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The Refugees Turned Out on to Freezing Streets to Clear Rishi Sunak’s Asylum Backlog

The Prime Minister’s belated rush to clear his legacy asylum backlog is forcing refugees into destitution on Glasgow’s freezing streets, reports Nicola Kelly

A homeless man on the streets of Glasgow, September 2023. Photo: Gerard Ferry/Alamy Live News

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It’s just before 10am and a queue has formed outside the Simon Community access hub in Glasgow’s city centre. People stamp their feet and blow on their fingers to try and thaw out. It’s minus five outside and many have spent the night huddled in parks or walking the streets, with temperatures dropping as low as minus seven.

Among those waiting for help at the charity’s doors are refugees who have recently been granted refugee status as part of Rishi Sunak’s drive to clear the legacy asylum backlog. The move, which this week resulted in the Prime Minister receiving a rebuke from the official statistics watchdog for making a series of false claims about it, has had the side effect of sending thousands of refugees out into a system that is unable to cope with them all at once.

As a result, within days of receiving their positive decision, many of those in the queue in Glasgow had been evicted from their accommodation and forced into destitution.

“The day I got my status, that is when my problems really started”, said Mohamed, a recently-granted refugee from Sudan. “I waited two years for this decision, and I was so happy when I got it, but now I am out on the streets.” Less than two weeks after being granted leave to remain, Mohamed was evicted from his hotel and forced to sleep rough. “I went to a mosque nearby, but it was very full. When it closed at around midnight, I was walking, just walking, all night, trying not to be so cold.”

After a brief pause over the Christmas period, evictions started again this week. Frontline workers at the hub in Glasgow have already seen a spike in the numbers in need of emergency accommodation. “The Home Office’s plans to clear its self-made backlog is leading to unprecedented levels of harm,” said Simon Community Programme Director Annika Joy. “We’re deeply concerned that the Government’s failure to run a humane and efficient asylum system will mean charities and the caring people of Glasgow have to pick up the pieces.” 

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At the front desk, Hazem, a frontline support worker, is busy rifling through photocopied identity documents and letters from the Home Office. “Every day, we see many, many people coming in who have just got their status, but who are homeless. Some are living in Glasgow, but they’re also coming here from Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, even London to find somewhere to stay. The problem is, if they’ve filled out a homeless application at a different local authority, we can’t do anything for them. We can only offer them a ticket to go back there.”

Many frontline workers fear this obligation will mean more refugees fall through the net, passed from charity to charity and council to council, without the resources required to support them. “We can’t do anything, legally, other than passing them on to other services,” said Hazem.

Nearby, the Scottish Refugee Council’s caseworking team are also struggling to cope with an increase in housing enquiries from newly-granted refugees. “We’ve seen a doubling in the number of people presenting as homeless, with around forty people a week coming in now,” says Gary Christie, Head of Policy. “The Home Office knew this would happen; it’s about getting people off their books. We need much better crisis planning to mitigate the risks of homelessness.”

Paul Sweeney, Scottish Labour MSP, echoes these concerns. “Since the mass decisions on claims started coming through, I’m seeing an uptick in the number of people calling my office with housing enquiries. We engage with the asylum support team at [Glasgow City] council to help them, but there’s no council housing and a shortage of housing stock here. Meanwhile, there’s 1,395 empty homes in Glasgow. It’s about bringing them back into use.”

He added: “We keep trying to engage meaningfully with the UK Government, to plan for a transition from asylum status to refugee status which doesn’t cause mass destitution, but they’ve consistently been found wanting.”

Shelter Scotland Director, Alison Watson, said that, while the Home Office policies have exacerbated Glasgow’s housing crisis, they are not the root cause. “A serious and long-standing shortage of social homes is at the heart of the housing emergency in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland. Despite that, in its budget last month, the Scottish Government delivered brutal cuts to the budget for social homes; a decision they know will lead to the housing emergency deteriorating even further. The housing emergency exists in Glasgow because of choices made at Westminster and Holyrood, not because people have come to the city fleeing violence and persecution.”

Later that day, as night fell and temperatures dropped once again, the Simon Community street team prepared to face the cold. Alex, an outreach worker, said his main concern was the numbers of destitute refugees who remain unknown to them.

“I wonder if the numbers of refugees out there are even higher than we realise because they’re rough sleeping under the radar,” he said. “The tendency among refugees is to try and be invisible, probably because of their experience of violence and racism. A lot of them sleep in parks, rather than in the centre of town now. We’d just remind members of the public to tell us so we know where they are and we can offer the help they need.”

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times, “The pressure on the asylum system has continued to grow, which is why we have taken immediate action to speed up processing times and cut costs for taxpayers. 

“To minimise the risk of homelessness, we encourage individuals to make their onward plans as soon as possible after receiving their decision, whether that is leaving the UK following a refusal, or taking steps to integrate in the UK following a grant.

“We offer ample support once claims have been granted through Migrant Help, access to the labour market and advice on applying for Universal Credit.”

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