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List of recommendations to improve housing situation of Beneficiaries of International Protection in Poland – prepared by Refugee Council operating within the NIEM/V4NIEM

As a result of the meeting organized by the Institute of Public Affairs with the Refugee Council, formed within the framework of NIEM/V4NIEM projects, a list of recommendations on housing situation of BIPs in Poland has been drafted. The Refugee Council consists of nine members, who are distinguished activists and refugee community leaders in Poland, sharing their knowledge and experience of forced migration during the regular thematic meetings. All members have a long professional and personal experience as activists and community leaders, and are involved in various actions and initiatives for intercultural dialogue and integration within the national and international networks. 

The purpose of establishing the Council was to strengthen the impact of people with refugee experience on the ongoing discussions about the shape of the integration policies in Poland, their outcomes and improvements, as well as to strengthen their impact on integration research.

During the second meeting of the Refugee Council, a wide scope of issues were raised relating in particular to the housing situation of people with international protection and those benefiting from the assistance outside the reception centres. The goal of the meeting was to share experiences and practices related to the housing situation, as well as to search for effective initiatives related to housing for people with refugee experience in Poland. The Council members highlighted the challenges that people with granted protection and asylum seekers face with the Polish housing system, due to gaps in legal framework or insufficiently developed current solutions.

As a result of the meeting and particularly of the insightful discussion that has taken place, the Council has developed recommendations on possible changes and improvements to public administration activity at both the local and the national level regarding housing policy for people with refugee experience. The main obstacles faced by people with a refugee experience with regard to housing include: 
  • Problems with renting in the commercial market, 
  • The Individual Integration Program that is not well adjusted to the needs of its beneficiaries, 
  • The lack of recognition of the needs of people with refugee experience in local housing policies, 
  • The lack of governmental housing and anti-refugee discourse of authorities, 
  • The lack of significant cooperation of local authorities with NGOs, 
  • The lack of an efficient crisis aid system.

The Council put forward a number of suggestions regarding possible and desired changes in action planning and policy management housing towards people with refugee experience. With reference to the aforementioned points, the following solutions have been proposed:
  • Support programs for people with refugee experience
  • Verification of the scope of housing assistance under the IPI
  • Dialogue with representatives of local authorities, exchange of experiences and good practices with non-governmental organizations
  • Educational and anti-discrimination programs
  • Integration of the refugees’ needs into strategies and public policies

1.    Housing support program 

The absence of the sense of security and stability provided by a permanent and maintainable roof over one’s head is among the main barriers to the integration of refugees. In the case of asylum-seekers relying on non-central benefits and beneficiaries of international protection, renting an apartment on the free market is a huge challenge. One of the main obstacles is the lack of access to cheap housing, with high rents and deposits often significantly exceeding the financial capacity of residents-to-be. In the process of searching the appropriate apartment, the problem of discriminatory behaviour is prevalent, as landlords often display a reluctance to rent premises particularly to multi-person families, independent mothers with children, or people with disabilities. Additionally, landlords will commonly inflate their down-payment, utility bills, or refuse to officially sign lease agreements. Asylum seekers and BIPs often fail to report these type of issues as they fear losing an apartment, knowing that to find another one would be a further challenge. These barriers to renting also often result in the problem of renting substandard flats with confined space, in which the living conditions are considered health-threatening. In the case of people who are just starting their lives in Poland, and those whose residence situation may not be fully regulated yet, the short-term housing support that is currently in force does not provide the appropriate assistance. Another significant barrier is that, accordance with the law, asylum seekers cannot work legally, BIPs may face difficulties in finding a job due to lack Polish language skills, and some people may have possible need for treatment and / or psychological support. All of these factors limit the financial opportunities of asylum seekers and BIPs, and thus further limit their housing opportunities.

There are several possible actions considered as tangible solutions. One of the main recommendations of the Refugee Council is the creation of an appropriate support program for asylum-seekers and BIPs, covering mediation with landlords and consultancy in the process of finding and renting an affordable flat. While designing this kind of action, it is possible to apply the good practices coming from the already existing housing support measures implemented by NGOs such as: Refugees Welcome, Program WITEK, Social Rental Agency. Establishing a body responsible for the Program on behalf of public administration would be a guarantee for both property owners and landlords, it could also prevent possible abuses and fraud, while boosting the stability and enabling faster and sustainable independence.

