“Four thousand a year here? I always say to people, if it was 25,000 a year, that would be 40 people per parliamentary constituency.”
David Miliband, 03 February 2016
Has Britain promised to take enough refugees from Syria’s civil war?
The current proposal is to take 20,000 of the most vulnerable displaced Syrians by 2020 – that’s 4,000 people a year.
Former foreign secretary David Miliband is calling for Britain to at least match Canada’s pledge to house 25,000.
Mr Miliband, now president of the International Rescue Committee, told Channel 4 News that if you spread 25,000 out evenly across the UK, it would amount to just a few dozen people in every parliamentary constituency.
But as many people have commented, Britain’s asylum seeker population is not distributed evenly.
According to a string of media reports, some deprived local authorities are housing a disproportionate number, while affluent swathes of the country are free of asylum seekers.
Will the same thing happen with Syrian refugees?
Mr Miliband is right to say that 25,000 people divided equally among the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies would amount to just under 40 for each area.
But we know that current rules on housing asylum seekers do not divide people equally like this. Some areas are much more affected than others.
This Mirror report from last month is typical of the kind of story that crops up regularly: “Some of the poorest areas in Britain are being used as ‘dumping grounds’ for asylum seekers.
“All of the top 10 areas for highest concentration of asylum seekers are in the north of England, Scotland and Wales… just one of the 31 local authorities which house more than 300 asylum claimants is in the south of England.”
This is all true, if unsurprising. It’s no secret that there are few asylum seekers in London and the South East, because it has been the policy since the Immigration Act 1999 (brought in under Labour, Mirror readers note) generally to avoid settling people in those areas, with a number of exceptions.
The phrase “dumping grounds” might be a bit unfair, as councils have a say in whether claimants are settled in their area, but there is a definite tendency for poorer local authorities to take more people.
Council housing is no longer used to house asylum seekers. Instead, the government hires private contractors to find them accommodation in the private rented sector.
The companies involved – G4S, Serco and Clearel – get a fee for every night of accommodation they provide, so it’s in their interests to keep costs low.
That means they tend to put people in housing in cities with the cheapest housing. And councils have a financial incentive to accept asylum seekers – they get money from government for under-18s, though not adults.
Our interactive map shows where asylum seekers live by council area. We’ve included people in dispersed accommodation and on “subsistence only”, which means they receive a living allowance from the government but not accommodation – usually because they live with family or friends.
These figures cover the second quarter of 2015. Glasgow was home to the most asylum claimants, followed by Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff.
The contractors are supposed to consult with councils over exactly where they place people, to avoid putting neighbourhood services under too much pressure.
There is a rule that you should only have one asylum seeker per 200 local residents, although we know of one case where that was breached recently.
Will the same thing happen with the Syrians?
The government says not, insisting that its resettlement policy for the 20,000 people fleeing Syria will be completely different.
Let’s remember that these people are not asylum claimants. They are refugees now living near Syria who have already been assessed and found to be the most vulnerable cases.
After arriving in the UK they will get five years’ Humanitarian Protection status, and unlike asylum seekers, they will be allowed to work and claim benefits.
This time, there won’t be any private contractors. Local authorities will take responsibility for the needs of the new arrivals, with the Home Office providing funding for the first year.
Where will the refugees end up? We don’t know yet, because the government is asking councils to volunteer to take people, and the discussions are still ongoing.
The campaign group Citizens UK has published a list of 93 councils who have “either resettled Syrian refugees already or have made firm commitments to do so”.
The Home Office has not published an official list, but if this accurate, it’s hard to see any obvious geographical or income bias.
There are some very deprived areas on the list – Knowsley, Liverpool, Birmingham – as well as more affluent ones. Most regions of the UK are represented.
The voluntary nature of the resettlement scheme means Syrian refugees almost certainly won’t be dispersed evenly around every area of the country, as Mr Miliband suggests.
At the same time, there’s no reason why we would see the concentration of people in poorer urban areas that we get with asylum seekers.