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Nurses demand U-turn on new refugee eviction policy

Top UK nurses, and other health leaders, have demanded that the Home Office reverse a new rule which only allows refugees one week to find a home before being evicted from government housing.

In an open letter to newly-appointed home secretary James Cleverly, these health leaders said this policy – implemented in July – was putting refugees “into homelessness and destitution” and would strain the NHS in what is expected to be a tough winter ahead.

“Exposing people to these avoidable risks, at the coldest time of the year, is ill-advised and will lead to a spiral of poor health and loss of life”

Open letter to James Cleverly

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief executive and general secretary Pat Cullen, and Queen’s Nursing Institute chief executive Dr Crystal Oldman are among the 26 health leaders who signed the letter, which was sent last week.

The letter said this move had the potential to cause a “spiral of poor health and loss of life” by not giving people enough time to find a new place to live, risking homelessness.

The open letter, led by London-based homeless charity Pathway, demanded Mr Cleverly repeals this change, which was brought in under his predecessor Suella Braverman.

It said: “[The seven-day notice period change] will place further serious, avoidable burdens on an NHS already battling winter pressures and ongoing Covid recovery.

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“Exposing people to these avoidable risks, at the coldest time of the year, is ill-advised and will lead to a spiral of poor health and loss of life.”

Previously, refugees were provided with a minimum of 28 days to leave National Asylum Support Service (NASS)-funded accommodation after being served a ‘notice to quit’ – but this has now been reduced to seven days.

Refugee status in the UK

On arrival to the UK, someone who wishes to gain a right to remain via refugee status must apply for asylum. They may do this because they are fleeing war, or it is unsafe for them to live in their home country.

At this stage, these people are referred to as asylum seekers and are entitled to National Asylum Support Service (NASS)-funded accommodation, if they have nowhere else to live.

Asylum seekers may remain in NASS accommodation until they receive a decision on their asylum claim. If it is rejected, they must leave the country.

If it is accepted, they gain refugee status and are informed of this via a grant letter. At this stage, a refugee is given a 28-day ‘move on’ period, after which they must find their own accommodation.

They are then sent their Biometric Residence Permit (BRP), which is required for refugees to apply for a bank account, job, benefits and, crucially, housing.

Once they receive their BRP, a refugee can be sent the seven-day minimum ‘notice to quit’ their NASS accommodation. However, campaigners argue that this is not long enough.

The change made early this year reduced this ‘notice to quit’ period to seven days.

Signatories of the letter also included Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians, and leading figures in primary care.

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The health leaders referred to the lower life expectancy, and higher chance of enduring violence and abuse, for those who are sleeping rough.

“Street homelessness is associated with increased risks of serious infection, of heart disease, of [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], of mental illness and shockingly high risks of suicide,” the letter added.

As well as the higher risks, the health leaders said the barriers to accessing primary care for homeless people meant those kicked out at a week’s notice were more likely to end up presenting at emergency departments rather than a GP surgery.

The letter continued: “By forcing refugees onto the street at the coldest time of the year when risks to health are highest, these changes put people directly into dangerous situations that threaten their health, while disrupting their access to key services such as primary care.

“The situation will only get worse as the backlog of asylum claims is processed more quickly and, without proper coordination with housing and health services, more people are driven into homelessness and destitution.”

As well as a return to a 28-day period ‘notice to quit’ period, the letter urged the home secretary to make further changes to safeguard refugees.

It asked Mr Cleverly to ensure refugees receive all documentation related to their status at the same time, and for any notice to quit period to only begin once all paperwork is received.

Additionally, the health leaders asked the home secretary to stop all evictions during very low temperatures, and for him to work with primary care and refugee support providers to help boost access to primary care.

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And, lastly, they asked Mr Cleverly to work in the long term to commit to extending move-on period to 56 days.

“Practice that forces new refugees onto the streets runs contrary to the founding principles of the NHS and is a waste of human life and potential,” the letter added.

“Reversing this would be an excellent start to your tenure as home secretary and we look forward to working with you to achieve this.”

If no change is made, the letter said the goverment would need to work with NHS providers and street outreach services in “preparing for the rapid rise in need for emergency care that will result from this practice”.

As well as health leaders, the letter was signed by several charities supporting homeless people including Crisis, Shelter and St Mungo’s.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Once someone is informed that their asylum claim has been granted, they get at least 28 days notice to move on from their asylum accommodation.

“Support is offered to newly recognised refugees by Migrant Help and their partners, which includes advice on how to access Universal Credit, the labour market and where to get assistance with housing.

“We work with local authorities to help communities manage the impact of asylum decisions.”

 

This article was amended at 4.30pm on 27 November 2023, to clarify the distinction between two notice periods referenced in this letter: the 28-day move-on period refugees receive after they are given a decision on their asylum claim, and the seven-day notice to quit period which they may be issued after they receive their Biometric Residence Permit (BRP). 

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