In light of this week’s report into Asylum Accommodation by the Home Affairs Select Committee, Dr Jonathan Darling, who submitted expert evidence to the inquiry, responds to its findings and suggests a way forwards.
- Asylum accommodation is currently provided through six regional contracts with three private providers
- There have been reports of substandard and inappropriate housing, ineffective complaints procedures, and abusive treatment from staff
- Processes for housing asylum seekers have been dominated by two linked political concerns – cost and deterrence – for too long
- Home Office policies have sought to make life in Britain uncomfortable and often untenable for specific groups of migrants
- Improving the living conditions of asylum seekers in poor quality housing requires investment in monitoring properties
The system for accommodating asylum seekers in the UK is not working. That is the stark conclusion of the Home Affairs Committee’s report into Asylum Accommodation. It is not working for asylum seekers, who have endured ‘shameful’ conditions and poor treatment at the hands of private accommodation providers. It is not working for the communities in which asylum seekers are accommodated, as diminished resources have focused accommodation on parts of the country bearing the brunt of austerity and rising inequality. And it is not working for local authorities, who feel disenfranchised by Home Office decision-making and a system that offers little control over the nature and quality of accommodation.
This will not come as a surprise to those who have followed the development of asylum accommodation in recent years. Since 2012, accommodation has been provided through six regional contracts with three private providers, and has led to stories of substandard and inappropriate housing, ineffective complaints procedures, and abusive treatment from staff. Yet despite these problems, at the end of last year, the government announced that it was extending these accommodation contracts for a further two years.
The Home Affairs Committee report, and the wealth of evidence from charities, support groups, and legal advocates that it is built upon, demands that we must do better in accommodating those most vulnerable in our society. For too long, the process of housing asylum seekers has been dominated by two linked political concerns – cost and deterrence.
The first of these is easy to see in the map of asylum dispersal across Britain. From its origins in the use of hard-to-let social housing, to its current procurement of properties in the lowest cost markets of the private rental sector, dispersal has produced a profoundly uneven geography. This geography has been dominated by cutting costs and housing asylum seekers in areas of existing social deprivation, often without fully preparing the communities to which asylum seekers are dispersed. Recent austerity drives have only served to further this process, one that responds neither to the vulnerabilities of those seeking asylum, or the concerns of the communities in which they arrive. Instead, cost and efficiency are key, never more so than in a system now orientated towards profit.
The second political concern – to deter potential asylum seekers from seeking refuge in Britain – has been a facet of asylum policy since the 1990s. Just as the ‘hostile environment’ promoted by Theresa May as Home Secretary and continued by Amber Rudd, has sought to make life in Britain uncomfortable and often untenable for specific groups of migrants, so too have policies to indefinitely detain asylum seekers, remove their right to work, and disrupt their social networks through dispersal served to make those claiming refugee status feel distinctly unwelcome. Housing asylum seekers in anything other than substandard accommodation runs the risk of flying in the face of this policy drive. Indeed, part of the reason that asylum accommodation can be subject to successive budget cuts even before the onset of fiscal austerity, is that producing a system that works and that respects the views, needs and preferences of asylum seekers is not politically expedient. Put simply, very few people will vote for that platform.
Yet if the events of recent weeks have shown us anything, it may be the importance of standing up for values of human dignity even when that does not appear politically expedient, economically efficient, or resolutely pragmatic. To do so, and to do more for those asylum seekers housed across Britain, we might begin by pursuing three actions.
The first, and the most immediate, is to improve the living conditions of asylum seekers in poor quality housing. As the Home Affairs Committee recognise, this does not necessarily require a drastic change in approach. Rather, it requires investment in monitoring properties, listening to feedback from asylum seekers and the third sector, taking it seriously and acting quickly where there is a need to do so.
The second, is to bring local knowledge, accountability, and expertise back into the asylum accommodation system. This means empowering local authorities to negotiate over dispersal numbers and locations. It means funding local authorities to support community preparation and integration work drawing on the knowledge of third sector groups. And it means increasing the capacity of local authorities to monitor property standards. If accountability and discussion are prioritised at local levels, this will encourage local authorities to take part in dispersal, rather than viewing it as a policy beyond their control.
Third, it should not be taken for granted that the ‘no choice’ dispersal of asylum seekers is the only approach to accommodation, nor should it be assumed that private providers are best placed to offer such accommodation. Rather, looking beyond current contracts, there is a need to ask whether a system that offers no choice to asylum seekers, and that can leave people isolated in new surroundings with few social contacts, is really designed to support the vulnerable in the best way possible.
The failings noted in the Home Affairs Committee report are longstanding and they will not be solved overnight. They will require continued efforts to pursue change from those groups who have brought such failings to light. In short, solving them requires a commitment that Britain can, and should, do better for those seeking sanctuary.