shops, and children being moved more than 30 miles from their communities and schools resulting in disrupted education and isolation.
It is important to note that the stories we hear of are only the tip of the iceberg. Many refugees will rely on well-meaning friends for advice where specialist services don’t exist or simply can’t respond within 7 days. There are concerns too that many refugees will ‘sofa-surf’ joining the estimated 110,000 ‘hidden homeless’ across our region. Hidden homelessness brings with it many risks, including a rise in exploitation.
The Migration Justice Project is meeting with voluntary and community support organisations to try and get to grips with the scale of the problem in Northern Ireland and to identify any mitigating measures. This is an unfolding crisis and a prompt government response is essential. Watch this space for next Law Centre steps.