“I was crippled with fear,” writes a young man, known only under the pseudonym of Isaac. “When I was in the house, I spent most of my time in my bedroom. It was a very hard time.”
Isaac is among 158 people who have recently contributed to a survey highlighting the housing experiences of migrants in the UK. Whilst seeking asylum, he recalls living in a "rat-infested" area in Bradford and says he was in fear of being attacked by one of his housemates.
Pest infestations, broken furniture, overcrowding and challenges with housemates were all among issues reported in the survey, carried out by academics at Leeds Beckett University last month. Participants were asked about their housing circumstances (of any form, Government-provided or otherwise) when they first came to the UK and three in five of those who responded said they had experienced problems.
Most common in relation to the accommodation itself were issues accessing the internet, poor heating and dirtiness. Just over a third said they did not feel safe in the area they lived in and of those living with strangers, half said they felt they could not be themselves around their housemates and 20 per cent claimed they were not treated fairly by them.
The responses have informed a comic strip entitled Home Truths and designed by visual storyteller Karrie Fransman. It is hoped the resource will shine a light on the “inadequate” living arrangements that many migrants face.
Comments from Isaac are included in the comic. The now 26-year-old left Uganda in 2010 to come to the UK as an international student and study for his A-Levels. When he first arrived in the country, he was living in London with a British family under a homestay arrangement.
Isaac then moved to Bradford to study at university, later enrolling to complete a PhD after graduation. But when he left that two years later and claimed asylum, his housing struggles began. Whilst the Government provides accommodation to asylum seekers who do not have any other way of supporting themselves, housing is offered on a ‘no choice’ basis, meaning people cannot select where they live unless in exceptional circumstances.
Isaac says the Home Office planned for him to move away from his support network in Bradford, where he had then lived for nearly six years. “Leaving would have made it extremely difficult to receive the essential support from friends that I needed for my asylum claim to be successful,” he reflects. “I was very worried about the financial, social and emotional consequences of such an action and the inability to prepare my case effectively.”
After several petitions, Isaac says he was able to stay in Bradford and allocated a room in a house. But his relief was shortlived. “It was in a very unsafe area and very rough and rat-infested. I was living with three other asylum seekers who had been waiting for a response on their asylum claim for many years. Unfortunately, one of them became a heroin and crack addict and would invite friends over regularly to partake in taking [drugs]. It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to safely and peacefully remain there.
“I was in a constant state of fear...One of my housemates, for fear of being reported to the police, would often be paranoid and bang on my room door, threatening to physically attack me. I was afraid of being attacked and having my property stolen.”
Isaac raised concerns with LGBT migrant charity Micro Rainbow and was moved to a safe house. The organisation is one of those listed in the Home Truths comic strip and researcher Dr Glen Jankowski, senior lecturer in the Leeds School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett, hopes the study findings will encourage people to donate to organisations that offer support to migrants or back campaigns that aim to improve conditions.
“Housing is a very basic necessity and if you don’t have that, then you’re not able to build your life in other ways,” Dr Jankowski says. “We know migrants contribute enormously to our culture and our economy but we’re not facilitating that if we aren’t providing even basic accommodation.”
The Leeds Beckett research is not the only work to be done in the field. The Children’s Society has also published a report showing the results of a survey that looked at young refugee and asylum seekers’ experiences in the UK. The survey was designed by Stand Together 4 Refugees (ST4R) in Leeds, a group of young refugees and asylum seekers themselves, aged 15 to 23.
A total of 61 young people responded, having been asked about any problems they’d experienced, what had helped and what they think needs to change to make things better for young refugees and asylum seekers. A number of themes came out of the research, which has also been captured in a booklet created by members of ST4R.
One of those was living circumstances, with two fifths of respondents saying they had experienced a problem with housing (of any form, Government-provided or otherwise) or having nowhere to live.
Several described basic amenities in their National Asylum Support Service accommodation as being in disrepair, with some saying they had been without electricity, heating or hot water. People also reported problems with housing after they were granted refugee status, saying they struggled to work out how to find accommodation, pay bills and open bank accounts.
ST4R member Winta, who requested to be referred to only by her first name, worked on the housing page of the booklet, which claims unaccompanied youngsters need more help, including with skills to enable them to live independently.
Winta, now 19, arrived in the country from Eritrea in 2017 and was housed with a foster family. They have supported her through the asylum process, helped her to learn English and have also been preparing her for her own house by showing her the ropes with paying bills, managing money, shopping and cooking. “They have helped me to adjust to a new life over here,” she says. “Without foster care, it would be very hard. It’s a new country with a new language.”
Winta, who lives in Leeds, says friends who have been living in independent accommodation have often felt “scared”. “Because they don’t know how to do things like paying bills, cooking, cleaning, going online to sort things out like banking. It’s very hard”, she elaborates. “It’s a sad feeling to think of them like that. They don’t know how to do things and then they feel stressed and sad.”
The next steps for ST4R will be to look at ways it can work to improve housing for other young people. “Our new research has shown many young refugee and migrant children are having to live in accommodation that is woefully inadequate,” says Amra Bibi, service manager at The Children’s Society. “It is vital that accommodation issues are addressed and these vulnerable young people are given a warm and safe environment, with Wi-Fi access, to call home.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute receive free, fully furnished accommodation, with their essential living needs whilst their claims are being assessed. When issues do occur in our accommodation, we work swiftly to ensure they are resolved as soon as possible.”
In response to the Leeds Beckett University survey, the department added: “We do not accept the claims contained within this report, which appears to be based upon a statistically small sample size, including some that appear to reside in private, rented accommodation.”
Visit glenjankowski.wordpress.com to see the Leeds Beckett research and for the ST4R study, visit www.childrenssociety.org.uk
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