Social Justice

'We're living in a nightmare': Iraqi refugee family evicted into homelessness has lost 'all sense of safety' in UK

By Christmas, thousands of people granted asylum to legally remain in Britain could be on the streets. Our investigation reveals a government-made crisis for councils teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with a fearsome human cost

Image: Big Issue

“I am really worried for my pregnant wife,” Ali says. After fleeing Iraq, he came to the UK with his family in August 2021 seeking asylum and safety. 

Ali was granted refugee status and told to move out of his Home Office accommodation in September. He, his wife and young son have been moving between hotels since then, unable to find somewhere to live. His wife’s pregnancy is complicated, but they are now far away from the hospital. 

“She has to go to the hospital for appointments but it is not good for her to travel such long distances,” Ali says. “She is crying every day, I don’t know what to do or how to help her. I feel like we are living a nightmare.” 

Ali’s situation mirrors that of thousands of refugees across the UK, caught up in a new crisis of homelessness. He is being helped by the charity Freedom from Torture, who provide support and therapy to survivors of torture. Ali is not his real name. 

“We have lost any sense of safety in the UK and have no clue where we will be moved to. I feel we have been treated worse than when we were asylum seekers,” he says. “We had no time to prepare or plan to move, to sort out our finances or our belongings. We have less stability right now.” 

This is what’s happening: newly recognised refugees are being evicted into homelessness in huge numbers, right across the country. 

As the crisis unfolds away from the nation’s attention, The Big Issue has been working to uncover its true extent. What emerged from our investigation is a picture of the vulnerable pushed to the streets, with councils given little warning and already struggling to cope.

The Big Issue’s investigation found:

  • The UK’s biggest cities expect at least 6,900 people to be evicted from asylum accommodation by the end of the year, with little capacity to help them.
  • In London, the change in policy has already led to a doubling in the number of rough sleepers who have recently left asylum accommodation, while Manchester has seen a significant increase.
  • Facing unprecedented demand, voluntary services are running out of food, turning destitute refugees away, and resorting to handing out sleeping bags.
  • Leaders of local government are writing to ministers, outlining concern and asking for changes in the policy.

As Suella Braverman’s Home Office tries to drive down the cost of asylum hotels and reduce the asylum backlog, two changes have been made. Firstly, as the build-up of claims is rapidly processed, thousands of people about to be evicted from their accommodation are being left with nowhere to turn, needing support in record numbers from already-stretched councils. Secondly, as The Big Issue has reported since September, refugees are often given just seven days’ notice to find somewhere to live after being told to leave asylum accommodation.

The Home Office says the 28 day “move-on” period, granted to newly recognised refugees to find a place to live, has not changed.

What has changed is the way this move-on period is handled , according to frontline charities. The move-on period used to start when refugees received what’s known as their Biometric Residence Permit (BRP), a piece of paperwork allowing them to secure employment and alternative accommodation.

Now, the move-on period begins when a refugee is told their claim has been granted. The Right to Remain organisation says it is a result of the Home Office applying its policy “very strictly”. There is a wait before they will receive their BRP, and this delay means refugees are receiving a “Notice to Quit” often with just seven days left of the move-on period.

In practice, as the Refugee Council and other migrant charities warned, this change means refugees are “now being given just seven days’ notice that they need to leave their accommodation.”

Decisions are coming quickly. The backlog of legacy cases, made before 28 June 2022, fell by 35,000 between November 2022 and August 2023. To meet its promise to clear this by the end of the year, the Home Office must get through 55,477 decisions from August to Christmas. That represents tens of thousands of vulnerable people at risk of homelessness.

This is all supposed to save money for taxpayers. The government has a legal obligation to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. Increasingly taking the form of hotels, this bill has reached £6 million a day. Reducing the ‘move-on’ period is a bid to get this bill down, by having people leave sooner. 

“This is yet another ill thought out, disingenuous and frankly obscene measure to improve figures on asylum without any regard to the human cost,” says Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, communications director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, who added that the organisation’s lawyers had seen a “distressing” uptick in clients at risk of homelessness. 

“Despite recognising the legal right of these people to be here, the government is willing to condemn them to homelessness. This can only be described as cynical and inhumane.”

An ‘unprecedented increase’ 

Birmingham has been told to expect 1,000 newly recognised refugees to be leaving asylum accommodation by the end of December – a number that’s usually seen over three years. Jayne Francis, Birmingham City Council’s cabinet member for housing and homelessness, tells The Big Issue this will “without doubt” lead to a rise in homelessness, with fears some “will have no choice but to sleep rough”. 

Westminster has been telling councils how many asylum decisions it can expect. But Francis slams “the government’s decision to increase volumes to this level without due notice and risk mitigation”. Already, cities are feeling the strain. 

Liverpool told us it expects around 1,000. In Glasgow, the council expects 1,400 asylum claims to be granted, putting a £50 million strain on services. Greater Manchester expects up to 3,000 decisions to be made before December. Within weeks of the change, which took effect in August, the number of rough sleepers in the city who had recently left asylum accommodation was increasing.

