Thousands of asylum seekers are at risk of becoming street homeless as coronavirus cases rise across the country after the Home Office announced it was lifting a ban on asylum evictions “with immediate effect”.
Individuals who have claimed asylum and had their cases refused will begin receiving notice to leave within 21 days from this week, following a decision by ministers to end the moratorium on evictions in the asylum sector.
It comes despite Boris Johnson announcing on Friday that the UK is “now seeing a second wave" of coronavirus and that it was “inevitable” that the pandemic would hit the country again.
Charities and MPs said it was a “reckless and irresponsible” move that would put both asylum seekers and the public at risk, and accused the government of making already cash-strapped local authorities and third sector groups responsible for its actions.
The Home Office announced at the end of March that asylum seekers would not be asked to leave their accommodation once their claim or appeal had been decided as a protective measure in response to the pandemic.
In a letter to charities on Tuesday, the director general of UK Visas and Immigration said asylum seekers with negative decisions would be served evictions notices “with immediate effect” in England, with the rest of the UK following consultation with officials in the devolved administrations.
Prior to the pandemic, failed asylum seekers who had been evicted would often fall homeless and rely on third sector groups to provide support – but charities said much of this provision had been forced to cease due to the pandemic and so was no longer available.
People who have been refused asylum are usually not eligible for public funds, meaning it is questionable whether local councils – many of which are already under financial pressure – will be able to provide them with support and on what basis.
Renae Mann, national director of NACCOM, which represents a network of organisations supporting destine migrants in the UK, said the move was “completely out of line” with the wider messaging from central government around the safety precautions needed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Describing it as “reckless and irresponsible”, she said the decision also ignored the reality for the charity sector, which she said would “bear the impact” of asylum seekers being evicted.
“Over the last few months our members have told us how they are having to either shut down or rethink services entirely because of the pandemic. There was never enough capacity to meet the need before the pandemic - the gap now is starker than ever,” said Ms Mann.
“Against such a backdrop, it is profoundly unreasonable to think that the voluntary sector and local authorities could meet people’s needs and fix the problems that the Home Office has created with this decision. Our message could not be clearer - this decision needs to be reversed if we are to avoid a devastating return to destitution on the streets of our towns and cities.”
Stuart McDonald, SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, said: “With Covid on the rise again this is an utterly appalling decision by the Home Office, putting both asylum seekers and the public at risk.
“Making people homeless and destitute as the pandemic continues is especially shocking when that pandemic is known to be of particular danger to those very populations and indeed BAME people.”
Mariam Kemple Hardy, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, said starting mass evictions just as Covid appeared to be snowballing was a “sucker punch” from the Home Office for people seeking asylum.
“There has been no warning to ensure the system – including the voluntary sector – is prepared to cope with vulnerable people being turfed out onto the streets. The government must share what plans it has in place to protect people in the asylum system as the pandemic looks set to worsen with winter coming," she said.
Alex Fraser, director of refugee support and restoring family links at the British Red Cross, said the charity welcomed the decision from the Home Office in March to suspend evictions from asylum accommodation – and that now was not the time to reverse that decision.
“We know from our work with people in the asylum system that this decision could create a cliff edge into poverty, destitution and potentially exploitation. Instead, people need to be supported to be able to keep themselves, their families and their communities safe,” he added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The phased cessation of support has now begun in order to reduce the demand on the asylum system. We have been clear from the outset that this was a temporary measure which would be brought to an end as soon as it was safe to do so.
“Those who have received a negative asylum decision, which means they have no right to remain the UK, are given a 21 day grace period. During this time they are expected to make steps to return to their country of origin while still remaining in accommodation and receiving support. Assistance is available for those who leave voluntarily, but for those who do not, enforcement action may be taken to facilitate removal.”