Barriers to participation: Health, housing and employment preventing inclusion for UK refugees
Refugees are people who have fled their country of origin because of war, persecution, or other forms of violence. Nonetheless, the struggles of refugees are not necessarily over after their challenging journey to the UK is completed and successfully obtaining permission to remain. The UK has a long history of refugee resettlement and continues to take in refugees from different parts of the world, however, these refugees face significant barriers to integration, particularly in terms of health, housing, and employment.
Vanessa Barker discusses the concept of "penal nationalism," which is the use of immigration policies and practices to exclude refugee and migrant groups from participating in potential settler societies. This exclusion is often based on race, ethnicity, and national origin, and is justified through fears of crime, resource depletion and cultural difference. Barker argues that penal nationalism reinforces inequality and the marginalization of certain groups, which limits the potential for refugee inclusion in the societies in which they settle.
Refugees have needs themselves and hopes to be included in society where they are able to contribute, however they face particular barriers in accessing important public services and are locked out of employment opportunities in the following ways:
Lack of employment
There are a range of obstacles that refugees face in their attempt to attain a job. These include language barriers, cultural differences, discrimination, and lack of UK experience.
Even though many refugees come to the UK with a broad skill set and qualifications, (38% of refugees from Syria living in the UK have a university degree, for example) they still face challenges that limit access to better employment opportunities. This is largely due to language barriers, as 84% of refugees reported that they did not have sufficient knowledge of the English language to get a job, and support with these issues remains very limited.
Jamal, 34, a Syrian refugee, acknowledged that he wanted to get back to work quickly, to help establish a new social network in the UK, as well as purpose. He said, “I have to be useful and get friends and colleagues. I learn from friends and learn about the new country culture”. Employment for refugees is not only a means to provide for their family, but to also to gain social contact, increase their knowledge of the country and integrate with their new societies.
Walid, another refugee from Syria highlights the importance of employment in being able to integrate into society, contribute to life in the UK and subsequently feel settled. They say, "If I find a job that I like, I will feel like I belong, like I am starting a new life, and I will be able to integrate with society, have more confidence, and support my family". For refugees, employment is a key aspect of their participation in the society of which they settle, work is a critical way for them to contribute and be seen to contribute to society, while simultaneously immersing themselves in UK culture and having the opportunity share their own.
Jamal and Walid show that refugees are hopeful that employment will lead to their participation and contribution to society, as well as positive fulfilment of their family’s needs.
Therefore, conversely, the inability to secure employment leads to negative impacts on refugees' mental wellbeing, restricting their ability to provide for their families and limits their opportunity for social contact which perpetuates isolation and hopelessness.
Most asylum seekers are not permitted to work and rely on government help to in the equivalent to £5.84 per day to live off. Where those seeking asylum are banned from working, they frequently report the negative impact of this on their mental health and the detriment caused to their ability to build new lives in their communities. Many individuals want to participate in society, start their new lives here and give back, so they often volunteer as a means to participate in their new communities, promoting integration.
Refugees often have pre-existing health conditions that result from their experiences in their home countries and their subsequent escape/flight. These conditions may worsen further in the UK because of a lack of knowledge about the health system and limited access to appropriate healthcare services. Current studies highlight how asylum seekers experience a high amount of long-lasting health problems and often a range of mental health problems. The stress of displacement and resettlement can also trigger mental health problems, which further exacerbates the situation. Refugees are at an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression and PTSD if they have experienced violence and trauma, including exploitation, torture or sexual and gender-based violence. Some patients may have injuries that have not healed properly, or have not been consistently treated during their migration which can cause chronic pain or disability. These issues often affect their ability to work and integrate with the community leading to further exclusion from society.
Despite the fear of host societies that refugees will overuse the welfare provisions available, there is no evidence that refugees use a disproportionate share of NHS resources, and instead show that migrants in the UK tend to use fewer services than native populations.
Over 54% of people seeking asylum reported difficulties in accessing health care. Refugees faced problems with GP registration and language barriers prevented them from getting appointments. Consequently, adequate healthcare provision is vital for refugees to participate fully in society and lead fulfilling lives in their new country of residence.
The Home office provides housing support and subsistence allowances, which ends within 28 days of awarding protection status. This leaves many refugees with no support for relocating, opening a bank account, or securing income before eviction, putting them at significant risk of homelessness and destitution. Many newly recognised refugees experience homelessness when they receive a positive decision regarding their right to stay in the UK, with nearly a fifth (17%) of refugees struggling with homelessness.
Most refugees end up in deprived areas characterized by high poverty and social exclusion levels, as The Home Office provides accommodation on a no-choice basis. This promotes a hostile living environment that may negatively impact refugees' physical and mental health, as well as their ability to effectively integrate into society. The need to move frequently and lack of stable housing disrupts education, employment, and family life, leading to housing insecurity.
Refugees are confronted with numerous barriers limiting their participation in British society, particularly in health, housing, and employment sectors. Such factors detract from their potential to utilise the talent and skillset individuals possess to positively contribute to UK society. Addressing these barriers will require a coordinated effort from the government, the private sector, and civil society. Achieving this will involve developing policies and programs that recognize refugees' skills and qualifications, providing language and cultural orientation, improving access to affordable and appropriate healthcare services, and ensuring adequate housing support. Such measures will not only benefit refugees but wider society as well to promote inclusion, over exclusion.
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Laura is a Master's student in Criminology at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.