An update

8 June 2022

This update touches on the Ukraine Crisis, the differential treatment of war refugees, and the silence surrounding refugees kept in hotels for months on end.

The following is an update on some of Positive Action in housing‘s work since March 2022. 

This has been a challenging and emotionally exhausting period. 

We have developed a new system to assist Ukrainian refugees in leaving the war and being resettled with a sponsor in the UK. The programme is running well, and we have recruited a Development Worker to assist people in connecting safely and with dignity. We have successfully matched more than 200 refugees and hosts. We’ve also provided advice and information about safe routes, visas and sponsorship to more than 1,400 refugees inside Ukraine or neighbouring countries.

We have also linked up with expert volunteers and guided a small number of Ukrainians out of war zones.

Around 19 unaccompanied young people under the age of 18 have registered with us. Their parents want them out of this war. Schools and universities have been destroyed; they want normality. Although unaccompanied Ukrainian minors are accepted into Ireland, they are barred from entering the UK, leaving them at risk of returning to a war zone or trafficking in neighbouring countries. It is striking that families see anywhere outside the warzone as safe, compared to the immediate danger of bombardment. Cats and dogs belonging to Ukrainians can enter the UK, but unaccompanied minors cannot.

We advocate sponsorship by charities like ours – with over 20 years of safe hosting experience - to be permitted under the Homes for Ukraine programme to arrange secure registered sponsors for unaccompanied minors. This would keep children safe and ensure a minimal strain on public services.

We have also seen a notable increase in the number of Ukrainians presenting as homeless, particularly those arriving via the family scheme. 

Meanwhile, our Room for Refugees programme for destitute refugees and asylum seekers is going strong and continuing to assist people in need, accepting referrals from caseworkers like the British Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Council and others. Two accommodation officers now provide support under this programme, and we expect capacity to double.

It is essential to acknowledge that brown and black war refugees, such as Syrians, Yemeni, Eritreans, Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans, cannot seek sponsorship in the same way that those from Ukraine can. 

Publicly, there is an almost blanket silence from hotel asylum seekers, who often refuse to come forward to highlight their experiences. Having spoken with many, it is clear that people fear speaking out or complaining about treatment by staff employed in the hotels or by the Home Office accommodation contractor, Mears. Asylum seekers fear being singled out and targeted by the Home Office and its subcontractors.

One of the asylum seekers living in a hotel somewhere in Scotland described it as "a regime".  He and others have tried to remain positive and not to think, for fear it would lead to self-harm, suicide attempts or outrage at the system they are being held under. His use of the word "regime" is interesting because many asylum seekers fled unjust regimes and now find themselves inside another. Mohammad* said he "ran from one regime in my country, but I'm living under another regime called Mears".

"They know what I spend my £8 a week on; the Home Office pays them to accommodate us, and they can walk into our rooms anytime. We cannot cook or clean for ourselves. They smile at us when they engage in inane talk about the weather or a staff member's birthday celebrations. But as soon as we ask fundamental questions about our asylum case, and when we will get an interview, the staff become cold. I guess it's because we are asking about the truth. And they don't want to talk about that. Or about how much money they get for keeping us here. I listened to the small talk about their happy lives and smiled, but inside, my heart was breaking. 

"So we stay quiet because we know everything gets reported back to the Home Office. If we complain, we are accused of "causing trouble" or "being violent". Just for asking a question that is on the minds of every single asylum seeker here: "When will my case be heard?". I tried helping by assisting with interpreting for the other asylum seekers. I thought they could see I was human. And I could help the others in here.  But after many months, when I asked the question on my mind when will my case be heard, I was treated with coldness as if I had committed a crime. So I retreat inside myself. Keep busy. Whatever you do, don't think."

It’s a testament to their strength of character and resolves to endure this long delay that they have stayed so calm. Mears claims it is doing everything in its power to eliminate hotel usage, but in reality, we are seeing the use of hotels on an industrial scale. Hundreds of millions are being spent on hotel use when that money could be used to build homes. 

Priti Patel's threat to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is the biggest fear now. At worst, people could be sent there on a whim. At best, they could be moved to another hotel without notice and then have to start the search again, for a lawyer, for support. Hotels are a transient thing; they are different from home; you can’t settle, you can’t study, you can’t register with a GP, and there is no agency or privacy. The system can check what you buy for £8 a week. The system is connected to the home Office, ultimately deciding whether you can stay or go.

Robina Qureshi

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