When asylum seekers are attacked, don’t be surprised: the UK system ensures that will happen

OpinionImmigration and asylum

Daniel Trilling

The violence in Knowsley is symptomatic of a dysfunctional approach that makes vulnerable refugees even more vulnerable

Police outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley, Merseyside, where asylum seekers are staying, 11 February 2023.
‘Hotels provide an easy target for the far right, and the way the Home Office has hired them out creates new potential for resentment.’ The Suites Hotel in Knowsley, Merseyside, 11 February 2023. Photograph: Peter Powell/PA

Thu 16 Feb 2023

Friends of Firsat Dag, a 25-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker, said he came to the UK to escape violence. Instead, he was stabbed to death in a park on his way home from a night out. It wasn’t an isolated incident. In the weeks surrounding his murder, gangs followed refugee children to and from school – one five-year-old boy was attacked with a baseball bat, according to an anti-racist campaign group – while hundreds of local residents held angry protests at the housing of asylum seekers in their deprived neighbourhood.

This is exactly the kind of violent escalation that many must fear happening after the riot in Knowsley last Friday. In fact, Dag’s murder took place more than 20 years ago, in Glasgow in the summer of 2001. Then, as now, inflammatory political rhetoric played a part: in the early 2000s, Britain was in the grips of a tabloid-driven moral panic over asylum. Far-right groups were also trying to whip up anti-refugee sentiment, holding demonstrations in other parts of the country.

A xenophobic backlash is always a risk when immigration becomes a fought-over political issue. Britain is not alone in that: in recent months Ireland has seen attempts by its tiny far-right scene, sensing an opportunity in tough economic times to stir up resentment of asylum seekers. But while politicians are rightly criticised when they pick up far-right talking points, there is another, underlying source of trouble here – the asylum system itself.

For more than two decades, the British state has aimed to keep people seeking refuge walled off from the rest of society. They are banned from working while they wait for their claims to be heard and must subsist on meagre payments administered by the Home Office – £45 a week, or £9.10 if placed in a hotel – in parallel to the regular benefits system. Unless they are independently wealthy, asylum seekers can’t choose where to live, instead being sent to various parts of the country under a dispersal policy that often isolates them from any family or community networks they may have.

The logic behind the system – which is the result of both Conservative and Labour governments – is that holding people in limbo while the state decides on their asylum cases is a way of reducing hostility. If asylum seekers can’t work, so goes the argument, there can be no accusations that they are stealing other people’s jobs. If people are scattered widely and kept in penury, then they are less easily accused of being a drain on the state.

A lifeboat bringing migrants ashore at Dungeness beach, May 2022.
‘A complete halt to Channel crossings is unlikely – unless Sunak means he merely wants people to go back to stowing away in lorries.’ A lifeboat bringing migrants ashore at Dungeness beach, May 2022. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In reality, it has the opposite effect. Subsistence payments and precarious housing, however much these might compound the trauma of people who have fled war and persecution, are maliciously spun as freebies. Accommodation has long been placed in poorer parts of the country – partly for reasons of cost, but also because residents of wealthier areas have more power to make a fuss. (In 2020, civil servants apologised for their “error” in placing asylum seekers in the well-heeled Essex town of Witham – which just so happened to be the constituency of Priti Patel, home secretary at the time.)

A system that treats its subjects as unwanted material to be tidied away is always likely to breed stigma. And the system has been getting worse. In 2012, the coalition privatised asylum accommodation, adding a chaotic market dynamic to the mix. Since 2020, the “emergency” use of hotels requisitioned by the Home Office has soared, initially as a pandemic measure but more recently because a growing backlog of asylum claims means the private contractors have run out of space.

Hotels provide an easy target for the far right, and the way the Home Office has hired them out – at short notice and with little local consultation – creates new potential for resentment. (One Knowsley resident told the Guardian this week that beyond the immediate trigger for the protests, people were unhappy that the Home Office had taken over a hotel used by many locals for their weddings.)

These processes were well under way before Suella Braverman took over, so what does it mean to have an even more hardline home secretary? She presents herself as the politician who can end the dysfunction at the Home Office and stop asylum being seen as a weak spot for the Tories. In her inaugural speech to civil servants, she signalled that there would be a more cordial relationship with staff than under her predecessor, speaking of their “wellbeing”. A source with knowledge of the Home Office tells me that anonymous briefings against civil servants, once commonplace, seem to have stopped for the moment.

But the dysfunction continues. In November, a whistleblower claimed the department was hiring temporary, inexperienced staff from customer service jobs at McDonald’s and Tesco to make “life or death” decisions on asylum cases, in an effort to clear the backlog. Staff were so unhappy at the overcrowding, unsafe and unhygienic conditions at the Manston processing centre in Kent last autumn that one civil service trade union took the Home Office to court.

Braverman’s “invasion” rhetoric is clearly a problem, but so too is her boss’s decision to make “stop the boats” one of his government’s five key pledges, even if he expresses himself more politely. Braverman has thrown the Home Office fully behind this goal: her decision last month to drop several measures recommended by the review into the Windrush scandal is one result. But a complete halt to Channel crossings is unlikely to be achieved – unless Sunak means that he merely wants people to go back to stowing away in lorries, as they largely did until 2020.

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As things stand, the government risks a repeat of Cameron’s net migration pledge, which inflamed public hostility towards immigration and created an incentive for yet more punitive policies to come. If that happens, the source suggested to me, then we are also likely to see a return of the “blame game” between ministers and civil servants.

It is easy in these circumstances to feel as though the situation is hopeless, for lack of alternatives. Labour proposes to make the system more humane and efficient, but not to change its fundamental logic. Its leading MPs even seem to support a new Home Office scheme to electronically tag some asylum seekers. But wider reaching change is possible. The Scottish government’s “new Scots” strategy aims to undo some of the damage done by the asylum system run from Westminster by offering people support in accessing education, healthcare, job training and language skills, as well as making connections with people in the communities where they are housed, from the day they arrive.

This is a direct challenge to the British state’s efforts at segregation. One reason the Scottish government has the confidence to do this is that Glasgow – which remains the UK’s largest asylum dispersal area – now boasts a local culture of resistance to overbearing immigration policy. It didn’t happen by accident. These things need to be built, often by ordinary people and activists who see through the cynical claim that migrants’ rights come at the expense of those of their neighbours.

  • Daniel Trilling is a contributor to Broke: Fixing Britain’s Poverty Crisis, which is published on 30 March 2023
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