What is the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee?
‘Asylum seeker’ means a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees on the grounds that they have a well-founded fear of persecution should they return to their home country.
‘Refugee’ means an asylum seeker whose claim has been successful.
Who are London’s asylum seekers and where are they?
At the end of 2020 there were 132,349 refugees, 77,245 pending asylum cases and 4662 stateless people in the UK. In June 2021, the UK received 31,115 asylum applicants; the most common countries of origin were Iran, followed by Albania, Eritrea, Sudan, and Iraq.
Most asylum seekers are unable to pay for their own housing. They are also unable to claim benefits. and they are not allowed to work. Asylum seekers can claim financial support and accommodation under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 if they are destitute or likely to become destitute. On the 30th June 2021, 8375 asylum seekers were in receipt of section 95 support in London, and the numbers have since increased. Asylum accommodation (initial and dispersed accommodation) is provided by the Home Office via contracts with Serco, Mears Group and Clearsprings Read Homes. Asylum dispersal accommodation in London is provided by Clearsprings. Under this scheme, asylum seekers are not able to choose where they live.
London has historically had relatively low numbers of asylum seekers in dispersed accommodation. This is no longer the case. In the last three years, the number has more than quadrupled: from a low of 771 in Q3 2015, to 4397 in Q1 2019. Dispersal accommodation is especially concentrated in Barking and Dagenham (734), Redbridge (640), Newham (582), Hillingdon (456), and Ealing (386).
What are London local authorities doing to support asylum seekers and newly recognised refugees?
Local authorities support asylum seekers directly or indirectly in a range of ways, from carrying out property inspections to providing adult social care. However, the most substantial area of support often arises when asylum seekers are asked to move on from Home Office provided dispersed accommodation.
Once an asylum seeker receives a decision on their asylum application, there is just 28 days until they have to leave their dispersed accommodation. This leaves little time to find alternative accommodation, obtain a National Insurance number, find work, or establish a welfare benefits claim. They also usually lack the basic requirement to gain a tenancy in the private rented sector: a deposit. Local authorities in London are therefore playing a significant role in preventing homelessness amongst newly recognised refugees, and financially supporting them to attain a tenancy.
In recent years there has been a significant build up of people in the asylum accommodation system, and as a result, asylum seekers have been placed in hotels whilst they wait for dispersed accommodation to become available. Asylum seekers cannot receive a decision on their asylum application until they are in dispersed accommodation. Whilst, the Home Office have been using asylum hotels in London since 2019, numbers have risen substantially and disproportionately in London since June 2020. There are a number of reasons for this increase, including the speed of asylum decision making which has significantly slowed in recent years, the temporary pausing of cessations and other measures introduced in response to the pandemic, and the spikes of asylum seekers arriving to the UK in the Summer months. London boroughs have allocated significant resources to help fill gaps in support for the asylum seekers in hotels, from public health support, to funding the voluntary and community sector to provide food support.
What changes have been happening with asylum accommodation and support in London?
In January 2019, it was announced that the contract for providing accommodation for asylum seekers for the next 10 years, AASC (Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contract), had been awarded to Clearsprings in London. This was the existing COMPASS accommodation provider in London.
Clearsprings transferred service users over to provision under the AASC requirements in London on 15 July 2019. There are some higher standards under the AASC contract that the old COMPASS one. Additionally:
- In London, Clearsprings has been using subcontractors to procure and manage properties. Clearsprings are transitioning to a new business model: while still using subcontractors to provide properties, they will manage properties and relationships with service users directly, and take a greater responsibility for ensuring repairs are completed
- Under the new AASC contract, properties are not exempt from selective licensing schemes.
The London Asylum Procurement Framework was agreed in November 2020 between all London boroughs, the Home Office , Clearsprings, London Councils and the GLA. Through this framework, Clearsprings and the Home Office agreed to ensure the following key principles:
- dispersed accommodation is distributed across London in an equitable way
- property is procured in a manner that will not cause rental price escalation in a particular area.
- only properties that meet all minimum quality standards required by the host borough will be procured
- procurement will not undermine borough efforts to tackle rogue landlords and agents
- central and local government will share data in an effective way
- There will be meaningful consultation with boroughs in advance of the procurement of individual properties
London Councils continues to work with the Home Office, Clearsprings, and wider local government, to try and find a solution to growing numbers of asylum seekers in hotels and to ensure that the principles in the framework are upheld in the face of increased pressures in the asylum accommodation system.
A new AIRE (the Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility) contract has also been awarded to Migrant Help. Migrant Help have previously been providing a more limited form of advice and guidance support to asylum seekers under a separate contract with the Home Office.
Migrant Help began in July 2019 to provide services under AIRE in London. Some asylum seekers choose to only receive subsistence payments and not accommodation support from the Home Office (1233 in London); this service is available to them too.
The AIRE service provides advice and guidance to service users on the asylum process and their rights, and signposts to different services. It provides asylum seekers with a single point of contact, independent from the accommodation providers and the Home Office, to report issues. Key features of the new support include:
- A single point of contact. Service users can contact via telephone, email and webchat. Translators are available
- An online hub for asylum seekers to access their records and complete applications
- Face to face outreach support for vulnerable service users
- More intensive move-on support after asylum seekers get a decision on their application
- Positive decision move-on support is provided by Reed in Partnership, who Migrant Help have subcontracted. They refer service users to various agencies, including a named housing officer within the relevant local authority housing team.
- Negative decision move-on support is handled by Migrant Help in-house.
London Councils has been engaging extensively with the Home Office and the providers to ensure improvements are made to policy and practice of procuring properties and supporting asylum seekers. We will continue to do so in the coming months and years.