On 17th August the Wirral Globe published a piece headed ‘”Wirral ready to support Afghan refugees” says council leader’. This attracted a lot of negative reaction on facebook with comments such as “there’s no houses for our own” and “charity begins at home”.
People are absolutely right to be angry about why more isn’t being done to tackle poverty and homelessness in the UK. But scrapping with other benefit recipients, saying in effect that our needs should come before yours, is not only wrong in principle; it lets those in power off the hook, taking the spotlight away from the policies of austerity that the Tory government in particular have followed since 2010.
Nor should we be under any illusions that the Tories have turned a new leaf since the start of the pandemic. In March 2020 Robert Jenrick tweeted that “no one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.” Ten months later, The Observer published analysis showing that over 200,000 households approached their local council for help with homelessness or the threat of homelessness in the eight months from the start of April. Similar estimates have been produced by Crisis.
That’s a lot of people who’ve had the soul destroying experience of homelessness at first hand. A lot of hurt, and a lot of anger.
Why is there so much homelessness, and why does it seem to be getting worse in recent years ?
Listen to the organisations who deal with the effects of homelessness. They’ll explain it to you – and the reasons they cite have nothing to do with migration. Changes to the welfare system, rising private rents, and houses becoming yet more unaffordable, are some of the key factors.
When it comes to tackling the roots of the homelessness problem, not surprisingly these are some of the main areas that campaigners suggest that we focus on. This, for example, is The Big Issue’s 9 point plan. They say that the government should step in to pay off rent arrears that have accumulated during lockdown while scrapping no-fault evictions. Other measures include expanding social housing, helping more people to access discretionary housing payments, and retaining the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift.
There is of course a political dimension to all this. We have a right wing government that, as so many service providers and front line workers can affirm, certainly doesn’t “care for our own”. Again and again, it puts the interests of a privileged few above the interests of our class and our communities. Contracts are handed out to cronies while care home residents are left to die of Covid. Tax exiles are allowed to milk the system while welfare claimants suffer. And refugees too, as we shall see, can expect no favours from the state.
What are the actual numbers of refugees seeking state aid ?
Despite all the pictures of refugees crossing the channel in small boats, the total number of asylum applications in 2020 was 29,456, slightly below the average of the previous 5 years. Far fewer asylum seekers arrived by air than in previous years. As of March 2021, 52,000 applications were awaiting an initial decision; 5,200 were currently under appeal; and 41,600 were awaiting removal (subject to any future appeals). In addition to these numbers, the UK operates several resettlement schemes under which every year a number of refugees based outside the UK are granted rights of UK residence.
People seeking asylum arrive in desperate circumstances, are often destitute, and aren’t allowed to work unless and until they’re granted asylum. The state has an obligation to step in where needed and provide them with the necessities of life.
The Home Office currently contracts three private companies – Serco, Mears and Clearsprings Ready Homes – to provide short-term accommodation to asylum seekers. Most of these accommodation centres have small capacity – the largest is Napier Barracks in Kent, which houses up to 431 people. The Home Office recently announced plans to build new purpose-built accommodation sites that will house up to 8,000 asylum seekers. It’s safe to say that these won’t resemble any hotels that you or I have ever been to.
In the meantime though, army barracks, hotels and B&Bs are often used as overspill short-term accommodation. Asylum seekers have no choice as to where they live, and Home Office policy is to disperse them around the country.
An asylum seeker who has accommodation can apply for financial support. The current weekly allowance is £39,63, plus additional amounts for any young children. The allowance is greatly reduced if they’re receiving full board hotel accommodation. These allowances end once an asylum determination has been made.
In March 2021 there were 44,825 asylum seekers receiving this financial support, and 40,396 living in dispersal accommodation. Although they’re dispersed geographically, most are based in urban areas, often in towns with high levels of homelessness. The way in which this is done is very opaque – it seems to rely a lot on councils coming forward and offering to help – and as there are no published criteria it’s inevitable that you’ll always get people asking ‘why are they being housed here and not somewhere else”.
The fact is that many have been sent somewhere else. And the extent of the dispersal is what makes the system more manageable than it might otherwise have been. Wirral, for example, houses 172 of these asylum seekers.
Local councils housing asylum seekers receive no funding from the Home Office, though some councils have received grants from the Controlling Migration Fund to ease pressure on services.
The key thing to grasp is that this is all short-term emergency assistance. Once refugees are granted right to remain and are able to work, they’re expected to stand on their own feet just like any other immigrants to the UK. Most will end up making a positive contribution to the economy during their time in the UK, by working and paying taxes.
What are we to make of these figures ?
The numbers of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK are far less than most people think. The price tag for accommodating them and providing subsistence isn’t trivial, it’s an extra pressure on central and (in some cases) on local government. (The legal costs associated with asylum cases are pretty substantial too : the government has to fork out millions every year on successful judicial review claims, which I get to see in my line of work.)
We shouldn’t begrudge one penny of this money. Britain has a long history of creating refugees by sending troops to intervene in foreign wars. Even if you take a view that British interventions are benign, these are still desperate people and providing them with sanctuary and support is the right thing to do. There is no reason why a single welfare claimant or homeless person should be any worse off as a consequence of support given to refugees.
If you want to reduce the need spending on support for refugees, trying to close the border is a terrible idea. You’re increasing the risk to their lives, and such measures don’t usually achieve much at the end of the day because refugees will just find other ways of getting in.
One thing that could be very easily done if the political will was there would be to give asylum seekers the right to work from early on in the asylum process, immediately removing the need for a lot of the financial support.
As a society we need to wake up to the fact that the real threat to social cohesion comes not from refugees, but from our own attitudes. In 2015 Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders, allowing refugees to enter in unprecedented numbers. In that year and 2016, Germany received well over one million first-time asylum applications. All the usual suspects were telling us that this policy would lead to disaster. Five years later, over half of these refugees have found a job, and public support for immigration remains high.