2.    Verification of the scope of housing assistance under the Individual Integration Program (IIP)

The Individual Integration Program, which lasts for only 12 months from the moment of receiving the status of international protection, is defined by the beneficiaries themselves as insufficient to achieve appropriate adaptation level in the new environment and prepare oneself to cover free market rental costs. This is especially relevant for people belonging to vulnerable groups, such as single mothers or people with disabilities. Moreover, the amount of the financial assistance established within the IIP to contribute to the rental costs is definitely inadequate to current prices in the commercial market.

In line with the Council's recommendations, housing assistance under IIP should be verified, taking into account the opinions of beneficiaries and independent experts, including those in the field of the real estate who possess the appropriate knowledge of current prices, opportunities, and potential challenges related to rental in the commercial market. The regulations guiding the IIP have been out of date for more than a decade now, and they no longer answer the needs of its beneficiaries. Among the most pressing issues to be amended: the IIP duration should be at least twice as long, while the amount specified within IIP to contribute to the rental costs should be adapted to the current prices of the commercial housing market.

3.    Dialogue with representatives of local authorities, exchange of experiences and good practices with NGOs

An important element of the process of improving the housing situation of BIPs is to take into account the already existing, proven solutions and good practices developed by non-governmental organizations. The current lack of cooperation between local authorities and NGOs in the implementation of housing support projects for BIPs has a harmful effect on the level of services provided by local administration. The exchange of experiences and good practices through dialogue between representatives of local authorities and non-governmental organizations could lead to an increase in the administration's participation in creating solutions that take into account the housing needs of BIPs as part of local housing policies.

4.    Educational and anti-discrimination programs

Due to the fact that the negative discourse towards refugees present in the public debate strengthens discriminatory attitudes among the majority society, the Council recommends the development of educational programs aimed at increasing social awareness of the current situation of refugees in Poland and beyond. It is also important to change the narrative on the benefits stemming from economic migration only, and to refocus it towards the numerous positive aspects arising from the presence of refugees and asylum seekers in the host country. This could be achieved by means of promoting the discourse of agency and social potential in the era demographic crisis, progressive and fast aging of Polish society, difficult economic situation, and the high-level emigration of Poles.

On the other hand, it is recommended to plan the wide-ranging social campaigns aimed at both groups – to BIPs in the context of regulatory provisions and tenant rights, and to possible landlords with the aim of eliminating fears of renting a flat to a foreigner – in order to develop a positive image of co-neighbourhood with people of other nationalities. 

5.    Integrating the needs of people with a refugee experience into local strategies and public policies

The characteristics of the needs of BIPs settling in Poland requires an appropriate, tailored-made approach, included in a comprehensive housing policy and local public strategies. The government-led housing policy created in recent years does not involve BIPs as a separate group, particularly vulnerable to problems such as homelessness or poverty. Public support in the form of sheltered housing - offered only by a handful of Polish cities - is a solution worth following, but the dimension of this type of assistance should be significantly increased, while also simplifying the qualification procedures. 

According to the general law, as a vulnerable group, BIPs have the right to apply for social housing. Nevertheless, the waiting time for a decision is exceedingly long due to an insufficient number of workforce available. Other obstacles encountered by BIPs during the qualification process for social housing is the lack of uniform procedures and requirements: there are numerous discrepancies between particular cities as well as between particular districts (for example in Warsaw). Furthermore, there is little to no cooperation between the municipality (“gmina”) and the district (“powiat”) administrations, which greatly extends the process of documents transmission. Finally, there is no clear set of criteria for granting or refusing housing support - procedures are often discretionary and dependent on the opinions of public officials.

Recommendations of the Council include a proposal to revise the eligibility criteria for sheltered housing and social housing, especially those concerning: income criteria, dimensions of the premises inhabited at the time of application, the requirements of having / not having lease agreements and adapting them to the realities of the BIPs’ situation, and the challenges they face on the housing market. In the area of housing support for BIPs there is a particular need for an individualized approach, sensible communication, as well as less formalism and bureaucracy. The aforementioned recommendations apply in particular to the cases for which there is a need to provide emergency assistance, such as in the case of access to centres for people in a crisis of homelessness, or women's centres.