“Getting tough” on refugees creates a hostile environment for all of us

Jamie Stewart from the Scottish Refugee Council writes about the UK Government’s approach to asylum seekers and what this means for us all.

The UK government wants to “get tough” on asylum seekers and to create a “hostile environment” for some migrant populations.  But with so many barriers already in existence to refugees in the UK, can the blame for the UK’s problems really be pointed to refugees and what does this rhetoric mean for the state of social support in the UK?
As we continue to witness the largest global movement of displaced people since records began, the profile of refugees have rarely been higher.  The outpouring of compassion which arose around the tragic coverage of individuals seeking refuge in Europe may have focussed government minds on the need for action on Syrian refugees.  However, it appears not to have stemmed the flow of rhetoric seeking to blame refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants for Britain’s ills.  More worryingly, this rhetoric has been backed by further action restricting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, compounding problems of poverty, homelessness and inequality.
Poverty has long been a reality for refugees and asylum seekers.  Financial support rates for asylum seekers remains low and, in August 2015, asylum support rates for children were cut by 30% to £36.95 per week, bringing them in line with the general support rate that adult asylum seekers have struggled on for many years.   Barred from working, thousands of asylum seekers rely on this money and can remain in this position for several years.  Around two thirds of asylum applications will be rejected – although on appeal many of these rejections will be overturned suggesting the first decision was the wrong one. Only some of those refused asylum will get a cashless Azure card while awaiting deportation or for their case to be re-examined.  Others will end up destitute.
Securing status in the UK does not end the cycle of poverty.  Over 95% of new refugees need to make applications for mainstream benefits upon gaining their status  although most new refugees do not have a National Insurance Number.  Consequently, it takes around a month for new refugees to secure their benefits – over two months for claims for child benefit anf child tax credit.  Therefore, many refugees experience an extended period of destitution as they seek to resolve their benefit problems.
Most disabled refugees are unable to claim Personal Independence Payment due a 2 year UK residency requirement and there is a clear gender divide.  Proportionately more women claim Income Support, Employment Support Allowance and child-related benefits – those benefits which take the longest to process.  Men are more likely to be the “main applicant” in an asylum claim and are, therefore, allocated a National Insurance Number through the Home Office.  This means that, invariably, the man in a couple is the main claimant for all benefits, creating the possibility for exploitation and control in relationships.
Benefit sanctioning is a major issue with the majority of sanctions occurring soon after status and to those who have the least English skills.  Refugees rely heavily on discretionary funds such as the Scottish Welfare Fund and charitable funds from the Refugee Survival Trust and Scottish Refugee Council in order to survive in this transition period.
Homelessness is built in to the asylum process.  As accommodation comes to an end upon all successful asylum decisions, at least 92% of refugee households will be made homeless when they are given their status.  Tight timescales and a lack of material resources preclude many refugees from securing accommodation in the 28 days they are given to vacate their accommodation leaving new refugees at risk of street homelessness, sofa surfing and unsatisfactory housing conditions.   The links between homelessness, poverty, poor health and poor outcomes has been well established, presenting further barriers to individuals’ progress.
Although these facts paint a grim picture, it is important to look at what is happening to refugees within the wider context.  After all, refugees are only one group amongst many that have been demonised by successive governments.  The long term unemployed, the disabled, single parents and those with alcohol or addiction problems, to mention a few, have come under attack with consequent restrictions on their rights and entitlements.   Refugees and migrant groups are especially vulnerable to some of the more egregious of these changes and have been the guinea pigs for the introduction of schemes that the government would like to be established more widely.  Cashless Azure cards are a prime example of this but restricting the right to work, suppressing financial help, destitution, restricting support for disabled people, making learning a condition for benefits and restricting the right to rent a home could all be seen in this light.  They are tools with which to manifest blame.  And that is something we should all be standing up to.

Further details on how homelessness and poverty is affecting refugees in Scotland can be found in Insights into Integration Pathways: New Scots & The Holistic Integration Service.

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