national dispersal scheme has come in for mounting criticism since
the murder of asylum seeker Firsat Dag in Glasgow. But, asks Anabel
Unity Sale, could the system be made to work if it received more
input from councils and agencies?
month’s murder of Kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Dag (also known as
Firsat Yildiz) in Glasgow made front-page news. It catapulted
asylum seekers to the top of the political agenda and made crystal
clear what some had been thinking about the government’s dispersal
system for a long time. It simply is not working.
failings of the dispersal system, operated by the National Asylum
Support Service (Nass), are such that the home secretary ordered an
internal review of it in August. While a Home Office spokesperson
is eager to stress that it will not be investigating “the concept
of dispersal”, he says the review will look at how the dispersal of
asylum seekers “operates on the ground”.
conduct the review the government swiftly appointed a new head of
Nass with the remit to bring in a new management team to help if
necessary. They are due to report back to David Blunkett in the
autumn and their findings will not be made public.
Controversy has surrounded the central agency responsible for
asylum seekers since its launch by the Home Office in April 2000.
It was created after local authorities in London and the South East
complained they could not handle the costs of supporting the
numbers of asylum seekers presenting themselves. Before Nass the
local council where the asylum seekers made their application was
responsible for funding their care and support.
the list of criticisms against Nass is its policy of not allowing
asylum seekers a choice of where they are to be dispersed. They are
dispersed out of the South East to cities like Glasgow, Cardiff,
and Hull, all places where there have been recent reports of
problems for asylum seekers, such as asylum seekers being held in
Cardiff prison and subsequently going on hunger strike, a vicious
attack on a man in Hull, and the stabbing of Dag in Glasgow.
Council’s five-year contract with Nass started in April 2000 to
provide 2,500 units of accommodation, divided between 2,000 flats
for families and 500 for single people. So far there are about
5,500 asylum seekers in the city, 1,200 of them on the Sighthill
estate – where Dag lived – making up 20 per cent of residents.
Since his death the council has introduced a policy not to house
any more asylum seekers on the estate.
Immediately after Dag’s murder the council appointed Dawn Corbett,
head of corporate policy, to address the problems asylum seekers
face head on. She is the first to admit that there have been
racially motivated incidents on the estate and that the incident
had an understandably negative impact. “It spread fear and disquiet
among asylum seekers,” she says.
Corbett’s first tasks is to see how dispersal is operating across
Glasgow and how well local communities are being prepared for the
arrival of asylum seekers.
she disputes claims by asylum seekers and residents living on the
estate that asylum seekers had been “dumped” there. She says: “Lots
of work had been done through education and housing services to
prepare people, but there is always more we can do.
spoken to a lot of people and a lot of agencies and there’s a great
deal of will to get things right. Since this [the murder] happened
I have been inundated with offers of help.”
says that in the light of Dag’s murder the council has a lot to
learn about dispersal and “we’ll be learning for a few years to
other end of the spectrum is Devon Council’s experience. Since
March the council has had its own contract with Nass to house and
support asylum seekers in Exeter, having initially been part of the
now defunct South West Consortium.
Newman, Devon Council’s head of strategy for learning difficulties,
is also charged with ensuring the smooth running of the five-year
believes that the big difference between Devon’s Nass contract and
Glasgow’s is that Devon does not have a set number of units or
asylum seekers to accommodate. So far the council has received 120
asylum seekers over a six-month period.
the key issue is retaining flexibility and control: “We couldn’t
operate the system if we gave all responsibility back to Nass, who
would tell us when asylum seekers were available. We notify them
when we are ready to have X number of people on X day,” he
two weeks of arriving in Devon, asylum seekers have a health
check-up, access to legal advice and an assessment for English
tuition at a local further education college.
explains: “People in all the appropriate agencies are prepared to
work to the 14-day target.”
Council also has a deliberate policy of accommodating asylum
seekers in as much street level housing as possible and always
takes into consideration the state of the local housing market.
communities were actively engaged in the process right from the
beginning, with the council setting up a database of people wanting
to help. It now has 100 people on it, 70 of them with language
skills. “We tried to build up a positive spin about how Exeter
people can help, rather than be worried,” he says.
the reason asylum seekers have been received so well in Devon
simply because so few have been sent there? After all, 120 asylum
seekers is a fraction of the number Glasgow deals with. Newman is
adamant that is not the case. “It is not a numbers thing, it is
about handling the situation sensitively,” he says.
murder of Dag in Glasgow was “a murder waiting to happen,” because
of the number of racist attacks in dispersal areas, says the
Committee for the Defence of Asylum Seekers chairperson Alan
“The key point is that many, if not most, asylum seekers are being
dispersed to highly deprived areas of the country and it’s no
wonder tensions rise when they arrive, particularly if no
preparation has been made.”
the problem with Nass’s approach to asylum seekers is that they are
dispersed out of the South East without any choice. “There can be
little doubt that given the options, quite a percentage of asylum
seekers would be pleased to move to areas outside London and the
major centres. But the options are not given.”
is the alternative to dispersal? Is the only answer to build
massive reception centres along the Thames? Such a move isn’t
necessary because the current system could work, argue the agencies
working with asylum seekers.
believes something can be salvaged from the dispersal system. He
says the beginnings of a network of people with important knowledge
and skills relevant to the needs of asylum seekers has been
established, although it will need more support from central and
local government to be effective.
“There is nothing wrong with dispersal so long as it isn’t forced,
there are proper resources, and local communities are
Price, fundraising and communications director for the campaign
group Refugee Action, also feels dispersal can be made to work.
says: “In the past, with Chileans in the 1970s and Kosovars in the
1990s, it has been done in a consultative and strategic way with
local authorities and local people involved.”
the Home Office needs to adopt a similar approach by communicating
with local communities, teachers, GPs, the police and asylum
seekers themselves about what they want from the system.
explains: “When the dispersal system came in, the implementation of
it was dumped on local authorities, the voluntary sector and local
communities with very little discussion about what was
dispersal system needs to secure “greater involvement from local
authorities in the provision and development of services for asylum
seekers,” says Refugee Council head of policy Alison Fenney.
particular, she recommends that the existing consortia of councils
across Britain dealing with the issue investigate ways of working
with other local authorities not currently involved.
should also involve local people: “Local authorities need to work
with local communities so people feel they have a stake in the
process, so they understand why people are fleeing their homes in
the same way they understood why Kosovars came here in 1995.”
Office is facing a difficult task, but consultation with all
parties should provide a way forward. If its review does not
recommend this, more asylum seekers’ blood could be spilt on