In search of a better life

The Home Office set up the national dispersal scheme for asylum
seekers amid a tide of predictions of the problems it would cause.
A year on, Ruth Winchester charts its progress and asks how it has
changed life for people seeking refuge in the UK, while Anabel
Unity Sale talks to an asylum seeker from Africa about his new life
in Newcastle.

When the National Asylum Support Service was set up in April
last year to assist with the dispersal of asylum seekers across the
UK, doom-laden predictions of racial clashes, right wing
demonstrations, and crippling social exclusion on sink estates were

Now, more than a year on, how is the highly controversial
dispersal scheme working? What are the problems, what are its
strengths? And were the doom mongers right to forecast the
programme’s early demise amid burning police cars and rioting

The national dispersal scheme was set up by the Home Office in
April 2000 for two compelling reasons. The first was to relieve the
financial burden – and the political heat – being endured by local
authorities in the south east of England. The majority of asylum
seekers first present themselves in the port of Dover, at Gatwick
or Heathrow airports, or at a local authority within London. Under
the former system, the local authority where someone made an
application was responsible for their care and support. With a
burgeoning number of applications being made every month, and a
lengthy delay before each asylum decision, services in London
boroughs and neighbouring councils were visibly coming apart at the

Temporary accommodation, already expensive and scarce, was under
impossible pressure and councils were starting to take matters into
their own hands. Asylum seekers were being packed off to remote
seaside communities to take up accommodation, often of variable
quality, provided by private and sometimes unscrupulous landlords.
The receiving local authorities were often the last to know, and
rows were inevitable. Something had to give.

The other motivation for the Home Office was, undeniably, to
introduce an element of coercion and deterrent into the asylum
process in the face of claims that the UK was “a soft touch”. Many
asylum seekers were opting to stay in London – preferring its
multiculturalism, finding support within existing communities, and
wanting to be close to services.

The introduction of Nass effectively brought an end to that
freedom. Asylum seekers are now offered a stark choice between
being sent to an unfamiliar and potentially unwelcoming city or
town well away from London, or being utterly destitute. The
dispersal scheme offered the government a convenient solution to
the problem of over-concentration in the south east, and a welcome
source of political capital.

But given the dire predictions made about the dispersal
programme at the beginning, the first 12 months of operation have
passed without major incident. Many of the practitioners involved
report that, while there have inevitably been some failures and
mistakes made, the learning curve has been less difficult than

Jill Roberts is director of asylum for Refugee Action, one of
Nass’s six partner agencies, in Bristol. These voluntary agencies
are responsible for seeing new arrivals through the application
process, finding them emergency temporary accommodation while
permanent places are found, and ensuring that they have access to
appropriate health care in the short term.

While Roberts is reasonably positive about the scheme, she
admits there are areas of concern. Part of her role is to ensure
that placements for asylum seekers are appropriate in terms of
language, race, religion and customs – and this depends to a great
extent on the information provided on the application form. Most
placements are made on the basis of language, rather than race or
religion, or even country of origin. As Roberts points out, unless
applicants get appropriate help and advice at this stage with
filling in forms, Nass can make disastrously inappropriate

Roberts highlights the lack of choice for asylum seekers within
the system as a downside. Many asylum seekers first present
themselves in an area they have some connection to, she suggests.
While Nass has traditionally simply sent them to whichever of the
13 dispersal areas has had the most appropriate accommodation, many
agencies are now attempting to find places for people within the
same region, or even the same city. “The advantage is that people
settle better, they integrate better, and are more likely to stay
if they are placed near to where they want to be,” Roberts
explains. “I totally understand and appreciate the difficulties for
London and the south east, but in places like Bristol it is

Another aspect of the dispersal scheme that impinges on the
daily lives of asylum seekers is the fact that Nass is a large
national body, based in Croydon in south London. While the
dispersal scheme clearly needs national control, there is a growing
feeling that Nass needs a regional presence too. “The fact that
Nass is centrally administered does present problems,” Roberts
admits. “For instance, if an asylum seeker has an urgent problem,
such as the breakdown of a support package, or the non-arrival of
vouchers, the only way they can get help is through Nass’s
helpline. If there is a racial incident, or if people need to move
out quickly, there should be locally-based decision-makers

