How is the refugee crisis affecting local communities? We often look at the ‘big picture’ on Debating Europe, talking to national and European politicians. But the real impact of Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War is going to be at the local level. Cities and municipal governments are going to have to house people, provide healthcare, education, and support integration into society.
So, in order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we’re launching 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.
The first city we’re looking at is Bristol, in the South-West of England. Bristol officially launched as a City of Sanctuary in June 2011, making it clear that “sanctuary seekers should be welcomed, and that their contribution to society should be celebrated.”
How has that worked in practice? Well, between January and March 2016, a total of 14 Syrian refugees were re-homed in Bristol. That may not seem like much (and it’s not – the UK as a whole has only taken 1,602 refugees from Syria, and is unlikely to meet its target of resettling 20,000 refugees – out of a total Syrian refugee population of almost 5 million – by the year 2020). However, the big question is where to rehouse even the dozen or so refugees that have been accepted. Simply put: Bristol has run out of affordable housing.
Almost 10,000 people are waiting for a council home in Bristol, but of all the properties under council ownership only 41 are available for rent. This is despite the fact that Bristol has one of the largest retained social housing estates in the country, with around 27,500 social housing units (running from houses to flats of different sizes). To make matters worse, the total stock of council homes is actually shrinking, because of (among other things) right-to-buy legislation.
Bristol City Council has long admitted that there is a serious social housing crisis in the city. But they point out that refugees are not causing the crisis, and because the number of refugees is so small relative to the scale of the problem, they aren’t even seriously exacerbating it. So, is the real issue not the refugees, but rather the lack of social housing?
Curious to know more about social housing in Bristol? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
We’ve had hundreds of comments on this issue, but the comments from Catherine and Gary are fairly representative, blaming migrants and asylum seekers for “jumping the queue” and taking away social housing from local people.
To get a response, we spoke to Anthony Negus, a Liberal Democrat Councillor for Cotham Ward in Bristol. He is currently Chair of the Bristol City Council Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Commission (which reviews, among other things, housing delivery in Bristol), and previously held the portfolio for Housing and Regeneration as a member of the Mayor’s Cabinet. What would he say to these comments?
Well, I think there will be pressure as a result of people coming into Bristol of almost any status. Bristol doesn’t just have a massive affordable housing problem, it has a general housing problem which is actually working its way through the private rental sector and pushing up rents in that sector as well. And that is driving some people – who might in the past have been able to afford renting privately – to need affordable housing which isn’t available.
I’m very pleased that during the administration of which I was a part, Bristol became a City of Sanctuary, and I feel very strongly about Bristol being open to asylum seekers. However, I regularly get lobbied to sign things and make it our first priority dealing with rehousing refugees, and I always point out the pragmatic truth. However laudable this is, and however much – as I do – we want to do this, our ability is restricted by the number of housing units that we can actually bring to play on this.
We have a massive homelessness problem in Bristol, and we have a problem of trying to house families that have become homeless. I think we’re doing well under the circumstances, but if you look at the figures coldly, we’re not doing well. We are struggling to resolve the housing issue. And if we’re already struggling with a population that is growing naturally from other parts of this county, then we’re also going to struggle with refugees as well. Our hands are tied by the situation we have inherited over the last 30-40 years.
Do refugees take away social housing opportunities from locals? Or are they being used as a convenient scapegoat? Is the current model of social housing anyway unsustainable? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reaction!