Public discussion on refugee protection tends to focus on headline numbers set by policymakers. In Britain one of these numbers is 20,000. That is, in September 2015 David Cameron promised to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in Britain by 2020. The public debate has thus far focused on whether this number is too low or high. But irrespective of what this number actually is, a further pressing question is where in Britain these vulnerable refugees are going to settle.
Labour’s asylum policy has not historically given this question much consideration, or empowered communities in refugee resettlement. Since the Immigration and Asylum Act of 1999, the UK has relocated refugees (who tend to be temporarily housed in detention centres) away from the south east of England to a series of ‘dispersal zones’ within urban centres, largely in the north of England, Scotland, and Wales. This process was administered by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS, until its absorption into the Home Office). Although NASS entered into contracts with local authorities to house refugees, there was no systematic process to attempt to make sure that refugees and local areas were particularly suited to each other. In fact, refugees have no choice about where in the country they are relocated.
This came under much criticism for being unacceptably punitive, for removing refugees from precisely the social networks and community structures that could have helped their integration, and leading to community tensions (things got bad enough for NASS to suspend relocations to six areas in 2004). Surveys conducted in these areas found that both those granted asylum and hosting communities expressed deep anxiety over the policy, and that existing residents felt particularly frustrated at a lack of consultation.
As many local communities announced that they would not participate in further rounds of contracts, NASS shifted to private service companies, which have come under considerable criticism for their expense (estimated in the region of £620 million by 2012) and the high volume of cases of abuse, harassment, and disproportionate force during deportation conducted by some of these companies. The local communities, where refugees end up being hosted, feel even more excluded and frustrated by the process, and it has been argued that the privatisation of provision in these cities has fostered further anti-refugee sentiment.
This is also crucial for the rights and livelihoods of refugees themselves. There is abundant evidence from random dispersal schemes used in Denmark and Sweden in the ’90s that refugees who are resettled into less affluent communities fare badly as a result. Many forms of protection and welfare support are not provided in every local area: the rights of disabled refugees, LGBT refugees, those suffering from PTSD or other forms of mental illness, all require particular services in order to properly vitiate their rights. In other contexts, many rights require appropriate community resources for their practical actualisation: not all local authorities have the same civil society capacities to call upon in making these rights real. Crucially, different areas may be able to provide differently: one community may have a well-organised network of Kinyarwanda-speaking churches, another will have Tigrinya-speaking mosques. The practical ability of refugees to access such community resources, which could be crucial to their realisation of their conception of the good, requires that they be in particular parts of the country. To precisely that extent, the provision of these resources is also likely to relate directly to whether refugees and communities are able to integrate rapidly and durably.
Therefore a genuinely progressive refugee policy has to balance two important commitments. The cosmopolitan duty to help Syrians, Libyans, Eritreans and others in desperate need is often seen as in tension with respecting the legitimate desires and concerns of local communities. We propose a system which can reconcile the needs of refugees with the priorities of communities, by giving both a say in the process.
There are three problems with systems for matching refugees to local authorities in the status quo. Firstly, these processes are invariably ‘bespoke’: they rely on long interviews, contacting local authorities one by one, and manually allocating refugees to particular areas. When resettlement or relocation needs to happen rapidly, such bespoke matching becomes impossible. Secondly, this process is generally subject to minimal public scrutiny. This is a product of the focus on ‘how many’ rather than ‘where’. Once a state has committed to a headline resettlement figure, there is comparatively little discourse around how it was determined that a particular refugee ended up in a particular place. Thirdly, insofar as refugees are consulted about where they would like to go, their preferences are inferred and acted on by agencies, rather than directly and honestly stated and implemented.
By analogy, imagine a world, similar to this one, where the state commits to educate every child. However, once that is settled, the state simply allocated each child to a school somewhere in the country. Thereafter, children were not permitted to switch schools, but have to make do. Little effort would be made to take into account anything about any child: where she and her parents might live, what skills she has, where her friends already attend, what her faith is, or what her interests are. The preferences of the children or of their parents would be completely ignored. So would the priorities and capacities of schools. In this world, there would be a lot of unhappy children in a lot of schools that would struggle to educate them.
Refugees and communities are not so different. In this context, we propose a centralised ‘matching system’ – the ‘Local Refugee Match’ – which would enable both refugees and local authorities to express, for themselves, their preferences as to where they would like to go, or which refugees they feel most capable of hosting.
The Local Refugee Match would function similarly to the matching systems used successfully to match children to schools in the UK. This system would come into effect after it is agreed that a given population of refugees is to be resettled, and that particular communities agree to host some proportion of that total number. At that point both parties get a say: they submit a ranking to a centralised clearinghouse: refugees (as families) would submit their preferences over where they wish to go, and communities their priorities as to which categories of refugees they feel best able to help.
Local authorities would not rank refugees individually. Instead, they would have ‘priority categories’ corresponding to their provision capacities, which they would rank. The provision capacities of local authorities are more diverse than is usually thought: for example, some hospitals specialise in providing for particular conditions. In a local authority with a hospital treating unusual medical conditions (eg tropical medicine), the highest priority might be for refugees who have those conditions. Other priority categories might include: the suitability of accommodation, particular care services, the availability of particular forms of in-kind welfare, educational opportunities (eg spaces in schools), employment opportunities, the presence of particular civil society groups in a position to play support roles in refugee reception, and other integration services.
The state should decide what the priority categories could be, but local authorities themselves could control their ranking of those categories. Deciding what categories it is permissible to rank on is important in order to prevent local authorities attempting to prioritise refugees in morally repugnant ways (eg were a local authority to try and take only white refugees). One possible way to do this would be to make the priority categories correspond to the categories of vulnerability and particular need already collected by UNHCR and other resettlement agencies. Then, it would be a simple matter to guarantee that refugees with those particular needs were matched to local areas which actually possessed the capacity to meet them.
Refugees also have diverse preferences over where they most wish to go: they will have eclectic skills, needs and life goals. For example, refugees with children have very different aspirations to refugees in or nearing retirement. Different refugee families will have friends or relatives in different parts of the country, will speak different languages, be of different faiths, and so on. Right now, centralised bureaucracies try to collate this information and infer preferences on behalf of refugees. While bureaucrats may have some idea about the top preference of a refugee family, they are extremely unlikely to identify correctly their second, third, fourth etc. preferences. Realistically, it will not be possible to give every refugee their top choice, so having a good idea what the next preferences are can dramatically improve the number of apt matches between refugees and communities.
The Local Refugee Match will not help any more refugees than the government has already agreed to help. But by taking their preferences seriously it can ensure that the resettled refugees have the best chance in starting their new life in Britain. We also hope that the transparency and the effectiveness of the system would encourage more local authorities to participate (since just over 70 do so currently on a voluntary basis) in resettling refugees. Most importantly, the Local Refugee Match would give agency and dignity to those refugees coming to Britain, while also respecting the priorities and needs of local communities. That surely is what any truly progressive and fair asylum policy must aspire to do.