So far the UK has managed to avoid the kind of clashes between asylum seekers and local residents that blight other European countries. Our workforce is now 19 per cent immigrant – an even higher percentage than America’s. But this relative harmony might soon be threatened.
Since 2018 the processing backlog for asylum seekers has grown to a staggering size, thanks to the Home Office’s failures, Covid lockdowns and, to a lesser degree, a recent rise in the number of Channel crossings. The existing accommodation stock is overflowing – with 37,000 migrants being put up in hotels at a cost of £4 million a day.
The Home Office needs an urgent solution, 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, bewildered migrants, who are banned from working, stranded in the countryside.
It was recently announced that my own small town of Stafford in the West Midlands has been chosen as the location for a dedicated accommodation centre for up to around 500 asylum seekers. The plan is to convert an old student digs called Stafford Court, with 170 migrants staying for initial processing and another 310 living there longer-term. The decision has been presented to locals as a fait accompli by Serco, the company contracted to handle it all.
Unsurprisingly, Stafford residents are livid. The council’s website is currently groaning under the weight of furious emails from people objecting to the planning application. Some of the anger even appears to have been neutered for public consumption. Several responses published online have been ‘redacted’ by Stafford council with a thick black marker. One email reads: ‘Please stop this Serco [REDACTED] from going through and [REDACTED] the lives of local people along the way.’ Another response says: ‘I feel that the change would make a huge difference to the area where my home is’ with the next five lines completely scrubbed out.
The uncensored responses are mainly concerned about the strain on local services, especially the nearby A&E (which is tiny) and GP 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 expressed hope that the accommodation would be used to house Ukrainian refugees but the majority are likely to come from Iran, Albania, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. Others are concerned that there will be little education, language or mental health provision in place to support the arrivals.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the asylum seekers who do end up here. As much as I like living in Stafford, it’s not exactly Monte Carlo. The town has decent 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 town centre; it’s a 40-minute trek away from anything more interesting than a leisure centre. The asylum seekers will be given £5 a day and provided with the occasional shuttle bus to the Stafford metropolis. The site itself consists of a three-storey compound on the edge of the countryside, and with the feel of a low-security prison. It’s bordered on the west by Stafford fire station. Across the fields to the east is the local crematorium.
And what about life inside Stafford Court? The building will be partitioned into separate blocks, with around five people sharing a kitchen and in many cases a bathroom. It’s not clear if these residents will be separated by nationality. Even if they are, there can often be conflict or language barriers between asylum seekers from different regions 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 embedded in the local community. By contrast, the Stafford Court scheme almost seems to want to create a ghetto on the edge of town.
To head off any tensions, Serco advises asylum seekers (or as the company prefers to call them, ‘service users’) to avoid congregating in groups so as not to unsettle locals. It also requires them to check in every 24 hours. But other than that, the new arrivals will mainly be left to their own devices while they wait in limbo for their applications to be processed.
This could take some time. At the moment more than 73,000 asylum seekers in Britain have been waiting more than six months for a decision – and some longer than five years. It’s not hard to envision there being trouble when up to 500 young men, many suffering from PTSD, are left twiddling their thumbs in the middle of nowhere. And given that they’re 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 drive anyone round the bend.’
So why was Stafford chosen? The answer is most likely down to bureaucratic convenience. Ever since the Immigration and Asylum Act was passed in 1999, asylum seekers have been ‘dispersed’ from London and the south-east across the country, with every local authority supposed to house up to one migrant for every 200 people in the area. In theory, the burden is evenly shared. In reality, companies contracted by the Home Office have always opted for areas with low property prices. That’s why cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow have traditionally hosted a disproportionate number of asylum seekers, while some local authorities have looked after zero. For all the system’s faults, placing asylum seekers in cities at least meant they had access to a larger community and more in the way of a normal life.
Now that the application backlog is growing, however – and property prices have since risen in many of the big cities – companies like Serco are looking elsewhere for cheaper places that can quickly be converted.
It’s this kind of attitude which has led to the quiet village of Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire finding out that it will soon host a processing centre for 1,500 migrants – effectively doubling the village’s population overnight – and more of these stories are bound to follow.
It’s clearly not sustainable for thousands of asylum seekers to continue bunking in hotels and hostels for months on end. More accommodation centres will have to be opened somewhere – but until the Home Office develops a policy that isn’t just based on saving pennies, it will be the small communities and the asylum seekers themselves who bear the brunt of the system’s failings.
It’s to our credit as a country that we’ve co-existed so peacefully so far. A tin-eared Home Office trying to warehouse refugees in communities that are in no way suited for them is the surest way to change that.