Monday, 10 April 2017

A Welcoming Wales?: Realities of Refugees Lives

(Pic : Wales Online)

Europe is currently going through its worst migration crisis since the end of the Second World War, and Wales is doing its part to shelter those fleeing the Syria in particular.

Although the refugee crisis isn't getting the same coverage as 2015, last week the Communities Committee published its report into refugees and asylum seekers (pdf).

Immigration is non-devolved, but the Welsh Government are responsible for essential services provided to refugees and asylum-seekers like education, health and other forms of support.
There are estimates there could be anything between 6,000-10,000 refugees settled in Wales - equivalent to a town the size of Caernarfon.

A report in today's Guardian suggests five-times more asylum-seekers are dispersed to poorer areas of the UK than wealthier areas, while both Cardiff and Swansea rank in the top 10 local authorities housing asylum-seekers. So it's not a case of Wales "doing more" - we're clearly pulling, if not exceeding, our weight on this without any extra resources from Westminster.

I can't say I agree with all of the report's recommendations – public sector internships and treating asylum seekers and refugees as home students for instance. However, even if the report is out of step with the electorate's opinion on immigration, as is the case with any discussion of the subject it's brought out the worst in people despite the report itself being on mainly solid ground.

The Committee made 19 recommendations. In summary:

  • The Welsh Government should recover (from the UK Home Office) any additional costs resulting from the Immigration Act 2016.
  • The Welsh Government should "dispel myths and inaccuracies" about refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Some services should be improved, or extended to, refugees and asylum-seekers including: concessionary bus travel, English language lessons, access to higher and further education, access to legal advice, housing complaints procedures, mental health services for unaccompanied children.
  • Urgent negotiations should take place with the UK Home Office on asylum accommodation reforms before contracts are renewed in 2019. Also, asylum landlords should be covered by the Rent Smart Wales registration scheme.
  • The Welsh Government should "do more" (no specifics) to find suitable housing for those awarded refugee status, and should discuss extending the 28 day "move-on" period for refugees (after their status has been granted) to 56 days.
  • A Guardianship Service should be established for unaccompanied child refugees.
  • Wales should aim to become a "Nation of Sanctuary".

How the Asylum & Refugee System Works
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

Once somebody arrives in the UK and claims asylum they're moved to nominated asylum accommodation and receive £36.95 a week (Section 95 support). They can't claim benefits but they can't work either.

If their claim is accepted, they gain refugee status and have 28 days to find their own accommodation, get a National Insurance number and either apply for benefits or find work.

If their claim is rejected, they have to leave the UK. They can apply for accommodation and £35.39 a week in financial support (Section 4 support) if they face hardships, but still have to prove they're trying to leave. It's also a criminal offence for landlords to rent to someone who's been denied leave to remain.

The system for "vulnerable" people fleeing Syria is much less hassle in comparison to "mainstream" asylum-seekers. People entering under this scheme have protected status for five years and are immediately eligible for services like education and employment. 397 people have been resettled in Wales under the Syrian scheme - per-head this is higher than England but lower than Scotland and Northern Ireland.

This "two-tier" asylum system – a bespoke one for Syrians, another for the rest - was criticised, with a belief it causes tensions between immigrant communities.

Although there's praise for how the Welsh Government responded to the refugee crisis, there's been criticism that refugee plans aren't fit for purpose. Swansea Council even went so far as to describe it as "weak", while there was also criticism of the emphasis on providing direct support to refugees, instead of supporting the communities they're resettled in.

The Committee were impressed by measures taken by the Scottish Government, which includes funding integration, extending youth concessionary schemes to young refugees and provide extra support for professionals.


Community cohesion (English: good relations between immigrants and residents) are vital for any new group, but particularly refugees and asylum-seekers. The Welsh Government have a cohesion strategy, but it was felt it was too focused on Cardiff and reacting to hate crime instead of addressing root causes.

An important part is understanding what immigrants can offer Welsh society. There are no skills audits of refugees, nor any strategy for refugees to acquire new skills. Nonetheless, the "Welcome to Wales" pack offered to new arrivals is well-received.

Community cohesion is hampered by a lack of access to services, particularly transport. An example was given of refugees and asylum-seekers in Newport being keen to volunteer, but unable to afford to travel.

Language barriers are another issue, with English classes over-subscribed and only run in certain areas, often by volunteers for a few hours a week. Meanwhile, there were worries over how refugees and asylum-seekers were depicted in the media, with immigration a major issue in the EU referendum and the subsequent rise in hate crimes.

Life through (and after) the Asylum Process
(Pic : BBC Wales)

One of the big concerns arising from the inquiry was the standard of asylum housing. Clearsprings Ready Homes have a five-year, £119million contract with the UK Home Office to provide asylum accommodation in Wales, but the quality of the housing provided and ineffective complaints procedures have been condemned, with some asylum-seekers said to be worried that complaining could prejudice their asylum applications.

There were calls for any new asylum housing contract to be awarded in Wales
and the Committee believed the "complex relationship" between Welsh and UK governments on asylum housing was leading to a lack of responsibility.

Not all asylum-seekers go through health screenings after arrival, meaning those with long-term conditions being dispersed without knowing what their medical needs are. Some third sector bodies argued that legal advice should be offered "from day one" too, with services impacted by cuts to legal aid and general asylum support.

As mentioned earlier, once an asylum-seeker has their refugee status confirmed (unless they're entering via the vulnerable Syrian scheme) they have 28 days to support themselves ("move-on period"), or have to leave if their claim is rejected. More than 1,000 people in Newport and Cardiff have become destitute as a result, turning to the likes of the Red Cross for support.

There were calls for the Welsh Government to expand eligibility criteria for their discretionary crisis fund to include destitute asylum-seekers – as in Northern Ireland – while local authorities should class all new refugees as "vulnerable" to access housing (currently only a few councils in Wales do). As a result, the "move-on period" should match the statutory period for councils to find accommodation for the homeless in Wales – 56 days.

Asylum-seekers aren't allowed to work, but refugees are. Evidence suggests the skills of refugees aren't properly recognised by Job Centre Plus, and refugees should be encouraged to get any qualifications they've achieved abroad recognised in Wales and the UK. Similarly, refugees are treated as international students which, due to costs, places barriers on attending higher education – though specialist training programmes are provided for refugees who are doctors to meet English language standards to practice medicine in the UK.

Child Refugees

There are reportedly only 27 unaccompanied child refugees in Wales, though many will be moved elsewhere to be reunited with family members. The relatively low number was said to be due to the UK Home Office's dispersal method.

Witnesses want Wales to establish a Guardianship Service to provide independent support and advocacy services to child refugees which, based on a Scottish example, could cost £200,000 a year for every 200 children – but this could save money on services elsewhere. The Welsh Government cut funding for an existing refugee child advocacy service (Tros Gynnal), with a new service reportedly set to be launched this month (....minus details).

For young people who arrive without documentation, the immigration authorities need to determine how old they are as children are eligible for additional protections. There are 84 pages of guidance for age determination and it was said to be "totally unrealistic" for social workers to use that to undertake assessments.

Child refugees are also likely to have suffered serious mental stress. This is often due to sexual assault, with a study of unaccompanied children suggesting 50% had sexually-transmitted diseases.

In order to uphold the UN Convention on the Rights of Children (UNCRC), there were calls to properly assess the mental health of child refugees after they arrive and provide training and resources for foster carers and health professionals who may work with them.


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