“In the network we have people who are engineers, community leaders, teachers, people with important skills who can contribute to this country. When we’re talking about refugees that achieve great things for this country – like Mo Farah – not everybody is Mo Farah, but everybody has something to give to this country.”
Kolbassia, Survivors Speak Out network1
On 3 September 2015, people up and down the UK awoke to newspaper front pages and news bulletins displaying the picture of a Turkish police officer carrying the body of a young Syrian boy who had drowned during an attempt to reach Greece. We would later come to know that that boy’s name was Alan Kurdi. In the months following those reports, there has been much debate both inside and outside of Parliament on what the UK’s response to the global refugee crisis should be. This debate has predominantly focused on how many refugees the UK can and should offer protection to.
Very little time, if any, has been given to considering what happens to refugees once they have been granted protection by the UK Government. In undertaking this inquiry, we set out to ask to what extent refugees are welcomed in the UK. We started from the idea that protection does not end when a decision to grant someone refugee status is made. We wanted to look into how government policies supported refugees in the UK, and what more could be done to support communities to successfully welcome refugees.
What became clear during the course of our inquiry is that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of individuals, communities, organisations and local authorities playing a key role in welcoming refugees. We were told about the determination and desire that refugees have to meet the challenges they face. We were also told of areas where Government policies were supporting refugees to integrate and build their lives in the UK. However, in too many areas we identified barriers to integration and a lack of support for refugees that undermine those positive examples and that take away from the protection that refugee status should entail.
• We recommend that the Government introduce a cross-departmental National Refugee Integration Strategy that is applicable to all refugees in the UK. The strategy should learn from the positive examples we were told about to coordinate support for refugees so that they are able to rebuild their lives and make full use of their talents and abilities to take part in, and contribute to, British society.
• We recommend that a Minister for Refugees should be appointed to oversee the National Refugee Integration Strategy, and to ensure there is a focus on refugee policy within the Government.
• Following the referendum result of 23 June 2016 and the vote to leave the European Union, there will be a need to develop a new, post-Brexit immigration system. Part of that system, and of showing that the UK remains global-facing, should be a refugee policy based on compassion that allows refugees to rebuild their lives and for the UK to benefit from the talent and resilience that refugees bring. The Minister for Refugees and the National Refugee Integration Strategy should be central in shaping that policy.
The evidence we received shows that a two-tier system has developed for refugees. Refugees in the UK will either have gone through the asylum process having arrived in the UK and then submitted an application, or they will have been brought to the UK directly from another country through one of the Government-led resettlement schemes.
Those refugees who arrive through a resettlement route are provided with accommodation and receive support to access services and find employment. For refugees who have gone through the asylum system, there is no such support. This was not always the case. Between 2008 and 2011, the Government funded a programme to help newly recognised refugees navigate the move on period, offering 12 months of support to access housing, education, social security and the job market. However, funding for the programme – known as the Refugee Integration and Employment Service – was ended in September 2011. Since then, there has been no Government provided support service for refugees who have been through the asylum system.
The impact of the lack of support was demonstrated through the evidence we received on the experience of refugees immediately after they are granted their status. While waiting for a decision on their asylum application, asylum seekers are unable to work and so most are reliant on the financial support and accommodation provided by the Home Office. After receiving a positive decision on their application, newly recognised refugees are given just 28 days before that support is cut off and they are forced to leave their accommodation.
Throughout our inquiry we were told by refugees and organisations that support them that the 28 day period – known as the “move on” period – is too short. Coupled with the lack of support for refugees to navigate the social security system and private housing market, the brevity of the move on period leaves too many newly recognised refugees homeless and destitute.
The difficulties refugees face are exacerbated, and in many cases caused, by delays experienced receiving the documents they need to be able to register for social security support. We were also told that refugees are often given wrong or incomplete advice by Job Centre staff, leading to delays in refugees accessing support. Additionally, with the national roll out of Universal Credit – which will mean that most claimants won’t receive any payments for at least six weeks after they submit an application – the move on period will not be long enough even for those newly recognised refugees who receive all their documentation in a timely manner.
• We recommend that the Government extend the move on period to at least 50 days, reflecting the time it takes in reality for refugees to access accommodation and financial support, particularly as Universal Credit is rolled out nationally. The length should be kept under review: newly recognised refugees should not experience a gap in their support.
• We recommend that the National Refugee Integration Strategy should address the issues newly recognised refugees face during the move on period, including ensuring that documentation is received as soon as possible.
• We recommend that the Strategy should include reintroducing a support system for newly recognised refugees, similar to the Refugee Integration and Employment Service, drawing on lessons and best practice from the resettlement schemes and the Holistic Integration Service in Scotland. This will help both refugees and local authorities
Beyond the crises that can be caused by the move on period, we conclude in our report that the lack of a cross-departmental strategy setting out how all refugees, no matter how they arrived in the UK, can successfully integrate in the UK is regrettable. It is also a barrier to the ability for refugees to fulfil their potential.