She also reiterates concern highlighted by others involved in
the dispersal scheme – that while there are examples of sterling
good practice in providing support services to dispersed asylum
seekers, there are also a lot of corners being cut. “I think I’d
argue for more local authority involvement,” she says tactfully.
“Part of our role has been about helping people to access things
like healthcare and education. What we’ve found is that we have
been doing an awful lot of that, and we’d like to see the
accommodation providers getting a bit more involved. It’s part of
their contracts to do things like help people get registered with a
GP and get their children a place at school. And to be fair there
are some very good examples of joint working. But there are quite a
few examples where the local authority or private accommodation
provider isn’t very good at that yet.”

Nadeem Ahmad is regional manager for the North East Consortium
for asylum support services, one of the bodies contracted to Nass
to provide longer term accommodation and support in the region.
These consortia consist of local authorities, voluntary groups,
health trusts and housing providers, and alongside their immediate
housing function, they are tasked with helping asylum seekers
integrate into local communities and access services and support in
the longer term.

Although Ahmad disagrees with the dispersal programme on ethical
principles, he is pragmatic about putting it into action. “We had
to enter into the contract with Nass because if we hadn’t, the
private sector would have done. And the objection to the private
sector is not about the profit-making side of things – it’s about
the basic truth that these people are going to be our
responsibility as local authorities. If we are to make the best use
of resources it has to be done in a co-ordinated way.”

“I think the dispersal scheme is working,” Ahmad says, “but I’m
not the best person to judge because I’m not an asylum seeker. My
colleagues who are close to the scheme say it’s working better than
it was six months ago. On the whole, things are going all right.
It’s not smooth – there are problems we are struggling to solve,
and there is a racist element in some areas. But in terms of the
accommodation, and the support available, things are

“The Home Office has been quite good – and I don’t get to say
that very often. We’ve had a few naive decisions, like putting an
Iranian next to an Iraqi. Nothing has happened yet… but why
create a situation which could potentially lead to something? Now,
when decisions are made, local authorities will argue
constructively with Nass about it, and they do get listened

Unfortunately, although a lot of people are working hard on the
ground to make the dispersal scheme work, there are fundamental
problems which refuse to go away. A recent report for the Institute
of Race Relations on the dispersal scheme argued strongly that
asylum seekers were likely to face “deep-rooted xenophobia” based
not only on long-standing racial prejudices, but on the language
used by political leaders when talking about asylum.1 The paper
argues that while politicians continue to discuss refugees and
asylum seekers using emotive terms such as flood, tide, bogus and
illegal, no one is in a position to look rationally at the way
dispersal could enrich and revitalise communities.

Peter Gilroy is director of social services for Kent Council – a
departure point for asylum seekers rather than a destination, these
days. On the issue of dispersal, he says: “There are genuine
concerns about the implications of ‘parachuting’ an ethnic
community into an area with no experience of ethnic diversity. But
it’s a double bind. On the one hand the dispersal relieves pressure
on existing communities, on the other, the dispersal process is, by
its very nature, discriminatory.”

But Gilroy argues that the problems are more fundamental. “The
asylum issue is not a temporary glitch. People who believe that are
being naive. The problem is not going to go away. We are going to
have to face up to the issue of economic migration. Until we can
have a sensible, mature debate about the issue of economic
migration there is always going to be a debate about who is
deserving, and who is undeserving. I’m not sure we are ready for
that debate yet.”

Living in fear of racist attack

There is an striking stillness about Moktar Oumar (not his real
name). His face, which bears the tiny scars of his West African
tribe, shows little emotion when he speaks. It is hardly surprising
he seems detached when you discover what he has been through.

Oumar is an asylum seeker. He doesn’t want to be one but says if
he goes back to his French-speaking homeland he will be killed. He
arrived alone at Heathrow airport last October and says he was
forced to flee after his political views made him a target of his
country’s military “dictatorship”.

