Dispersal in the UK

DSC_0689Since the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the UK has followed a policy that relocates asylum seekers away from the south east of England to a series of ‘dispersal zones’ within urban centres across the north of England, Wales and Scotland, in order to reduce a perceived ‘burden’ on the south east of England and London (Robinson et al. 2003). At the same time, The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) was established to administer the dispersal process and coordinate a new support system that removed asylum seekers from mainstream welfare streams. Taken together, these policy measures served to produce a new social geography of asylum within the UK. Starting in 2000, NASS entered into contracts with local authorities across the UK to house dispersal asylum seekers. Most of this accommodation came from a combination of hard-to-let social housing and private landlords sub-contracted by local authorities. As a result, dispersal has led to the emergence of localised urban concentrations of asylum seekers in a number of cities and an uneven geography of asylum provision across the UK (Stewart 2011).

The initial dispersal process has not proceeded without tensions and the policy itself has been widely criticised as forming part of a wider sweep of punitive policies that seek to deter asylum seekers from the UK (Bloch and Schuster 2005; Phillips 2006). In particular, dispersal has been highlighted as removing individuals from social networks and community organisations already established and has been argued to leave individuals isolated and disconnected from opportunities for political activism (Darling 2011; Gill 2009). Asylum seekers have also faced social exclusion and harassment in dispersal areas. In 2004, dispersals to six areas of England were briefly suspended amid rising tensions between community groups (Casciani 2004). Concerns were expressed by police and local authorities in Nottingham, Derby, Burnley, Nelson, Bootle and Manchester, over threats to community cohesion from asylum dispersals and ‘pressures on services’. In this context of emergent tensions over services and community relations, research conducted for the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees (ICAR), found that in six English dispersal areas there was considerable anxiety on the part of both asylum seekers and residents over the policy (D’Onofrio and Munk 2004). This research established that existing residents expressed frustration at a lack of consultation or clear information about the changes taking place in their neighbourhoods, and this information gap allowed myths and rumours to take hold, often linked to negative portrayals of asylum in the media. Throughout this first series of dispersal contracts, from 2000-2006, numbers of asylum applications were falling but still at historically high levels, leading both politicians and the press to focus on asylum as an issue of national concern. It is within this context of widespread media attention that tensions over asylum provision and welfare in particular came to the fore in a number of dispersal locations.

A second round of NASS contracts were negotiated in 2006 with local authorities that had previously been involved in dispersal. During this round of negotiations, the government sought to increase the role of private sector provision in the dispersal system. As asylum application numbers were continuing to fall, the Home Office were keen to avoid being tied into contracts with public providers that might lead to an oversupply of housing and viewed private sector providers as more flexible in this regard (Burnett 2011). This opened the process of dispersal to a wider range of providers and as a number of cities, notably Birmingham and Wolverhampton, declared their intention to not renew contracts to accommodate asylum seekers in 2011, a move to privatise dispersal accommodation started. This move has partially resulted in a shifting geography of dispersal as the provision of public housing no longer fully determines dispersal locations.

Whilst asylum dispersal has been a public policy issue for a number of cities since 2000, in 2009 a third round of contract negotiations for accommodation were announced which opened the bidding to a range of private companies, thereby shifting the emphasise away from public provision of asylum support through urban authorities. The Home Office and UKBA established the new Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services (COMPASS) project to negotiate housing contracts in 2009, and bidding was undertaken in 2011 during the austerity drive of the coalition government. As such COMPASS was a target for significant funding cuts, with UKBA seeking to ‘drive down the cost of asylum support’ under demands from the Treasury (Burnett 2011). In this context, the COMPASS project led to the procurement of asylum accommodation from solely private providers rather than the previous mix of social housing associations and local authorities.

In December 2011, the outcome of the COMPASS process was announced and UKBA unveiled three private service companies as their ‘preferred bidders’ for contracts to provide accommodation, associated services and transport for asylum seekers across the UK’s dispersal regions. Serco Group was announced as the preferred bidder for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North West region, G4S was announced as the preferred bidder for the Midlands and the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, while London, the South and Wales feel under the control of the Reliance group. The contracts agreed last for a five year period, with an option of two further years dependent on a series of UKBA targets for service delivery. Whilst the value of such contracts is not publically known, estimates suggest their overall value to be in the region of £620 million (Grayson 2012). Opponents of such moves have highlighted not only the profits that these companies stand to make from the lives of asylum seekers, but also the number of high profile cases of abuse, harassment and force used by G4S in delivering their existing contracts on asylum deportation (Grayson 2012). The transfer of accommodation contracts from public providers and urban authorities to private security firms who also run many of the UK’s asylum detention centres and who carry out deportations on behalf of the government, has led to growing unease amongst asylum advocacy groups over both the appropriateness of security firms running support services and over the sense of an ‘asylum industry’ being produced that is centred on making profits from the dispersal system.

