Concern over future of asylum seekers in Barnet

As of February, 1,436 asylum seekers were in Home Office hotel accommodation in Barnet, down from a peak of 1,648, reports Grace Howarth, Local Democracy Reporter

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Barnet councillors have raised concern over the governments’s fast-tracking asylum process amid hotel closures and housing pressures in the borough.

During an overview and scrutiny committee meeting on Tuesday (5th) councillors discussed the progress made with various resettlement and relocation schemes as well as the pressure to house asylum seekers following a “quadrupling” of claims.

Barnet Council currently uses five hotels to accommodate asylum seekers while the Home Office oversees their claims. 

In a report discussed by the committee it was stated that as of February, 1,436 asylum seekers were in Home Office hotel accommodation in Barnet, down from a peak of 1,648. 

But following the implementation of the government’s streamlined asylum process (SAP) last year, pressure has increased on the borough’s housing support services.

The aim of SAP is to “clear the backlog” of claims which has resulted in a high number of asylum seekers being given refugee status. However, once received they are given 28 days to vacate hotel accommodation, and in some cases only seven.

The speed means once given the status refugees can apply for housing, Universal Credit, gain employment or enrol in education. However, the “short period of time” given to leave hotel accommodation made this a “challenging” period to navigate. 

Following the SAP implementation there was a “marked increase” in the number of refugees leaving hotel accommodation and seeking housing assistance instead. Barnet Homes figures showed applications had “more than quadrupled”, with 23 applications in the first quarter of 2023/24 and 163 in the third quarter.

In response Barnet Homes, utilising the Home Office’s asylum grant, has put in place a dedicated housing needs officer to help manage the increase.

Zahra Beg, cabinet member for equalities, voluntary and community sector, presented the report and said the “key concern” was the high number of asylum seekers leaving hotel accommodation. 

Committee member Emma Whysall asked about the risk of closure to five Barnet hotels following the government’s decision in October 2023 to begin closing the “first tranche” of temporary asylum hotels, which amounted to a total of 50 hotels elsewhere around the UK.

None of the closures so far are in Barnet, according to the report, and there has been “no indication to date” that any of the five hotels used locally were due to close in future.

Officers were told that, if it did happen, the council would receive notice of a closure and in this event the Home Office would “still be responsible” for the accommodation of the asylum seekers.

The report pointed out the impact of such an event which included the disruption to “children’s schooling, safeguarding and health”. 

Will Cooper, deputy head of strategy, said the council “regularly” asked if closures were planned, but hadn’t been told in the case of the first tranche. He reiterated there was “no reason to believe” any would close soon.

He added the council would be carrying out an exercise to model what they would do in response to such an event.

Committee member Earnest Ambe asked how schools were coping amid the influx of residents and if there were any concerns. 

Chris Munday, executive director of children’s social services, said “all the children” had been accommodated in schools and this was done in a “very timely way”. He said data showed about 95% were placed within the “statutory 15 days” after arriving to the hotels.

He said some age groups were “challenging” such as year eleven, when GCSEs are sat, but dedicated courses were put on around English as a second language. 

Chris said the overall number of children who had been accommodated as migrant children over the last couple of years was around 3,500.

The report also covered the progress made on two government resettlement schemes, Homes for Ukraine and the Afghanistan Resettlement Scheme. 

The Homes for Ukraine Scheme has led to 1,700 Ukrainians being resettled in Barnet and the report stated the area had the largest numbers of Ukrainians in London and the second highest in the UK. 

In terms of the Afghanistan scheme, the report stated 76 individuals had been resettled locally, surpassing the council’s initial target of 50.

Following government’s decision to halt the Afghan bridging hotels scheme, Barnet Homes took responsibility for housing 15 families who were awaiting permanent resettlement.

The bridging scheme was used to help house individuals until they were moved into appropriate long-term accommodation.

The Home Office commissioned the Ministry of Defence to identify properties for individuals leaving the bridging programme and, as of January 2023, four properties have been found in Barnet which will accommodate four families. 

The Afghanistan Resettlement Scheme focuses on helping those who worked with the UK during the war in Afghanistan, and vulnerable people such as women, children and LGBTQ groups.

Following discussion, councillors said they were generally satisfied with the progress reported but highlighted concern over prospective hotel closures and requested efforts be made to “resist” these.

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