Social Justice

2024 is a chance to reject politicians' migrant blame game at the ballot box

2023 has seen the government demonising asylum seekers and pushing refugees into homelessness. But 2024 provides a chance for change, writes Bridget Young

UK Jamaica policy

Protesters outside the Rwanda High Commission. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

2023 has been an incredibly tough year for anyone working on the frontline in the asylum, refugee and migration sector, and of course particularly for those who are directly impacted by the ever-more cruel and chaotic rhetoric, policies and practice that have come from Westminster as the year has progressed. 

In an ongoing and deepening hostile environment for refugees and other migrants in the UK, one thing after the next has been thrown our way – sometimes unexpected and illogical, sometimes completely predictable – but all deeply harmful. 

This year has been dominated by the dreadful, verging on farcical, political theatre that is the Rwanda plan, a key facet of the unconscionable Illegal Migration Act (IMA). The intention that sits behind both these pieces of legislation is very far from farce, however. Both aim to strip refugees of dignity and humanity. They tell us refugees are a burden, are illegal and should not be here. They tell us people should not seek safety here. They are eye-wateringly expensive, unworkable and ineffective. And they tell us that we are not a country of competence or compassion.

They also send a chilling message to every single one of us – that basic human rights and the rule of law can be conveniently disregarded when they get in the way of political ideology.

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This has also been the year when the government seemed to lose control of how to manage the asylum estate, a problem primarily caused by the Home Office’s seeming unwillingness or inability to process asylum claims for so long. We had far-right attacks on asylum hotels. We had the Bibby Stockholm barge, that floating monument to performative cruelty and poor management. We had plans put forward to exempt asylum accommodation from Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMO) licensing that was designed to help local authorities keep people safe and landlords in check. All while enabling private companies to make huge profits. 

This has been the year when we have seen an inexcusable and avoidable rise in refugee homelessness, due to an increase in the number of people leaving Home Office asylum accommodation when granted refugee protection (good); coupled with a change in process that resulted in a reduction in the amount of time people had to leave that accommodation (bad).

A change that happened without consultation and gave no time for councils and voluntary sector services like NACCOM members to prepare. And whilst government policies drive an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping, this has been the year that we heard Ministers talk of banning tents for people forced to sleep rough, and bringing back the criminalisation of homelessness through the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill.  

Against a backdrop of housing and cost of living crises gripping communities across the UK, and continued difficulties accessing legal and immigration advice and mental health support, both people and organisations are under immense strain.

And yet…

This has also been the year of better coalition working and stronger solidarity, including powerful push-back on the Illegal Migration Act from a wide range of people and organisations, the “Fight the Anti-Refugee Laws” pledge and the recently launched Together with Refugees “Fair Begins Here” campaign. Of important legal challenges, including against the initial Rwanda plan. Of the ongoing welcome of refugees from Ukraine. And through campaigns, petitions, rallies and fundraising drives, of citizens across the UK saying “Refugees Welcome”. 

I have no doubt that next year will be another tough one. Heading into an election period we are likely to see the further scapegoating of refugees and other migrants, who make a convenient political football for those vying for power. But there is also hope. Hope that people will see the ballot box as an opportunity to reject the migrant blame game. Hope that decision-makers are finally waking up to the interconnectedness of asylum, homelessness, housing, poverty and community. Hope that the immense time, energy and cost spent by our leaders on whipping up division and discord, can instead be used to find workable solutions that reflect the reality of global refugee protection and migration.

As a network of frontline support and accommodation providers, we do what we do because we believe in the fundamental right to housing and to safety. Because, in spite of it all, we are optimists. And the evidence is in our work – this year, next year, for as long as it takes to end destitution and homelessness for everyone.

Bridget Young is director of NACCOM, a network of accommodation providers for asylum seekers and refugees facing destitution

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