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Wednesday, 8 August, 2001, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Refugee dispersal: Is it working?
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The murder of a refugee in Glasgow and a serious attack on another in Hull have raised questions about the government's policy of dispersing asylum seekers around the UK.

The two men were among 25,000 asylum seekers moved north in the last 18 months to reduce pressure on London and the South East.

But refugee agencies say many of these dispersal areas lack the necessary support networks.

Home Office minister Jeff Rooker has defended the dispersal policy and said it had been "by and large very successful" and would not be stopped.

Just how successful is the dispersal policy? Should the government give in to local pressure? Should asylum seekers simply be allowed to choose where they want to live?

Margaret Lally, Deputy Chief Executive of the Refugee Council answered your questions in a live forum.


Transcript:


Newshost:

M Sahin, London UK asks: I work for a community organisation and many of our members have been sent around the UK as part of the dispersal system. We have had complaints about lack of access to social as well as legal services and interpreters are virtually non-existent. What is your view on this? It seems to be demeaning and stigmatising refugees.


Margaret Lally:

I totally agree. We are not opposed to dispersal in principle but we have been very concerned about the types of things she has described. In particular we have been concerned about the lack of access to legal advice because it is the lack of legal advice which plays a large part in asylum seekers getting their claims turned down. We have been working with a number of organisation, including the Community Legal Service, to try to develop greater access to lawyers outside London. But this is a real problem and it is something which we constantly raise with the Government and the Home Office and also the other points she has raised about lack of access to interpreters and the need for greater investment in social services.


Newshost:

But surely in the case of Glasgow, you have got 1,500 asylum seekers on just one estate - obviously there were lots of empty flats there - but doesn't commonsense tell you that with that large number you have got to have those support services there?


Margaret Lally:

Absolutely and funnily enough we referred to that estate particularly a week or so ago when we were in discussions with the Home Office as an example of how not to do dispersal. Unfortunately dispersal is now being accommodation-led and because it is an estate that has got a lot of vacant properties, that is where people are being put.


Newshost:

John in Bagshot, UK asks: In choosing which areas to send asylum seekers to, does it all come down to how many empty homes there are in the area?


Margaret Lally:

It does now. What was intended, when we worked with the Home Office to begin with, was to try to ensure that asylum seekers were sent to areas where there were other ethnic minority groups, where there had been a significant amount of social development and where people were ready and willing to welcome asylum seekers. Parts of Yorkshire, for instance, have already been very welcoming to people on the Kosovan programme and I think people have settled in quite well there. But because of the lack of accommodation, asylum seekers have been sent to many of the worst areas in the country because that is particularly where our own population hasn't taken up accommodation.


Newshost:

Mark, London, UK asks: Why keep flooding areas that already have social problems? Why not disperse asylum seekers into middle and upper-class areas where most of the people who moan about intolerance live?


Margaret Lally:

Well precisely because there is very little accommodation available in those areas and where there is the accommodation available it costs them more money than the Government is willing to pay for this type of arrangement. We would say that we don't want asylum seekers all placed in one area and we certainly don't want them placed in areas where there is particularly poor accommodation. We would like them to be located in parts of the country in which there has already been some planning and investment and community organisations there ready and willing to welcome them.


Newshost:

The whole point of the dispersal system is to ease the burden on London and the South East where a lot of them are concentrated. But isn't that also the area where most of these support networks exist and indeed where lots of communities of the various nationalities also exist?


Margaret Lally:

Yes that is right. But it is not true to say that some of these communities don't operate outside London - certainly there are other large cities outside London which are already starting to develop quite thriving refugee community organisations. One of the problems though has been that there hasn't been enough investment in these groups before the dispersal system happened so that they were able to gear themselves up and be able to support the communities. But even if that had happened, that by itself wouldn't have been enough. The things that were asked for in the first question - access to lawyers, investment in interpreting and enough funding for the local authorities was also a key issue.


Newshost:

David Jones, London, UK asks: Please could you clarify exactly what refugees receive on entering the UK? Can you also explain why, after crossing through so-called safe countries, they still insist on coming to the UK?


