Social Justice

Refugee wonders if it would be better to 'stay in Yemen and die' than go through UK asylum system

Refugees are being made homeless thanks to government policy changes. Adam is one of those caught up in the crisis

Home Office

Adam stops to look at this view every time he walks past it. Image: Andy Parsons

Adam had spent two years in a hotel, growing isolated and depressed while he waited for the government to decide on his asylum claim. In September, he received the news he’d been longing for. A month later he was on the streets with his bags.

“Mentally and physically I am really tired,” he says. “I’m asking myself, why am I here? Would it have been better to stay in Yemen and die there? And save trouble for myself and others? I don’t know.”

He’s caught up in something much bigger, a crisis of the government’s making. It has promised to clear the asylum backlog and reduce the cost of accommodating those waiting for their claims to be processed. Two things have happened as a result. 

Firstly, it is processing claims at breakneck speed, resulting in thousands being told to leave their accommodation. Secondly, changes to the way the 28-day ‘move-on’ period – the time newly recognised refugees are given to leave their hotels – is handled mean that refugees are often finding they have just one week to find somewhere to live. Add that to an acute shortage of temporary accommodation, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

These changes have seen a huge rise in refugees becoming homeless after leaving Home Office accommodation. As The Big Issue revealed on Thursday (23 November), the figure tripled year-on-year from August to October.

The Big Issue has been investigating the impact and extent of the crisis. Read more of our reporting here:

As we sit at the kitchen table of his host family in Crystal Palace, Adam (not his real name) explains how the crisis has affected him. He’s positive, tipping a packet of Bourbons onto a plate. But as the conversation continues, he explains the toll his situation is extracting. After we asked Newham Council about Adam’s experience, they apologised for making mistakes and giving Adam the wrong advice.

‘This took two years of my life’

Adam fled Yemen after receiving a threat to his life. Image: Andy Parsons

Adam had a house, a decent job that made use of his education, and lived in the capital, Sana’a, with his family. The civil war that erupted out in 2014 changed everything. Looking out of the window of his house, he could see the fighting in the streets, the rubble and the bodies.

Eventually, Adam himself was targeted as the Houthis began coming after those who had worked with foreign organisations. After years moving from place to place, in hiding, in 2021 he received a direct threat to his life. “I came to the point that there is no place in Yemen I can feel safe,” he says. But, he decided, bringing his family with him would put them at risk. “I decided to go alone, in case they caught me then maybe I can save trouble for my family.”

He arrived in the UK legally, touching down at Heathrow in 2021 with a student visa and a place to study at the University of Gloucestershire.

When he filed a claim for asylum, he was placed in a hotel in Newham, East London. The government has an obligation to provide accommodation for asylum seekers. It is the drive to reduce the bill for these hotels – some £8 million a day – that is at the heart of the current crisis. “I thought, OK, I will be a positive asset to the community, maybe I can work or do something,” he says. “Because I think I have some abilities and skills that can be a benefit for some people.”

What he didn’t know was that asylum seekers in the UK aren’t allowed to work. When he arrived on a student visa, his paperwork said he was allowed to work for 20 hours a week. Nobody told him the situation had changed. 

Adam had managed to get a job as a consultant for a tech company. It was competitive. “I passed the interviews and everything, but when we came to the point to make the contract, they discovered that I’m an asylum seeker,” he says. “I didn’t know before that I’m not allowed to work, I’m not allowed to earn any money, I’m not allowed to move to any other city or any other place, I have to stick in that hotel. This took two years of my life”.

He waited two years to be granted refugee status. Image: Andy Parsons

‘I was afraid, I didn’t know where to go’

In September this year, two years after he arrived in the UK and filed his claim for asylum, Adam received a phone call from his solicitor. “OK I have the good news you are waiting for for a long time. You have been granted refugee status, they have accepted your claim,” he recalls being told. “I was happy, and I thought, OK, all this pain is finished.”

He called his family and told them things would change. Finally, he could start working, and they wouldn’t have to borrow any more money. This was 25 September – and he knew the clock was ticking. “Because I have read about the process, once you are granted your status you have limited time to find accommodation,” he says.

With this phone call, Adam found himself caught up in the refugee homelessness crisis affecting thousands across the country.