Whilst the effects of dispersal accommodation being transferred to private providers are still emerging, it is fair to suggest that with these moves the power relations of asylum provision are being remoulded as urban authorities increasingly have to renegotiate their position relative to the Home Office. This poses significant questions over the role of cities as places of asylum, whilst also reflecting claims that the privatisation of urban governance is leading to the emergence of ‘post-democratic’ cities (MacLeod 2011) in which key areas of public provision and political concern are subject to market forces and beyond the remit of public deliberation. It is in this context of significant change in the provision and politics of urban dispersal in the UK, that the Producing Urban Asylum project aims to explore the impact of moves to privatise dispersal provision in four cities, placing these recent shifts in the context of longer histories of asylum in each city.

Of note here are recent arguments that in some cases, dispersal may serve to foster new forms of multicultural understanding and interaction that challenge national assumptions around asylum from a local perspective (Sim and Bowes 2007; Finney and Robinson 2008). The arrival of new and often highly educated populations in these cities has thus been suggested to hold potential advantages for local economies (Phillimore and Goodson 2006). The fall in asylum applications seen across the 2000s might therefore offer the potential for a more measured consideration of the role of asylum seekers in dispersal locations as creating new communities in often neglected and economically deprived locations. The emergence of Refugee Community Organisations (RCO’s) in a range of dispersal locations, promoting community relations and tackling the isolation often associated with dispersal, might be seen as one sign of a potentially positive cultural impact of dispersal (Griffiths et al. 2006). However, there is a need to be cautious here, for whilst informal refugee networks are in evidence in many dispersal regions, there is a risk that without centralised moves to support the rights of asylum seekers at a national level and to reintroduce measures to aid integration (such as English language training provision which has been a victim of government austerity), these groups may serve to embed and institutionalise marginality (Griffiths et al. 2006; Zetter et al. 2005).

The contemporary dispersal context in the UK is thus notable for a patchwork of provision, privatisation, protest and support that produces an uneven and shifting geography of asylum. As such, experiences and understandings of asylum differ markedly across this patchwork, dependent on dispersal location, history, demography and local politics. It is these diverse understandings and experiences that Producing Urban Asylum will explore through four case study cities – Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Sunderland. Each of these cities has experienced differing levels of asylum dispersal over the last decade, has taken different steps to respond to contracts with G4S, Serco and Reliance, and have differing histories of asylum support, protest and activism. In exploring the similarities, distinctions and nuances of each city’s response to asylum, this project will develop a picture of the diverse ways in which urban asylum is negotiated in contemporary Britain.

Further detail on the background to each of these cities can be found on their respective pages. However, it is worth noting here that in the context of falling asylum numbers across the 2000s each city has seen falling numbers of asylum seekers. Given their higher dispersal numbers, this fall is most notable in Birmingham and Glasgow. Glasgow has the largest number of asylum dispersal across this time period, with a peak of 5,881 at the end of 2004, falling to 1,770 at the end of 2012. By contrast the highest number in Birmingham during this time frame arose at the end of 2003 when 3,927 asylum seekers were supported in the city. This demonstrates the significance of Glasgow as the predominant dispersal location in the UK’s asylum geography.

(Source: Home Office 2013)

The significance of Glasgow within the UK’s asylum geography is furthered if we consider the share of the national asylum population supported in Glasgow at any one time since the end of 2003. The share of the nationally supported population in each city has remained relatively stable, but it is clear that Glasgow houses a far higher average share then the other dispersal cities studied. This share has been around 9% since 2003, peaking at 11.2% mid-way through 2006. By contrast Birmingham, again taking the second highest share, has an average share of 4.5% across this time period. What is also notable is that Cardiff, whilst being home to fewer asylum seekers supported under Section 95 in total, has increased its share of the national total since 2003, from 1.5% at the end of 2003 to 4.3% at the end of 2012. This is because as total numbers of asylum seekers supported in the UK has fallen, numbers supported in Cardiff have fallen at a lower rate, from 1,220 at the end of 2003 to 863 at the end of 2012. It is also notable therefore that the fall in numbers of asylum seekers supported in Cardiff has been less marked than in both Birmingham and Glasgow. Exploring the role of local authorities and the context of each city in determining and shaping these trends, from the context of devolution in Cardiff and Glasgow to the demographics of Birmingham and Sunderland, will be a key outcome of this work.

