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Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Q&A: Asylum seeker dispersal
The UK has been dispersing asylum seekers around the country for 18 months.

But, amid allegations of racism in some areas and chaotic arrangements for the asylum seekers in others, does the system work both for the people involved and the cities receiving them?

What is the national dispersal scheme?

The national dispersal scheme is one of the major measures introduced to tackle the rise in asylum seeker applications which has sparked political controversy.

The 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act (see internet links) aimed to:

  • Stop the massive influx of applicants
  • Ease councils of the financial burden
  • Relieve the housing and social pressures in London and south-east England

    The National Asylum Seekers Support Service (Nass) began work in April 2000. It centrally manages the controversial voucher scheme and the workings of national dispersal.

    So how does the scheme work?

    Under the scheme, all new asylum seekers in the UK (predominantly London and south-east England) are told that they will be transferred to a different region - and they are not given a choice of where they will go. Northern Ireland is excluded from the scheme.

    The latest Home Office figures show that more than 25,000 asylum seekers have been transferred to other areas.

    Click here for the locations of the major hosts

    As the table shows, the largest hosts have been Yorkshire and the Humber area, north west England and north east England.

    Locations have been chosen on a number of criteria, the most important being whether a host city has available suitable housing.

    The asylum seekers are put on buses and, in theory, are met at their destinations by representatives from the local authority and other agencies.

    While Nass is responsible for developing the network of hosts, the receiving local authority is responsible for advising the asylum seeker on how to access services such as health care and education.

    Does the applicant have a choice of location?

    No. They must accept the destination they are given unless they can prove extenuating circumstances.

    Asylum dispersal by major region:
    Yorks and Humber: 5909
    North West: 5584
    North East: 4629
    Scotland: 3137
    West Midlands: 2943
    East Midlands: 1364
    South West: 486
    National total: 25245
    This has been one of the most controversial parts of dispersal. Asylum agency workers and indeed some among local authorities say that the dispersal scheme is too blunt.

    They argue that it would be better to keep an asylum seeker within a settled community from their own country or close to other relatives who can share the burden.

    They also argue that the dispersal fails to take into account the fact that London has well-developed asylum support services from charities to local authorities with educational, health and legal expertise.

    So who pays for the dispersal?

    The 1999 act sought to take some of the financial burden from local authorities. But subsequent events have shown that it is not entirely clear in all circumstances who foots the bill.

    Westminster Council in London, one of the country's largest hosts, took Nass to court because it refused to pay for special community care arrangements for an asylum seeker. Nass argued that in that instance the asylum seeker was no longer its responsibility because special services such as these fall under the remit of the local authority.

    The council has lost the case and the appeal but is considering whether it can take it further.

    It says that of the 21m it annually spends on asylum seekers, it is only getting 13m back from central government. Other local authorities are reported to be in similar situations.

    But is the dispersal system working?

    It depends who you listen to. Agencies say that there have been many significant problems with the system with asylum seekers arriving in locations where there are no support services ready to take them.

    Some local authorities in London say that their experiences of the scheme are at best inadequate and at worst verging on the chaotic and detrimental to the needs of the asylum seekers.

    For its part, Westminster says that its relationship with Nass has improved. "It's not perfect," said a spokesman. "But it's got much better".

    One of the cornerstones of the scheme is also to create language-based "clusters" of asylum seekers. But campaigners say that some asylum seekers have been sent to areas with no existing community to help support them.

    Does the government accept the criticism?

    Asylum is a sensitive issue for the government. Many within the Labour party disagree with the controversial aspects such as dispersal and vouchers.

    Immigration minister Lord Rooker told the BBC that he accepted that there had been some problems but "over the last 18 months people have been dispersed, by and large, very, very successfully."

    Lord Rooker said that contracts had been terminated where there had been evidence of the scheme failing to meet the needs of asylum seekers, such as poor-quality housing.

    So is it planning on changing the way it works?

    Only to tighten up the monitoring of the current arrangements, said Lord Rooker. But he insisted that to stop sending asylum seekers to areas where there has been allegations of racist abuse would only play into the hands of the racists.

    Back to top

    Asylum minister Lord Rooker
    "The scheme by and large works very, very successfully"
    See also:

    07 Aug 01 | UK Politics
    Refugee dispersal 'will continue'
    07 Aug 01 | Scotland
    Calm plea as race tensions rise
    06 Aug 01 | Scotland
    Influx blamed for area tensions
    05 Aug 01 | Scotland
    Racial motive link to killing
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