‘Ingrained set of problems’: Man Uni expert discusses ‘challenging’ asylum crisis

New research conducted by the University of Manchester has revealed that asylum accommodation is reviewed based on profit, and not the wellbeing of the occupants.

In the midst of the refugee crisis, the findings may spark more debate on the British government’s competency in providing adequate, evenly-dispersed housing for those seeking asylum, and whether the current system requires a major overhaul.

Dr Jonathan Darling, a senior lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Manchester, said asylum accommodation has been ‘badly hit by government cutbacks’ and that profit has become a greater priority than the welfare of refugees.

“A reason for me to do [the research] was to try and understand a question which I don’t think has been at the heart of the Home Office’s thinking: ‘What difference does it make where people are dispersed to?’” he said to MM.

“Intuitively, as a geographer, I assume geography matters and I think being sent to Glasgow is a different experience to being sent to Birmingham, for example.

“There hasn’t been work done to understand the things that differ there, and how the different conditions you might see are shaped by different factors.”

Dr Darling also described how government policy has affected the lives of refugees, and the process of his research.

“What changed as it was ongoing was the process of privatisation,” he said.

“Local authorities used to have a much larger say in dispersal contracts and housing itself.

“They were removed from the process, and private providers, such as G4S and Clearsprings came in and took over this ‘marketplace’.

“That became a dominant theme across all the places where I was working, and charities, support groups and asylum seekers themselves were talking about the changes that it had brought into place and the effects it had on the sense of ‘who is responsible for housing?’”

While the Conservative’s favouring of monetising public services has been a significant factor, the professor is hesitant to lay all the blame at the door of the current government, and believes that the failure to resolve the issue originated from the infancy of the asylum system.

He said: “I think what you see is an ingrained set of problems which are a result of the way the dispersal system has worked since 2000.

“There’s been a cost-basis on which these decisions are taken. What that meant is that you had asylum seekers being housed in areas of hard-to-let social housing.

“There was an opportunity right at the start to do this quite well and there was initial investment in support services, but that quite rapidly fell away.

“What we’ve seen since is 15 years of rolling back support structures and gradually eroding the opportunities for integration.

“What we’ve seen since 2012 is an acceleration of that process – a move to privatise, but also to restrict the abilities of local authorities to engage with the Home Office on these matters.”

Though it is common media and political rhetoric that mass immigration has put a strain on the UK economy – a main factor in the government’s move to privatise asylum housing, which aimed to save £150m – Dr Darling is of the opinion that those increasing figures are just one side of the story.

“[Initially], you had quite vulnerable populations being moved into areas where you might have existing poverty and existing social tensions, so it was always going to be challenging as an area of public policy,” he said.

“What you see now is a move away from hard-to-let social housing and into the private rental sector. So you can see subtle shifts in the geography of where people are being dispersed to.

“One of the reasons the North-West has seen a rise in dispersal numbers over the last couple of years is because there is the ability of private housing providers to procure property that might be priced slightly higher in other regions.

“Those new areas aren’t necessarily where you have strong networks of support and experience of dealing with asylum and refugee issues. That raises problems for not only the asylum seekers, but also for the communities into which they’re dispersed.”

In a testing time for European governments in the face of a worsening situation in the Middle-East, it is clear that the need for clarity and empathy is paramount, and Dr Darling believes there are fundamental changes to be made to improve the asylum process.

“I think from a political perspective, it’s important to actually look at the nature of the contracts that are currently held between the Home Office and these [housing] providers, and to what extent should they be renewed, because they’re likely to accrue a renewal in the next couple of years,” he said.

“And also whether we want to continue with this model, or whether there are alternative models which provide some of the things the Home Office are looking for.

“Things like cost savings, provision for the needs of asylum seekers and at the same time, offers of opportunity for the wider communities to feel engaged in the process, rather than constantly being put upon.”

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