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School of Environment, Education and Development

The UK’s system for accommodating asylum seekers is not working

The system for accommodating asylum seekers in the UK is not working, writes Dr Jonathan Darling, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Director of the Cities, Politics and Economies Research Group.

This, at least, is the stark conclusion of the Home Affairs Committee’s report on Asylum Accommodation. Since 2012, asylum accommodation has been provided by private providers, which has led to stories of substandard and inappropriate housing, ineffective complaints procedures, and abusive treatment from staff.

These findings are supported by an ESRC-funded project I’ve worked on since 2012, to examine how changes in asylum dispersal affect a number of British cities and the asylum seekers housed in them.

Together with the report, these findings demand that we must do better in accommodating the most vulnerable in our society. For too long, the process of housing asylum seekers has been dominated by strictly political and economic concerns – cost and deterrence.

The first is easy to see in asylum dispersal across Britain. From the use of hard-to-let social housing to the lowest cost markets of the private rental sector, dispersal has been profoundly uneven. It has been dominated by cost-cutting and housing asylum seekers in areas of existing social deprivation without fully preparing local communities. Austerity has furthered this process, one that responds neither to the vulnerabilities of those seeking asylum or the concerns of the communities. Cost and efficiency are foremost in a system now orientated towards profit.

The second – 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 the government 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. Housing asylum seekers in anything other than substandard accommodation undermines this strategy.

Accommodating asylum seekers

But what should be done? The most immediate need is to improve the living conditions of asylum seekers in poor-quality housing. This requires investment in monitoring, listening to feedback from asylum seekers, and acting quickly.

“For too long, the process of housing asylum seekers has been dominated by strictly political and economic concerns – cost and deterrence.”

We also need to bring back local knowledge, accountability and expertise. This means empowering local authorities to negotiate over dispersal, and funding them to support community integration. It also means increasing capacity to monitor property standards. If local accountability and discussion are prioritised, it will encourage local authorities to participate in dispersal and not view it as beyond their control.

Thirdly, we need to question whether a system that offers no choice, and that leaves people isolated in new surroundings with few social contacts, is designed to support the vulnerable in the best way possible.

The failings noted in the Home Affairs Committee report will not be solved overnight. It will require continued efforts to pursue change. And change requires the commitment that Britain should do better for those seeking sanctuary.

Read more about Geography at The University of Manchester.