The geographies of Asylum dispersal
The heart-breaking news from Afghanistan this week means Western nations face a massive humanitarian effort to re-settle those currently fleeing the Taliban. The UK Government has announced an Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme – which promises to provide asylum for 20,000 refugees.
It is disappointing that the UK is not taking more people, and that the Home Office has continued to employ ‘tough’ language on asylum. However, it is also important to consider how the settlement of refugees is balanced, geographically and economically.
The chart below reflects the patterns of dispersal in recent years. It shows the number of asylum seekers per 10,000 residents (according to Commons Library figures from March 2021), versus the deciles of deprivation into which English authorities fall (courtesy of the 2019 IMD).
As we can see, there exists a massive imbalance. The most deprived 10% of councils currently have an average of 16.88 dispersed asylum seekers for every 10,000 residents. The least deprived 10% of councils have 0.09 per 10,000. The place with the highest ratio, Middlesbrough (which has 37.65 dispersed people per 10,000 residents) is also the 5th most deprived authority area in England.
The imbalance in the number of asylum seekers each authority takes was debated in Westminster back in 2016. And, a year before this, the Home Affairs Select Committee revealed that housing availability was a big part of the issue: “finding sufficient accommodation for asylum seekers in parts of the country is difficult.” The result is that poorer areas with significant economic decline settle by far the largest numbers.
The government’s Immigration Bill, meanwhile, may exacerbate this by housing refugees in an even more imbalanced way, in moving from community housing to institutional accommodation, which would further inhibit integration.
When we look at the distribution of those housed as part of the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme – which was a specific scheme for those fleeing the Assad regime – this tendency is less acute. Numbers here are much lower, and better-off areas were more positive about taking part – perhaps because of the higher media profile of the situation in Syria.
Nevertheless, the central pattern is the same. The average council in the most deprived 3 deciles took roughly twice as many Syrian refugees per head as the average council in the most affluent 3 deciles.
How things pan out with the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme remains to be seen. But the situation described by these two charts – and particularly by the first one – points towards a real need for extra integration support. The practice of vulnerable families being settled in places which are already under major economic strain throws up significant risks. Investment in infrastructure for new populations, as well as cohesion and community engagement must run alongside settlement programmes.
Given the massive deviations in housing costs between the different UK regions, dispersal of asylum seekers is understandable. Yet the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme creates the impetus for a more proactive and progressive approach, which strengthens the social fabric in places where settlement is happening.