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Migration and homelessness in the United Kingdom

Housing and Homelessness Programme / Partner story

Photo: © Howard Davies/Howard Davies Photo Library – Howard Davies Photo Library No reproduction of this photograph without permission M. ( 44 ) 7885 045 848

An asylum seeker has an income of GBP 36.95 per week with a poor standard of accommodation and is not permitted to work.

Over recent years, advice workers have found it increasingly difficult to resolve problems for migrant individuals and families who are destitute. Working with refugees and vulnerable migrants was never easy but, for the first time, the well-worn routes out of homelessness, so carefully crafted by progressive legislation and homelessness agencies, seemed to be closed to them. We are observing a trend backed up by homelessness statistics of an emerging group of homeless people. They were born outside of the UK, with uncertain immigration status and limited entitlement to state support.

“‘Destitution’ has re-entered the lexicography of homelessness. The traditional tools of the advice worker leave them powerless to intervene. New solutions are required.”

Vaughan Jones, expert on homelessness and migration

Someone who experiences homelessness after crossing a border shares much with those in the same situation, who were born there. However, there are differences arising from the nature of their movement into the country, and the social policy which applies to them. We must start with the same question we would ask anyone who is homeless ‘how did you get into this situation?’ The route into homelessness is the key to finding the way out.

We are in an era of mass migration with well-documented causes – the nature of the global economy, and ease of communications and transport. But there are also disturbing factors, which contribute to displacement. Climate change, war, internal conflict and human rights abuses, alongside income inequalities are forcing people out of their homes and countries.


Journeys into the UK vary. Refugees escape bombs by fleeing to camps where they wait patiently for either the war to end or the processing by international bodies to finish so that they can be resettled into another country. Patience runs thin as months turn to years, so they choose the risky route of migrating through their own devices, often using the maps on their phones, to find a way into Europe.

Some will take a more considered route. They may visit family in Europe by entering the country legally, hoping that when their visa expires another option will come up. Usually it does not. Others pay agents to bring them to the UK. Many families make huge sacrifices to raise money for a young member of their family to have a better life.

Others are tricked with promises of employment and are coerced into what amounts to modern-day slavery. There is a lucrative trade in the exploitation of desperate people.

Photo: © Howard Davies/Howard Davies Photo Library – Howard Davies Photo Library No reproduction of this photograph without permission M. ( 44 ) 7885 045 848
Photo caption: An Oromo family visit the seaside in Brighton with their support worker from Migrant Helpline having come to the UK as refugees from Ethiopia under the UK Government Gateway Protection Programme. The family had been identified by UNHCR as vulnerable while living in Kakuma camp in northern Kenya.


If someone enters the country by clandestine means, they have committed a breach of immigration law and are open to prosecution. However, the UN Convention recognises that desperate people may have no alternative but to resort to desperate measures, so if their intention is to seek asylum, it is not considered a crime.

Once in the UK, the newcomer must navigate the systems in order to settle and integrate into their new country. Step one is to have their presence recognised legitimately. He or she needs to have the necessary documentation – the right to be in the country, the right to work and the right to contribute to the common good. Documentation of immigration status is the passport to accommodation, to an income and to access essential services.

Some remain ‘undocumented’. Even if they have come from a troubled country like Eritrea, it is not automatic that their refugee status will be granted. If they have some money or relatives who are willing to help them pay for a lawyer, they cannot assume that the legal profession will serve them well in representing them to the Home Office. Even if everything is done correctly, their application may still be held up in a long queue or fall foul of the UK’s inefficient and over-bureaucratised immigration processes. A child who travelled alone and was taken into care on arrival will not automatically be allowed to stay once he or she becomes an adult, no matter how traumatic their early experiences in life may have been nor how strong their roots are in the UK.

Destitution and homelessness

Vulnerable refugees and migrants are not alone in experiencing destitution and homelessness but they are affected by some areas of policy which exacerbate their predicament. Here are some examples:

  • A European Economic Area migrant who loses their job will have restricted access to Housing Benefit.
  • An asylum seeker who is granted refugee status has only 28 days to find accommodation and employment or sort out benefits.
  • A refugee who receives newly-granted status is entitled to reunite with family, but they must all manage on a single person’s income.
  • A person who enters through the visa of a spouse and finds themselves in an abusive relationship has no automatic right to stay in the UK.
  • An asylum seeker has an income of GBP 36.95 per week with a likelihood of poor standard accommodation provided and is not permitted to work.

