The UK has been second home to asylum seekers for a very long time, having witnessed an influx of immigrants since the seventeenth century, some of which were looking for refuge. With time, the UK residents felt bothered by increasing concentrations of ethnic minorities in the UK and especially their clustering in particular areas which led to congestion. In response to the increasing uneasiness of the public, the government opted to come up with means through which they could redistribute the ethnic minorities in other areas so as to decongest the cities and encourage assimilation.This led to the formulation of the Asylum and Immigration Act in 1999 which led to the dispersal of ethnic minorities to various corners of the United Kingdom. The dispersal policy has however come under heavy criticism with claims that it isolates the asylum seekers from the renders them vulnerable to racially charged attacks. This paper therefore seeks to analyze the dispersal policy of asylum seekers, examining its background and development. It will also offer as critique of the policy which will largely determine whether it is a viable policy or not.
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Background policy review
Prior to the 1990s, many Europeans thought of refugees as a problem of the third world which needed to be contained by the third world. Europe would only be involved in charity but refugees needed to remain within their own borders. When it became involved, Europe only admitted a selected few refugees and settled them under controlled circumstances (Robinson et al 2003, p. 3). The attitude that many Europeans held towards refugees especially those from the third world was that they were immigrants looking for economic opportunities and as such, they did not deserve to be accorded asylum status.
In the UK, the number of people seeking asylum was rapidly increasing (Robinson et al 2003, p. 4). During the post war period, Britain needed manpower for economic reconstruction and since it was not able to fill these positions, it decided to turn to the commonwealth, leading to an influx of immigrants especially from Asia. Thus Britain has been multiethnic for a long time. While some of the immigrants were coming to look for work, others also started coming to Britain in search of refuge. As early as the seventeenth century, some 50,000 French Huguenots arrived in London seeking refuge. In the 1880s, Jews also arrived in droves to look for refuge as they escaped the pogroms. Thus by the turn of the twentieth century, Britain had developed a reputation as a place of refuge (Robinson et al 2003, p.103).
In 1905, an Aliens act was passed which ended this particular type of migration but the influx of both voluntary and forced immigrants continued. Jews fleeing Nazi Germany settled in the UK, so did some Italians and Chinese immigrants. Rapid immigration led to a concentration of certain ethnic communities in particular areas such as Chinatowns and dockland black quarters. Britain used this immigrant manpower for labour due to local shortages (Robinson et al 2003, p.104). This development of ethnic quarters was a cause of concern for the public who even directed hostility at the immigrants for this reason; the state saw the need for dispersal of refugees as well as ethnic minorities even before the formulation of the dispersal policy (Robinson et al 2003, p.104).
It started an informal dispersal program in which the government attempted to settle people in different areas. Public opinion showed that many Britons were xenophobic and did not approve of the way some economic groups were clustering in the country; fearing that this would have an impact on the national identity of the British. Racial exclusion became an aspect of life in many regions of the UK in the 1960s to such an extent that it became a matter of popular as well as political concern. Some parents even objected to the number of black children who were being allowed to attend local schools. This led to the ‘Boyles Law’ being passed which stated that local schools should accommodate a maximum of 30% of ethnic minority children.
The Department of Education and Science even suggested some policies to prevent ethnic concentrations from building up. In the 1970s, many people became increasingly supportive of the dispersal of ethnic minorities. Dispersal was aimed at reducing the hostility directed at them and facilitating their access to better chances. It was felt that living in mixed neighbourhoods would challenge the stereotypes that were associated with ethnic minorities (Robinson et al 2003, p.106-107).
In 1969, the Cullingworth committee investigating public housing in the UK expressed concern over the residential concentration of ethnic minorities especially in the inner city; a factor that had led to overcrowding and which, they felt could lower the standards of education. For this reason, they proposed dispersal albeit voluntary. In the years that followed however, there were increased calls for the compulsory dispersal of ethnic minorities (Robinson et al 2003, p.107).
In the 1970s however, the assimilation concept began to be viewed as outdated, politically incorrect and linked to a belief of ethnic supremacy. No policy makers or those in power wanted to be associated with the assimilation concept lest they be viewed as extremists (Robinson et al 2003, p.108). The development of the dispersal policy can be linked to the changing welfare ideologies of the UK. The ideology of social democracy was evident especially in the years immediately after the Second World War.
