The shocking and profound impact of seeing the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for the first time is something that will never leave me. I visited a couple of years ago in a previous role and was struck, first by the horror of the situations they are fleeing, then by the certainty of what they most want to happen next. Not usually a dangerous trek across the Mediterranean to Europe, but to rebuild their lives, at home, as soon as possible. In safety, surrounded by the families and friends they have grown up with. It is a feeling we can all relate to and empathise with.
So on the eve of World Homelessness Day, the scale of the crisis and many similar stories is brought home to us as we talk, globally, about the millions of people who are on the move because they are escaping conflict, humanitarian disaster or persecution. Our natural instinct is to want to help.
When the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK had a “moral responsibility” to house 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, there were questions about whether this offer was truly in the British spirit. There was also a view that the public sentiment of #RefugeesWelcome might be very broad but ultimately paper thin. In particular, the crisis has raised a key question that some of our supporters and others have asked: while the UK has a housing crisis decades in the making, how do we house thousands of refugees?
As the many people who have been in touch with offers of support know, we’ve been helping people struggling with bad housing and homelessness for decades and Shelter’s advice and support services aim to be there for everyone who needs us. We don’t take a view on the numbers the government allows into the country. We also don’t distinguish, as Home Secretary Theresa May did in her speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this week, between deserving and undeserving refugees – on the basis that some have used up every resource they have to make their way to Europe. After all, we know all too well that homelessness can happen to anyone. A sudden illness or job loss can be all it takes to leave you battling, with ever increasing desperation, to get and keep a roof over your head. But Shelter is here to make sure that no-one has to go through this experience on their own.
For the 20,000 refugees the UK will take in via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) scheme, the Government says it’s extending funding for councils to “assist” with the costs of helping Syrian refugees. The intention is for this commitment to give local authorities the certainty they need to ensure that vulnerable refugees get help, whether that’s for housing or integration into local communities. Under the VPR scheme, the refugees will be granted five years’ humanitarian protection, which critically includes access to public funds and probably more importantly, permission to work and contribute.
The additional government support, coming largely from the international development budget, should provide some reassurance to those who worry that resettling refugees comes at the cost of library closures or congestion in other public services already feeling the strain of austerity.
When it comes to housing, it’s a complex picture. Our decades long failure to build enough affordable homes, allied with the selloff of social rented homes and growing waiting lists, almost certainly means that most of the refugees will be housed in private rented housing where they may encounter some of the nation’s least reputable landlords. No wonder some campaign groups have raised a call to action for thousands of private landlords to come forward with offers of quality housing for refugees. This won’t be easy to achieve because landlords would need to agree to rent being paid at the Local Housing Allowance Rate (of housing benefit for private renters), which is often below the market rate in some areas.
Shelter offers support and assistance to refugees, including helping people who have been granted asylum to make sure that they are able to find a place to live. Asylum seekers not coming through the VPR route generally have their housing needs met through a different process, where those thought to have legitimate claims for asylum, who are unable to support themselves, are placed into accommodation across the UK (apart from London) and given an allowance from the government to live on while their claims are considered. If someone came to Shelter for help and they had not yet had their application assessed, we would help sign-post them to a specialist organisation such as Asylum Aid or directly to the Home Office.
Shelter will continue to offer support and assistance to everyone who needs us. The failure of successive governments to build enough homes means we would have a housing crisis even if there was no immigration or refugee crisis at all. So crucially, we will continue to demand that this government commit to investing in the genuinely affordable homes that so many ordinary families are crying out for. You can find out more about our campaign here.