MPs have labelled the way asylum seekers are distributed around Britain “appalling”, “dreadfully designed” and “a deeply unfair shambles” because of the way it disproportionately houses people in poor, Labour-voting areas in the north of England and Wales, as well as Glasgow.
According to a Guardian analysis of Home Office data, more than half of all asylum seekers (57%) housed by the government are done so in the poorest third of the country. The richest third of the country houses 10% of all asylum seekers, basing calculations on the median income in each local authority for which income data is available.
“It’s a deeply unfair shambles,” said Yvette Cooper, Labour MP and chair of the home affairs select committee, which published a damning report into asylum accommodation in January.
“You’ve got the asylum hostels concentrated in the lowest income areas and also in a very small number of areas. It’s just not fair to do it that way. It’s not good for community cohesion, it’s not good for local authorities … it also creates a sense of resentment.”
“It’s a terribly-designed scheme,” she said.
Cooper said that the problems stemmed from a change of policy in 2012 by the Conservatives, which saw the contracts for housing asylum seekers privatised and given to G4S, Serco and Clearsprings. She said these contracts, and the reduced money they were given to execute them, inevitably meant that companies sought to procure cheap housing in poor parts of the country.
At the end of 2016 there were 39,389 asylum seekers in the country receiving some support from the government. The north-west houses 9,491 asylum seekers, 16 times the number accommodated by local authorities in the south-east (580), despite the south-east having a larger population than the north-west by 1.7 million people.
Ten local authorities are responsible for supporting more than one third of all asylum seekers in the UK (35.5%). Six of these – Manchester, Bolton, Rochdale, Nottingham, Leicester and Swansea – have a median annual income that places them in the poorest 25% of the country.
“It’s not fair in terms of resources,” said Stuart McDonald, the SNP spokesman for immigration, asylum and border control. “You have got local authorities like Middlesbrough or Glasgow having to spend considerable sums of money on educating and providing other services for asylum seekers, while other perfectly wealthy local authorities don’t have to.”
People who claim asylum in Britain are provided with accommodation while their application is being processed. They are sent to local authorities that have agreed to participate in the asylum dispersal scheme.
While waiting for their claims to be heard, asylum seekers are entitled to basic healthcare and children are given places in local schools, but local authorities are not given any additional payment by central government to help cover these costs.
Guardian analysis of Home Office data also found that asylum seekers are sent overwhelmingly to areas with Labour-led councils. On average, local authorities with Labour-led councils house 11.6 asylum seekers per 10,000 population, whereas local authorities with Conservative-led councils have 0.7 asylum seekers per 10,000, when comparing local authorities which either had a Conservative or Labour majority or were led by a minority of councillors from one of those parties.
There are 174 local authorities – or 45% of the total – that do not house any asylum seekers. Sixty-nine per cent of all local authorities house fewer than 10 asylum seekers.
Of those local authorities that house no asylum seekers, 62.6% have Conservative-led councils and 10.9% are Labour-led.
“This is a system that has been set up by a Conservative government. They ought to make sure Conservative councils then do their bit and they are not doing so,” said Cooper. “Labour areas in good faith have said: ‘We will do our bit,’ and the unfair consequence is they are then being asked to do far more than their bit.”
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, said: “They are avoiding putting asylum seekers in Conservative areas. It’s completely deliberate. I think it’s appalling.” Rochdale is home to 1,061 asylum seekers, the seventh largest number in the country.
Danczuk called the dispersal system “wholly unfair” and called those wealthy local authorities that did not participate in it “shirkers”. He singled out Windsor and Maidenhead, of which Theresa May’s constituency of Maidenhead forms a part, which is home to four asylum seekers.
“It’s about fairness,” said Danczuk. “If there are none, or one or two or three, in the prime minister’s constituency, why should there be 1,000 in Rochdale?”
While councils volunteer to house asylum seekers, they then have little control over how many asylum seekers come to the area. The Home Office has set a limit that the number of asylum seekers in each local authority should not exceed one per 200 people.