This ideology prevailed in the post war period and was associated with recognition of the needs of all people including the working class, as opposed to the bourgeois only. Thus everyone, even the immigrants who constituted the working class, benefited from a wide range of welfare benefits. The recent third way ideology seeks to promote welfare to work program and it has been likened to the principles of neo- liberalism. It claims to attempt to blend the principles of social democracy with neo- liberalism and involves welfare to work program whereby people must be helped by to find work by helping them overcome the dependency on passive benefits, inculcating in them a sense of responsibility.
The welfare reform program consists of welfare cuts; something that greatly affects the asylum seekers. Government wishes to reallocate welfare payments to those who are working as opposed to those not working such as the asylum seekers. Their benefits have practically been abolished under this program and they have to undergo rigorous testing to be eligible if at all (“the retreat of social democracy”n.d). The evolution of such welfare ideologies determines how asylum seekers are treated since they rely mostly on welfare.
Asylum seekers dispersal policy
Under the informal dispersal program prior to the 1990s, there were stories of how asylum seekers were transported to remote areas only to find that their destinations were neither expecting nor prepared for them. For this reason, many of them returned to London just a few days after having been dispersed.
The asylum seekers were not very willing to be dispersed and some of then refused to be assisted if it involved dispersing them to areas outside the capital. In response to the failed Local Government Association dispersal program, in 1999, the government passed the use of the Asylum and Immigration Act; a new compulsory policy that radically modified the reception of asylum seekers. It is worth noting that it was not mandatory for all asylum seekers to be dispersed but those who needed financial support had to agree to it since the government would offer financial support only to those who were in agreement with the dispersal policy (Robinson et al 2003, p.123).
The objectives of the dispersal act were to control the number of people who were seeking asylum in the UK, hasten the assessment process for asylum claims and overhaul the mechanisms of financial support for asylum seekers so that they stop coming to the UK merely for welfare benefits. Under the Act, the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) was formed. Its purpose was to choose which asylum seekers qualified for state benefits, provide them with these benefits and disperse them from London as well as the South East (Robinson et al 2003, p.123). It would provide asylum seekers with housing in some areas which came to be referred to as cluster areas under a more centralized dispersal process.
This act meant that asylum seekers were not entitled to benefits and they were subject to compulsory dispersal by NASS so as to decongest the cities (Griffiths et al, n.d). Asylum seekers would apply to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate for asylum and the Directorate would decide whether their claim was true or unfounded. Meanwhile, those who had been temporarily admitted would be forwarded to NASS who would provide them with emergency accommodation if they did not have means of supporting themselves.
Within a seven day period, NASS decides who qualifies for support and disperses them to cluster areas outside London and the South East. The needy asylum seekers are given free housing inclusive of utilities cost and financial support. Once settled temporarily, the asylum seekers would know the fate of their claims within a two month period and could appeal within the four months that follows. The entire procedure is expected to be completed within a p of six months maximum.
The Act also proposes an integration of the relevant authorities into consortia that would be responsible for the long term integration of asylum seekers who had been granted refugee status (Robinson et al 2003, p.124). The aim of the dispersal act is to redistribute the costs of catering to the asylum seekers, diffuse social tensions and discourage would-be applicants. The dispersed asylum seekers are taken care of and integrated into their communities by NASS which offers them accommodation within the clustered areas (Griffith et al, n.d).
Critique of the Asylum seekers dispersal policy
From its inception, the asylum seekers dispersal policy was met with severe criticism due to the critical issues that it raises to concerned citizens as well as the perceived risk that it poses to the asylum seekers themselves. This section uses the “othering” theory and the critical race theory to examine how asylum seekers are received in the UK and other developed nations, especially those which have a similar policy to UK’s dispersal policy.
Critical race theory helps one to understand the prevailing social situation in terms of races, racism and the subsequent game of power. The critical race theory helps in determining how the society has organised itself especially along racial lines and how relationships between the races are organised in a hierarchical manner. Furthermore, it strives for social justice and a betterment of the situation; a betterment of the relationship between the races (Delgado and Stefancic 2001, p.3). Central to understanding why races tend to group themselves together is the concept of ‘othering’.
