When Eritrean refugee Hermon gave birth to her daughter Ruftana in February, her joy quickly turned into fear as she and her husband Yonathan grappled with the overwhelming reality of raising their first child while homeless in London.
Although Hermon and Yonathan were given refugee status in 2015, being unable to find work, they could not afford to rent and shared a cramped one-bedroom flat with Hermon’s sister and her two children in south London.
As the family edged closer to breaking point, a caseworker introduced 32-year-old Yonathan to Rachel Mantell, who lived in nearby Brixton and offered them a spare room through Refugees at Home, a charity she helps run that matches homeless refugees with volunteer hosts across Britain.
Tough asylum procedures, limited job opportunities and a shortage of homes in Britain have pushed thousands of refugees and asylum seekers into homelessness, which can spiral into labour abuses and sexual exploitation, charities say.
“If we didn’t find Rachel, if we didn’t meet her, we could have ended up homeless and sleeping on the streets,” said 30-year-old Hermon, who declined to give her full name fearing reprisals against her family in Eritrea after the couple fled the country in 2014 for political reasons.
“Thanks to them, we have a home. They are like family to us. They support us with everything,” Hermon said, sipping on a mug of tea in the house that her family now shares with Mantell, her husband Chris and toddler Joseph.
“WE SHOULDN’T NEED TO EXIST”
At least 250,000 people are estimated to be homeless across England, housing charity Shelter said last December, because of a lack of affordable homes, along with government funding cuts and restrictions on welfare benefits.
The government set out long-term plans in February to tackle England’s chronic shortage of housing, largely blamed on failures to ensure homebuilding is keeping pace with demand. .
Mantell said her charity has offered spare rooms to migrants sleeping rough in parks, on couches of friends or relatives, and even on night buses, travelling from one end of the route to the other.
“Letting people be somewhere safe … is a really valuable thing at that urgent time of their life,” said Mantell, who has hosted Yonathan, Hermon and Ruftana for nearly four months.
“But it is very sad and it actually makes me quite angry that we (Refugees at Home) have to exist. We shouldn’t need to exist,” she said.
While there is no data on how many refugees or asylum seekers are hosted in British homes through various charities, Refugees At Home said it has provided nearly 29,300 hosted nights to hundreds of people since it started in October 2015.
London-based charity Housing Justice said people waiting for asylum, or those appealing their rejected claims, were most at risk of homelessness and destitution since they are not entitled to regular welfare benefits nor are they allowed to work.
“These people have nowhere else to go, (there’s) no provision for them,” said Jacob Quagliozzi, deputy director of Housing Justice which runs night shelters for the homeless, and also offers spare rooms to refugees in London.
“Sometimes destitute migrants can fall through the safety net. They’re vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking, and forced labour on the black market,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
With just over 38,500 claims in 2016, Britain receives the sixth most asylum applications in the European Union (EU), compared to more than 700,000 in Germany, the EU country with the highest number, statistics office Eurostat says.
The British Red Cross said it provided food parcels and clothing to more than 14,000 homeless and destitute asylum seekers in 2016 who relied on an asylum allowance of about 36 pounds ($46) a week.
“MOVE ON” PERIOD
Even if migrants are granted refugee status in Britain – and given access to regular benefits and the right to work – they must vacate their government-provided accommodation within 28 days.
This “move on” period has left many refugees falling through the cracks, politicians and charities say, arguing the timeframe is unrealistic given language barriers and the paperwork needed to secure rental properties or employment.
In April, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Refugees, which consists of cross-party members of parliament, urged the interior ministry to extend the period to 50 days.
But the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils across the country, says the 28-day period is mostly an issue in larger cities like London, where there is a housing shortage, but not as problematic in smaller towns.
“For people who feel they need to move to cities, perhaps to be with family or their communities, the availability of affordable housing can become a real issue,” said LGA’s Simon Blackburn, a lead member for asylum, migration and refugees.
He said some landlords exacerbate the problem by refusing to rent to refugees, while others exploit their desperation to find a home.
“There are also people who see it as an opportunity to exploit refugees, who let properties that aren’t really safe for human occupation,” Blackburn said in a phone interview.
For Eritrean refugees Yonathan and Hermon, who want to stay in London to be with relatives, the pressure to find a home for their growing infant looms large.
As Yonathan spends his days looking for work, Hermon waits by the phone to see if they are eligible for a council house in the northwestern city of Manchester, their second choice.
But if all else fails, the young couple have the Mantell family in Brixton as a lifeline and can stay with them as long as necessary.
“They’re helping us even though we’re not relatives. That’s generosity. I don’t have enough words. It’s important to have people like them,” Hermon said.