Those living in tough circumstances such as these are extremely vulnerable to becoming homeless. The rules are complex and pressures to make ends meet are huge. It is easy to imagine how much more difficult the experience of homelessness will be for people who have been forced out of frightening situations bearing physical and mental scars. They have lost family, language, status and dignity. Without the correct papers employment is impossible or exploitative. There is insufficient money to pay rent and landlords are now required to check immigration status. We should not, therefore, be surprised at the increased visibility of migrants and refugees on the streets. Neither should we be astonished that once they are destitute, routes out are difficult to find.

Many do have the support of family (frequently with limited resources of their own), a faith community or other people of goodwill. We often forget how much unrecorded and unaccounted assistance is given within communities. But many are without strong social networks and others find that, over time, they have exhausted the generosity of others.

Civil society response

Regardless of the complexity, we have a responsibility to help the vulnerable. Each case needs to be examined carefully without judgement or prejudice.

Advisers need to know that there are grounds to respond to some of the problems faced by destitute migrants. To utilise these opportunities, advice workers require a new combination of knowledge and experience from the legal, homelessness, refugee and migrant sectors. It is testimony to the resilience of the voluntary sector that a combination of research, philanthropic investment and ground-level experience is bearing fruit in the new provision and better understanding.

Individuals and families find themselves tied up in the knots of bureaucracy and the daily struggle of surviving on inadequate resources. Without underestimating their resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, there is a need for stronger intervention by immigration lawyers, and agencies working in migration or homelessness. Best practice in working with people who are homeless provides choices and routes out of homelessness. Equally, best practice in migration provides safe and legal routes out of danger within a framework of protection. This is a basic human right enshrined in international conventions, which needs to be provided for in law and in the practicalities of reception, legal representation, transition into citizenship and full participation in the new society. At present, despite the valiant efforts of some, we often fall short of this ideal.

Here are some examples of HHP grant-making in the area of migration and homelessness:

Praxis Community Projects is based in east London and has been supporting refugees and migrants since 1983. Using HHP funding, Praxis established housing options for destitute migrants who have no recourse to public funds. A second grant supports Praxis to strengthen links between refugee and migrant organisations and the homelessness sector. It also helps to expand ‘Street Legal’, a project that works on the longterm issues of immigration status.

“When I came to Praxis I was so disorientated and confused,” said Florence, who escaped detention in her homeland, where same-sex relationships are illegal. “I didn’t have a solicitor – I didn’t have accommodation,” she said. Her partner had been killed while in prison. “Now I am settled, I know I am safe and I won’t be killed for who I am.” Refugee Survival Trust is a partnership of organisations established though a HHP grant that provides a range of services to homeless migrants in Glasgow.

The partnership enables coordinated assessment and responses to each individual’s accommodation and legal needs. “I am grateful to be able to stay in the flat while I wait for my fresh (asylum) claim to be made,” said one beneficiary. “I still have to sign at the Home Office every two weeks and this is a worry for me because I know that until my fresh claim is in, my situation is not sure. But at least I have a roof over my head and the GBP 10 a week and the bus tickets help me because I do not get any support from the Home Office at this time.”

The New Beginnings Fund pools funds from foundations and trusts to support small grassroots organisations working with refugees. The fund is administered by the network of UK Community Foundations and will make grants in the region of GBP 10,000.

Project 17 ensures that local authorities comply with their duties under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need. Section 17 requires councils to provide accommodation and financial support to avoid children being taken into care. This power exists even if a family has no right to work, no access to benefits and no leave to remain.

“Being hosted is everything for me; it’s a big deal. I’m secure and feel good because I’m here. Everything has changed – I eat and sleep properly I still worry, but less than before.”

– Refugee receiving support from Housing Justice

Housing Justice brings together church-based advocacy groups concerned with homelessness. Social justice-oriented churches have a long history of sheltering and protecting migrants.

They are experiencing an upsurge of congregants offering to host destitute migrants. A grant to Housing Justice supports a hosting scheme for London that will vet, coordinate and support people willing to provide a home to recent migrants.

“I have now been able to begin voluntary work in two places,” said one refugee. “A charity shop for the blind and also a charity for immigrant women, where I look after their children when they have to go to appointments.”

The Cardinal Hume Centre provides a range of services to street homeless people in London. The Centre has taken a lead position in responding to the needs of homeless migrants. The HHP supported the Centre to develop an accredited immigration advice service targeting homeless people. This is delivered in conjunction with housing and employment services and is now being expanded so that it can be accessed through other homelessness service providers

The HHP would like to thank Vaughan Jones for his contribution, and the people who kindly shared their personal stories.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report 2016