When an asylum seeker is granted Leave to Remain in the UK, they become eligible for mainstream benefits and are also granted the right to work. Leave to Remain is usually Refugee Status, but may also be, in a small number of cases, Discretionary Leave or Humanitarian Protection.
Having Leave to Remain in the UK is, however, not the end of their problems. First of all, they have to leave their asylum accommodation within 28 days. This means finding alternative accommodation at the same time as registering for benefits or seeking employment. This would be difficult enough for someone born and bred in the UK – for a refugee who often has not had the opportunity to learn good English, it is extremely difficult to navigate a complex accommodation procedure.
Although the Home Office has made improvements in the system by sending their National Insurance Number along with the Biometric Resident Card and phoning the refugee to arrange an appointment with the Job Centre, often the refugee will find themselves homeless at the end of the 28 days.
There are many reasons for this:
- Delays of several weeks in Universal Credit coming through may leave them destitute
- Opening a bank account may take several weeks,
- Councils often either offer a place in a hostel where they do not feel safe or tell them to seek private accommodation. This is virtually impossible, since they will not have money for a deposit or the first month’s rent.
When they do eventually find a place to live, furnishing it will prove a huge challenge, as will navigating the confusion of utilities and council tax. If the accommodation is in a new area, there will be the additional challenges of orientation and registering with a new GP.
The refugees who cope with this transition period best are those who have good support networks and people who can guide them through the process, or those who have good English and are familiar with British systems.
For those whose asylum claims are refused after appeal, the future is far bleaker. Unless they have a solicitor who feels there is cause for a Judicial Review of the decision, they will have to vacate their asylum accommodation within 21 days. With no right to claim benefits and no right to work, they will be forced to find desperate and often degrading ways to stay alive.
Often the refused asylum seeker will try to stay on in their asylum accommodation. Although local Housing Officers are sometimes very understanding and turn a blind eye to the overstayer, once their room is required they will have to move out. The housing provider will take their keys back: sometimes friends will let them back in to sleep on the sofa, but this is illegal, and if discovered, it will endanger their friend’s accommodation too.
Most refused asylum seekers end up sofa-surfing between friends, relying on handouts from their friends or from charities. It is a very precarious existence, causing rifts with friends who are already stressed and trying hard to survive on meagre asylum benefits (currently £39.63 a week). Some women babysit or childmind the children of friends in return for board and lodging. As a last resort some will trade sex in return for a bed, or end up in prostitution. Many men look for work in the black economy to survive, working for much less than the minimum wage, and often in dangerous and exploitative situations. The Oxfam report Coping With Destitution (Feb 2011) outlines many of the survival strategies employed.
During this fight for survival the mental and physical health of the asylum seeker often deteriorates badly. There is the added fear that they will be detained and sent to an Immigration Removal Centre, so some may stop attending their allocated reporting sessions at the Reporting Centre (Dallas Court in Salford for those in Greater Manchester).
There are some accommodation providers in the NACCOM network who offer temporary accommodation for refused asylum seekers, either in night shelters, family homes (hosting) or houses, but their services are always vastly oversubscribed, and sometimes they only take people who have a realistic chance of still getting leave to remain, and have a solicitor working on a fresh submission.
The reality is that many refused asylum seekers do actually have a good asylum claim, but have been badly let down by the system, and sometimes by their legal representative. With the right support and access to evidence, they may eventually gain refugee status, often after many years of destitution.
If the refused asylum seeker is able to garner evidence for a fresh submission, they can then apply to the Home Office for what is called Section 4 Accommodation. If the Home Office deems that it meets the criteria for a fresh claim, they will be granted Section 4 accommodation until the fresh claim itself is considered. If the fresh claim is then deemed to be genuine, they will be moved into Section 95 accommodation, which is the normal provision for those seeking asylum. Often the Home Office will not accept the further submission as a genuine fresh claim, so the asylum seeker is not able to access this accommodation.
There are a number of other ways in which refused asylum seekers may be able to access Section 4 accommodation, such as if they have signed up for voluntary return, or cannot travel for some reason. The Right to Remain Toolkit has a more thorough explanation of Section 4 and Section 95.
The private sector
Asylum accommodation is contracted out to the private sector. In 2019 new contracts were awarded to Serco, Mears Group and Clearsprings Ready Homes. At the same time, the Home Office changed the way in which residents in asylum accommodation could contact their housing providers.
Previously they were able to contact their housing manager directly via mobile phone, but the new contract stipulated that they had to ring the Migrant Help Helpline, which was awarded the contract for Advice, Issue reporting and Eligibility Assistance Services (AIRE). Migrant Help would then filter their request and pass it on to the relevant person within the accommodation provider.
The effect of this has proved disastrous. Initially the phone lines were so oversubscribed that new staff had to be recruited: even with additional staff the waiting times for a call to be answered have been so long as to deter residents from calling at all.
There have also been cases reported of serious issues like burst water pipes not being dealt with promptly, whereas previously a call to the housing manager would have dealt with the problem rapidly. The Independent ran an article on the scale of the problem in November 2019.