Responding to refugee poverty: lessons from local and international research

Gina Netto, Heriot Watt University

Europe is now facing a scale of migration that many view as unprecedented. While it is difficult to estimate the exact numbers of people who are migrating to Europe, it is clear that there is an urgent need to consider responses to refugees, many of whom would have lost their homes, loved ones and possessions. This presents a challenge to individual member states of the European Union, many of which, including the UK, are already facing a severe housing shortage. Yet, even while governments engage in extensive negotiations over the numbers of people to accept, there is evidence of a willingness from some governments and many community organisations to welcome refugees and to consider how they can be assisted in building new lives.

Among the most urgent considerations is housing of refugees. Here, extensive research informs us that housing needs to be considered along with access to other key services including education, services which promote employability, health and social care services. These are needed in order to assist refugees in not only finding routes out of poverty but to thrive.

Housing allocation policies need to be sensitive to the demographics of existing communities. Areas with high levels of poverty, deprivation and unemployment – where the arrival of refugees might be viewed as presenting additional competition for available resources – should be avoided, if at all possible.

But alongside this, If it is difficult to find available housing in other areas, then extensive work needs to be undertaken with existing communities, including investing in new accommodation for the local population and community development in order to avoid racial hostility and tension. Local communities should be prepared for the arrival of refugees. Awareness of the reasons for forced migration should be raised. Local residents should also be assured that they would not be disadvantaged through increased pressure on services. The allocation of housing to refugees in these areas should be gradual, allowing existing residents to become accustomed to new arrivals over time.

It is also timely to consider what can be learnt from diverse social, political and economic contexts in terms of tackling extreme housing exclusion. A forthcoming report involving case studies in eleven countries that will be published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will highlight several international lessons (Netto et al, forthcoming). Many of these solutions challenge widely held conceptions of what constitutes a ‘home’ and the processes of ‘home-making.’

Some of these solutions have been made possible by advancements in technology and design. They present alternatives to not dealing with the economic dimensions of housing exclusion, but also in addressing its social aspects.

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons to emerge from this study is the potential for mobilising change and changing the discourse around housing exclusion. In the light of the refugee crisis, this requires viewing the large scale displacement of individuals who are displaced by war and political conflict not as a burden which must be spread, but as an opportunity to consider how we can provide more affordable housing for all.

This week I was invited to a two day workshop on Housing refugees organised by the International Federation of Housing and Planning in Deventer, Netherlands (link provided). Here, academics and practitioners engaged in lively, intense and open debate over what could be done to respond to the needs of refugees. While the housing shortage in many member states of the EU was readily acknowledged as a serious challenge, it was not seen as a barrier. Rather, the current situation was seen as an opportunity for stimulating discussion on the widening of housing options beyond what is conventionally practised in member states, without compromising acceptable standards of accommodation or environmental goals.  Encouragingly, a sense of common purpose united individuals from different political persuasions, cultures and professional orientations and refugees were viewed as part of the solution.

This brought home to me that in considering how we respond to the arrival of refugees, we must not only ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and consider what can be learnt from other contexts. We need to reflect on whom we consider to be inside or outside our ‘imagined community,’ what kind of community we wish to be and the lengths that we are willing to go to achieve this.

Reference

Netto, G, Fitzpatrick, S, Sosenko, F and Smith, H (forthcoming) International lessons on tackling extreme housing exclusion. Joseph Rowntree Foundation: York

Link to IFHP workshop

Dr. Gina Netto, Associate Professor/Reader, Institute of Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate (I-SPHERE), Heriot Watt University

 

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