The UK’s ailing asylum seeker dispersal policy: Where to from here?

By Catherine Hirst and Naures Atto | University of Cambridge

Glasgow – the local authority which houses the most asylum seekers in the UK.[1]

Glasgow – the local authority which houses the most asylum seekers in the UK.[1]

The Policy

There has been much criticism of the UK’s asylum seeker dispersal policy. Introduced as part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the objective of the policy is to redistribute asylum seekers receiving state support around the UK to prevent their concentration in the south-east of England. Local authorities choose whether they will allow asylum seekers to be housed in accommodation in their area, with only 121 local authorities out of 453 participating in the scheme as at September 2016.[2] For those local authorities that do participate, there is a Home Office-mandated limit of one asylum seeker per 200 people, although this has in some cases been exceeded, for example in Glasgow.[3]  Since 2012, the provision of asylum seeker housing has been sub-contracted by the Home Office to three private sector providers, who then must liaise with participating local authorities about suitable housing options. These contracts will be replaced in 2019, and are currently out for tender. Even if a local authority has given permission for asylum seekers to live within their boundaries, they can still refuse permission for a specific property to be used when approached by one of the three private service providers.[4]

The Problems

Multiple problems with the policy have been identified. First, asylum seekers are being housed in the poorest parts of the UK, such as in Glasgow, Northern England and in Wales. According to analysis conducted by the Guardian, 57% of asylums seekers are accommodated in the poorest third of the UK, while only 10% are placed in the richest third.[5] Some councils are doing far more than others, with 35.5% of all asylum seekers housed in 10 local authority areas. Six of these are in the poorest 25% of the UK.[6] This is particularly problematic as local authorities are responsible for the provision of services such as education and basic health care to asylum seekers, however they do not receive any additional funding from Westminster.[7] This puts additional strain on already disadvantaged areas. The reason for the concentration of asylum seeker housing in poorer areas is in part due to wealthier councils not volunteering to participate in the scheme, even when they have suitable accommodation available.[8] It is also because the three private sector sub-contractors are incentivised to source cheaper accommodation (in poorer parts of the UK) in order to keep costs down. This has become a particular issue given that two of the three companies have been running at a loss on their Home Office contracts.[9]

A second problem with the system has been an undersupply of housing for asylum seekers. The Home Office contracts with the three providers have not been sensitive enough to fluctuations in asylum seeker numbers, with the providers finding it particularly difficult to source accommodation with the spike in asylum seeker numbers since 2015, coupled with the low participation rate of local authorities. This has meant asylum seekers have been housed in temporary dispersal accommodation such as hotels and hostels, sometimes for several months.[10] Problems include difficulty accessing third sector and government services, inadequate provision of food, and housing vulnerable groups in hotels which do not meet their needs.[11]

A third problem with the dispersal system is that in some cases the accommodation provided has been severely inadequate. There have been reports of poor maintenance standards, filthy carpets, rats, bed bugs and even a house posing an asbestos risk.[12] Sub-standard accommodation, delays in addressing known issues as well as time lags in moving asylum seekers to more suitable accommodation are due to shortages in asylum seeker housing, as well as the limited budget of the Home Office contracts.[13]

Ways forward

In terms of addressing the first problem – designing a dispersal system that doesn’t disproportionately burden poor areas – the UK could look to other countries. For example, Germany uses the Königstein formula to disperse asylum seekers – a quota assigned to each state based on both population size and tax revenue. Population is given a one-third weighting, while revenue is given two-thirds. In 2017, North Rhine-Westphalia had the largest quota of asylum seekers at 21.14%, while Bremen had the smallest at 0.95%.[14] The quota is revised annually. Not only is the wealth of each state built into the dispersal mechanism, but the dispersal mechanism is compulsory, meaning that regions can’t opt out, unfairly placing pressure on those that opt in. The system largely works in terms of asylum seeker distribution, with only small variations from the allocated quota.[15]

To deal with the second problem – the undersupply of asylum seeker accommodation – the central UK Government should stimulate more local authorities to participate in the dispersal scheme and prevent the withdrawal of those that currently do. Beyond mandatory participation as is the case in Germany, the UK could give municipalities more control and input into the process, so it is more appealing for them to sign up on a voluntary basis. A 2016 report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee recommended the following to increase local authority participation: give local authorities more flexibility by devolving the procurement of asylum seeker housing away from the Home Office, provide local authorities with additional resources to assist service expansion to new asylum seeker arrivals, allow a larger window of time for local authorities to consider requests to use specific properties in their area (currently only 72 hours), and greater collaboration with local councils in the redesign of the programme to ensure their concerns are addressed.[16] An additional incentive for local authorities to house asylum seekers could be the identification and matching of resources and talents of the new arrivals with the needs in specific areas. This could motivate local authorities to welcome asylum seekers and develop a policy for their fast integration in society.

The third problem – the sub-standard accommodation provided to some asylum seekers – is in large part a financial one. If the Home Office provided more funds to the private sector providers, higher quality properties could be rented, and urgent repairs conducted expeditiously. There are some positive steps in this direction. When extending the existing contracts until 2019, the Home Office increased funds in order to hire more property managers to closely monitor and improve accommodation standards. It also allowed for increased funds to the private sector providers if there are increases in the number of asylum seekers, so that appropriate additional properties can be rented.[17]

Although there are multiple ways in which the UK’s current dispersal policy could be improved, the Government is continuing on with a tender process which looks remarkably similar to the previous iteration. A sliver of hope is offered by Home Office plans to meet with stakeholders in order to discuss issues and concerns.[18] Whether the degree of policy change needed will in fact take place, remains to be seen with the new contracts being rolled out next year.


[1]: Home Office, 2018. Table as_16_q: Asylum seekers in receipt of Section 95 support, by local authority, as at end of quarter, Immigration Statistics, 22 February. Accessed 17 September at: link

[2]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, pp.16-17. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[3]: Lyons, Kate and Duncan, Pamela, 2017. ‘It’s a shambles’: data shows most asylum seekers put in poorest parts of Britain, The Guardian, 9 April. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[4]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, p.16. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[5]: Lyons, Kate and Duncan, Pamela, 2017. ‘It’s a shambles’: data shows most asylum seekers put in poorest parts of Britain, The Guardian, 9 April. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[6]: Lyons, Kate and Duncan, Pamela, 2017. ‘It’s a shambles’: data shows most asylum seekers put in poorest parts of Britain, The Guardian, 9 April. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[7]: Lyons, Kate and Duncan, Pamela, 2017. ‘It’s a shambles’: data shows most asylum seekers put in poorest parts of Britain, The Guardian, 9 April. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[8]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, p.19. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[9]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, pp. 3, 49-50. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[10]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, pp.20-21. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[11]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, pp.21-22. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[12]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, p.27. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[13]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, pp.24-30. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[14]: Asylum Information Database, 2018. Country Report: Germany, March, p.63. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[15]: Katz, Bruce, Noring, Luise and Garrelts, Nantke, 2016. Cities and Refugees: The German Experience, The Brookings Institution, 18 September. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[16]: House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2017. Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17, 17 January, pp.19-20. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[17]: Goodwill, Robert, 2016. Asylum Accommodation – Written Statement – HCWS335, UK Parliament, 8 December. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link

[18]: Hill, Amelia, 2018. UK’s asylum dispersal system close to ‘catastrophic failure’, The Guardian, 6 September. Accessed 13 September 2018 at: link


 

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