‘Othering’ is an important part of identity formation. As Dominelli (2004, p.76) puts it, the ‘self’ is in existence due to the presence of the ‘other’ who can be used to as a measure of comparison to oneself. This dichotomy facilitates the externalization of the other to such an extent that he or she is viewed in an antagonistic manner, thus creating hierarchical relations. In the formulation of policies therefore, ‘othering’ processes generate divisions such that those who are labelled as the ‘other’ are set apart from the normal population.
They generate barriers that prevent those who have been excluded from mingling with others, and distinguish them as undeserving of favourable treatment (Dominelli 2004, p.76). In the UK, asylum seekers as well as refugees are subjected to ‘othering’ which makes them easy prey for violence. For instance, almost all asylum seekers in Scotland are located in Glasgow; a city rife with gangs that attack them for the ethnic minorities who are ‘othered’ based on their looks, their language as well as culture. Just looking different in Glasgow can make one a victim of racial harassment on a level that has been described as shocking by a Scottish executive study.
The reason given by the gangs for these often brutal attacks targeted at asylum seekers is that they are usually given the best houses in the area; a result of the dispersal policy which is responsible for settling the asylum seekers in scattered places and providing them with financial support. What the gangs cannot understand is why the ‘others’ should be accorded such favourable treatment when the ‘deserving’ inhabitants of the regions can probably not even afford the lifestyle accorded to the others (Stewart, 2007). According to Morris (2007) asylum seekers are put at risk by the dispersal policy which, in an effort to decongest the main cities procures the houses for asylum seekers in far off places which are invariably poor. That the asylum seekers are given the best housing in the area makes them targets of prejudice and violence.
This main reason behind such attacks is that the residents feel that the asylum seekers are being given preferential treatment. Most of the places where the asylum seekers are settled are volatile areas that have witnessed recurrent attacks on asylum seekers. For example, both the Moston district and the Cheetham district in Manchester continue to receive many refugees even though they are considered to be very dangerous and unpleasant. Other dangerous areas which continue to receive asylum seekers are Everton, whose residents felt that the asylum seekers were being favoured, and Toxteth which have both witnessed several cases of racial harassment that are targeted at asylum seekers as well as refugees. Furthermore, some asylum seekers are placed in areas where there is none of their kind and where they have difficulty in communication. The dispersal system thus tends to isolate foreigners, making them vulnerable to hostility.
In several studies carried out in the UK and documented by the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees (ICAR n.d), it was established that most people were very concerned about the influx of immigrants into the UK with several of them expressing concern that immigration was out of control. Of particular concern was the question of asylum seekers, with most people wondering just how genuine these ‘supposed’ asylum seekers were. The study found that many people were concerned about the increasing numbers of asylum seekers and how genuine their claims were. A number of people felt that the influx of asylum seekers was economically motivated.
They felt that if such immigration was left unchecked, then it would eventually threaten the British society in terms of their values, health, ethnicity as well as religion. The British economy would also suffer due to the asylum seekers becoming burdens to the economy, increasing competition and engaging in acts of criminality since asylum seekers were often associated with deviance which could lead to acts of illegality. The study also revealed that most people felt that the asylum seekers were favoured and were in fact, better off than the average white Briton. Most of the problems that asylum seekers face are have either been created or exacerbated by the dispersal policy since it tends to put the immigrants in places where they can be easily ‘othered’ and isolates them; thereby making them susceptible to prejudice.
The dispersal policy has been faced with severe criticism due to the perceived danger that it poses to the asylum seekers. Isolated in foreign communities and not understanding the British system, they suffer racial prejudice and violence directed at them by the locals who cannot understand why these outsiders are being treated in a more favourable manner by the government yet they are just immigrants while the locals continue to be ‘worse off’ than these immigrants.
The increased cases of violence directed at immigrants should sound alarm bells for the relevant authorities and lead to a review of the dispersal policy. It is crucial for nations to grant asylum to people fleeing the countries. However if this is done in a manner that puts offends the locals and puts them at risk, then the provision of asylum defeats purpose. It does not make sense for people fleeing death from their countries to be granted asylum in another, only for them to be met with the hostility that probably drove them from their countries in the first place. Thus the government should halt the dispersal policy or modify it so that the asylum seekers are not placed at risk.
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