Our clients are bearing the brunt of the government’s callous treatment of migrant women, years after my own painful experience as a refugee.
When I saw news reports of the government’s recent change in practice, allowing refugees only 7 days’ notice to leave Home Office-funded accommodation after receiving refugee status, I was immediately taken back to my own painful experience when I gained refugee status in the UK several years ago. Writing in Inside Housing today, I explain how – at a time when I was vulnerable and needed help – I was instead handed a sleeping bag and told to look for a homeless shelter; it was a terrible time in my life that I will never forget.
In my role today as Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Hibiscus, I see on a daily basis how the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies continue to drive marginalised migrant women into homelessness and destitution – and therefore into the path of abuse, exploitation, poor mental health and criminalisation. The new 7-day ‘move on’ policy is the latest example of a truly shocking hardening of hearts against some of the most vulnerable people living in our country.
Through our Safe Housing for Migrant Women project, funded by the Oak Foundation, we are working with migrant women with lived experience of homelessness and unsafe or unsuitable housing to encourage improvements in practice on the ground and to influence policy makers to introduce reforms that would increase housing options for migrant women, rather than taking options away.
Two of our clients, Alma and Tiia (not their real names), share below how this change in policy is affecting them and their families right now.
Alma is a trafficking victim and an asylum seeker. She has three children; the youngest is four months old, underweight and undergoing medical assessment. Three months ago Alma was granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK for one year. Although she has not received refugee status (her claim is still being processed), this means that she is no longer entitled to stay in NASS accommodation. She recently received an eviction notice giving her 7 days to leave her accommodation.
Alma’s Hibiscus project worker contacted the local authority where she lives, who accommodated the family in a hotel for a week, with nothing except a bed and TV, not even a refrigerator. Alma had to buy bottles of milk to feed her child; once the bottles were opened, if not finished, she had to throw them away.
The family were then moved to a shared house, where they currently remain. The conditions are very bad. Their room is smelly, the mattresses and carpets are dirty and there are mice in the room. The mice have been eating their food, especially the children’s cereals. The children have developed skin rashes and have been seen by the health visitor who is due to make a report to the housing department. The teacher of Alma’s oldest child has asked Alma to seek medical advice in case her child’s skin condition is contagious.
This situation is causing significant stress to the whole family; Alma is already on anti-depressants. Alma has not been told when she will be given suitable accommodation, but her key worker has been told that clients are not usually moved from emergency accommodation for at least six weeks. Alma adds:
“The conditions that my children and I have been living since we have been evicted from NASS have affected my mental and physical wellbeing. While I was in hotel for 1 week, I had no fridge to store my baby’s milk, I had to wash baby’s clothes and others in the sink by hand. There was nothing to hang the wet clothes to dry apart from a single chair. The hotel was not suitable for me and my family even for a single day.
“After a week I was moved to a room of a shared house, again a very dirty room, and no baby cot. and I am sharing a bathroom and toilet with 6 other families. I have no idea how long I will be kept here.”
Tiia received refugee status this summer and her Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) letter shortly afterwards. She was then evicted from her Home Office accommodation with 10 days’ notice. Her Hibiscus project worker contacted the council who said they would assess her claim in October. They then agreed to speak to her in September but she was assessed as not in priority need and was at high risk of street homelessness. Fortunately someone at Tiia’s church agreed to provide her with a room while she waits for her benefits claim to be approved so that she can move into private rented accommodation.
Even though Tiia was extremely proactive and applied for benefits as soon as she received her BRP, she did not receive her first payment until mid-September. With the abrupt termination of her NASS support (both accommodation and financial) and the council not offering a housing assessment until well after her eviction date, there was a high chance that Tiia would have ended up rough sleeping if she hadn’t been able to find someone to stay with. Tiia’s project worker comments:
“This experience has been extremely difficult for Tiia, who had hoped that once she received her status she would be supported to re-establish her life in the UK, but instead feels like she was tossed aside and left to fend for herself.”
As highlighted in my article today, our previous research has revealed the significant barriers to safe and suitable housing experienced by migrant women, how this puts them at risk, and the severe impact on their health, wellbeing and ability to rebuild their lives and those of their families. Later this autumn we will be publishing the first report of the Safe Housing for Migrant Women project which will look in greater depth at the wide range of housing challenges faced by migrant women, drawing on insights from the women we work with and our frontline practitioners, and statistics from our own caseload. Click here to read our parliamentary briefing.
We have also added our voice to those opposing the government’s recent introduction of regulations to give temporary exemption from licensing requirements for Houses in Multiple Occupation that are used for asylum accommodation. Read our parliamentary briefing here.
Instead of retrograde measures like this, we have called on the government to invest in suitable social housing in communities for asylum seekers, taking a gender-informed and trauma-informed approach to meeting the needs of women (including victims of trafficking and gender-based violence), pregnant women and mothers with children, and increasing the availability of women-only safe house accommodation and support.
We have also called for the Home Office and asylum accommodation providers to work with women with relevant lived experience and specialist organisations to co-design and co-deliver training and guidance for all agencies that deliver accommodation and support to migrant women and their families; and for local authority housing and social care teams, to ensure a gender informed, trauma-informed and culturally competent approach that respects the rights and meets the needs of migrant women and their dependants. We are working with our clients and other frontline organisations to gather further evidence in support of change.