The Home Office told us it has not reduced the ‘move-on’ period. But, as charities have warned, the 28-day period used to start when the refugees received a Biometric Residence Permit, which allows them to work and claim benefits. It now begins when they are told their case has been approved. Often, the wait to receive the paperwork means that in practice refugees are being afforded just seven days. The Home Office previously said it encourages refugees to make onward plans as soon as they get a decision “to minimise the risk of homelessness”, and that its support is “ample”. It wasn’t enough for Adam.

By the end of September, he had filled out a homelessness application with the council, and sent his supporting papers. Newham Council, however, said they could not help him until he received his eviction notice, which he’d get a week before he needed to leave the hotel. When he was handed this by a worker in the hotel, the council then told him they would contact him on the day of eviction. “I didn’t take any advantage from that 28 days,” he says. “It’s like they tied you and asked you to dance.”

The date of eviction was 26 October. On that day, “with my bags on the street, trying to contact them, nobody answered”, Adam says. That night, with his bags, he went around the streets, unable to sleep.

It would have remained this way if it wasn’t for Refugees at Home. During the 28-day period, Adam had been in touch with them and on 27 October, he was connected with a host. He had a roof over his head, if only for a few days before he had to move on to his next host in Crystal Palace.

Adam would still be on the streets if he hadn’t found a host family through Refugees at Home. Image: Andy Parsons

“I will not forget this forever. These memories will stick with me for the rest of my life. I found welcoming people,” he says. “I was afraid, I didn’t know where to go, with all these negative ideas and thoughts. Tired, carrying my bags on the streets. And they opened the doors for me.”

But his struggles to find somewhere permanent continue. At one point, Newham Council told him his present condition was the responsibility of the Home Office, and that he was not a priority need for homelessness. Hostels told him there would be a 15-week wait for a bed. Although trying to get a job, he’s stuck in a cycle: unable to get employment without an address, and unable to afford a place to live without income.

“Even now I can’t sleep, I’m thinking, thinking, thinking. Instead of enjoying the calls with my family, I try to avoid calling them,” he says.

“I’m going down, physically, mentally. Hopefully one day this will be changed.”

‘The wrong advice was given and we apologise’

When we asked Newham Council about Adam’s story, they said they had made mistakes and apologised for his experience.

A Newham Council spokesperson told The Big Issue: “Newham, like many other London boroughs, is facing a huge challenge in demand from increasing numbers of people who face homelessness, including as a result of the Government giving just seven days’ notice of “eviction” from asylum hotel accommodation.

“To help address the issue we have embedded specialist housing officers into Welcome Newham, a multilingual team of outreach officers and early help family navigators who provide immediate welfare for those seeking refuge. Welcome Newham is a one-stop shop which is piloting a move on service to assist people with help to find jobs, access English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, apply for universal credit and access private rented accommodation.

“Unfortunately in this case the resident was directed to the general needs team and as a result the wrong advice was given in this instance for which we apologise. The officer who dealt with his initial contact has been given advice on dealing with residents facing eviction from the hotels in future.

“Newham does not insist on the seven day notice and seeks to support residents at the earliest possible opportunity. We have been very successful in this and this particular resident did attend our One Stop Shop after correct advice was given. He has been referred to hostel accommodation and is on the waiting list for a place. We are also seeking suitable private rented accommodation but due to the challenges across London in the private rented sector, we have not yet been able to find an affordable option.

“Unfortunately the current crisis in housing and homelessness has led to a significant reduction in options and supply, whilst new demand has increased in Newham by 20 per cent at end of September over the prior year – the majority of demand being from residents facing eviction from the private rented sector.

“Our homelessness support teams, both for refugees and those established residents facing eviction from private rented properties, are under extreme pressure. The lack of affordable rented property, either social or private, is a real crisis.

“People seeking asylum are now given just seven days’ notice to vacate their accommodation once their leave to remain has been granted, but the Home Office provides no move-on support and signposting to help them establish their lives. Newham is receiving a high volume of approaches each week from people who have recently received their leave to remain.

“We have referred to the situation as a housing crisis, and it truly is, not only for those seeking refuge in this country, but for established residents in private rented accommodation. Councils cannot fix the broken system alone.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: Once someone is informed that their asylum claim has been granted, they get at least 28 days notice to move on from their asylum accommodation. 

“Support is offered to newly recognised refugees by 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 work with local authorities to help communities manage the impact of asylum decisions.”

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