Once, Britain’s asylum-seekers could live where they pleased, but since 1999 they have been sent to a few places, mostly on Britain’s margins. These districts tend to be poor: Middlesbrough, which has the country’s highest number of asylum-seekers per person, also has its largest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods.
Since most of Britain takes almost no asylum-seekers, officials in “dispersal areas” often complain this is unfair. Simon Danzuck, MP for Rochdale, which has Britain’s second-highest concentration of asylum-seekers, recently grumbled that his constituency is being used as a dumping ground.
In some ways the policy is a good one. It sends asylum-seekers to places where housing is cheap and plentiful (houses in Middlesbrough sold for less than half Britain’s average in December 2015; many of the houses asylum-seekers now live in were previously boarded up). And the habit of concentrating refugees in the same places over many years may actually help integration. One theory goes that fellow ex-countrymen have a protective effect on new migrants; and, although tensions remain, locals tend to become more welcoming after years of new arrivals, says Heather Petch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a think-tank.
This can be seen in Stockton, in north-east England, which has Britain’s fourth-highest number of asylum-seekers per person. Teatime drop-ins have grown into dedicated asylum-support groups; charity workers reminisce proudly about refugee children who are now at university. Growing groups of migrants have created demand for particular food and clothing: some refugees have set themselves up in the catering businesses. Bini Arai, who arrived in Middlesbrough from Eritrea 15 years ago and now runs a basement drop-in centre for asylum-seekers, says the community has become more supportive.
The main problem is that these areas have higher-than-average unemployment rates, and that people tend to stay there once granted asylum, rather than finding work elsewhere. According to Kath Sainsbury, who works for a refugee charity in Stockton, it is almost impossible to move on unless you already have a job lined up. Local authorities are obliged to provide refugees with welfare only if they have already been living in the area. There is also often a gap between the end of asylum assistance and the start of state benefits, meaning that people cannot afford to travel and must fall back on local shelters to avoid homelessness.
Few have jobs lined up. And although local businesses have learned to value industrious new refugees, says Ms Petch, it is hard to make connections with employers elsewhere if you don’t speak much English. English teaching is both patchy and in the wrong patches. One refugee charity in Bolton says it is the district’s only service offering formal English lessons, and the waiting list is around six months.
Asylum claims also take a long time to be processed, which means that claimants get rooted in a place. Gulwali Passarlay, an Afghan refugee originally placed in Kent, says it took a friend 15 years to gain refugee status from a dispersal area near Birmingham, and by that time he had seven young children in a local school.
Alexander Betts of Oxford University believes the Home Office could start placing asylum-seekers according to skills shortages in local areas. This might not be enough. Britain’s history of refugees includes stories of great success, such as the Ugandan Asians and the Vietnamese boat people. But these involve free movement and have city backdrops. The IMF found that Europe’s current crop of refugees could raise economic growth if integrated well into the job market. Britain’s restrictive policy may mean it loses out.