With news of the hotel chain Britannia accommodating up to 300 asylum seekers in a hotel in Manchester, Dr Jonathan Darling argues that this reliance on hotels demonstrates a failing asylum accommodation policy.
The hotel, in Northenden, has been used by the private contractor Serco to house asylum seekers as part of the UK’s dispersal process – a policy that relocates asylum seekers across the country whilst awaiting decisions on their asylum claims.
Serco have since 2012 held a contract with the Home Office to provide accommodation in the North West. Their contract is one of six held by private contractors Clearsprings, G4S, and Serco to provide accommodation across the country. Usually, this involves the procurement of accommodation in the private rental sector to house asylum seekers. In this case such procurement has not been sufficient to provide for the number of asylum seekers being dispersed to the region.
The use of hotels by private contractors is not confined to the North West and Serco. Similar practices have been noted in Birmingham, where G4S hold an accommodation contract, and in Glasgow where Serco is again the contracted provider. Nor is this necessarily a new practice.
One of the key drivers behind the establishment of dispersal as a policy in the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act was a concern that London and the South East of England were accommodating large numbers of asylum seekers and that local authorities were unable to cope, often relying on hotel accommodation to fill gaps in provision.
So if this is nothing new, what does this practice tell us about the UK’s asylum accommodation system? I’ve been researching the dispersal and accommodation process for the last four years and am today publishing some of the first findings from this work. The use of hotels speaks to four key issues in asylum policy.
Red doors and wristbands
Firstly, as noted by the British Red Cross in the Northenden case, placing asylum seekers in hotels often means that individuals are located at a distance from vital support services. Northenden is not an area of existing asylum support services, charitable provision or expertise. This means that those accommodated there are less likely to access the specialist support and care that many vulnerable individuals need. The issue of location is a key one for asylum dispersal policy, and the need to match areas of housing provision with areas of existing expertise is essential in creating a dispersal model that reflects the needs of asylum seekers.
Secondly, the use of hotels reflects concern that the UK dispersal system lacks long-term planning and coordination. The last year has seen a number of issues emerging around dispersal, from the quality of housing to the use of red doors and wristbands to identify asylum seekers and their properties. With the return of temporary hotel accommodation, we are left with a sense of a system lurching from one crisis to the next. The centralisation of accommodation in six contracts was intended to cut costs and to simplify the task of managing dispersal. Yet, the reality has been that the contracts provided do not offer space for rising asylum applications, and the removal of local authorities from this process has led to a less cohesive system of support.
Thirdly, the use of hotels is clearly opposed by many local authorities. In the Northenden case, the issue has been raised by Manchester City Council. This reflects a wider concern among local authorities that they have been side-lined since privatisation, and that private contractors are not communicating effectively with them. Importantly, the frustration felt by local authorities is one reason why many are reluctant to agree to continuing involvement in the dispersal of asylum seekers. This has potentially damaging knock-on effects as areas of expertise begin to consider whether they wish to maintain a role within a less effective, and increasingly profit-driven, system.
Finally, using hotels to house asylum seekers does little to challenge the idea that asylum seekers are in some way a ‘burden’ on the state. Placing asylum seekers in hotels communicates this very clearly, but the wider privatisation of asylum accommodation since 2012 also serves this purpose.
Contracts with private providers mean that the process of accommodation is managed through an economic lens of efficiency and profitability, rather than one of vulnerabilities and needs. In this context, it is easy to see asylum seekers as ‘burdens’ to be distributed. This ignores both the skills that asylum seekers may bring to dispersal regions and the life stories and aspirations of those seeking refuge.
What recent events in Manchester illustrate is the need for stronger communication between actors involved in dispersal, longer-term planning of dispersal support services and integration opportunities, and a real need for political leadership in refuting the idea of asylum seekers as ‘burdens’ to be transferred between authorities, regions, and countries.