No-one would say it was easy to agree public policy for the thorny issue of housing asylum seekers. But, argues Jonathan Darling, a recent news story shows just how urgent it is that a change of emphasis takes place.
Last week, officials from the Home Office visited Middlesbrough to inspect properties used to house asylum seekers and refugees. This follows recent revelations that these properties are readily identifiable by having red front doors. The two companies involved in housing asylum seekers and refugees in the North East of England, G4S and their subcontractor Jomast, have both denied that this was an intentional policy, and the Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, has promised an immediate inquiry.
Whilst there has been considerable concern about the harassment faced by the asylum seekers living behind the red doors, less attention has been paid to how this situation has arisen as part of the policy to house asylum seekers across the country.
In 2012, in the midst of the Coalition Government’s austerity drive, the Home Office handed contracts for asylum accommodation to three national providers – G4S, Serco, and Clearel. All three promised savings to the Home Office and appeared to present an easier model of provision – six central contracts replacing a wide range of agreements with consortiums of local authorities and housing associations.
The consequences of this shift have been far from positive. I’ve been researching the asylum dispersal and housing system in the UK for the last four years. I have found a system that is fragmented, under-resourced, and often reliant on poor-quality accommodation in areas of existing social deprivation. This is not new in terms of asylum housing. Asylum seekers have long been placed where housing is cheaply available, rather than where support services and existing community links are most accessible.
The policy for housing asylum seekers across the UK known as ‘dispersal’ has been in place since 2000. In the early years, local authorities with available social housing were at the forefront of provision. These early years of dispersal were marked by racist attacks, resentment over pressure on services and housing, and concerns about the capacity of local authorities to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals and families. It is therefore important to remember when discussing the failings of G4S and others, that former approaches to housing asylum seekers also led to stigmatisation, tension, and poor quality-properties.
However, with considerable work from local authorities, third sector organisations, and asylum and refugee support groups, that picture did improve. Awareness-raising work helped to address the concerns of communities living alongside asylum seekers, such that a city like Glasgow became known for its anti-deportation campaigns and the solidarity offered to its asylum seekers. Specialist knowledge on working with asylum seekers and refugees was developed as education, health care, and social services became aware of the needs of asylum seekers and refugees.
With the privatisation of the asylum housing process, many of these improvements have been reversed. As the red door incident illustrates, the voices of those seeking asylum are often ignored by accommodation providers and their subcontractors. Further still, identifying who is responsible for failings in housing are made all the more difficult under these contractual arrangements.
It is also important to note that the contracting out of asylum accommodation has had significant impacts on local authorities. The expertise developed within local authorities for working with asylum seekers and refugees has often been lost as there is no direct mandate to continue such work. With local authorities facing unprecedented financial pressure, asylum support services have rapidly diminished, leaving only charitable provision in many parts of the UK.
Furthermore, local authorities that were housing providers, now complain of a lack of communication with private accommodation providers and the Home Office over asylum seeker numbers. It’s become clear in the Middlesbrough case that concerns over red doors were raised on a number of occasions, yet these concerns were not listened to.
This reflects wider local government fears that the wellbeing of all involved in dispersal – asylum seekers and the communities they are dispersed to – are being ignored in favour of providing cheap housing and minimal services. Recent concerns in Liverpool and Portsmouth have illustrated the depth of feeling among local authorities on this issue.
Asylum housing is undoubtedly a challenging area of public policy. One made all the more difficult by the political tensions over refugee resettlement and migration throughout Europe. The stigmatisation that events in Middlesbrough have highlighted is shocking, but not new. The accommodation of asylum seekers has long been a matter of marginalisation, as housing has been sourced in areas that have often lacked support infrastructures and expertise. This was the case for many local authorities just as it is now for G4S and others.
We should though continue to ask questions of this policy. Just as the painting of front doors red sends a message, so too does the outsourcing of humanitarian obligations to contractors inexperienced in social care. If nothing else, the red door story indicates that it is time for an urgent independent review of the asylum housing system that has the needs of the most vulnerable at its heart.