Blog post by Helen Baillot, a researcher and consultant for the Institute for Global Health and Development (IGHD) at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. IGHD is a multi-disciplinary centre for research and postgraduate education that addresses contemporary health and development challenges in low and middle-income countries and their connection to global systems and trends.
For many years, I worked for Scottish Refugee Council, advising and advocating on behalf of people who had claimed asylum. One of the hardest aspects of this work was meeting daily with people who had been refused asylum. Many of them were living in destitution as the direct result of Home Office policy, unable to work or access housing or financial support. This was hard enough. But what struck my colleagues and I most forcefully was the negative impact upon people’s wellbeing from living, often for extended periods, in legal uncertainty. Without a grant of leave to remain, people felt stranded and forgotten, and were fearful for the future.
In 2015, I joined the Institute for Global Health and Development (IGHD) at Queen Margaret University as a Research Assistant for the evaluation of Scotland’s Holistic Integration Service. This partnership project, led by Scottish Refugee Council, provided advice, advocacy, access to English language assessment and classes; and employability support to newly granted refugees in Scotland from 2013 to 2016. A key part of my role, working alongside Alison Strang and Elodie Mignard, was to conduct a series of interviews with people who had used the service. All of them had already been recognised as in need of international protection and granted some form of leave to remain. I therefore looked forward to researching the more ‘positive’ end of the asylum process.
My initial optimism at the prospect of meeting people who, rather than struggling to validate their experiences to a hostile Home Office, were engaged in rebuilding their lives in Scotland, was not entirely misplaced. Every person I spoke to as part of the research had much to say about their aspirations for life in a city that they were pleased to call home. The Holistic Integration Service was built by its managers, Wafa Shaheen and Joe Brady, upon principles of resilience and a recognition of refugees’ own agency, rather than upon assumptions of vulnerability. People’s determination to be independent, to rely upon themselves and contribute to society, came through in every interview.
Yet as our evaluation reports and recently published research article show, people’s transition in legal status from ‘tolerated’ asylum seeker to ‘accepted’ refugee continues to be fraught with systemic difficulty.
Although refugees do have the right to work, few are able to enter the labour market immediately. When people are first granted leave to remain, they have 28 days to ‘move on’ from Home Office administered asylum support to the mainstream benefits and housing system. Delays to the payment of benefits, misplaced paperwork and struggles with benefits sanctions characterised many people’s first interactions with the UK benefits system.
Refugees will almost by definition be left homeless at the end of the 28-day period. Yet this entirely predictable homelessness continues to be dealt with by local authorities on an unplanned, emergency basis. 86% of people who used the Holistic Integration Service presented as homeless to Glasgow City Council when their asylum support came to an end. Four of our twenty-five interviewees were not even provided the most basic of temporary accommodation at this stage, having been told to ‘stay with friends’ as no temporary accommodation was available in the city.
Moving across the city between asylum accommodation, temporary accommodation, and, for those who obtained it, more permanent homes, brought significant disruption to people’s lives. While those of our interviewees who were living in permanent accommodation spoke of feeling safe, happy and welcome in their new areas; people living in temporary furnished flats and hostels frequently evoked experiences, sometimes severe, of racism and abuse.
The transition from asylum seeker to refugee should in theory empower new refugees with access to a far greater spectrum of rights than was previously the case. Our work indicates that it can, instead, disempower people, at least in the initial months after their change in legal status.
In the key domains of housing and benefits, even the most resilient of people struggled to realise their newly acquired rights without mediation from professionals. One young man had his benefits stopped by the DWP as he had been absent from a mandatory English class. When he explained to his local Jobcentre that he had missed the class as he had to move home to a new homelessness hostel, these ‘sanctions’ were not lifted. Only when an Integration Adviser from Scottish Refugee Council provided the same explanation were his benefits were reinstated.
In the longer term, people’s aspirations to gain or re-gain skilled employment, or set up a new business, were harder to achieve than many people initially imagined. Only 9% of the people using the Holistic Integration Service were recorded as having gained paid employment twelve months after being granted leave to remain. Most were in low-skilled, precarious employment that did not match their previous educational and professional experience. Pressure from the DWP to accept any job, no matter what a person’s level of experience and qualification; combined with a personal desire to move away as quickly as possible from a situation of dependency often combined to disrupt people’s educational and vocational trajectories.
Moreover, the commonly held assumption that employment will bring around greater integration through interaction with receiving communities and opportunities to speak English was not always validated. I asked one interviewee who was working in a warehouse whether he had been able to meet Scottish people through his job. He explained that this had not been his experience as ‘[Scottish people] don’t work in the packing area’. The nationality group who were relatively most successful in finding work were Chinese, but all were recorded as working in Chinese-owned businesses, and few were confident in English.
Finally, I met many people for whom past experiences, and the ongoing pressure of maintaining families back home, continued to strongly influence their ability to move on with their lives in Scotland. One man had waited for twelve years for a decision on his asylum application. Although he had held a highly-skilled job in his own country, he couldn’t envisage taking the time to re-train in Scotland because of the many years he had already ‘wasted’ in enforced economic inactivity.
A woman who was supporting family members back home explained that she struggled to send remittances and to meet her financial obligations in a country where the cost of living was so high:
“You know people back home they don’t understand the way we live here, they think we are in a mine where money you are picking it from the streets … they don’t understand that … it is very hard …”
I began this post by explaining that at the outset of my work on this project, I assumed that interviewing new refugees would be far easier than working with people who had been refused asylum. It was, in many ways. Nothing can compare to the despair of people who live every day with the threat of being forcibly removed to a country where they cannot see a future for themselves. But data from Scotland’s Holistic Integration Service shows that, as a society, we still have a long road to travel if we want to live up to governmental rhetoric that promotes integration and social cohesion. New refugees may in theory be able to enjoy many of the same rights as other UK residents, but systemic barriers continue to interrupt their integration journeys. In this context, the voluntary sector’s role in plugging these gaps and highlighting systems failures continues to be of vital importance.
To the 25 people who agreed to be interviewed as part of the evaluation process; volunteer interviewers Jane Cullingworth and Ulrik Westen-Jensen; and to the Scottish Refugee Council Integration Advisers, past and present, who entered so much of the evaluation data into their casework management system.
Photographs: © Scottish Refugee Council
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.