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January 18, 2024

Compassionate reforms to the refugee system can improve housing options for all

By Philip Brown and Santokh Gill

People who arrive in the UK to seek sanctuary have, over the past few decades, been increasingly finding themselves accommodated in precarious situations, often enduring periods of repeat homelessness. This is particularly the case for those receiving refugee status after a decision on their claim for asylum. 

Download our report on Resettlement, Refugees and Homelessness in the UK.

Those arriving through more organised resettlement programmes have traditionally benefited from more secure housing options. However, the long-term stays in hotels experienced by Afghans, not to mention the presentations at local authorities by Ukrainians following their exit from the homes of their hosts, demonstrate that housing insecurity can affect all those who seek sanctuary, regardless of their routes in. 

This picture is further complicated when we consider the how well the diversity of refugees is catered for, for example in terms of their identities (gender, ethnicity, age etc.), their experience of persecution, their journeys en route to sanctuary, where they moved to once in the UK, their skillset (and English language skills), whether they are in a family unit, and their access to support and community networks. 

Over the past three years (2021 to 2023) we have been working on a project supported by the European Union Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. It has sought to understand the housing pathways and experiences of refugees who have settled in the UK over a 30-year period. It has involved extensive scoping reviews of the literature and in-depth research with over 80 refugees and over 100 policy actors and practitioners. Within this we have worked with the Centre for Homelessness Impact to look specifically at the relationship between refugee status and homelessness. 

A briefing paper which outlines the policy and available evidence has now been released by CHI. This paper is intended as a primer for those working in organisations that deal with housing and homelessness but who may not be aware of refugee policy, or the specific challenges faced by refugees in the UK. It covers relevant national policies, describes the various routes to refugee status in the UK and looks at the known relationship between these different routes and homelessness. 

In addition, by drawing on original research, the paper takes a long view and looks at the ways in which the asylum and housing systems have impacted on refugees in the UK over the past three decades. Refugees share many of the challenges faced by other groups in their interaction with the housing system such as scarcity of accommodation, unaffordability, and quality issues. All of these issues require urgent action and a national effort because of the impact these have on population health at large. 

However, for refugees their experience is made more complex by their socio-legal status, their experiences of the asylum and refugee systems, their pre-arrival experiences which forced them into exile in the first place and their position within an increasingly ‘hostile’ and divisive set of political and policy narratives which talk of maintaining UK borders and reducing the numbers of those entering as migrants.

The paper contains several recommendations for how to improve these outcomes. 

Principally we believe that there needs to be a co-ordinated national refugee resettlement strategy that feeds into clear and workable local strategies. As it currently stands, the responsibility for the resettlement and housing of refugees is spread across Government departments, local authorities and civil society. This causes unnecessary duplication, as well as gaps and inefficiencies across many systems, which in turn contribute to negative outcomes for refugees. 

This needs leadership and co-ordination. It also needs those with power to acknowledge that in order to change outcomes there needs to be a change to the system producing these outcomes. New arrivals into the UK require additional assistance and signposting to services that can provide support. 

It’s also clear, just as we’ve learned through programmes like Housing First, that the individual support provided by key workers can make a transformative difference to people who are unfamiliar with the UK’s housing, welfare, health, education, and employment systems. 

This is particularly vital for refugees who are often completely perplexed by our processes and ways of doing things, resulting in a requirement for support, which in turn exacerbates these inefficiencies, blocking access to systems for members of other communities who also need vital support and do not need the help of intermediaries. Of course, these intermediaries can, and possibly should, be largely comprised of people with lived experience of exile and settlement. Programmes of capacity building amongst and across new arrival communities to provide the capability needed to support others is sorely needed. 

Some resources would be needed to make co-ordinated, systemic changes to practice. But these are changes that would benefit the majority of those who are multiply excluded and disenfranchised - people who are experiencing homelessness, people leaving care, those fleeing domestic abuse. However, many of the changes that are needed may require modest amendments to existing practice. These small changes could make a significant difference to the lives of those who lost so much when simply searching for sanctuary.

  • Philip Brown is Professor of Housing and Communities at the University of Huddersfield
  • Santokh Gill is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Huddersfield

Download the Resettlement, Refugees and Homelessness in the UK policy paper.

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