Blog: Syrian refugees - what can social landlords do to help?



John Perry
John Perry

Up to 20,000 refugees will be resettled in Britain from Syria. How can social landlords engage with this and other schemes to help people who are on their way or already here? CIH policy adviser John Perry shares his assessment.

What is the scale of the crisis?

Around half of Syria’s 23 million people have been displaced by civil war since 2011. Most are still in Syria, but nearly four million refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Many Syrians now travelling across Europe are either escaping danger in Syria itself or have realised they have little chance to rebuild their lives in refugee camps. For most, this means a dangerous journey by land or sea, arranged through smugglers. In part this is because the official resettlement schemes are very limited and work slowly – the United Nations has so far arranged about 104,000 placements in countries outside the Middle East. But the main reason is that most countries, including the UK, make it almost impossible to apply for asylum until someone crosses their border.

What happens to Syrians who seek asylum in Britain?

Most Syrians come to Britain as asylum seekers, which means they either enter without permission or they arrive normally (e.g. as a student) and then claim asylum. Of the people currently trying to cross to the UK from Calais, 269 are reported to be Syrians.

In the year ending in March, 2,222 Syrians applied for asylum. Most applications from Syrians (85 per cent) are approved. Until they receive a decision, they are not eligible for social housing and accommodation is provided by the Home Office, usually by private contractors outside London and the South East. A favourable decision, after waiting six months or more, usually gives permission to stay in the UK for five years. Since the crisis began, nearly 5,000 Syrians have been accepted in this way: they are allowed to work and are eligible for benefits and for social housing. After five years, they can apply to stay permanently.

How many Syrians have been resettled in Britain directly?

Since January, the government has operated a ‘vulnerable persons relocation scheme’ which since March has resettled 216 people directly from refugee camps, many by Horton Housing Association in Bradford. The scheme prioritises victims of sexual violence and torture, and the elderly and disabled. Because they are given five years’ “humanitarian protection” before they arrive, they are eligible for benefits and to work. They receive one year’s support, including an induction process and English (ESOL) classes.

What is planned now?

The government’s new plan to resettle up to 20,000 refugees over five years is an extension of the existing scheme. It will cover refugees from camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, focusing on vulnerable people. Selected families will be brought directly to the UK with their documentation already arranged. Separate arrangements will apply to unaccompanied children. The government is in discussion with the Local Government Association and potentially about 40 local councils about how many households will go to which authorities, and what the support arrangements will be.

Offers of help have been made by the administrations in ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland(see links for details). At the moment, these offers are all part of the UK government scheme, not additional to it, although all three have said they would like to do more.

How can social landlords help?

Many social landlords have said they want to help or have even suggested the number of families they might accommodate and support. These offers will be very important if the vulnerable persons relocation scheme is to cope. However, progress will depend on the government setting up the selection, travel and support arrangements, and this will take time. Local authorities will have responsibility for housing and will be advised to discuss this with social landlords – so local councils are the main point of contact.

Is this enough?

The government’s offer has been criticised as doing nothing to help address the needs of the huge numbers of Syrians (and other refugees) arriving in Europe by land and sea. Much smaller countries such as Norway have offered proportionally more resettlement places, and several other EU countries have received far more asylum applications. However, so far the government has been unwilling to join an EU-wide scheme to distribute refugees who have already arrived. This means that it will still be extremely difficult for Syrians who travel to Europe to get asylum in the UK, although some may continue to try through entry points like Calais.

What else can social landlords do?

As well as making links with councils to take part in the scheme to resettle people from refugee camps, social landlords can help in the following ways:

Send cash donations

The agencies running camps in Syria and neighbouring countries, such as the World Food Programme and the Red Cross, are running out of funds and are appealing for help. The new Scottish Government website Scotland welcomes refugees has links to organisations needing cash donations. 

Support national appeals

Various bodies like the Refugee CouncilRefugee Action and Save the Children are helping Syrian refugees. Citizens UK is directly appealing for vacant properties but it is probably most effective for landlords to work direct with their local councils. 

Help refugees in other EU countries

Refugees can only be brought to the UK through the government scheme. But various groups are sending direct assistance to Eastern Europe. Glasgow Housing Association has donated £5,000 towards aid being sent by a local charity. 

Encourage staff to help

The government has advice for people who want to help directly (but note this caveat about contacting the NACCOM network). The Scottish Refugee Council has a range of examples of how individuals and groups are helping.

Help destitute refugees and asylum seekers already in the UK

A number of local groups support destitute migrants who for one reason or another have fallen through the official support arrangements – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently published practical guidance on how social landlords can help destitute people. Members of staff may also want to offer a room in their house through hosting schemes

Ensure refugees get help if they ask you for advice

Once people who are here are given permission to stay (e.g. after applying for asylum), many face difficulties in getting housing and other assistance. You can make sure you are up-to-date on current practice in helping refugees and other migrants through the guide published by CIH for the Housing and Migration Network. You can also ensure your staff are fully informed about the housing eligibility of refugees and other migrants through our housing rights website.

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