Home, haven and hope: Housing and its importance for refugees

Access to housing is particularly complicated for refugees and asylum seekers. A broad-based approach is crucial to safeguard this human right.

Raluca Budian

Spain and the other EU member states are immersed in an acute housing crisis involving a growing shortfall in the number of homes necessary to cater for the needs of the population in general and, in particular, those of migrants and refugees.  

According to EU figures, Spain had 116,135 asylum seekers in 2022, ranking third behind just Germany (217,735) and France (137,510). So far this year, according to Spain’s Ministry of the Interior, more than 50,000 applications have been submitted, mainly by people from countries such as Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.  

The concept of home or permanent dwelling immediately conjures up the idea of safety, privacy and independence, a place to build a life – something increasingly difficult to achieve nowadays. For refugees, a permanent dwelling may be a place where they can rebuild their lives and feel safe. Being deprived of such safety hampers many aspects of their life that often go unnoticed, e.g., social integration, social interaction, family stability and even their self esteem.  

Housing: a human right 

An inherent part of the housing issue is acknowledging that it is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, meaning that everyone is entitled to live in decent, safe housing, including those forced to flee their country of origin due to conflict, persecution or breaches of their human rights.  

To safeguard this right, states and the international community must take steps to ensure access to decent, safe housing whilst providing long-term solutions such as integration into the host community, access to healthcare, education, etc.  

The shortage of affordable housing has even greater impact for refugees

Refugees’ right to housing is a particularly thorny issue in Spain precisely because of the shortage of decent, affordable housing in general: a widespread problem with an even greater impact on this vulnerable group.  

This is in addition to the red tape involved, which limits their chances of finding somewhere to live, and also the stigmatisation and discrimination they suffer at the hands of property owners and even other residents in the community. All this accentuates the exclusion of such persons from society and housing, relegating them to never-ending waiting lists. 

Refugees from Ukraine, a unique case 

But this is not always the case. The most obvious example of a positive response from the EU and Spain is the reaction to persons fleeing Ukraine. Due to media coverage of the conflict and the implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive, EU member states offer resident permits valid for at least one year, and also facilitate access to education, healthcare, employment and accommodation. 

As of May 2023, more than 5 million refugees from Ukraine were registered in European countries. At the time of writing, Spain had taken in some 177,228 Ukrainian refugees.  

But, as we well know, this is not the case of thousands of other refugees. We must admit that the EU has double standards when helping people forced to leave everything behind in their countries of origin and who are subsequently arrested, rejected or treated inhumanely. This happens to displaced persons from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia. In some instances, they even die on the coasts of Europe. 

Solving discriminatory access to housing  

One might think that the housing problem could be remedied by building more homes, increasing public-sector housing or building alternative homes, e.g., by recycling shipping containers as in the cities of Copenhagen, Vancouver and Barcelona. 

However, surveys such as the one conducted by Provivienda in 2020 found that 72.5% of real estate agents in Spain applied absolute direct discrimination when offering accommodation, i.e. an outright refusal to accept foreign tenants, including migrants and refugees. In a 2021 survey, Barcelona City Council found that real estate agents agree to exclude such tenants in 86% of the instances when so requested by the owner. These findings reveal that it is commonplace for migrants to be vetted by real estate agents. 

It is commonplace for migrants to be vetted by real estate agents

Besides this, the eligibility criteria of rental contracts, abusive clauses, considerable documentation required or excessive tenancy deposits cast many of these people into vulnerable circumstances that could make them become homeless. Although some third-sector entities and NGOs that work with refugees and asylum seekers do act as intermediaries between properties owner or real estate agencies and tenants, they often face considerable restrictions due to racism. 

Unless society as a whole joins forces to eradicate discrimination in the private-sector housing market, such persons will become increasingly vulnerable, triggering further violence and reducing the welfare state mentioned so often. 

A comprehensive picture of the right to a haven  

In short, the numbers of people struggling each day to find a decent place to live, a home, a haven in which to rebuild their lives have increased in every EU country. This phenomenon highlights the huge housing problem.  

And so, it is important to take into account the limitations and challenges related to this issue, particularly as regards vulnerable people such as refugees and asylum seekers. However, a comprehensive approach is necessary in order to address such a complex issue, one that contemplates other key factors, e.g., access to employment, education and social services.  

Without this type of approach, housing restrictions may persist and prevent these people from having a decent, safe life. This is the only way to progress towards a fairer, more equal society that respects the human rights of every person, regardless of their migratory status. Undoubtedly, the first step is to acknowledge this in order to take action. 

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