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The Empathy Deficit: How the Government Has Marginalised and Demonised Asylum Seekers

Sam Bright and Sascha Lavin consider how successive administrations have tried to stop the nation from seeing asylum seekers as humans

Boat spotted in the English Channel. Photo: adp-news/Alamy

The Empathy DeficitHow the Government Has Marginalised and Demonised Asylum Seekers

Sam Bright and Sascha Lavin consider how successive administrations have tried to stop the nation from seeing asylum seekers as humans

The issues of immigration and asylum have been intertwined in recent years – a consequence of the political decision to cast all incomers as unwelcome and undesirable, in order to further a nationalist agenda.

As the UK looks for new ways to prevent asylum seekers from reaching our shores, the news last week revealed that at least 27 people had died in the Channel, trying desperately to find refuge in this country.

But amid this focus on the arrival of asylum seekers in Britain, the lives of those already living here have been neglected. When people arrive in the UK from war-torn states, often without their families, how do we treat them, and what sort of life can they expect?

Notably, new research from the Byline Intelligence Team shows that asylum seekers are twice as likely to be dispersed to areas that suffer from racial tensions. Indeed, asylum seekers in England are twice as likely to be housed in areas with the highest rate of hate crime reporting. There are approximately 12 asylum seekers for every 10,000 people in the 10 police force areas with the highest offence rates for race hate crime, compared with a national average of six out of 10,000. 

What’s more, the largest number of Prevent referrals related to far-right extremism last year were in the north east of England, the region with the highest intake of destitute asylum seekers. 

Shams, an asylum seeker who has requested that his country of origin not be shared for security reasons, has called Darlington his home for four years. But his new home hasn’t always been welcoming.

“When you look different to the locals, or you speak different, there will always be people who look at you funny or ask you questions like ‘what are you doing here?’. You feel uninvited, you don’t feel like you belong here,” he told Byline Times.

However, Shams doesn’t blame the local people. He believes that the Home Office should do more to help asylum seekers to integrate in their new country. “If the system can support us half as much as the way that [charitable] organisations are supporting people seeking sanctuary in the UK, I think things will get better”, he says

This is echoed by Jason Hussein, a project manager at Justice First – a charity that supports asylum seekers living in the north east, including Shams. “Where you have small communities, suddenly people coming in with different faces scares them. It’s just the unknown isn’t it? And often the wider public aren’t being educated by the Government. There needs to be responsible messaging,” he told Byline Times.

Both Jason and Shams stress that a vast number of people are welcoming towards asylum seekers – but that little is done to encourage the sharing of experiences between local residents and their new neighbours.

“I would say generally that most people are pretty accepting of asylum seekers and refugees – there’s a lot of love out there… but it’s all about the messaging [from Government],” Jason says. “So among the general public, I would say there’s a lot of love, but there are also a lot of myths.”

In the north east, Darlington joins with Middlesborough, Redcar and Cleveland, Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington to form the Tees Valley mayoral seat, where Conservative Ben Houchen was re-elected by 73% of the vote this year. 

Collectively, there are 21 asylum seekers for every 10,000 people in the area, more than three times the national average, and Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough are in the top five local authorities with the highest percentage of destitute asylum seekers per head.

Integration and Vilification

Part of the problem – the friction between asylum seekers and the communities they are settled in – relates to the overt weaponisation of both immigration and asylum.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has criticised the “activist lawyers” who prevent asylum seekers from being deported from the UK, she has closed down (or failed to open) many legal routes of entry, has suggested that asylum seekers should be housed overseas, and has considered using aggressive tactics to patrol the UK’s waters.

This chimes with a strand of Conservative thinking that emerged during the Vote Leave campaign during the EU Referendum – scapegoating immigrants for complex social problems.

Even last year, the Conservatives ran a targeted anti-immigration advertising campaign against Labour MPs in marginal seats. After Labour voted against the Government’s Immigration Bill, voters were told that, “Your MP just voted against ending free movement”. 

However, this blame game has been successful in large because people lack an understanding of asylum seekers and some immigrant communities. These communities often live apart from their white and British-born neighbours, seeking safety in numbers – an entirely reasonable and rational instinct. Yet there has been little attempt by successive governments to breed a sense of common understanding and humanity between the various people who call Britain home.

A recent report by the RESPOND project, a consortium of migration academics, found that the Government has adopted a hands-off approach to the integration of asylum seekers, shifting the responsibility to local authorities and asylum seekers themselves – pursuing policies which segregate and marginalise people seeking sanctuary. 

The Government has attempted to brand its “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) policy – whereby asylum seekers are denied the opportunity to work or claim most benefits – as a pro-integration scheme. The Government argues that by making people seeking sanctuary in the UK “financially independent”, they are forced to integrate with British society. But, the Government has failed to take into account the fact that people will find it harder to integrate when they are on the brink of destitution, unable to work and demonised for not ‘paying their way’.

Under its new Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, the Government is seeking to introduce further anti-integration measures. The bill plans to place asylum seekers in accommodation centres such as the controversial Napier Barracks, instead of community-based housing where the majority of people seeking asylum are currently housed.  

Despite Government protestations that the “integration of asylum seekers accommodated in Napier is the same as those accommodated in other types of accommodations”, policy director at HOPE not hate, Rosie Carter, argues that the policy would hinder integration.

“This would not only isolate people seeking asylum in detention-like settings, but also add another barrier towards them becoming part of their communities,” she told Byline Times.

In the run-up to the 2019 General Election, Boris Johnson claimed that “there are too many parts of Britain where immigrant communities do not speak English as their first language”. However, under Johnson’s leadership, the Government has limited the opportunities for asylum seekers to learn English – thus blocking them from integrating into British society.

Shams remembers a fellow asylum seeker who was targeted in Darlington because of his poor English skills. “He was told to go back home, to speak English, but it’s not his fault,” Shams told Byline Times. “He wanted to go to college and learn English, but the system wouldn’t let him”.

Shams’ friend, along with thousands of other people seeking sanctuary, find it difficult to access language classes. Asylum seekers who want to improve their English can wait up to two years for their first English for Speaker of Other Languages (ESOL) class because of central government cuts – constituting 56% between 2010 and 2016. 

After receiving his right to remain in the UK, Shams’ friend chose to leave Darlington, picking a new home in an area where he felt more safe from abuse. 

Hartlepool supported 318 destitute asylum seekers in September, while there were only two asylum seekers living in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, despite having 1,000 more inhabitants than its north-eastern counterpart.   

Much of this imbalance is due to a reliance on affordable housing. The Conservative Government’s privatisation of contracts for housing asylum seekers in 2012 saw companies including G4S and Serco buy up the cheapest housing in the poorest parts of the country, creating a skewed dispersal of asylum seekers.

The Guardian previously reported that over half of destitute asylum seekers are housed in the poorest third of the country, whilst the richest third only houses 10% of asylum seekers. 

Jason Hussein admits that “housing plays a big role” but claims that political motivations are also responsible for the skewed dispersal of asylum seekers across England. 

“I think it’s political. I think the Conservatives don’t want to put those areas under strain or they don’t want [asylum seekers] in their voting areas”, he told Byline Times. “They don’t want to rock the boat in areas where it’s predominantly white, English, and middle-class”. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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