Three years ago the government agreed to take part in an
international scheme under which up to 500 refugees would settle in
the UK every year. So far, just 152 refugees have been helped.
Little did the government realise at the outset how reluctant
councils would be to take part.
The scheme – the United Nations Gateway Protection
Programme – involves the transfer of people from refugee
camps to countries that have agreed to take them in. Sheffield
Council was the first local authority to participate, taking 69
refugees from Liberia in West Africa last spring. So far, only
Bolton Council has followed, accepting 83 refugees from Liberia,
the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone in November and
December last year. Sheffield is Labour-led, Bolton is run by the
Liberal Democrats. So far, no Conservative council has agreed to
The refugees were selected by the United Nations because they
were deemed “especially vulnerable”. Most have fled civil wars and
have spent lengthy periods in refugee camps in neighbouring
countries with no prospect of returning to their homes. In light of
their vulnerability, and the fact that the Home Office will pay the
full resettlement costs for the first 12 months, it is puzzling as
to why only two councils have taken part.
The Home Office, which is responsible for the scheme, admits
that take-up is “slow” (news, 7 October, page 6) but insists other
local authorities have expressed an interest. However, its efforts
last November to persuade Scottish local authorities to become
involved were not fruitful, and it is believed that the next
Gateway refugees to arrive in the UK will go straight to
The resettlement issue is evidently a sensitive one. Last year a
row broke out between Devon Council, which wanted to support 10
refugee families in Exeter under the scheme, and the city
A spokesperson for Exeter Council said it had “reservations”
about providing housing for the families as there was a shortage of
social housing in the area. It was also felt the consultation had
been inadequate. However, a Devon Council spokesperson denied there
had been a lack of consultation and said it had planned to house
the families in its own managed properties (news, 24 February, page
The Home Office was told about Exeter’s concerns and Ben
Bradshaw, the city’s Labour MP, reiterated them to
immigration minister Des Browne. Consequently, despite the shortage
of participants in the UN scheme, the Home Office stepped in and
prevented Devon Council taking part.
The shortage of affordable housing is a key election issue,
particularly in London and the South East. But there are similar
concerns in the North. Jon Lord, head of community housing services
at Bolton Council, says that, unlike five years ago, the city now
faces housing pressures. As a result, the council is using a
mixture of public and private accommodation to house the Gateway
So why did Bolton take part? Lord says it was because it “looked
like an idea that needed to be supported”, and that the council had
a positive experience with Bosnian and Kosovan refugees in the
Councillor David Wilkinson, executive member for housing
strategy at Bolton, says the UK has international obligations to
help refugees and that local authorities should be involved in
meeting these. Does he think some councils are reluctant to become
involved in the scheme because they think it is unpopular with
“There is a possibility of that. The issue of refugees and
asylum seekers is blown out of all proportion for political gain,”
Lord agrees that politics has a part to play. “It’s
[asylum seekers and refugees] a politically contentious subject and
therefore politicians will take a view and it will be a political
view,” he says. Ultimately, local authority officers have to do
what the ruling group on the council dictates.
The way that local authorities are structured could also be a
factor. Sheffield and Bolton are single-tier authorities and Lord
says decision-making in two-tier areas is more cumbersome.
Councils’ previous dealings with the Home Office may also
affect their willingness. “Some have had a bad experience with the
National Asylum Support Service [part of the Home Office] and that
has generated bad feeling,” says Lord. He adds that some councils
are reluctant to work with the Home Office on asylum and refugee
initiatives, which can generate bad feeling.
“Some local authorities have not engaged with the Home Office on
initiatives (such as dispersal or the Gateway scheme) about asylum
seekers and refugees and that can be frustrating for those that
have,” he says.
Inadequate marketing of the scheme to local authorities is also
an issue. The programme has not been granted as high a profile as
other asylum and refugee policies. Belinda Gallup, asylum team
manager at Sheffield Council, says some councils are unaware of it.
She suggests that further reluctance to take part could be due to
confusion over the difference between asylum seekers and
Bolton found out about the Gateway initiative just over a year
ago from Refugee Action, the charity contracted by the government
to run the scheme in the city. All the other Greater Manchester
authorities were also told, but Bolton was the only one to take it
up. Another presentation is imminent to try to persuade more local
authorities to become involved.
In addition, perhaps the government itself needs to take more of
an interest in the running of the scheme. Sara Buck, who manages
the programme in Bolton for Refugee Action, says the Home Office
visited when the first of the three groups of refugees arrived, and
only recently made a follow-up visit. Buck also laments the loss of
Home Office funding for a partnership formed by the voluntary
sector refugee agencies that are working on the programme.
But although the scheme may have the backing of the voluntary
sector, its further success depends on the number of willing local
authorities. Compared with the US, which accepts thousands of
Gateway refugees, the UK’s performance is poor. Yet for all
its anti-immigration rhetoric, the UN scheme is one initiative
through which the government has accepted refugees. It serves as a
timely reminder that, on certain issues, it is necessary for local
authorities to stop blaming central government and start looking at
More on the UN Gateway Protection Programme from www.refugee-action.org.uk
Welcome to Bolton
The UN Gateway Protection Programme has been such a positive
experience in Bolton that the council is now considering taking in
It has helped that, in general, the council has received good
quality information on the refugees before they arrive. But it
could still be better, says Jon Lord, Bolton’s head of community
He would have liked more details on the stress levels of some of
the children. And the UN could have better informed the refugees
about the city they were being sent to. “It came as a surprise to
them that there are levels of poverty here,” Lord says.
The people of Bolton have generally accepted the refugees and
race relations are good. Zahida Hussein, director of the Bolton
Racial Equality Council, points out that Bolton escaped the racial
unrest experienced by Burnley, Oldham and Bradford in summer 2001.
She adds that there has been little British National Party activity
during this election campaign.
Sara Buck, who manages the Gateway Programme for charity Refugee
Action, says there has been only one issue of racial tension
connected with the scheme. This involved somebody handing out
leaflets about refugees and Aids near a temporary school. But this
was an isolated incident, she says, and the rest of the area has
been supportive of the school.
The refugees themselves are getting on well, Buck adds, and are
all in education, such as English language courses and computer
training. Three have been accepted into university.