By Maurice Wren
Evictions are a highly sensitive topic in England, where we have a dysfunctional housing sector and a landlord-tenant legal framework that does little to protect people from arbitrary actions. Nevertheless, when lockdown measures were implemented in March this year, one thing was clear – evicting people during a global pandemic was unsafe. It put them at risk of contracting covid, and it increased the risk of transmission in our communities.
In March, the government announced a three month pause on evictions for private and social tenants, and a parallel three month pause on evictions for those who had just been granted refugee status and were still living in asylum accommodation. These policies were to be reviewed in June. The priority was the health and safety of the public. Everyone was told they must 'stay home and save lives'.
In early June, housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced a two month extension to the eviction ban for private and social tenants. With covid still presenting a serious health risk in our communities, it was deemed unsafe to allow evictions to take place. So at the Refugee Council, we expected a parallel announcement to protect the health and safety of refugees in asylum accommodation. It never came.
Newly-recognised refugees face challenges finding somewhere to live at the best of times and frequently experience homelessness and destitution. They are given just 28 days' notice before they need to vacate their accommodation, and will have no savings or alternative income at that point, because people seeking asylum are banned from working and Universal Credit takes five weeks to be paid. This extremely challenging task will be even more difficult to achieve in the current environment where many support services are operating at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
We have spent the past month asking the Home Office for clarity on when they intend to start evicting refugees, and what exact process they plan to follow. We have been met with a wall of silence. Just last week, the Home Office finally confirmed they do intend to begin evicting refugees imminently, but the details of this process are astonishingly vague.
The prolonged silence on an issue of such importance to the lives of refugees cannot be justified.Many refugees will be living with the anxiety of not knowing whether they will have somewhere to live in July. In normal times, this would be unacceptable. During a global pandemic, where BAME individuals are at particularly high risk of dying from the virus, it carries imminent and extremely adverse consequences for the safety of refugees. It will also hamper progress made on reducing the rate of virus transmission in our communities.
Sadly, this is not the first example of the government subjecting refugees and people seeking asylum to second-class treatment during the pandemic. When lockdown began, recipients of Universal Credit were granted a £20 uplift to their weekly payments to help meet the additional costs of living under lockdown. The refugee sector repeatedly called on the government to provide the same to people seeking asylum. For weeks, the Home Office ignored urgent calls from the refugee sector, and people seeking asylum struggled to survive on meagre budgets of less than £6 per day. In early June, nearly three months into lockdown, the Home Office announced a paltry £1.85 uplift to the weekly budget.
We cannot say that we live in a fair society unless all vulnerable people are given the support they need in times of crisis. The government accepts that it is not safe to evict private and social tenants during this fragile recovery phase, so there is no justification for evicting refugees.
We call on the home secretary to reverse the decision to begin evicting refugees from asylum accommodation while the ban on evicting private and social tenants remains in place. However, if she insists on pressing ahead with this policy, she must clarify exactly what measures she will put in place to mitigate the risk of refugees becoming homeless and contracting the virus. This must happen without delay. Whatever the ministers say, their actions suggest that some lives still don't matter.
Maurice Wren is chief executive of the Refugee Council.
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