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Taking all the houses and jobs: why is it hard for refugees to access public services in the UK?

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Many refugees do not know where to start when accessing public services which they are by law entitled to… The term “hard to reach” has become popular in public service circles and it is generally used as an excuse when public bodies fail to achieve their set goals… The hard to reach label is nothing more than an excuse, but an admission that centralisation has failed those it was supposed to help. As such excuses, neglect and the constant promise of learning from mistakes cannot form the basis of credible public policy. The other excuse [the well rehearsed myth]  of community division within the refugee groups which many local authorities like to hide behind is now also dead as many of the community organisations are represented by larger umbrella bodies such as the Bristol Somali Forum in the case of the Somali community in Bristol. 

(BSMG) Liban Obsiye — If one pays any attention to the right wing press in the UK, and many millions do every week, they would be forgiven for believing that refugees and new economic migrant community groups get all the best housing and jobs, and are directly responsible for reducing the wages of the indigenous population [British citizens], whoever these are.  Many of the political rights already felt this way from the beginning but the global financial crisis and the relatively high unemployment in the UK in all sectors, has entrenched this view in many. Some even go as far as suggesting that refugees know that even if they do not work in Britain is a benefit haven where they can enjoy a life they could not have dreamt of in their own countries. However, despite this image of the savvy immigrants and refugees who only come to the UK to take jobs and benefits and mass produce children to increase their State handouts, the reality is many of them do not know where to start when accessing public services which they are by law entitled to.

WHY?

Public services are services provided by the government to its citizens either through direct provision or through a contracted third party. The general idea is that these public services, which include education and healthcare among others, should be available to all who qualify for it and should be free and easy to access at the point of need – although some are charged for services if they are able to pay for it. Refugees who successfully claim asylum in the UK are the focus of this article as it is their stories that are most disheartening.

“Having been granted refugee status in the UK I was sleeping [staying] with many different friends as I was homeless and I worked for below the minimum wage for at least a year after been recognised  as a refugee here despite having the right to housing support and benefits,” said a refugee who did not want to be identified. “I struggled with speaking English and did not know where to go and who to see until my solicitor one day asked for my new address and when I told him I was homeless he immediately told me how to access housing and that the council had a duty to house me and to advice me.”  Another [refugee] informed me that having been severely beaten and attacked by a racist mob on his way back from work he went home to self medicate because he did not know if he had the right to free medical care.

These stories are not the exception, but the norm within refugee communities and what makes these stories tragic is that they could easily be avoided through the provision of information and advice to those that need it. Many statutory service providers in the UK would argue that they provide their information in multiple languages and translation services are available, but [the question is:] how many refugees can read and where do they find these leaflets even if they can?

Most refugees are fearful of official authority as many have suffered under their own governments’ hands and the idea of approaching local authorities just simply does not appeal to them. Despite having the right to reside in the UK and access full state public services, many shy away from it because they still believe that they are not entitled to it and if they seek it they may be discovered and sent back home. Furthermore, as many were professionals in their own countries, there is a sense of shyness and a need not to be a burden to their host state that directly stops them from claiming the public services they are entitled to. As ludicrous as all this may sound to some, it is a true reflection of the barriers to accessing public services for refugees in the UK.

What is the solution?

At present too many refugees and members of new migrant communities fall through the net as a result of poor information provision and service delivery. The main reason for this is that funding for support for these vulnerable new groups, is heavily centralised and administered mostly by local authorities who have very little connections with these groups and as a result are unable to reach them in a meaningful way which alleviates some of their hardship and poverty. In most cities, areas with the highest concentrations of multiple deprivation are those where the majority of refugee and migrant communities reside and the continuation of the poverty and its extension into the next generation within theses communities is a clear indication that centralisation does not work. Rather than tackle the poverty of these new communities and directly address their service needs, many rightly feel that, centralisation and top down bureaucracy administered by local authority officers who have no links to and little knowledge of their communities, has entrenched the existing poverty among their people.

Most refugees find out about public services and their rights through their community members and very rarely approach statutory bodies for advice, yet the funding for these services and where they exist lies with those the potential service users seldom approach. This does not make any sense.

Refugees and new migrant groups are among the most vulnerable as they have little access to information and support. The most effective and efficient way of reaching them and providing them with the services they are entitled to is through the use of Refugee Community Groups  that they trust and who have experience and expertise in working with these groups. “The fact is that in most sensitive areas of public services, centralisation is a waste of money because the providers do not know the culture of the community and no one would approach them for support,” said a local community volunteer. “Where local government outsources, the funding is not merely enough to cover even half of what they want you to achieve and this has given us the impression in the past that they were and still are setting us up to fail.”

“A great deal of money is wasted on experts and interpreting and translation costs. Would this not be reduced and more money be available for front line services if those that know the community best were properly funded? Is it no logical?” asked a Somali charity adviser. If it is so logical than why do local authorities not see this? “If we succeed, many Council employees will not be able to pay their mortgages in the nicer parts of the city,” he replies.

From our sources there is a clear mistrust between local authorities and the Refugee Community Groups and this only harms those for which the services are intended.

The term “hard to reach” has become popular in public service circles and it is generally used as an excuse when public bodies fail to achieve their set goals. Instead of seeing the centralisation, heavy top down and non responsive and engaging bureaucracy as the cause of policy failure, local authorities prefer to blame those they have failed to engage with. This is then usually followed by a pointless equality impact assessment which generally neglects the main reasons for the authority’s failures. “This is the cycle that embeds poverty in refugee and new migrant communities and creates the jobs in community cohesion and poverty reduction,” a charity chairman informs us. The hard to reach label is nothing more than an excuse, but an admission that centralisation has failed those it was supposed to help. As such excuses, neglect and the constant promise of learning from mistakes cannot form the basis of credible public policy. The other excuse [the well rehearsed myth] of community division within the refugee groups which many feel local authorities like to hide behind is now also dead as many of the community organisations are represented by larger umbrella bodies such as the Bristol Somali Forum in the case of the Somali community in Bristol. 

Although under this new Conservative led coalition government supporting refugees and new migrants is not going to be a popular policy agenda, local authorities must realise that the social and economic inclusion of these groups is fundamental to community cohesion, law and order and the future prosperity of the city. Good local authorities will realise that even if for Mr. Cameron’s multiculturalism is dead, it is their duty under the Human rights act 1998 to not infringe on the rights of those they are in place to serve and this does include refugee and migrant groups regardless of whether they are worthy or not in the eyes of the right wing press.

The simple fact is that many of the most vulnerable in society fall through the cracks because of poor public service provision and delivery. This creates greater poverty, isolation and withdrawal from society for many groups and this is not only dangerous but a clear breach of their Human Rights. Many local authorities speak of human rights and partnerships as if both are going out of fashion or as if to even utter these words after a certain time would be tantamount to treason. However, if they were serious about both they would work more closely with Refugee Community Groups and fund them properly to do the job effectively. If these refugee organisations succeed the only real consequence will be that local authorities will be seen as more innovative, inclusive and truly committed to helping their most vulnerable groups.

Liban Obsiye 

libanbakaa@hotmail.com

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