Successful integration allows refugees to rebuild their lives and to make full use of their talents and abilities to take part in and contribute to British society. Refugees told us that they wanted to learn English as it is key to integration. However, a theme throughout the inquiry was that the lack of support in learning English, particularly a shortage of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, prevents refugees from being able to access other areas of support, from gaining employment and from taking part in community activities. Despite specific funding the Government have committed for ESOL classes for resettled Syrian refugees, we were told that the drastic reduction in ESOL funding in England – a 55% fall between 2008-09 and 2014-15 – has led to Refugees Welcome? longer waiting lists, a decline in teaching hours and a lack of classes that meet the needs of refugees.
Some of the positive examples of support being provided to refugees that we were told about were projects and programmes that help refugees gain employment. This includes help writing CVs, converting qualifications that were awarded in other countries, and providing training to help refugees who may need to update or add to their existing skills. But for those refugees who do not have access to this support, navigating and accessing a job market they are unfamiliar with can be a daunting task.
Similarly, we were told that many refugees struggle to access healthcare services they need. Refugees face difficulties registering at GP surgeries when they are asked for documentation they are unable to provide. We are particularly concerned by evidence we received that refugees who have mental health needs or who have been victims of torture are not always referred to specialist treatment providers.
• We recommend that, as part of the National Refugee Integration Strategy, the Government create a strategy for ESOL provision in England, including an increase in funding. The Government should also explore how more refugees can receive support to find employment and to access training.
• We recommend that the Department of Health should work with Clinical Commissioning Groups to ensure refugees are able to access healthcare services and are referred to specialist providers where needed.
Women and Children
The evidence we received highlighted particular barriers some groups of refugees may face. We were told that women who face destitution and homelessness at the end of the move on period are frequently told to stay with friends, putting them at risk of exploitation. Many refugee women have experienced sexual and gender-based violence either in their home country or during their journey to safety. The evidence we received also shows that refugee women are at risk of sexual and genderbased violence once they arrive in the UK.
Women refugees are often not allocated a National Insurance Number (NINo) as they are not considered to be the “principal applicant” on an asylum application, and so face further delays being able to access support. Additionally, the timing of ESOL classes, as well as the lack of childcare facilities, can prevent women from being able to learn English.
Child refugees, whether they have arrived separately or with family members, may face particular challenges, including in educational environments that they are unfamiliar with. Many child refugees will have missed considerable parts of their formal education for a number of reasons, including because they have been living in refugee camps or have been travelling in search of safety. We were told that children may need tailored support from teachers and other school staff.
• We recommend that when NINo applications are made as part of an asylum application they should be made by all applicants who would be eligible for a NINo, not just the principal applicant. • We recommend that as part of the strategy for ESOL, the Government should work with ESOL providers to ensure there is adequate child care available so that women with child caring responsibilities are able to access classes.
• We recommend that the Department for Education should make sure that schools are supported in providing support for refugee children, including through the dissemination of best practice.
One of the key things we were told during the inquiry is that for refugees who have arrived in the UK without their family members, being reunited with their loved ones is a priority. Separation, and the worry and distress that causes, can have a negative impact on prospects for integration and on the mental health of refugees in the UK. While adult refugees in the UK can sponsor their closest family members to join them, we were told that the lack of legal aid for family reunion applications, removed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, can prevent access to this process. We were also told that the current rules prevent refugees from sponsoring adult children, even when that child is dependent on their parent. Additionally, child refugees have no right to family reunion. Children who have been found to be in need of protection are unable to be joined by even their closest relatives. This is, we conclude, a barrier to a child being able to successfully integrate. Refugees Welcome?
• We recommend that as part of the announced review of legal aid changes introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government should review the impact the removal of legal aid from family reunion cases has had. If it is found to have had a detrimental impact, legal aid should be reinstated for such cases.
• We recommend that the Government should amend the current rules to allow refugees to sponsor any dependent relatives and to allow unaccompanied children to sponsor their parents and siblings.
The Asylum System
Although our inquiry focused on refugees once they have been granted status, for those who have been through the asylum system we found that what happens while awaiting a decision on an application can have a significant impact on the future prospects of successfully integrating.
The asylum system can be very stressful for applicants, and we are concerned both by the increase in the number of decisions the Home Office makes which are found to be wrong by the courts, and by the length of time the Home Office is taking to make those decisions.
Additionally, people waiting for a decision on their asylum claim can apply for permission to work only if they have been waiting for longer than 12 months. Moreover, they can only apply to work in areas on the Government’s shortage occupation list, which includes jobs such as chemical engineers, computer animators and classical ballet dancers. In effect, we judge that the current rules mean that very few, if any, asylum seekers are able to work.
This means that when refugees are granted status, they are unable to provide references, have no prior experience of working in the UK, and may have deskilled and lost their self-esteem.
• We recommend that the restrictions on asylum seekers being able to work should be reduced, including by removing the limitation that asylum seekers are only able to work in jobs on the shortage occupation list.
• We recommend that the Home Office, as a priority, examine why there has been a sharp increase in the number of asylum applications that aren’t being decided within the target time of six months. The Home Office should also closely examine those cases overturned on appeal to identify why so many decisions are being found to be incorrect. If these issues are being caused by the system being under-resourced, this should be rectified.