The ongoing refugee crisis across Europe has dominated political and public debate over the last year. While Europe has been discussing responsibilities for refugees at an international scale, the UK has faced questions over its responsibilities towards refugees and asylum seekers at both national and local levels.
In policy terms, the UK has been faced with two questions. First, how to resettle refugees as part of a response to the current ‘crisis’. This involves offering opportunities for protection to those already recognised as refugees under international law, often hosted in UN-run refugee camps. And second, how to accommodate and support asylum seekers who apply for refugee status on arrival in the UK. This involves those who are seeking asylum in the UK, and are having their claims for refugee status examined by the Home Office. These two questions have often been considered separately. Yet in doing so, opportunities are being missed to provide the support needed by all of those fleeing persecution, conflict and violence.
The government’s reluctance to provide resettlement opportunities to refugees has been notable, with the decision to admit 20,000 refugees across five years coming only after considerable public, political and media pressure on the Prime Minister. Similar calls to allow the resettlement of unaccompanied refugee children from Europe to the UK, in an echo of the celebrated Kindertransport programme of the 1930s, have also only been successful after sustained political pressure. The argument made by those opposed to resettlement is that it would incentivise the journey to Europe, despite evidence that it is the ‘push’ factors of conflict that drive refugee mobility into Europe, rather than the assumed ‘pull’ factors of British welfare and support.
“The UK’s approach to accommodating asylum seekers – many of whom may have arrived from Syria – has received far less public and political backing than humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees”
In 2015, the UK’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme (VPR), granted protection to 1,194 people, who were given a five-year leave to remain in the UK. Through the VPR, Syrian refugees were resettled directly from refugee camps at Syria’s borders. High profile arrivals in Bradford, Belfast, Glasgow and on the Isle of Bute received positive press coverage as examples of how local communities are supporting refugees in beginning a new life. The VPR programme has thus offered a vital lifeline to vulnerable Syrians, albeit in much smaller numbers than many other European countries.
The approach taken here has been to encourage local authorities to sign up to resettle small numbers of Syrian refugees and to provide accommodation, support and integration services. With the backing of the Home Office, and positive media coverage, councils across the UK have felt able to take part. This backing has been further strengthened by widespread public support for humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees.
By contrast, the UK’s approach to accommodating and supporting asylum seekers – many of whom may also have arrived from Syria – has received far less public and political backing. Since 2000, the UK has run a policy of ‘dispersal’ through which asylum seekers are relocated across the country to temporary accommodation whilst awaiting decisions on their claims to refugee status. In March 2012, this accommodation system was privatised, in a move intended to both cut costs and to simplify the task of managing dispersal for the Home Office. This meant that accommodation was no longer provided by local authorities but by three private contractors – G4S, Serco and Clearel – who had limited experience of providing housing and social care.
Dispersal has been politically contentious since its inception as local authorities have felt that the policy has led to concentrations of asylum seekers in areas of existing social deprivation due to the availability of low-cost housing. Outsourcing accommodation to private providers has done little to allay such concerns. Indeed, the reality of privatisation has been that the removal of local authorities from this process has led to a less cohesive system of support, producing a fragmented and under-resourced system struggling to cope with the demands of the Home Office.
Unlike the Syrian VPR Programme, the dispersal process is one that has been removed from public ownership, starved of adequate resources, and framed as a question of economic efficiencies rather than moral obligations. With the UK having seen a 29 per cent increase in asylum applications from 2014 to 2015, the ability of private providers to procure housing for asylum seekers has been outstripped, leading to both the provision of substandard housing, and the use of hotels as interim accommodation centres. At the same time, the removal of local authorities from the dispersal process, together with the unprecedented financial pressure they face, has meant that asylum support services have rapidly diminished, leaving only charitable provision in many parts of the UK.
It might thus be argued, that the UK has a two-track system of accommodation and support that relies on distinguishing refugees from asylum seekers. The refugees resettled through the Syrian VPR Programme receive public forms of provision, with social housing being used to accommodate them and councils receiving limited investment from the Home Office for integration services. By contrast, the dispersal system has been removed from any such public support, has to be made profitable for a small number of contractors, and is a target for savings by the Treasury.
But viewing this as a two-track process is dangerous as it ignores the connections between refugee resettlement and asylum dispersal. This matters for three reasons. First, because presenting resettlement and dispersal as distinct plays into a divisive political message that those with refugee status are both more ‘genuine’, and more ‘deserving’ of support, than those in the asylum process. Yet in practice, this distinction is often problematic to maintain and substantiate, not least because some of those within the asylum process will have escaped from the exact same conditions as those resettled through the VPR Programme.
Second, this connection matters because without it the geography of refugee and asylum support in the UK risks being divided between areas of selective choice (those local authorities who have agreed to take part in the Syrian VPR Programme) and areas of Home Office imposition (those local authorities who are subject to the choices of private providers in housing asylum seekers). This distinction has implications. With a problematic division between refugees and asylum seekers maintained in this two-track system, there is a significant risk that areas subject to dispersal lack the resources to provide for new and existing residents. Furthermore, there is a concurrent risk that resentment towards asylum seekers is exacerbated by comparison to areas of refugee resettlement.
“There is much to be gained from a more joined-up geography of refugee resettlement and asylum dispersal in the UK”
Third, this connection matters because it presents a crucial opportunity to improve support for asylum seekers and refugees. Local authorities considering a role within the Syrian VPR Programme have reported some reluctance on the basis of their experiences of dispersal and its privatisation. At the same time, areas of refugee resettlement have often seen significant public support for the cause of welcoming refugees. If we move beyond thinking of resettlement and dispersal as distinct policies and ring-fenced approaches, there is potential to consider what each can offer the other. A joined-up approach to resettlement and dispersal would mean enabling the support that is available to resettled refugees to be open to asylum seekers too. If those arriving in Bradford, Glasgow or Belfast require some level of orientation and support to feel secure, why should this only extend to those with the right to remain for five years and not to all of those within the asylum system during their time in the country? This is not to suggest that refugee status should automatically be given to such individuals. Rather, it is to argue that the treatment of those in the asylum system should be measured on the same standards and expectations as those arriving with refugee status.
For existing dispersal areas this might offer one way to access some of the forms of support and provision that have been denied through privatisation. Refugee resettlement could offer not just a means to fulfil a humanitarian obligation to those deemed ‘most vulnerable’, but could also improve the infrastructure and resourcing of services for those within the asylum system too. At the same time, linking the support and goodwill of refugee resettlement to asylum dispersal may offer one means of extending the reach of dispersal to new parts of the UK. Rising asylum applications, and the failings of private providers, have led to an urgent need to diversify dispersal destinations and to move beyond purely low-cost housing markets. Sharing the expertise, resources, and experience gained through refugee resettlement might offer one way to encourage new dispersal locations.
There are, of course, limits. While significant, the Syrian VPR Programme is by no means well resourced. It may provide more than the privatised provision of the dispersal system, but it is nevertheless restricted. Similarly, there are differences in the forms of support and advice required by those in the asylum system to those with refugee status. However, despite these limitations, there is much to be gained from a more joined-up geography of refugee resettlement and asylum dispersal in the UK, not least in galvanising public support for refugees and extending this to those awaiting refugee status.