In Leeds, ordinary people are stepping up to support refugees and asylum seekers. When the local authority struggles to offer accommodation, charities and members of the public fill the gap. Some even go so far as to host asylum seekers in their own homes, offering spare rooms to people trying to navigate the bureaucratic maze of the asylum process.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week, we’re looking at Leeds, in the North of England. Although the majority of asylum seekers and refugees find accommodation, they are nevertheless an especially vulnerable group in terms of homelessness. In Leeds, as in the rest of the UK, asylum seekers are not allowed to claim benefits, nor are they allowed to work to support themselves during their application process. They may be entitled to housing during the application, but even if they’re granted refugee status they have just 28 days to find a new home before being evicted from their asylum accommodation.
Many people in Leeds, as in other cities across Europe, have been campaigning and generously donating clothes and food to refugees. Some have even gone so far as to offer places to stay, hoping to prevent asylum seekers from ending up on the street. We thought it would be worthwhile to look at the issue of hosting, homelessness, and the asylum application process in greater detail, using Leeds as a case study.
To kick off the debate, we had a comment sent in from Παυλος, who believes it should be up to the government to provide housing for refugees. Why are charities, non-profit organisations, and members of the public being asked to step in?
To get a response, we spoke to Jon Beech, Director of the Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network (LASSN), a Leeds-based charity set up to address the unmet needs of refugees and asylum seekers. Among other activities, they run a programme matching asylum seekers needing accommodation with hosts willing to offer them a room. What would Jon say?
At LASSN we think it’s the job of Government to make sure everyone has somewhere to live if they haven’t got somewhere: including refugees and non-refugees. However, the UK government has said that they will not house some refugees who have not yet persuaded the government that they are genuine. The UK government calls these people ‘failed asylum seekers’.
‘Failed Asylum Seekers’ are not allowed to work, or to rent a place of their own either. So if the UK government refuse to provide somewhere to live, and it’s illegal for someone to work, our hosts offer a place, free, until they can sort something else out. Many of the people we know are able to persuade the government to let them stay (and to house them) if they can provide good evidence. A place to live gives people a base to get their evidence together, and we help them with that.
Offering someone a place to live can also be a deeply humanitarian action, and an act of solidarity. As an NGO, we believe in the power of ordinary people to make the world a better place. And governments are not always the best people to do everything. So we think citizens have a part to play in helping refugees feel welcome and part of a wider community. It’s easier to do that when someone is living in your home or next door to you than if they are staying in a government hostel.
We asked Jon to tell us more about some of the challenges facing asylum seekers. He gave us an example:
[…] I know people who’ve had terrible, very personal, intimate, horrendous things happen to them, who have not told the first immigration officer they speak to, because perhaps [the asylum seeker] was a woman and something terrible happened to her and it was a male who assaulted her, and it was a male immigration officer. So, she doesn’t disclose these terrible things.
Later, she tells her story to the first female immigration officer who she meets and trusts. She is then told that her failure to mention the incident initially demonstrates she is an unreliable witness, and that she doesn’t give consistent evidence. This is subsequently used as a reason to overturn her application.
With good legal support, sometimes we can get these sort of stupid decisions overturned. But that’s if you’ve got good legal support. We don’t even have free legal assistance for people […] in precisely the situation I described just now. So, it’s tremendously hard…
To get another reaction, we also spoke to John Hebden, who founded the charity Abigail Housing with his wife Anne, providing support and homes to refugees and asylum seekers who find themselves destitute in Leeds. What would he say about the role of the public in supporting refugees?
It’s a very, very good question. My wife and I set up Abigail Housing ten years ago because we recognised that there was a gap in services in our country. Specifically, there was a gap of housing provision after asylum seekers have been granted leave to remain. And I do very much think it is the government’s job to provide housing for refugees.
What the government is doing in this country is that they’re processing asylum applications and, for those that they find have a legitimate asylum application, the first thing that happens is that the applicant is given 28 days notice to leave their Home Office accommodation. Yet, in many local authority areas, there are no specialist services at all to help people manage that situation.
Our charity came into being because we saw there was this a gap in services. We took the initiative. We’re just local citizens. Nobody in local or central government was prompting us to do this. I have to say that when we went to talk to people who worked in the Refugee and Asylum Team (which now doesn’t exist anymore) at Leeds City Council, they were very enthusiastic. Interestingly, that service has since been decommissioned. So, there is a real lack of state provision for people in that situation. I think it’s disgraceful, but I think that the political climate in this country is such that it’s quite difficult for government to deal with the problem. So, no, I don’t think the public should have to house refugees…
What’s stopping you hosting an asylum seeker in your home? Should more people house refugees in their homes? Or is that the government’s job to look after vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!