When the UK government proposed to institutionalise forced dispersal and no-choice accommodation for asylum-seekers, CARF predicted that asylum-seekers would be dumped in slum areas and would become sitting targets for racist campaigns and attacks. Up and down the country, that’s what’s happening.
Reports indicate that as predicted asylum-seekers are being dumped in the worst run-down and hard-to-let housing, with all the expected social consequences. The government’s claim that asylum-seekers would be properly welcomed by local consortia and settled in good quality accommodation is a hollow joke. In Liverpool, asylum-seekers daren’t complain about appalling living conditions for fear of a hostile response. High-rise estates in Liverpool’s poorest areas, Liverpool 8 and Liverpool 5, have been bought up by slum landlords to fill with asylum-seekers for a government grant of 150 per asylum-seeker per week. Blocks to which asylum-seekers are sent are not centrally heated, lifts in 18-storey blocks don’t work. Stairs are littered with rubbish, including needles and drugs. Water does not reach the top floors. There have been infestations of fleas and mosquitoes. Landlords barge in to private rooms. There have been assaults. Complaints are met with the refrain, ‘You’re lucky to get anything.’
The new Rachmanism
Much of the accommodation asylum-seekers are placed in by local authorities is privately owned. The government was very keen to involve the private sector in its ‘partnership for social housing’. But the lack of adequate vetting of the providers or of the accommodation on offer is in danger of creating a new Rachmanism. In Everton, where semi-derelict tower blocks Millburn and Brynford Heights were bought up in 1990 by property companies, the local MP was denied access to the blocks, now used for housing asylum-seekers. A 17-year-old Iraqi Kurd interviewed by the Sunday Express on 26 December said: ‘This place is disgusting. I am freezing all the time I can’t stand it here but where can I go? I’m not allowed to work and the landlady has my identity papers and won’t give them back. It is like being kept prisoner.’
In these conditions, where poverty, isolation and stigma combine, one refugee has already tried to throw himself from the top of the block where he lives, and two others have been admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Far from reassessing the wisdom of the policy in the light of events such as this, the government will isolate asylum-seekers in Liverpool even more if proposals to use two boats as floating accommodation are accepted. A new group, Merseyside Refugee Action, has been set up by refugees and asylum-seekers in conjunction with health and legal workers, to tackle these issues.
In Norwich, a local campaign which has alleged Rachmanism has been threatened with legal action. A campaign by the Norwich and Norfolk Refugee Support Group persuaded the Home Office to stop a landlord’s bid to house 1,000 asylum-seekers. London councils also agreed to stop sending asylum-seekers to his properties in Great Yarmouth. After the Guardian reported the campaign, he took legal action against the group which has the effect of gagging criticism. According to the Guardian, a home in Hull for mentally disabled people and asylum-seekers, owned by the same landlord, was closed in August after a tribunal ruled that residents’ health and welfare, and possibly even their lives, were at serious potential risk.
Local press fans prejudices
But the media do not usually expose the plight of the asylum-seekers. Most of the issues reported, especially by local papers, are campaigns of popular racism, aided sometimes by the far Right and often by the tone of the press coverage itself. In south London, a tenants’ association which planned to put out a racist leaflet to stop Kosovan asylum-seekers being housed on the estate was stopped by police. Southwark police warned the Ashley Cooper Estate Residents’ Association that their leaflet protesting at the council’s decision to house the Kosovans there could incite race hatred. The residents did not want the estate, off the Old Kent Road, to be used as a ‘dumping ground’ for asylum-seekers not because the conditions on the estate were unfit, but because the asylum-seekers were. The association chair, Paul Fowler, described Kosovans’ ‘aggressive begging’ on the Old Kent Road, and painted the tenants as victims of council trickery, police intimidation and asylum-seekers’ aggression.
The South London Press added its own inflammatory mix of prejudice and unsubstantiated gossip in a full-page story on 14 January claiming that reports of shoplifting, gang intimidation and harassment were increasing in line with the number of asylum-seekers in Southwark. Its report cited stories of gang attacks by people ‘believed to be Kosovans’, mixed with tendentious quotes from tenants saying ‘it’s a nightmare’ and ‘we feel we are under siege’. The message conveyed by the SLP coverage of the asylum-seekers in Southwark, that they are criminals and a nuisance, was repeated in a cover story in the Newham Reporter headlined ‘War on bogus immigrants’, about a pilot project in Newham in which immigration officers will be able to raid the homes of suspected illegal entrants.