In December the number of asylum seekers in Glasgow – 3,311 – breached this limit with 1.09 per 200 people. Rochdale is also teetering on the edge of the limit with 0.99 per 200.
Local authorities have the right to veto the use of properties to house asylum seekers, though several people working in the field of asylum housing told the Guardian that these vetoes were sometimes overridden by the Home Office or the private housing provider.
“The current Compass contract scheme [for distributing asylum seekers] means that in the end local authorities get very little control over how it works,” said Cooper. “Having signed up, it’s then very difficult for them to pull out, so they just don’t sign up in the first place. So this is not just about ‘why aren’t local authorities signing up?’ … More local authorities would sign up if the government designed a better scheme.”
McDonald said there were various reasons why other local authorities did not participate in the asylum dispersal scheme, including the lack of funding from central government and fear of being mired in a scandal, like the one in which asylum seekers were housed in properties with red doors in Middlesbrough, as well as reports of poor conditions in the properties, detailed in the recent home affairs select committee report.
“I think there are a lot of local authorities in Scotland that want to get involved but if you look at these stories that have been emerging about asylum accommodation in the last three or four years, why would you get involved?” said McDonald.
Instead, many local authorities have signed up to participate in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme, which provides homes to Syrian refugees.
Cooper said the government should learn from its success with the Syrian resettlement scheme, which the Guardian revealed more than two-thirds of local authorities have pledged to participate in, when thinking about how the asylum dispersal system could work better.
“If you look at the Syrian programme, that has been a good way of getting partnerships with local authorities and it also taps into what I think is people’s sense of responsibility,” said Cooper. “As long as it’s managed, and as long as it’s something they have got control over, rather than just being something that is just done to them.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and we are committed to providing safe and secure accommodation while applications are considered.
“Asylum seekers who require support are housed where there is appropriate accommodation available. Agreements between the government and participating local authorities are voluntary and our dispersal policy ensures a reasonable spread among UK local authorities.
“We have worked hard to encourage more local authorities to participate in accommodating asylum seekers and ensure this duty is shared across the UK.”
Britain’s dispersal system contrasts pointedly with those in place in other European countries.
Germany operates a scrupulously fair system based on the population size and wealth of each region. The only snag is that it takes no account of area, so Berlin and Hamburg, the smallest regions by area, scramble for space, even having to house people in gymnasiums.
The biggest host states in 2017 are set to be North Rhine-Westphalia, with 21% of asylum seekers, and Bavaria with 15%. At the other end of the scale, Bremen takes less than 1%. The system is so widely accepted that there is little dissent.
Each region has its own system for dispersing asylum seekers, and occasionally there can be problems with petitioners objecting to housing programmes, but this happens in poor districts as well as rich ones. The system has meant that in Germany there are no concentrations of asylum seekers in poor parts of the country.
Once a person gets asylum status, the rules change. They can move – and tend to do so to big population centres, where friends and relatives live. For example, initial indications from the federal labour office show that many Syrians, once given asylum status, have moved to Berlin.
In Spain, the situation is different again. There are four major reception shelters managed by the state – two in Madrid, one in Valencia and one in Seville. Beyond that the government subsidises NGOs to provide food and shelter.
If there is protest and dissent, it is when people feel not enough is done to disperse people to regions that actually want them. Parts of the Spanish interior are dying because of depopulation. Dozens of large and small municipalities have criticised government inaction and declared themselves willing hosts. A month ago there were demonstrations in 30 Spanish cities in favour of immigrants and refugees and against “Fortress Europe”.
In France, most refugees and migrants arrive via the Italian-French border, and the majority of them move onwards towards Paris. Here many are forced to sleep rough because of an official bottleneck that limits daily registrations to 60, while 70 people arrive in the capital each day.
Until November, Calais – with its promise of the UK just across the Channel – was a big magnet for migrants and refugees, but after the authorities dismantled the “Jungle” camp, people were moved to “welcome centres” dotted around France.
There are about 400 of these, though some are now closing because they are holiday resorts that are needed for the imminent tourist season.
Author: Kate Lyons and Pamela Duncan