It’s been less than a fortnight since the tragedy of Grenfell unfolded. This awful situation shone a light on the precarious situation some of the residents were in, due to their immigration status, and how could they be persuaded to come forward to seek help when they feared the worst. The housing conditions the Grenfell residents face is similar, if not worse than that which the BME and migrant communities face regularly; both groups are left in an even more vulnerable situation than they started off in. The discussions on the housing conditions added the context in which many migrant and BME communities face on a regular basis, and how they are left in even more vulnerable situations.
BY FIZZA QURESHI
Right to remain
The response to the Grenfell event was moving and humbling, especially as spontaneous donations and volunteers flooded into the area to offer form of support to those who had survived or been affected by the fire.
Early on, it became known that some of the Grenfell survivors were migrants and refugees that had moved to the UK for a better life, but it soon became apparent that not all of them had legal immigration status, and were frightened to come forward for help. Stories were heard that one resident was sleeping rough in a nearby park, and others had already fled in fear unwilling to come forward for help as the authorities and immigration officers were on the ground already.
With almost all personal possessions burnt in the fires, the North Kensington Law Centre identified early on that many of the residents, would also have lost key identity and immigration documents to prove who they were, and their immigration status. Their letter to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, urged her to waive fees for the survivors as they would need to replace their immigration documents. Significant documents that would also impact their rehousing, employment, and access to other services. Fortunately, the Home Office relented and stated that they: “We will not charge people who need to replace documentation that has been lost in the fire.”
In spite of all this many remained worried that survivors who were undocumented would still refuse to come forward. Would an undocumented migrant be allowed to get rehoused when we have laws that criminalise renting accommodation to them? And would those who housed them in Grenfell want them to come forward as they would be at risk of prosecution?
The Good Law Project launched a petition to offer an amnesty to Grenfell residents who had irregular immigration status. Runnymede Trust and MRN felt that it was important to support this initiative to ensure that all survivors were able to come forward and seek the help and support they deserved at this distressing time. Anything less, would not only mean these individuals did not receive appropriate physical and mental health support, but also their vital eye witness accounts for any inquests or inquiries would be missing, even the Mayor of London backed a call for an amnesty.
Such a tragic moment highlighted how undocumented migrants ended up hiding in the shadows without getting justice, and that this needed to open a wider discussion into how we offered a right to remain for other undocumented migrants.
Fortunately, we have heard positive statements made by the public authorities, and the Government that they would not pursue immigration checks, and they would offer housing and access to health services. Theresa May’s stated to the House of Commons: “We will make sure that all victims, irrespective of their immigration status, will be able to access the services they need, including healthcare and accommodation.”
Housing conditions and immigration
Much of the issues around Grenfell have now fallen on the failure of social housing and austerity measures, but they also show generally the issues we have with housing in the UK for BME, migrant and refugee communities. Moreover, those who do not even have a right to social housing are left with the only option of private rented housing leaving them at risk of exploitation.
MRN’s Route to your Right project interviewed individuals and organisations on the factors that left migrants vulnerable when they first moved to the UK, and found that many encountered problems with housing conditions and were at risk of exploitation.
Several people over the course of the initial phase of the project explained that on arrival in the UK they found housing through their employer. In other cases, in addition to being found unsuitable accommodation by their employer, people were actually tied to their accommodation by their employer, and forced to pay a ‘walking fee’ when leaving the property.
Participants told us that even for those granted refugee status, there were well-documented difficulties in finding accommodation during the ‘move-on’ period. In particular, like the rest of the population, refugees face long waits for social housing if they are accepted as being in priority need in the first instance, and may take on expensive accommodation in the private rental sector as an alternative. Even where people are housed by the local authority, support workers reported that any benefit cap meant having to challenge the local authorities’ failure to cover resulting shortfalls in rent, and inappropriate requests for money from clients.
Migrants are left unsettled by the general features of the labour market, restrictions on social welfare, and insecure employment status, which all interplay with a person’s immigration status. All aspects that working class communities face, migrants face those same structural issues, which are then compounded by immigration policies, and their rights to social welfare and housing.
What we need is a greater provision of decent and affordable housing, that anyone who happens to reside in the UK has access to, regardless of their immigration status. Grenfell is an unfortunate reminder of that.
Fizza Qureshi is Director of MRN