Our key policy calls to the Home Office in response to COVID-19 - Refugee Council
January 21, 2021

Our key policy calls to the Home Office in response to COVID-19

We’ve been calling on the government to protect people seeking asylum and refugees at risk due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While the Home Office has responded positively to some of our calls, we remain seriously concerned about the provisions in place for particular groups of people.

Here’s some of the key issues that we’ve been calling on the Home Office to address. Where temporary measures were put in place, we’re also seeking assurances that they be reviewed before removing them and returning to ‘business as usual’.

1. Access to the Asylum System

Problem: In order to make a claim for asylum once already in the UK, a person is required to attend an Asylum Intake Unit (AIU). Prior to the pandemic there was one intake unit in Croydon and people had to travel there to register their asylum claim. The Home Office have since set up six additional regional intake units in Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Leeds, Solihull and Cardiff.

This is very welcome, as many people have benefitted from this measure and we would like to see them continue to operate; it makes no sense at all to only have one place to register claims when the process should be the same nationwide.

In contrast to the March-June lockdown, other appointments related to the asylum system (including reporting) are now one of the exemptions to the lockdown i.e. the Home Office can require a person to attend an appointment regardless of the risks people may have to take to get to it e.g. several trips on public transport.

Solution: We suggest that a person should be able to register their asylum claim by phone, post or email. When biometrics need to be taken more use should be made of mobile units to avoid the need for lots of people to travel e.g. from an Initial Accommodation Centre. Where travel puts public health at risk the government is able to delay taking biometrics to avoid unnecessary travel. 

For reporting and other appointments related to the asylum interview, we ask that the Home Office gives people an option to reschedule if they are concerned about the risk to health (including of people they live with). Nobody should be asked to attend a reporting centre on a regular basis whilst the current national restrictions are in place

2. An increase to asylum support payments in line with that already announced for people on Universal Credit

Problem: People on asylum support are provided with just over £5 per day to cover their essential living needs. Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, people were already struggling to meet their needs with such limited income.  The Coronavirus pandemic has put additional pressure on limited budgets, with people being forced to shop locally (rather than shop around for the best deals), coupled with an increase in the need for mobile phone credit and data to access support services.

Solution: The government need to urgently uplift the rate of asylum support in line with the uplift made to Universal Credit, and need to put a plan in place to address the backlog in cases waiting for a decision.

Update: The Home Office has reviewed the level of support and a decision was made that £39.63 per person is sufficient to cover essential living needs. We strongly disagree with this calculation and suggest that the government needs to look at the evidence that shows people are far from meeting their essential needs, children’s development is being compromised and the lack of cash support for those people whose applications for support are still being assessed (those on section 98 support). The problem is exacerbated by the length of time people are expected to live on such paltry levels.

3. Social distancing and public health in asylum accommodation

Problem: People in the asylum system who are living in Initial Accommodation (typically large-scale hostel accommodation), or dispersal accommodation (typically Houses of Multiple Occupation) are finding it difficult to maintain social distancing, and may find self-isolation impossible. Many people in the asylum system are also living in similar situations in hotels and more recently in repurposed ex-military barracks as a result of difficulties sourcing accommodation when the asylum contracts changed in 2019.

There are significant public health concerns about the conditions within all types of asylum accommodation. Arrangements such as bedroom sharing between unrelated adults, communal eating facilities and crowded social spaces make social distancing difficult and self-isolation almost impossible. Concerns have also been raised about the provision of sufficient hygiene and sanitation products in both Initial Accommodation Centres and hotels.

Solution: The Home Office must ensure adequate provision of safe, self- contained accommodation to enable social distancing and self-isolation. In addition, the Home Office must immediately ensure the provision of adequate supplies of cleaning products, soap/hand sanitisers for people housed in Initial Accommodation and hotels.

Update: Since our call the Initial Accommodation Centres appeared to have put some measures in place to protect people including reducing and in some cases halting the sharing of rooms between unrelated adults. However, we remain concerned about the wellbeing of people accommodated in hotels for long periods, even where standards are good, as they are not homes and provide little privacy or choice for people, many of whom have additional needs. Important services such as schools, GPs and legal advisers are rarely available, as usually people would only be expected to live there for a little over a month.

In addition to our concern about the length of time people are staying in Initial Accommodation Centres and hotels, we are worried about the recent move to convert former Ministry of Defence barracks, into accommodation remote from local communities and services. In addition to the problems mentioned above the accommodation in these sites appears to be of a very low standard and ‘dormitory style’ rooms as well as communal facilities, are a step backwards. Until their use can be ended, urgent attention must be paid to the health and safety of the people living there.

4. No one should be evicted into homelessness and destitution following the outcome of their asylum claim.

Problem: People face eviction into homelessness and destitution once a decision has been made on their asylum case.

Update: In March 2020 the government paused all cessations of support and evictions from asylum accommodation due to the pandemic.

In September cessations of support started for people with a positive decision but with an additional safeguard whereby their asylum support would continue until their first welfare benefit payment was made. We very much welcome this new measure and believe it should be permanently implemented to ensure newly granted refugees are not evicted into homelessness and destitution.

In October 2020 evictions were resumed for people who had received a negative decision though these were subsequently paused in November.

Solution: The Refugee Council believes that no one should be made destitute and homeless, particularly during a global pandemic.

People with a positive decision should continue to be housed and provided with financial support until they have an alternative in place i.e. regular welfare benefit paid and accommodation either through the local authority or in the Private Rented Sector. 

People who receive a negative decision should continue to be accommodated and supported by the Home Office and should not face eviction into homelessness and destitution.

5. Resumption of the UK’s Refugee Resettlement Scheme..

Problem: The UK’s existing resettlement schemes were due to end in the Spring of 2020, and were then to be replaced by a new scheme, which planned to resettle 5,000 refugees in the first year. The global pandemic meant that resettlement was suspended for most of 2020 and to date the government have only committed to restarting resettlement by bringing 232 people to the UK by the end of March 2021 in order to complete the previous scheme.

There is currently no start date for the new scheme, which means from 1 April 2021 the UK will not have a resettlement scheme in place, leaving thousands of refugees living in refugee camps, uncertain of their future.

Solution: The Government urgently need to confirm a start date for the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS) and should make a long-term commitment to resettle 10,000 refugees each year, from countries across the world.