The world is experiencing the highest levels of human displacement ever recorded, with an estimated 65.6 million people currently forced from their homes.
Refugee Week (18-24 June) will be marked in the Assembly with a statement by the Leader of the House Julie James AM on Tuesday 19 June.
In April 2017 the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee made a range of recommendations to improve the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Wales in its report I used to be someone. A number of the recommendations have been taken forward by the Welsh Government, while others are still outstanding.
Refugee and asylum seeker action plan
The Committee recommended that the Welsh Government should update its refugee and asylum seeker action plan. On 22 March 2018, the Welsh Government published a draft refugee and asylum seeker action plan, called Nation of Sanctuary. The consultation runs until 25 June. It includes proposals (among others) to ensure:
- information and advice is provided to refugee and asylum seekers from day one to help them integrate into Welsh society;
- refugees and asylum seekers can access health services (including mental health) throughout the ‘asylum journey’. This includes health assessments on arrival and during the dispersal and post-trauma phases;
- asylum seekers are not prevented from accessing Welsh Government schemes that would support their integration;
- new refugees are less likely to fall into destitution, and
- all refugees and asylum seekers (particularly unaccompanied asylum seeking children) are properly safeguarded and can access advocacy support.
The Committee received evidence about poor quality accommodation provided to asylum seekers awaiting the outcomes of their asylum applications. It recommended that the Welsh Government should undertake urgent negotiations with the Home Office to reform the asylum accommodation system in advance of the contract renewal process in 2019. It also considered that asylum seekers’ landlords should be covered by a registration scheme, either as an extension of or complement to Rent Smart Wales.
The draft action plan has a range of commitments regarding the improvement of asylum accommodation. It requests that the UK Government introduces:
- a regular property inspection regime and publication of service standards and response times online, and an independent complaints process;
- a central database of asylum accommodation properties shared with local authorities with the right to inspect properties with minimal notice;
- appropriate accommodation to support more vulnerable occupiers, such as unaccompanied children, pregnant women, families, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) individuals, disabled people and those fleeing domestic abuse, and
- a requirement for all landlords of properties used for asylum accommodation to be fit and-proper persons.
‘Right to Rent’ checks
The Committee also called for an assessment of the UK Government’s ‘Right to Rent’ checks, which were introduced by the Immigration Act 2014 and require landlords to check the immigration status of potential tenants. Witnesses told the Committee that the checks could lead to discrimination against foreign nationals.
Recent research found that 51% of landlords surveyed said that the scheme would make them less likely to consider letting to foreign nationals. A legal challenge of the rules will be heard in the High Court this month.
The Welsh Government does not appear to have undertaken this assessment, and it is still unclear when the ‘Right to Rent’ checks will be introduced in Wales.
Advice and health
The Committee recommended the Welsh Government provide sufficient legal advice, regular reminders about the importance of health screenings as well as help for people to attend them, and mental health support to refugees and asylum seekers.
It also recommended ensuring minimum standards of mental health support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children with trauma.
The Welsh Government’s £1 million, three-year Asylum Rights Programme began in April 2017, delivered by a consortium led by the Welsh Refugee Council. It includes advice and advocacy, legal advice, support for survivors of violence or trafficking, and specialist support for children.
The draft action plan proposes a range of Welsh Government actions around health, including:
- developing volunteer and mentoring schemes which combat isolation and depression for those living in dispersed accommodation;
- ensuring mental health services are able to meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in a timely and effective manner by reviewing the Mental Health Care Pathway and associated guidance by December 2020;
- working with the UK Government to ensure asylum seekers in Initial Accommodation are encouraged to attend health screenings and receive support with registering for primary healthcare services when they are dispersed to other accommodation, and
- updating the Counselling Toolkit by Spring 2019, to highlight that asylum seeking and refugee children/young people are more likely to have been through particularly traumatic experiences.
The Committee asked the Welsh Government to create a small grants fund for asylum seekers and people with no recourse to public funds.
The draft plan proposes to “promote new processes to enable new refugees [not asylum seekers] to access the Discretionary Assistance Fund (DAF) prior to receiving National Insurance numbers during 2018”.
In December 2017 the Welsh Government told the ELGC Committee that it has “worked with the British Red Cross, Welsh Refugee Council and other partners to explore options for a destitution crisis fund for asylum seekers in Wales and these conversations are ongoing.”
Many witnesses told the Committee that a Guardianship Service for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children was needed in Wales. Guardianship is a proactive way of representing the needs of children, whereas advocacy is reactive.
Children in Wales highlighted that the Welsh Government had previously made commitments to explore the potential for such a service in 2008.
The Committee recommended the establishment of a Guardianship Service, and the draft action plan again commits to “explore options to develop a ‘Guardianship’ service to support unaccompanied asylum seeking children in their navigation through the asylum system”.
Employment and education
The Committee thought the Welsh Government should do more to help refugees access education and employment, including helping refugees get recognition for their previous qualifications.
The draft action plan proposes to commission research on the employability of refugees, and ensure that the needs of refugees are considered in the Employability Plan. It also commits to “update the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) policy for Wales during 2018”.