Government policy towards asylum seekers is being challenged. Dr Jonathan Darling asks if this should become part of the debate on the devolution of powers.
Disagreements between local authorities and the Home Office over asylum seeker dispersal numbers and arrangements have a long-standing history in Britain. Yet recently they have garnered greater media attention due to claims of ‘asylum apartheid’, along the lines of a North-South divide in provision. Liverpool City Council publicly criticised Home Office allocations and claimed the North of England is being unfairly treated. Yet – as both Professor Alice Bloch and I have explained on regional television – dispersal numbers in different regions have varied considerably historically. Liverpool is one of several cities that have accommodated varying levels of dispersal over the last decade.
The determining factor for dispersal has not been a desire to ‘burden’ certain cities, but to utilise low cost housing markets wherever these are available. Both Professor Bloch and I have been keen to move discussion of dispersal away from a dominant narrative of the ‘burden’ to be distributed, to think instead of more creative ways that asylum seekers may offer opportunities to establish new communities in the cities in which they are accommodated.
A BBC Radio 4 ‘File on 4’ documentary picked up on this theme. The programme investigated the changing nature of dispersal under the COMPASS model of asylum dispersal and the related move to private provision of accommodation. The programme featured interviews with local authority representatives in the North West, support services and MPs, gauging the challenges faced by the current model. In particular, the programme examined increasing pressure on housing providers such as Serco and G4S to improve the standard of their properties and to procure new properties at a time of housing shortage.
Shortly after this, the first joint conference between local authorities, refugee organisations and third sector organisations on the issue of asylum destitution was held in Bristol. The conference brought together stakeholders from 29 cities in the UK to discuss how urban authorities and support groups could work together to end the production of destitution among asylum seekers as a result of government policy. Part of the aim of the conference was to examine how cities could meaningfully assert opposition to government policy on asylum support, the right to work and the removal of support at the end of the asylum process.
These recent debates – along with an All-Party Parliamentary committees’ criticism of asylum detention policy – raise fundamental questions about the model of asylum support, accommodation and rights that is at the heart of government policy. These events have implicitly raised two challenges to public policy.
Firstly, to what extent should the asylum support, accommodation, detention and removal system be viewed through the lens of an ethos that is happy to outsource responsibilities for vulnerable individuals to providers offering services at the lowest cost? Whilst the abuses of immigration detention publicised in recent weeks are not new, neither are the challenges that private providers have faced in sourcing appropriate, good quality housing for asylum seekers. Quite aside from the moral question of whether asylum should be positioned as just another subject of the market, there is the issue of whether providers of detention centres and sub-standard housing are being held to account for their failures. And, crucially, whether such failures will be remembered when contracts are up for renewal.
The second, wider, question is what these events tell us about how cities are understood within the current asylum system. The anger felt by some local authorities over dispersal numbers and perceived pressure on resources is indicative of a sense of political frustration at not being listened to by the Home Office.
Yet this impasse presents opportunities, too. For those authorities attempting to oppose government policy around destitution and seeking to gain greater powers through devolution, the frustrations of the dispersal system may produce allies in authorities that are similarly disenfranchised by the perceived imposition of private providers.
As the General Election nears – with parties making positive noises about the devolution of selected powers to urban authorities – the question arises of whether cities might be able to use this situation to take progressive steps to support asylum seekers and refugees. For example, in Scotland the recent report of The Smith Commission outlines a desire to look again at the balance of authority between the devolved Scottish Government and Westminster over asylum support services, housing and legal provision. In effect, this is a call to transfer authority over asylum accommodation and dispersal in Scotland to Scotland. If cities in England and Wales were to demand the same, this might challenge the assumption of asylum as a market commodity.
These are debates in the making. It is clear that the rights of asylum seekers will remain a relatively minor concern in the General Election campaign. Where discussed, they will often be conflated into a broader discussion over migration. Yet the question of how the asylum accommodation and support system should be run, by whom and where its boundaries and limits are set, will be important concerns for whoever comes to power. At a time of shifting authority between Westminster, devolved authorities, cities and regions, the relationship between cities and the asylum system is itself likely to be changeable and fractured.
Perhaps the events of recent weeks have highlighted that whilst these fractures are deeply troubling, they also offer glimpses of more progressive relationships if cities are not afraid to advocate for the rights of their residents – whether citizens or asylum seekers.