The danger of putting migrants in warehouse ghettos
So far, the UK has managed to avoid the kind of clashes between asylum seekers and local residents that plague other European countries. Our workforce is now 19% immigrant, a percentage even higher than that of the United States. But this relative harmony could soon be threatened.
Since 2018, the backlog of asylum seekers has grown to a staggering size, thanks to Home Office failures, Covid lockdowns and, to a lesser extent, a recent increase in the number of crossings of the Sleeve. The existing accommodation stock is overflowing – with 37,000 migrants staying in hotels at a cost of £4million a day.
The Home Office needs a solution urgently, but the one it has found is far from ideal. Small towns and rural communities are being told they must host ‘processing centres’ and/or house asylum seekers – leaving desperate and bewildered migrants, banned from working, stranded in the countryside .
It was recently announced that my own little town of Stafford in the West Midlands has been chosen as the location for a dedicated accommodation center that can accommodate up to around 500 asylum seekers. The plan is to convert a former student dig called Stafford Court, with 170 migrants remaining for initial processing and another 310 living there longer term. The decision was presented to residents as a fait accompli by Serco, the company hired to manage everything.
Unsurprisingly, the people of Stafford are livid. The council’s website is currently groaning under the weight of furious emails from people opposing the development application. Some of the anger even seems to have been neutralized for public consumption. Several responses posted online have been “redacted” by Stafford’s counsel with thick black marker. An e-mail reads: “Please stop this Serco [REDACTED] to cross and [REDACTED] the lives of local people along the way. Another reply says “I think the change would make a huge difference in the area where my house is” with the next five lines completely erased.
The uncensored responses are mostly concerned with pressure on local services, especially nearby A&Es (which are tiny) and doctors’ surgeries. Many residents also ask about the risk of housing young single men in an area with two schools nearby and nothing else to do; and the impact on crime and property prices. Some have expressed hope that the accommodation will be used to house Ukrainian refugees, but the majority are likely to come from Iran, Albania, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. Others worry that there are few education, language or mental health services in place to support arrivals.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the asylum seekers who end up here. As much as I love living in Stafford, it’s not exactly Monte Carlo. The city has good rail connections. It also has a handful of shops and restaurants and a nice park – but not much else in the way of entertainment. And Stafford Court isn’t even close to the city centre; it’s a 40 minute walk to anything more interesting than a recreation center. Asylum seekers will receive £5 per day and will benefit from an occasional shuttle to the metropolis of Stafford. The site itself consists of a three-story compound on the edge of the countryside, and with the feel of a low-security prison. It is bordered to the west by Stafford Fire Station. Across the fields to the east is the local crematorium.
And what about life at Stafford Court? The building will be divided into separate blocks, with around five people sharing a kitchen and in many cases a bathroom. It is unclear whether these residents will be separated by nationality. Even if they are, there can often be conflicts or language barriers between asylum seekers from different parts of the same country. Most, as Serco acknowledges, will be single adults. Refugee charities point out that things work best when asylum seekers are properly integrated into the local community. On the other hand, the Stafford Court project almost seems to want to create a ghetto on the outskirts of the city.
To avoid any tension, Serco advises asylum seekers (or, as the company prefers to call them, “service users”) to avoid congregating in groups so as not to disturb locals. It also requires them to check in every 24 hours. But other than that, newcomers will mostly be on their own waiting in limbo for their applications to be processed.
It could take some time. At present, more than 73,000 asylum seekers in Britain have been waiting for a decision for more than six months – and some for more than five years. It’s not hard to imagine there being trouble when up to 500 young men, many of them suffering from PTSD, are twiddling their thumbs in the middle of nowhere. And given that they are banned from working, what are they supposed to do? As one local commented on Facebook: “Frankly, being stuck in Stafford with no job and nowhere to go is enough to turn anyone off.”
So why was Stafford chosen? The answer is most likely due to bureaucratic convenience. Since the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act in 1999, asylum seekers have been “scattered” across London and the south-east of the country, with each local authority supposed to house up to one migrant for 200 people in the region. In theory, the burden is equitably shared. In reality, Home Office commissioned companies have always opted for low cost areas of property. This is why cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow have traditionally taken in a disproportionate number of asylum seekers, while some local authorities have taken none. For all the flaws in the system, placing asylum seekers in cities at least meant they had access to a larger community and a more normal life.
Now that the backlog of applications is growing, however – and house prices have since risen in many major cities – companies like Serco are looking elsewhere for cheaper places that can be quickly converted.
It’s this kind of attitude that led the sleepy North Yorkshire village of Linton-on-Ouse to discover it will soon host a processing center for 1,500 migrants – doubling the village’s population overnight. – and more of these stories are linked to follow.
It is clearly not viable for thousands of asylum seekers to continue sleeping in hotels and hostels for months on end. Other shelters will have to be opened somewhere, but until the Ministry of the Interior develops a policy that is not based solely on the economy of a few pennies, it will be the small communities and the asylum seekers themselves who will bear the brunt of the failures of the system.
It is to our credit as a country that we have coexisted so peacefully so far. A stony-eared Home Office trying to warehouse refugees in communities that are in no way suitable for them is the surest way to change that.