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Tuesday, 7 December, 1999, 19:34 GMT
Seeking asylum: A broader outlook
asylum seeker
"A pillow under the head" is the priority
Asylum-seekers are to be spread around England and Wales to relieve the pressure on ports in south-east England. BBC News Online examines what the new approach will mean.

Today, like most other days of the year, approximately 200 people will arrive in the UK in the hope of obtaining political asylum.

Many of them will have left homelands torn apart by conflict, may possess very little, and may have no understanding of the English language or the British way of life.

In housing asylum-seekers, the authorities say they always try to match the applicant with an area with an appropriate host population, where for example, the person's language might be spoken and his or her religion practised.

Before this week, the responsibility for housing people seeking asylum fell to whichever local authority the person first made his or her presence known in.

Benefits stopped

But now, and until 1 April, when the whole of the UK will participate in a similar Home Office-run scheme, all applicants will be processed through two clearing houses in the south of England, and from there sent to one of nine areas in the country which might have suitable accommodation.

The 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act stipulated that only those claiming asylum status on arrival - at a port or airport - would be entitled to benefits.

This was intended to eliminate the possibility of "economic migrants" - people trying to move to the UK because the cash benefits on offer represent a great increase in their standard of living from their home country.

The act states that if "in-country" applicants - those presenting themselves to authorities from within the country rather than at airports - are deemed to be destitute then the local authority to which they first present themselves are responsible for their welfare.

Children and families have different needs to single asylum seekers
Single applicants are then given a roof over their heads, a maximum of 10 in cash, and food vouchers.

The act meant asylum-seekers arriving at port towns like Dover in Kent were classified as "in-country" applicants, with responsibility falling directly onto Dover social services.

The drawback was that most asylum-seekers arrive in the south of England - typically London or Kent.

'Standard assessment'

Dover's local authority, and its inhabitants, became so frustrated at having a higher proportion of refugees and asylum seekers, that the new system of "dispersal" was drawn up.

David Barnes, project manager of the Local Government Association's Asylum Seekers Consortium, said: "When a person arrives in this country seeking asylum, they will now be subject to a standard assessment by the London and Kent consortia working together."

He said the availability and type of accommodation in each of the consortia would be kept updated and asylum-seekers spread more evenly around the country.

"The West Midlands consortium represents 38 local authorities, and when suitable accommodation has been pinpointed for an asylum seeker in one of those, we would arrange for them to be met in a recognised place and taken to their accommodation," said Mr Barnes.

Most of the asylum seekers we are taking in are a direct result of armed conflict

David Barnes, project manager of the Asylum Seekers Consortia
He said: "The most important thing initially would be a pillow under the head and a meal - even if the accommodation is not their final accommodation.

'Need to be settled'

"Most of the asylum-seekers we are taking in are a direct result of armed conflict.

"Above all they need to be settled and to be in a place which is appropriate for their needs, but that place has to be chosen sensitively bearing in mind also the needs of the host population."

But the dispersal scheme has received criticism. The Refugee Council says it is concerned vulnerable people could be shunted around the country without a thought for anything but a need to put a roof over their heads.

Spokeswoman Jean Candler said: "It just would not be fair to take someone, say from Ethiopia, and send them to a place in the country where they would not be able to speak their language, where nobody could speak theirs, and where they would have no contact with people from a similar background to themselves."

chechen refugees
Continuing conflicts mean there will be great numbers of people seeking safe havens
She said access to legal services may be difficult in different areas of the country not used to dealing with immigration issues.

"The big problem is how long it takes for an application to be processed, and that is not going to be tackled by just sending people to accommodation all over the country."

Ms Candler said the average waiting time for an application to be processed was more than two years - and there is currently a backlog of 94,000 applications.

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