London Councils is concerned about the escalation of health, public safety and safeguarding challenges as a result of the recent placement of asylum seekers in London. London Councils has had constructive and open discussions on these issues with Home Office (HO) officials as we’ve collectively grappled with the challenges of our asylum system. London Councils urges the government to push forward with the multi-factor regional dispersal model, which has been agreed by all London boroughs, and was developed as part of the government’s new asylum dispersal policy. The policy aims to achieve a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers across the country and ultimately, to move asylum seekers out of hotels and into more appropriate dispersal accommodation. This briefing summarises the pressures facing London boroughs, as well as London Councils’ key asks of government. The briefing also considers employment opportunities for asylum seekers and challenges in light of the cost-of-living crisis. Please see recommendations proposed by London Councils below. London Councils stands ready and willing to work with government to find sustainable solutions to the pressures that boroughs are facing.
Employment opportunities for asylum seekers and the cost-of-living crisis
- Asylum seekers receive a HO allowance (of £40.85 a week or much less if they have catered hotel accommodation) and cannot work. The only circumstances that asylum seekers can currently work is if they apply for a job on the shortage occupation list after they have waited 12 months + for their asylum claim.
- Recent analysis by the Refugee Council shows more than 40,000 asylum seekers in the UK are waiting 1 to 3 years for an asylum decision. This is a long period of time to be without the means to access benefits/income, particularly when considering the growing cost of living pressures (this means that the already limited HO allowance for asylum seekers will not go very far at all).
- Without savings to cover the cost of a deposit, rent in advance and agency fees, most new refugees will find it impossible to access private rented accommodation - therefore, many become homeless. Furthermore, those that receive refugee status only have 28 days to find new accommodation, which makes the task particularly challenging. There is even less time (21 days), to move on if you do not receive refugee status.
We would recommend exploring the following options regarding asylum seekers and employment/skill support:
- Allowing temporary work permits for asylum seekers to increase autonomy and allow them to integrate and contribute to the economy. Over three quarters of asylum seekers gain refugee status. By allowing individuals access to work (and therefore income) before achieving refugee status it will increase their ability to save for a deposit and gain access to housing.
- Local authorities could help to match asylum seekers with available vacancies to assess job shortage issues. This could build on the learnings from local government stepping up to help Afghan evacuees and Ukrainian refugees gain employment. There have been positive reports of the job fairs provided in collaboration with the Department for Work and Pensions, which have a high turnout and success rate for securing interviews and work. However, there are still employment barriers for Afghan evacuees and Ukrainian refugees. Local authorities wish to work collaboratively with government to improve access to ESOL provision, including more tailored ESOL provision to help with particular employment opportunities, and resolve issues concerning lack of recognition around certain qualifications.
- Asylum seekers could be afforded temporary leave to remain whilst waiting for a decision on their asylum claim – accessing benefits, alongside employment, will further help asylum seekers to settle and integrate. (Refugee arrivals under Afghan resettlement schemes and Ukraine visa schemes have benefited in this way from having leave to remain and the subsequent entitlements). However, if such an approach were taken, it would be important to ensure that asylum dispersal was in place (as proposed by the government’s new asylum dispersal policy announced earlier this year), otherwise this could present local authorities that have disproportionately higher asylum populations with additional pressures.
Pressures facing London boroughs
1. Communication and consultation from Clearsprings
- Asylum accommodation/hotels have been stood up in parts of London with limited consultation from Clearsprings (who work in partnership with the Home Office to procure accommodation)and in some cases without any notice. There have been improvements, including the Home Office introducing a 24-hour notice period before asylum seekers arrive, although this is still a limited timeframe for local authorities prepare and raise concerns.
- Hotels are still being used in London boroughs that are already under significant pressure with authorities reporting being over the 1 asylum seeker in 200 of the settled population threshold set by the Home Office.
2. Safeguarding and health concerns
- There have been reports of serious offences committed against asylum seekers which have occurred or been disclosed in London hotels.
- The standard of asylum accommodation needs to be assessed including basic fire safety standards and overcrowding.
- There have been two cases in which groups of people seeking asylum were bussed to Victoria Coach station from Manston, Kent and left without accommodation.
- There have also been police reports of increased far-right activity, and concern around hotels being targeted following the firebombing of the centre in Dover.
b) Public health issues
- Despite health screenings, people have been transferred to hotels with notifiable illnesses, including TB, diphtheria, scabies and monkeypox.
c) Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC)
- In some cases, UASCs are being identified in contingency hotels due to mis-age assessments at the border, which presents safeguarding issues.
- There are concerns about the number of UASC identified by councils, and if the National Transfer Scheme can meet this demand.
- Children have also been going missing from UASC hotels and a significant number are presenting at local authorities in London.
3. Funding and capacity issues
- The financial pressure on local authorities is unsustainable. More dedicated funding and clarity on financial commitment is needed.
4. Long term issues
- There are concerns regarding social cohesion issues and the isolation of asylum seekers.
- There is a general disconnect between the various refugee and resettlement schemes (for example each route comes with different rights and entitlements, different funding streams for local authorities, and different teams within the government supporting these various routes).
- The lack of affordable housing supply continues to be problematic for asylum-seeking placements with a growing number of homeless presentations.
Key asks for the government
Key asks and suggested solutions in the short term
- Clearsprings should use the multi-factor dispersal model that London Councils developed as part of the government’s asylum dispersal policy to inform where to stand up asylum accommodation, including contingency hotels (but on the whole, hotel procurement should be avoided in London unless it is considered absolutely necessary).
- This should include the complete removal of spot-booking hotel beds now that Manston has been controlled and cases are not an absolute emergency (spot-booked hotels/hotel rooms are stood up outside the regulations, including funding regulations).
- Clearsprings should share information on asylum accommodation being considered and the number of placements required as early as possible to ensure councils are properly consulted.
- Councils should be consulted on the safeguarding protocol and local risk assessments of hotel sites.
- Separate accommodation for single males and families.
- The HO should ensure that arrivals at reception centres are offered a diphtheria vaccine and preventative treatment and that the move-on of asylum seekers should be delayed until they have had appropriate assessment and treatment.
- Data-sharing on asylum arrivals with local authorities and health partners, including data on their health needs and results following Health screening/health assessments (We can apply learning from MOU during the Covid-19 pandemic).
- An urgent review of the age-assessment process would help to identify why children are miss-age-assessed (HO have recently started reviewing UASC cases and we are keen for the HO to work with London boroughs to assess a significant sample of UASC cases).
- A review and plan (detailing mitigations in place) for children that have gone missing from UASC hotels.
- Hotel placements should be funded just as dispersal accommodation placements are funded (i.e. £3,500 per bed-space). It is vital that the government complete the burden assessment so that local authorities’ costs concerning asylum support can be captured and funded.
Medium to long-term measures to create a more equitable and sustainable asylum system
- Progress on regional dispersal plans as previously agreed, including a clear mechanism to monitor the procurement practice of Clearsprings and other providers and confirmation of funding beyond April 2023.
- Joint working on ways to increase accommodation supply, including housing acquisition programmes.
- Allowing temporary work permits, and temporary leave to remain for asylum seekers, so they can integrate and contribute to the economy (as is detailed above).
- HO should share projections for future asylum arrivals and work with local authorities for forward planning.
- Improve the system for processing asylum seeker claims
- Coordination with other refugee/resettlement programmes to take account of cumulative impact on local areas and a cross-departmental team in government to engage with LAs.