Margaret Lally:

When people enter this country they are not actually refugees - they are asylum seekers. They don't become a refugee until their claim has been determined. What asylum seekers get when they come here is vouchers which are worth 70% of what is generally now regarded as being the minimum amount which poor people in this country can live on. So they are expected to live on 30% less than everyone else would be. They are accommodated in accommodation which, as we have seen, is outside London and the South East and is normally quite poor accommodation. For the first six months, whilst they are here, however much they might want to, they are not allowed to work and earn money themselves and it is now increasingly difficult for them to access training as well, including in training in English and things like that. So they actually live quite a difficult life when they first get here.

They come here because quite often this is the country where they have already got contacts and friends. If one is fleeing you tend to think of trying to get to places where you believe you have friends who can help you. But also countries which are called safe are not necessarily always safe for certain nationalities. Even within Europe, the differing European countries have very different arrangements for how they treat asylum seekers and also their different interpretations on the Geneva Convention. So some countries, such as German, wouldn't accept asylum seekers under some arrangements the way we do - so people would come here partly because they get a fairer hearing and I think we should be proud of that.


Newshost:

They do go to extraordinary lengths - sixteen people were found under a Eurostar train last weekend. Why do they go to such enormous lengths?


Margaret Lally:

Because in many cases they are fleeing a much worse situation and it is now very difficult to enter this country legally.


Newshost:

But the vast majority are found to be economic migrants. Although there are a substantial number who are genuine refugees fleeing persecution, quite a large number are also simply economic migrants.


Margaret Lally:

There is no doubt that some of them are economic migrants and there does need to be a proper migration policy which helps to deal with that because many refugees and asylum seekers bring with them lots of skills and experience which would be very valuable to this country and they shouldn't be turned away. It is true that quite a lot of claims don't succeed but part of that is precisely because of the issue which was raised in the first question in that a large number of asylum seekers now find it very difficult to access help to put in their claim. A lot of claims are turned down on the grounds of non-compliance and that can be something as simple as not getting back within 10 days a 14-page form which is in English. If you have been transferred to another part of the country and can't get a lawyer and interpreter - how do you do that?


Newshost:

Julie, UK asks: When my family came over as refugees at the end of World War II they were put into camps before dispersal. The camps provided basic good, clean housing and provided refugees with a base where it was possible to acclimatise before moving into the wider community. Good idea?


Margaret Lally:

There are some elements of that which are a good idea. We are interested in the concept of reception centres. There are some very good examples of that in other parts of the country at the moment - particularly in Leeds where asylum seekers would stay for a couple of weeks. They would get a health assessment, they would have access to legal advice and interpreters and they are given time to acclimatise to this country but they are also free to move around. What we are not supporting is detention camps or imprisonment of refugees and I think there is a fine line between having a reception centre where people are free to come and go - which we would support as a principle - and having people locked up just for having come into this country and we would not support that.


Newshost:

Rob Smith, London, UK asks: Do other EU countries disperse asylum seekers too and how successful have they been at it?


Margaret Lally:

A number of European countries do disperse asylum seekers. They have all got different arrangements. Success tends to vary. Part of the problem in making comparisons is that each country is starting from a different base line. Where it has been more successful - I think the Scandinavian countries have probably been more successful - is where there has been much closer working with local authorities which is something, I have to say, we haven't seen here on the dispersal system. But certainly in some areas of Scandinavia there is a lot closer working with local authorities so they are prepared to take asylum seekers and they have got arrangements in place to support them in the area.


Newshost:

Jason Scott, West Sussex, UK asks: I don't think we should let any more asylum seekers into the UK. Why can't the genuine ones go to Sweden, Finland and other countries where there is more space and not so much racial tension?


Margaret Lally:

Quite a few do already go to other countries. I think we have to be clear that Britain is still halfway down the league table of European countries for the number of asylum seekers it takes per head of the population. So I don't think we are taking over and above what other countries take. As I said before, there are quite often particular reasons why people want to come to Britain - not least because we have had a tradition of taking refugees and asylum seekers and there are already members of their community here. We are quite a large country and in many ways quite a wealthy country.


Newshost:

To hark back perhaps to the tragedy in Glasgow - are the problems in Glasgow just a one-off or is that typical of other dispersal areas as well?


Margaret Lally:

No I don't think it is a one-off. Within London we have seen increasingly a number of people coming back from dispersal areas complaining about racial harassment. One of the very sad things has been that quite often they are sent back to the area they have come from and it is certainly not always clear to us that sufficient arrangements have been put in place to protect them. So I think this is a very tragic example of things which quite honestly are happening more than we always realise.


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