Europe’s housing shortage to exacerbate refugee crisis

An estimated 8000 refugees enter Europe every day in search of a new home. But as winter approaches, Europe’s housing shortage could leave them on the streets, separated from their families, and with little chance of employment.

We bring Alice Pittini, Research Coordinator for Housing Europe, and Jenny Phillimore, Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (University of Birmingham), together to discuss the future of housing for refugees, asylum seekers, and the general population. We kicked things off then left them to the discussion…

ResearchGate: Alice, based on your research, what housing challenges will asylum seekers and refugees face in the coming months?

Alice Pittini: At the time of writing the State of Housing 2015 report, the size and nature of the ‘refugee crisis’ was not even foreseen. Yet, it clearly emerged from the study that access to affordable housing was already difficult across the European Union. Housing shortages concentrate around the main urban centers, and homelessness and social housing waiting lists are rising. And now the recorded jump in asylum seekers puts further pressures on local and national housing markets. For example, Germany’s expected income of 800,000 or more refugees by the end of the year corresponds to an additional 128,000 homes (based on those who may stay). That’s on top of the 140,000 homes already needed in Germany each year for the next five years. Sweden is also facing a housing shortage and official estimates show 25,000 to 45,000 asylum seekers won’t have housing accommodation there by the end of 2015.

RG: Jenny, same question for you…

Jenny Phillimore: At the present time some countries do not have the capacity to house refugees in their existing facilities. Germany is housing asylum seekers in tents on the grounds of university campuses and other public spaces. Other countries are looking to convert unused industrial and office buildings to housing.  Given that many of these spaces were not designed to house people, suitability and sustainability will inevitably be a problem. Also, asylum seekers are often dispersed in the United Kingdom, sometimes repeatedly, to areas where accommodation is cheap and available. This tends to be in northern cities where unemployment rates are high and accommodation is of poor quality.

RG: How can these problems be overcome?

Phillimore: Dispersal can have a detrimental effect on long-term integration processes. One option to overcome the problem is by offering individuals a choice of destinations so they can be near friends and family for support. Also, many refugees are young single people who have no priority in accessing social housing. In the UK, once they gain refugee status individuals have a maximum of 28 days to leave their asylum accommodation. Obtaining National Insurance Numbers, which they need to claim benefit and access employment, is frequently slow and leaves new refugees homeless and destitute. Our research shows that this is a period of extreme vulnerability, so some kind of bridging housing, for example hostels for new refugees, or a loan deposit for private rented housing, would be useful. Although there would be cost implications it would ultimately save money in preventing homelessness and some of the associated mental health problems.

Phillimore: Alice, what suggestions do you have to house asylum seekers in the midst of the crisis, and refugees in the longer term, given the housing shortage in Europe?

Pittini: Solutions depend on the needs and resources at local level, but I would stress the need to mobilize existing resources. One example is transforming existing buildings into temporary housing, which may require short term relaxation of building permits. Accompanying people from temporary into more permanent housing, as you suggested, also requires the right level of support. The social housing sector must be part of this solution. It must have a stronger contribution in the medium to long term, rather than in the emergency situation. It is very important that we keep a supply of affordable and good quality housing for all. Part of this means investing even more energy to ensure a social mix in the neighbourhoods, and support for community activities. The role of local authorities is key in addressing both the need for housing, and for integrated support services.

Pittini: What do you think are the problems with housing asylum seekers in the cheapest possible housing/areas in the long term?

Phillimore: These areas often have little experience of diversity. Changes happen quickly and sometimes not discussed with local people. There have been occasions when asylum seekers have been subject to violent racist attacks. Racist harassment is commonplace and not helped by negative rhetoric about asylum seekers from the media and politicians. In the longer term, given that many asylum seekers remain in these “cheap” areas, the issue becomes one of opportunity costs. Such areas frequently have few quality employment opportunities. This means refugees, many of whom are highly educated and motivated, struggle to access work. Employment in itself is critical to long-term integration and social mobility. By placing asylum seekers in deprived areas their potential to get on is reduced.

Phillimore: How can housing providers work with their tenants to reduce levels of racist harassment against asylum seekers and refugees?

Pittini: Housing providers can help strengthen local acceptance, prevent extremist reactions, and break down stereotypes. They do this by partnering with local welfare services, associations, NGOs, and others, to provide a wide range of services with an integrated approach. This includes housing and job opportunities, education and training, and creating socially mixed neighbourhoods. For example, Denmark is home to 180 nationalities, and communities are often segregated by youth conflicts, culture, or religion. Not for profit housing associations tackle harassment in these areas by creating education and work opportunities, and focusing on dialogue, participation, inclusion, and access to equal opportunities.

Pittini: Besides the need to find urgent solutions in the short term, what do you think the impact of asylum seekers has on the housing ‘market’ over time?

Phillimore: Asylum seekers have been housed in areas of low demand. These are areas with empty housing, sometimes problems with anti-social behavior, and general environmental decline. In dispersal cities, the amount of abandonment has reduced and previously unpopular housing estates are now more vibrant. Anecdotally we hear that house prices have risen and levels of anti-social behavior have decreased. Often those who were housed as asylum seekers remain in the area when they receive refugee status. This has stabilized neighborhoods that were once plagued with high levels of churn. Schools and other facilities have also seen some investment as numbers increase rather than decline.

Pittini: And based on your research, what are the most important services for refugees and asylum seekers in the different stages of settling down in a new country?

Phillimore: In the early stages of arrival, asylum seekers need services explaining the systems they will be subject to, health care and clothes, and they need access to social media. Social media can facilitate family tracing and reunion – many refugees, understandably, cannot settle without reconnecting with their family. Ideally asylum seekers shouldn’t be (re-)dispersed. The opportunity to develop social networks with other asylum seekers, refugees and local people is important for support, advice and guidance. Language classes and good quality legal advice are essential in the orientation phase. Access to faith communities is important. And then over time, integration services are required that enable the development of vocational language skills, skills recognition and employability support. Many individuals also need specialist counselling to help them come to terms with the traumas they have faced in their country of origin, in flight and while being processed in asylum systems.

Feature image courtesy of UK Department for International Development

This interview was also featured on the University of Birmingham's news blog.