Opinion

I help refugees with their mental health. This is the toll our asylum system takes

Dr Jennifer Walters, a clinical psychologist at Freedom from Torture, explains how the risk of homelessness is harming refugees

"I know that people think hotel accommodation can’t be all that bad, but it really is," writes Dr Jennifer Walters. Image: Supplied

No matter who we are, or where we come from, we all deserve secure housing to keep ourselves and our families safe. I’m a clinical psychologist at Freedom from Torture’s London centre and I’ve been shocked to see how refugees have found themselves in dire situations as a direct result of government policy

Securing recognition of refugee status should be a moment of celebration for people who’ve been waiting years to rebuild their lives in safety. Instead, we’re seeing survivors of torture end up in desperately vulnerable situations. Every day in our therapy rooms up and down the country we’re seeing the very real impact of short-notice evictions and the threat of homelessness on survivors and their chances of recovery. This is just one of those stories. 

Mahmoud and his family received their refugee status at the end of 2023. They were given the statutory time (between seven to 28 days) to leave their flat, but all they were offered was a hotel in the north of England. This was almost 300 miles away from friends and the children’s schools, in a place they didn’t know. The hotel was offered only as ‘temporary’ and there’s no way of trusting what the timescale would be. It’s also approaching the summer term when the children have crucial exams. Back in his home country, Mahmoud was denied any education, despite being very intelligent. He’s extremely keen that his children have every opportunity to learn and that their chances are not impaired by breaks in attendance. 

They were told that this hotel was their only option. But despite this, and although they ran the risk of homelessness, the family refused it. Instead, they tried to find private accommodation but there’s a cap on housing benefits which can affect those looking for somewhere to stay. 

The family were given hotel accommodation in London that has been supported by charities, but each week they’re threatened with being kicked out onto the streets. They’re all very depressed, anxious, and angry about their current situation. Mahmoud has expressed thoughts of self-harm because of the extreme stress his family are going through.

I know that people think hotel accommodation can’t be all that bad, but it really is. The family has to eat meals lacking in variety and nutritious quality. There’s a lack of options and facilities. Mahmoud and his family should by now have extra money, but they’re still waiting to be given access to the benefits system for those who have been given asylum status. 

From a clinical point of view, these issues all have a major impact on one’s mental and physical health, particularly vulnerable people who’ve suffered unimaginable horrors like torture. Mahmoud, who presented with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when I first met him, had been doing very well in weekly therapy sessions and he was having less flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, and hypervigilance. He was a punctual and regular attender to his weekly sessions. 

But when Mahmoud received his move on notice everything else was paused whilst we worked tirelessly to find a solution. The stress and anxiety meant that Mahmoud was in no state to continue with the therapeutic work anyway. With Freedom from Torture’s welfare team, we’ve written countless urgent reports citing clinical reasons to support their case for housing. There’s a feeling of despondency and deep worry which we all take home with us about what will happen to the survivors we work with. This is widespread across all of our centres in the UK and feels never ending as housing is in such short supply and councils simply don’t have the resources. 

For several weeks Mahmoud and I were not able to meet. He was too upset, depressed, and anxious to travel for our sessions. Most weeks I was able to speak to him or one of his family members over the phone, but it felt like all the hard work Mahmoud had put into relieving his PTSD was lost. The issues he’s faced around finding stable and secure housing for his family has pushed him into a new phase of traumatic events. 

It’s now been five months. The charity money has long run out for them to stay in hotels, but a housing lawyer managed to get the family into emergency accommodation. This is supposed to only be a maximum stay of 56 days, but they’ve been there for over 12 weeks. The family shares facilities (like the kitchen and washing machine) with another family. They have no tables, no chairs, and are not allowed to bring their own furniture. They have beds but the mattresses are thin, and the springs are poking out.

It’s a long way from Mahmoud’s youngest child’s school, so him and his mother have very tiring journeys every day. Mahmoud is having trouble sleeping, which was already poor due to the ongoing nightmares he has of his torture. All of this has now been exacerbated by his severe worries about his family and their housing situation. But recently Mahmoud has felt able to return to his weekly sessions despite a long journey into the centre and his ongoing mobility issues. Despite everything they’ve been through, the family’s mood is turning towards hope for the first time in a very long time.

The truth is successive governments have failed to address the need for affordable housing for all. It’s high time for the people in power to offer refugees the protection and stability they need and support them in rebuilding their lives in the UK.

Dr Jennifer Walters is a clinical psychologist at Freedom from Torture.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

Support your local Big Issue vendor

If you can’t get to your local vendor every week, subscribing directly to them online is the best way to support your vendor. Your chosen vendor will receive 50% of the profit from each copy and the rest is invested back into our work to create opportunities for people affected by poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Keir Starmer promised to tackle child poverty – but we need action, not empty words
Sanah Ahsan

Keir Starmer promised to tackle child poverty – but we need action, not empty words

'It was a long, dark night of the soul': What the first 24 hours in prison is really like
prison leavers
Gary Crooks

'It was a long, dark night of the soul': What the first 24 hours in prison is really like

Labour has a chance to stop domestic abuse at its roots – here's how
A woman's hands holding a cup of tea
Caitlin McCullough

Labour has a chance to stop domestic abuse at its roots – here's how

Why can no government ever plan for the future?
John Bird

Why can no government ever plan for the future?

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know