Social Justice

This is what 'clearing' UK asylum backlog looks like: Homeless refugees in the cold needing help

Rishi Sunak's drive to clear the asylum backlog has made refugees homeless. As evictions resume, we visited the frontline of the crisis

asylum backlog, new horizon, london

A queue, mostly made of refugees, waiting for New Horizon to open. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

The centre had not opened yet, but already 20 people were huddled outside its doors. Clad in warm coats, carrying backpacks stuffed with belongings, most were homeless after being evicted from asylum accommodation in recent months. At 10:15am on Thursday (4 January), they queued outside New Horizon Youth Centre, a two minute walk from Euston station, in need of help. This is what “clearing the asylum backlog” looks like.

Rishi Sunak’s claims of the government clearing the backlog are being investigated by the Office for Statistics Regulation, with cases still remaining despite boasts from ministers. But the cost of getting through the asylum backlog, in the space of a few months, has been mass homelessness.

After a pause over Christmas, asylum evictions resumed this week. The Big Issue was there to see the frontlines of the crisis. “Ready for a busy day everyone?”, asked Polly Stephens, the centre’s head of policy, learning and communications. It would end up as the busiest day in the charity’s 57 year history.

As doors opened at 10:30am, the men and women of the queue filtered in. First, they signed in at reception, and were asked if they wanted a housing appointment. Unsurprisingly, most did, and were sent to line up in front of a man with a clipboard. He took their details. One man, his padded orange jacket still done up, made his way over to a bench in the centre, set his coffee down and curled up.

A four-strong housing team was tasked with working through these cases in just 45 minutes. The team can do 14-16 appointments a day. At least twice that number had already showed up, with a second wave expected after lunchtime. Hard decisions were to be made.

Along with health and housing services, New Horizon also runs a football team. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

It is, said Stephens, “some of the most complex casework there is,” and done at pace. Then there will be difficult conversations.

“They know that we’re doing our best, but at the same time if you’re disappointed and you know you’re going to be rough sleeping, you’re going to be very frustrated with the system,” said Ella Speakman, a service manager in the youth work team, while manning the reception.

“We manage it really well overall, but we don’t have the resources to solve this issue. There’s too much need for what we can do as one organisation.”

Once given leave to remain, refugees are supposed to be given 28 days notice before they are evicted from hotels. Staff at the centre said, in their experience, that’s simply not being followed.

Instead, homelessness beckons as a result of the race to clear the asylum backlog. After being sent from hotel to council, with help out of reach, many end up at New Horizon as a last resort. Although the centre is based in London, young people come from all around the country. Stephens recalled one young man who came to the centre after leaving an asylum hotel in a city in the north. He was abused, harassed and the police did little, so he came to London. Many who turned up at the centre’s doors will have walked for hours, or taken marathon bus journeys, unable to afford the underground.

Along with housing help, the centre also has a therapist, a nurse’s room, job help, and recently started running a food bank. They have good links with a GP across the road.

The outreach team carry leaflets translated into Arabic, to help some refugees impacted by the asylum backlog understand the help available. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

New Horizon’s outreach team is the only youth-specific outreach team in the country. Young people leaving asylum accommodation differ from the more typical homeless population – they tend to be found on buses or in takeaways, rather than on the Strand or other busy streets. Natalie Rowe and Hazz Rees, who both work on the outreach team, described finding a woman in Camden who had just been kicked out of asylum accommodation. She had never slept rough before. After they discovered her at 11.30pm, they were able to get her a space in a backpackers’ hostel and then support her to come to New Horizon.

“It’s constantly at the moment. It’s every shift,” said Rees. “It’s a massive increase, I don’t think we’ve seen like this ever”.

A large group sat using their phones, not talking much as they waited to hear whether help was available that day. Others played chess. Not a single chair was empty. By the end of the day, 76 young people had turned up, with eight new faces who had been evicted from asylum accommodation.

A government spokesperson said: “Once a newly recognised refugee is issued a biometric residence permit, they get 28 days to move-on from asylum accommodation.

“Support is also available through Migrant Help and their partners, which includes advice on how to access Universal Credit, the labour market and where to get assistance with housing.

“We are working with local authorities to manage the impact of asylum decisions.”

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