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Housing Afghan refugees in London

Our Research Director Claire Harding takes a look at how our capital can work to resettle people in response to the crisis in Afghanistan.

It’s impossible not to have been moved by the horrifying scenes at Kabul airport in the last weeks, and by the stories of Afghans who have been forced to leave their country and their families to seek safety abroad, including in the UK. Many Londoners want to help: we are already seeing drives for donations to help refugees. Londoners have already hosted over 1000 placements since 2017 through the Refugees at Home scheme and more community groups and local authorities are making plans to welcome Afghan refugees into their communities.

Most people who come to the UK fleeing persecution are classified as asylum seekers rather than refugees (refugee status is only granted after the Home Office has assessed their claim). In some cases, like the Syrian resettlement scheme, people’s cases are assessed while they are in third countries and then they are given refugee status as soon as they arrive in the UK. It seems that the government’s Afghan resettlement scheme will work the same way for 20,000 people who are seen as being in particular need, but the scale of the catastrophe in Afghanistan makes it inevitable that many more will cross Europe and seek help directly in the UK.

While people are classified as asylum seekers, they are usually housed in government-provided accommodation, rather cruelly called ‘dispersal accommodation’, are not allowed to work, and receive a small stipend for living expenses. They can be in this position for years while their claims are being assessed: an unpredictable limbo state with the ever present threat of deportation. Dispersal accommodation is a mixed bag: it’s usually in flats or houses but in can be in other places like hotels and former barracks. There have been persistent problems with low quality housing for asylum seekers, including the horrifying recent story of a young Afghan boy falling to his death from a Sheffield hotel window.

Critics from outside London and the South East are fair to point out that London has not been taking its fair share of adult asylum seekers, since there is no dispersal accommodation in London; although this is by the choice of the government, not the Greater London Authority (GLA)  or local authorities. Some asylum seekers do live here with family and friends, and London is home to more than its share of unaccompanied asylum seeking children, who are looked after by local authorities within the care system. The problem is that there simply isn’t much suitable and affordable accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers in the city. This is partly because so much housing that could be suitable is used by homeless Londoners who are forced to live in temporary accommodation while they wait for a permanent home. There are about 60,000 households in temporary accommodation in London, most of whom are families with children – temporary accommodation rates per capita are ten times the rate for the rest of the country. This in turn is driven by chronic shortages of social housing: there are as many people on social housing waiting lists in just two London boroughs – Newham and Lambeth – than there are in the whole of the north east of England.

It goes without saying that the response to this shortage of accommodation must not be to welcome fewer vulnerable people to our country. Even with an additional 20,000 people resettled from Afghanistan, the proportion of refugees in our population is tiny: we can and should offer homes to many more. We could make things much easier by reducing the time vulnerable people are without a place to call their own, freeing up temporary accommodation so it is ready for emergencies. For asylum seekers, the Home Office must speed up processing times, so people get a decision faster and can work legally and pay for their own housing. For homeless people, local and national government must help them more quickly to permanent homes, which would make it much easier for adults to find stable work and for children to study.

We know that local authorities are already working really hard to reduce the time Londoners, and especially families, spend in temporary accommodation and that they want to do more. We’re planning a project to explore potential solutions in more detail: if you’d like to find out more, please get in touch. Unfortunately, we are unable to assist with individual requests for accommodation from refugees or people living in temporary housing.

Following the publication of this blog, the Mayor of London has announced the London Refugee Response Fund, for donations to charitable organisations working to rebuild the lives of asylum seekers. You can find out more by clicking here.

Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.  Read more from her here.