Since August, at least 400 asylum seekers in Coventry have been told to leave their accommodation, “placing considerable pressure on local services”. The number of individuals in the city needing housing homelessness support after leaving asylum accommodation increased sixfold from August and September 2022 to August and September 2023, going from 13 to 80.

“The short move-on period, as well as increased numbers of asylum decisions being made, are resulting in high numbers of people leaving accommodation and adding pressures on local housing and other services,” Cllr David Welsh, cabinet member for housing and communities at Coventry city council, told The Big Issue, adding he had written to home secretary Suella Braverman to outline his concerns.

At least 50 asylum seekers have come forward needing help in Nottingham since the changes were made. In Birmingham, there has been an “unprecedented increase” in referrals, placing “unsustainable and unnecessary pressure” on homelessness services.  Across London, the numbers of rough sleepers recorded as leaving Home Office accommodation more than doubled from September to August – with this figure likely to be an under-estimate. 

“There is a problem with newly granted refugees having insufficient time to find alternative housing,” says Tom Copley, London’s deputy mayor.

‘It feels like we’re under attack’ 

For the first time in his 18 years working at Asylum Link Merseyside, service manager Ewan Roberts has seen somebody sleeping in a tent in the car park. “It’s utterly shocking that we allow people to get into this state. Something’s rotten,” Roberts tells The Big Issue. 

The centre, which serves as a hub for refugees and asylum seekers, has been inundated with vulnerable people needing support. Over 100 have turned up at their doors since August, a vast increase. Unable to meet the need, Roberts and his team have resorted to handing out sleeping bags, and bivouac bags for the cold weather. 

“We hadn’t done that for years, and we’re having to do it now,” he says. “I have not known anything like it. It feels like we’re under attack, so god knows what it feels like for the actual asylum seekers having to put up with it.” 

Inside the centre, asylum seekers will cook a daily midday meal, with at least 200 plates of food turned out of the kitchen. It might be an Iranian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi feast on a particular day, depending who takes the lead. Roberts confesses a soft spot for the tahdig, a crispy Persian rice dish. 

Everybody is fed – staff, volunteers, and those living in hotels coming to the centre for English classes. “We’ve always had enough to produce for that. That’s changing now,” Roberts says. 

“For the first time ever last week, the kitchen ran out of food at lunchtime.”

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Councils are close to calamity

The government also claims the asylum backlog is decreasing – focusing on the “legacy backlog”. It says it is confident this will continue to fall. But, according to most recent statistics, the overall backlog, which includes newer claims, remains stubborn. To get through it, the Home Office has hired new caseworkers and sped up the process, in many cases removing the need for a face-to-face interview. But what happens once a decision is made, and you’re told to leave your accommodation? 

“To minimise the risk of homelessness, we encourage individuals to make their onward plans as soon as possible after receiving their decision, whether that is leaving the UK following a refusal, or taking steps to integrate in the UK following a grant,” says the Home Office. 

So the burden is falling on councils already close to calamity. Government funding of £1 billion for councils – over three years – has not been enough to prevent pressure on homelessness services, which will collapse without a £450 million support package from the government, a cross-party group of council leaders has warned. In the case of Birmingham, the city is bankrupt, facing cuts and a sell-off of assets.

Image: Big Issue

The District Councils Network sounded a similar warning in 2020 when they predicted the fallout of the Covid pandemic would see 500,000 people facing homelessness.

That stark warning sparked action and saw The Big Issue launch its Stop Mass Homelessness campaign, inspiring ministers to up funding for the Homelessness Prevention Grant to £316m in December 2021.

Now the group’s latest plea is focused on the future of councils themselves.

It is against this backdrop that thousands of refugees will find themselves coming to councils, in need of help. This week, Copley wrote to Felicity Buchan, the minister for housing and homelessness, asking her to prevent refugees being pushed onto the streets. In particular, reviewing the Streamlined Asylum Process and increasing the move-on period for newly recognised refugees from 28 days to 56 days, “in line with local authorities’ duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act”.

In some cases, such as that of Ali and his family, the temporary accommodation shortage is so bad that households are simply moving out of places supplied by the government and into hotels paid for by councils. As the crisis continues, Ali’s son is missing school and the family remains living in unsuitable hotels, without their belongings. 

“I was getting better with help, but now I’m struggling to attend my hospital or therapy appointments,” says Ali. 

“I feel so confused, and I have lost the ability to think clearly or plan, or even believe things will get better. Day by day things are getting worse. Where is the help for us? Where is the security and safety of my pregnant wife and child?” 

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The pressure on the asylum system has continued to grow, which is why we have taken immediate action to speed up processing times and cut costs
for taxpayers. 

“We offer ample support once claims have been granted through Migrant Help, access to the labour market and advice on applying for universal credit.” 

The Big Issue is continuing to investigate this story. If you have been affected, or know more about this, get in touch with our journalist Greg Barradale by emailing greg.barradale@bigissue.com.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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