The 37-year-old devout Muslim is married with two sons aged
seven and 11. In his homeland he had a house, owned his own bus and
was actively involved in the work of a pro-democracy political

During an election last year Oumar says government soldiers came
to his town and told people not to vote for other political
parties. When the opposition won the election, the outcome was
suppressed and the ruling party claimed it won.

After this, he says, armed government soldiers came to his house
while he was in the mosque. His wife told them he was not home and
the soldiers searched the town until they found a man they thought
was Oumar and shot him dead. People in the mosque told him to flee
and his party’s secretary helped him escape to the countryside. He
stayed at the home of a plantation owner for a few weeks before he
says “word got around” and the soldiers arrived.

He says they stabbed the plantation owner to death while he hid
outside. Oumar knew he had to leave the continent altogether: “If
you go to another African country they [government soldiers] follow
you. They are in plain clothes but they are there to shoot you.”
With the party’s secretary help he travelled to another African
country before flying to Britain. He says his wife, also scared for
her life, left their children with a relative and fled the

Once in London Nass gave Oumar a room in a hotel for a few weeks
while it arranged permanent accommodation for him. In November he
was dispersed to Newcastle.

He has encountered much hostility and racism in Newcastle. One
day, he says, a two-year-old boy saw him and told his mother to
“come and look at the monkey”. When Oumar first arrived in
Newcastle he was the only asylum seeker from his country, and only
the second in the North East. Now nine asylum seekers from his
homeland have been dispersed there and he is friends with some of

He says black asylum seekers in Newcastle get poorer levels of
services than other asylum seekers: “In London all asylum seekers
were on the same level. In Newcastle if you are black you get

But Oumar did not want to refuse to be dispersed to the city
from London, as other asylum seekers did. He says: “The fact is I
have come [here] to ask for help and feel that I have to accept
what I am given because I am in the position of asking.”

He shares a two-bedroom house with another French-speaking
asylum seeker of a similar age from Central Africa. While Nass
seems to have placed him appropriately, Oumar was initially unhappy
with it. The other man is a Christian and eats pork, which Muslims
are forbidden to do. “We had to share the same plates as well as
the fridge, cooking equipment and shower. He does not have the same
rituals that I have,” Oumar says. The two housemates have now
called a truce: “We have reached some sort of compromise. When you
see something that annoys you, you back off.”

Oumar’s daily life now revolves around the mosque, which is a
20-minute walk away. He gets up at 5am to pray at home, read the
Koran and have breakfast. He walks to the mosque for 2pm prayers
and stays for 4pm prayers. At home he cooks halal food except
during Ramadan when he eats at the mosque with other worshippers.
He learns English two mornings a week at a local community college
and often visits his English friend who runs a shop where Oumar
buys halal food with his vouchers.

Like other asylum seekers aged over 25, Oumar receives £10
in cash and about £26.54 in vouchers per week for food and
essential items. He does not complain the vouchers are not enough
but says he could buy more food if he could work.

Fear of attack when on the streets is Oumar’s biggest problem,
and he desperately wants to be nearer to his local mosque. He does
not attend 8pm prayers because he does not want to be out late in
his “rather dangerous” neighbourhood. He says: “I don’t go to
prayers at night because I am afraid I might meet people who are
hostile towards asylum seekers.”

His fear is well founded. On his way home from mosque one Sunday
last December Oumar was attacked by a youth demanding 50p. When he
told him he had no cash the youth said: “I know asylum seekers get
money from the post office every week.” He explained the vouchers
were for food and the youth grabbed his gloves. Oumar was punched
in the face when he took them back. The next day he went to his
doctor and then reported the incident to the police who organised
an identity parade for him. Oumar did not see his attacker in the

All requests made by the police, his doctor and solicitor to
Nass to rehouse Oumar nearer the mosque have been rejected. He says
his doctor has prescribed him sleeping tablets because he cannot
sleep and broods about his situation.

So what does Oumar want for the future? “The only thing would be
to live nearer to the mosque. I am not hoping for very much, I am
not proud,” he says. He also wants to be reunited with his family
but does not know where his wife is.

He adds: “I was very happy at home, apart from my problem. When
you come here you have nothing and are treated like a child. I am
here in spite of myself — if the problem was solved I could go
back home.”



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