It was a spirited effort at a “Gotcha!” question, but it didn’t really work. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, was asked, in an interview on GB News, if he would provide a spare room in his home to accommodate an Afghan refugee. He replied:
”I’ve got a very young family and I’m not sure that I would be in a position to do that.”
The thinking behind the question – that for moral declarations to mean anything, the practical consequences need to be considered – was sound enough. The Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, the Home Office announced, will welcome up to 5,000 vulnerable Afghans to the UK, who have been forced to flee the country, in its first year. This will rise up to a total of 20,000 in the long term. A further 5,000 are expected to be granted sanctuary under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. That is for Afghan nationals and their families who were employed by the British forces and Embassy – as interpreters or in an array of other jobs. They will all have to stay somewhere and there is already a housing shortage. But in a nation of 67 million people, even the upper estimate of 25,000 should not be impossible to achieve. A comparable number have been welcomed here under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme which started in 2014.
It is not dependent on Raab’s spare room. Given that Raab does not favour requisitioning spare rooms from the rest of us I don’t think the implication behind the question – that of hypocrisy – sticks. But supposing Raab did make an offer and got on the phone to the housing department at Elmbridge Borough Council, his local authority. His offer would be turned down. The Home Office guidance says only self-contained accommodation or property classified as HMOs should be offered. This might only be guidance but all local authorities appear to accept it.
There is an admirable small charity called Refugees at Home which does place refugees in spare rooms. Gary Lineker was one of the hosts. But it only caters for a few hundred – a fraction of one per cent of the 200,000 or so refugees and asylum seekers in this country. The charity has far more offers of rooms than refugees seeking placements – even though those making the offers seek no payment either from the taxpayer or the refugees. The explanation is that no placements are made by the authorities. That leaves a few people who have fallen through cracks in the system and so are referred by the British Red Cross or some other organisation. It is a worthy endeavour – rescuing a few of those that due to the failings of officialdom might otherwise be sleeping rough. But it operates on a very limited scale.
The Home Office insists that self-contained accommodation is necessary due to “safeguarding”; that given the vulnerable state of refugees, a spare room would be “inappropriate”.
This bureaucratic inflexibility seems flawed for various reasons. Firstly, it fails to acknowledge that refugees will have different requirements – for instance if they are single or families. Secondly, it is making the perfect the enemy of good. By pushing up the cost to the taxpayer of taking refugees it means fewer can be taken and more are left languishing in the UN camps.
Thirdly, is it always the case that self-contained accommodation is ideal? Might not a friendly resident landlord or landlady be helpful as a source of integration?
Incidentally, greater flexibility would also help with easing domestic homelessness. Local authorities are very reluctant to take up offers of spare rooms.
Another area where red tape should be cut, involves restrictions on working. Refugees are allowed to work but asylum seekers have legal restrictions prohibiting them from working for 12 months. In Germany, asylum seekers are allowed to work after three months. Why have any restriction at all?
The argument is that asylum seekers usually enter the country illegally and that the hazardous voyage they undertake should not be incentivised. I see the point. But would those hiding in a lorry or crossing the Channel in dangerously small boats know or care if they would have to stay on benefits for six months? We need to stop them entering the country in the first place. Tony Abbott’s approach in Australia ensured that illegal boats heading for his country were towed to an offshore centre. From there they were able to make a claim for asylum. But if it was rejected they could return home but not to Australia. The approach was tough but it was also compassionate. It meant the attempt stopped being made – previously hundreds had drowned. Our Border Force operation must be strengthened to stop boats from illegally reaching Britain’s territorial waters.
In any case, not all asylum seekers have entered the country illegally. What about Afghans who are here studying or with a work permit and are due to go back to Afghanistan? They might apply to be allowed to stay as refugees. What is achieved by banning them from work while we make up our minds?
For all the emotion, it all comes down to numbers. Few politicians would argue that we should refuse to accept any refugees. Or that we can accept everyone. So it is a question of taking as many as practical within the constraints of the pressures on social cohesion, the housing shortage, and the strain on the taxpayer. Some of the existing regulations are counter-productive in meeting these challenges. A more practical approach would allow us to welcome more people to our shores than it would otherwise be feasible for us to accommodate.