By Mauro Striano
The humanitarian crisis related to the significant influx of people looking for asylum has generated a heated debate in the European Union that attracted a lot of attention in the media and engaged not only policy makers but also the public opinion. In several cities citizens volunteered to provide the support that thousands of destitute newcomers urgently needed and should have normally been provided with by public authorities. A situation that undeniably presents important challenges to tackle has become an emergency because of lack of coordination between Member States, inadequate asylum policies and structural problems with regards to the provision of services and to access to housing.
It is not the first time that the European Union has had to respond to an important inflow of asylum seekers. Having peaked in 1992 with 672,000 applications in the EU-15, and again in 2001 with 424,000 applications in the EU-27, the number of asylum applications within the EU-27 fell in successive years to just below 200,000 and then, since 2006, has constantly increased rising to 431,000 in 2013 and 626,000 in 2014. Although it is undeniable that 2015 has witnessed an unprecedented number of asylum applicants – 1.1 million asylum seekers were registered only in Germany – the European asylum system suffers from serious structural problems that have been hindering an adequate support and provision of services for years.
A number of standards for the reception of asylum applicants are provided in EU law. Besides ensuring proper information, family unit, education of minors, access to the labour market no later than 9 months from the start of the application procedure and access to health care, a set of material reception conditions should be implemented in order to prevent asylum seekers from living in inadequate housing and sleeping rough. Indeed, not only accommodation must be available but it has also to ensure an adequate standard of living which should be provided in specific premises, accommodation centres, private houses, in flats or in hotels.
Obviously, in order to guarantee an effective support and to facilitate the integration process of asylum applicants, specific premises are the best option. The problem, however, is that in several EU countries there are not enough places in specific premises for asylum seekers. As a consequence, public authorities often rely on homeless services, which unfortunately are not adapted to asylum seekers’ specific needs and do not have the capacity to satisfy all the demand either. The lack of places in specific premises and in general homeless services leads many asylum seekers to be accommodated in hotels where they do not receive adequate support or, even worse, to live in camps and on the streets. In 2014, in France, 23,000 asylum seekers sleeping rough were counted.
Obtaining the status of refugee does not necessarily mean applicants no longer risk being on the streets: besides the structural lack of adequate housing, refugees generally have to leave within a short time the accommodation provided during the asylum procedure and because of a lack of sufficient resources to pay a rental guarantee and discrimination in the private rental market, they are vulnerable to homelessness. Those whose asylum application are refused and end up residing irregularly are in an even worse situation and low threshold services are often their only recourse, if national legislation allows it. Homeless services therefore are one of the main providers, not only during the asylum procedure but also at the end of it.
The supply of accommodation and support, which cannot meet the huge and increasing demand, regardless of the administrative status of the homeless people concerned, inevitably puts the pressure on the service providers. Moreover, it has the vicious effect of creating tension and competition between different groups of homeless people and leads to xenophobic feelings easily used by some political parties to propose dangerous policy agendas and to provoke even more tension. These challenges do not seem to be taken into account by the European Commission that in its migration packages does not foresee any measure to help Member States strengthen the capability of reception services.
The reality is that, even without the current humanitarian crisis, the structural problems in Member States’ housing markets generate housing exclusion amongst people facing poverty and social exclusion. 40% of poor people in the EU experience housing cost overburden, meaning that they spend more than 40% of their income on housing. Depending on the country, poor people are 4 to 20 times more likely to experience this than others. The humanitarian reception crisis further adds to the urgency of addressing this. In the medium-term, pressure on housing markets is set to increase. Structural challenges vary between Member States but include a lack of affordable supply – particularly in growing urban centres and a stock of inadequate quality and regulatory contexts that fail to ensure adequate security of tenure to vulnerable people. Solving these problems would have a significant positive impact, not only on newcomers but also on those who have already been facing homelessness and housing exclusion in the EU. Failure to properly plan for and address these emerging housing needs will compound existing problems. Moreover, by addressing structural housing problems, the EU could develop a long-term strategy that would help avoiding other humanitarian crises in the future.
Member States need to invest in reception services in the short term and in housing in the longer term but national actions need to be coordinated and facilitated at EU level if we really want to achieve a common asylum system and properly implement EU legislation. Therefore, most importantly, the EU needs to acknowledge the important role played by the homeless sector in providing accommodation and other basic services to asylum applicants, to refugees as well as to those whose asylum application is refused. To develop adequate migration and asylum policies, access to housing needs to be the priority: once newcomers have a place in which they can live with dignity, access to services and to the labour market and in the end effective integration into society can become a reality.
Mauro Striano is Policy Officer at the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA). This article was originally published as the editorial in the FEANTSA magazine Homeless in Europe Winter 2015/16 edition, focusing on the homelessness facing asylum seekers and refugees in Europe, which is available to read online here [PDF].
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