West Berkshire, along with other districts in the country, has for many years hosted refugees from trouble-hit areas around the world. However, the matter really came to public attention with the arrival of people fleeing from violence in Syria in 2017, from Afghanistan in 2021 and then from a number of other countries including Iran, Sudan and El Salvador. Many refugees have been housed in hotels while they await a decision from the Home Office as to whether they can stay in this country (such permission is known as ‘Leave to Remain’). This process is not a quick one, typically taking up to 18 months.
During this time, many of the refugees (who are forbidden from working while their cases are being assessed) have been volunteering for local organisations. Some have even set up their own environmental group, Vian, to do litter picking and other environmental improvement jobs in and around Thatcham. The above photo shows members of the group meeting the then Thatcham Major Jeff Brooks in 2022 in the Thatcham Council Chamber.
Recently, the Home Office has started to approve the applications for Leave to Remain. While this is welcome, this has replaced one state of uncertainty with another, as this statement and plea for help received from West Berkshire Action for Refugees (WBAR) on 23 August explains:
“Local refugees are being made homeless as a result of receiving Leave to Remain decisions. West Berkshire Action for Refugees (WBAR) is pleased that positive decisions are being made; however the hotels which currently house the refugees cannot allow anyone to stay beyond their short eviction notice period.
“WBAR is urgently seeking host families willing to provide short-term accommodation for refugees in the area. These are people who have been approved by the Home Office to stay in the UK and find work because they cannot live safely in their home country. Potential host families can contact us or apply to the Refugees at Home charity that carefully matches guests and hosts and provides support throughout the stay.
“Since May 2023, WBAR has been working jointly with West Berkshire Council to plan how to support people as they receive their Leave to Remain. The Council Housing team is proactively seeking ways to mitigate the problem, but this may take a time.
“The problem is made worse by mistakes in the documentation that has been sent out by the Home Office. To date, of the 15 or so asylum seekers who have received positive decisions (none have been turned down as yet) the majority have been sent incorrect documents, even though up to that point their documentation was correct. Over half of the Biometric Residence Permits (BRP) issued have wrong photos, incorrect spelling of names and incorrect dates of birth. The BRPs are arriving with no supporting documentation, no guidance, no ‘notice of eviction’. In a few cases they receive the supporting letter but no BRP.
“They are simply advised to call Migrant Help (the independent Charity paid by the Home Office to deal with telephone queries regarding asylum cases and associated paperwork) about the errors but so far not one refugee has heard back regarding their paperwork and one refugee was simply told to seek help from the council.
“Without a correct BRP they do not have a correct NI number so cannot claim benefits, apply for jobs or open bank accounts. They are left homeless without any correct paperwork to support them.
“Many refugees are being asked to leave the hotel with little or no notice. In all of the official paperwork and online, the eviction notice period is stated to be 28 days. Just in the last couple of weeks WBAR has seen information from the Home Office noting that the housing companies can give the minimum of seven days’ notice. In practice they are serving the notice from the date of the letter even if it takes four days to arrive.
“West Berkshire Action for Refugees continues to work to find accommodation and employment for the refugees. If you would be interested in offering short term accommodation to refugees whilst they set out on their journey of settling in the UK then please contact us at [email protected].”
Home Office response
On 24 August we contacted the Home Office and put this issue to them. A spokesperson told me that “asylum casework and support colleagues are working closely together to improve our processes and ensure Biometric Residence Permits (BRPs) are issued as quickly as possible. Anyone wishing to report a problem with their BRP is able to do so online.”
The statement added that:
- Anyone who has claimed asylum and been granted leave as a result must be issued with a BRP.
- Caseworkers making an asylum decision must ensure that the individual’s name, nationality and date of birth are correct and correspond to caseworking system records.
- For more information, please see: Biometric residence permits (BRPs): Report a problem with your new BRP – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
I was very favourably impressed by how quickly the phone was answered on the three times I called and how quickly this statement was provided. Let’s hope that the problems with the paperwork referred to above can be resolved with a similar turn of pace.
(Note: I’m afraid to say that subsequent research and events – click here and scroll down to “28 days or seven” in the 31 August 2023 column – didn’t support this optimism.)
About West Berkshire Action for Refugees
WBAR is a small grassroots local charity established in 2015, run entirely by volunteers. It mainly but not exclusively supports refugees by providing practical support and learning opportunities. Over the past five years its focus has been to support first newly arrived Syrian families, then Afghan families and more recently asylum seekers placed in hotels by the Home Office. It helps people to develop skills, take up volunteering roles and prepare them to live independently in the UK. It sources donations of clothing and toiletries for those who need it and assists them to navigate the complexities of life in the UK. WBAR believes in showing compassion and kindness to those who have experienced war zones, tragedy and trauma on their journey here.