(Source: Home Office 2013)

Finally, Sunderland has been home to a far smaller asylum seeker population across this time scale, with its share of the national total less significant than the other three cities, consistently being less than 1%. The distinctions in the size of the asylum population supported in Sunderland by comparison to Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow, together with the city’s demographic position as a site of declining population, make it an interesting case of a smaller city adapting to asylum and the challenges dispersal poses, often without a long history of migrant groups or social networks present. This places the city in contrast to Birmingham in particular, which has a far longer history of ethnic diversity. It is both Birmingham’s size and its diverse nature that may explain why it is also the only city of the three to have been home to a significant number of asylum seekers in receipt of subsistence only support since 2004. This level of support is offered to asylum seekers who do not wish to accept accommodation provision from UKBA and is often taken to indicate those asylum seekers who wish to stay with friends or contacts, most often in London. Birmingham’s nature as the second largest city in the UK would seem to suggest that, like London, the diversity of communities that constitute Birmingham offers the kinds of social networks and connections for asylum seekers that are often argued to be absent in many smaller dispersal locations.

(Source: Home Office 2013)

Since 2000 dispersal has been a key tool within asylum policy in the UK, seeking to distribute and locate asylum seekers whilst their claims for asylum are considered. Whilst the policy itself has been controversial and has, at times, led to localised tensions and claims of social isolation and marginalisation, the policy has persisted, with short term experiments with rural refugee centres ruled unworkable. Dispersal is still a centralised concern, but the contracts for accommodation itself have been transferred to private sector service providers with histories in security provision. Through examining the impacts of these changes in four cities, the Producing Urban Asylum project will consider how dispersal is negotiated in contemporary Britain by urban authorities, asylum advocacy groups and asylum seekers. The project will also seek to understand how the unique place histories, geographies and demographics of each city shape the experience of seeking asylum, thereby addressing a need to critically explore how government policy on asylum is translated, refracted and reworked through everyday urban spaces.


Bloch, A. and Schuster, L. (2005) At the extremes of exclusion: deportation, detention and dispersal Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28(3), 491-512

Burnett, J. (2011) Public spending cuts savage dispersal system Institute of Race Relations, London, available at: www.irr.org.uk/news/public-spending-cuts-savage-dispersal-system

Casciani, D. (2004) Asylum city dispersals suspended BBC News Online, available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4013431.stm

Darling, J. (2011) Domopolitics, governmentality and the regulation of asylum accommodation Political Geography, 30, 263-271

D’Onofrio, L. and Munk, K. (2004) Understanding the stranger: final report London, ICAR

Finney, N. and Robinson, V. (2008) Local press, dispersal and community in the construction of asylum debates Social and Cultural Geography, 9(4), 397-413

Gill, N. (2009) Governmental mobility: the power effects of the movement of detained asylum seekers around Britain’s detention estate Political Geography, 28, 186-196

Grayson, J. (2012) Asylum seeker housing managed by for-profit prison guards? Why not? Open Democracy available at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/john-grayson/asylum-seeker-housing-managed-by-for-profit-prison-guards-why-not.

Griffiths, D. Sigona, N. and Zetter, R. (2006) Integrative paradigms, marginal reality: Refugee Community Organisations and dispersal in Britain Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 32(5), 881-898

Home Office (2013) Immigration statistics: October to December 2012 Home Office National Statistics, London

MacLeod, G. (2011) Urban politics reconsidered: growth machine to post-democratic city? Urban Studies, 48(12), 2629-2660

Phillimore, J. and Goodson, L. (2006) Problem or opportunity? Asylum seekers, refugees, employment and social exclusion in deprived urban areas Urban Studies, 43(10), 1715-1736

Phillips, D. (2006) Moving towards integration: the housing of asylum seekers and refugees in Britain Housing Studies, 21(4), 539-553

Robinson, V. Andersson, R. and Musterd, S. (2003) Spreading the burden? European policies to disperse asylum seekers Bristol, Policy Press

Sim, D. and Bowes, A. (2007) Asylum seekers in Scotland: the accommodation of diversity Social Policy and Administration, 41(7), 729-746

Stewart, E. (2011) UK dispersal policy and onward migration: mapping the current state of knowledge Journal of Refugee Studies, 25(1), 1-25.

Zetter, R. Griffiths, D. and Sigona, N. (2005) Social capital or social exclusion? The impact of asylum-seeker dispersal on UK refugee community organizations Community Development Journal, 40(2), 169-181


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