When it comes to states’ response to the refugee crisis unfolding across Europe, much media attention has focused on the number of refugees these states have committed to accept. While it is important that we must continue to apply pressure to these states, we must also ask what they are doing for the refugees beyond letting them past border control. Refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable people, and states’ responsibilities for refugees reflect that fact. This article will discuss the framework in place in the United Kingdom for refugee resettlement, and then assess this practice in light of the needs of refugees.
Since 2002, the UK has applied the Gateway Protection Programme as its main system for rehousing, resettling, rehabilitating and supporting the refugees that it accepts. This scheme, which is operated in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and co-funded by the EU, offers a legal route for a quota of 750 UNHCR identified refugees to settle in the UK. The scheme gets considerable amounts of funding and receives broad support, but how does it actually apply in practice?
After being identified as a refugee, the refugees under the scheme travel to the UK. Upon arrival, they are met at the airport by staff from one of the organisations providing integration support. Staff members then escort the refugees to the new area that they will call home, accompanied by interpreters if required. After that, the refugees receive a basic induction to their new housing, and NGOs also provide orientation programmes and advice to the resettled refugees for the first month or so after their travel.1 The refugee and their caseworker together agree a Personal Integration Plan (PIP) that sets out the refugee’s needs and aspirations for the first 12 months of their stay in the UK.
The housing offered depends on the local authority where they are rehoused, but can either come in the form of social housing or housing through private landlords. Refugees are not provided with funded English language courses, but can register for local classes. We can see that the scheme is reasonably well-developed and attempts to respond to the needs of each particular individual. The fact that refugees are often provided with a direct point of contact to act as a support network is also incredibly important. Having a familiar face that you can contact directly with your questions and concerns in the midst a very drastic change of social, cultural and economic circumstances is immensely useful for a refugee, and can provide some much-needed stability to what is otherwise a turbulent, changeable and traumatic lifestyle.
In practice, however, refugees continue to face significant barriers in terms of their long-term integration in the UK. This is due to a number of factors.
Firstly, the fact that refugees are not enrolled in English language classes poses problems for their short and long-term wellbeing. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It is important for general integration into UK society for refugees to be able to form strong social bonds and participate in the communities that welcome them. Language barriers pose an obvious obstacle to this. There are broader socioeconomic problems this causes, however. Without a good grasp of the English language, it is incredibly difficult for refugees to inform themselves about their legal rights in the UK and how to access them. Not being able to read a form in English or read government websites makes accessing welfare, such as jobseeker’s allowance and child benefits, nearly impossible. For those with children, it also impedes their ability to continue their education and to make friends in their new schools. The costs of English language classes will often be prohibitive for many families, but without them, full participation in society is extremely challenging.
These problems are exacerbated by the inability of refugees to participate in the labour market. The majority of refugees will not be able to gain stable employment and thus provide for themselves and their families in a meaningful way. Their ability to work highly depends on their status as refugees. Those with humanitarian protection status have the right to work and are given a national insurance number, but the language barriers described above may prevent them from accessing this right. Many of them have to resort to informal work, which may be exploitative, dangerous and illegal. Not only do many of them find themselves in poverty, they are also virtually unable to alleviate themselves from poverty in legal and safe ways. There are currently a number of social enterprises being spearheaded by non-profit and for-profit organisations that could increase the mobility of refugees in the job market, but as it stands, the practical barriers facing individuals are significant.
The steps that have been taken thus far to support refugees as they settle into their new lives in the UK have been encouraging. The challenge now is ensuring a long-term resettlement plan that takes into account their individual needs and situations. This is just as important as admitting refugees in the first place, and we ought to be in a continuous process of evaluating and improving the pre-existing mechanisms. Then, and only then, can we help improve the lives of the most vulnerable.
Claudia Hyde, Staff Writer
1 ‘UK’ (European Resettlement Network, July 2013) <http://www.resettlement.eu/country/uk> Accessed 13 November 2015.