Central to the welfare provisions of the Asylum and Immigration Bill is the removal of everyone who is subject to immigration control (including taxpayers) from all mainstream benefits.
This won’t affect those long settled in Britain but it will affect those who have been ‘sponsored’ by a family member. In future, a sponsor’s failure to support will be a criminal offence, and there will be no state support for sponsored immigrants, even in the direst of emergencies. The only exception will be destitute asylum-seekers, who can be provided with accommodation and support at a price.
Compulsion and surveillance
The asylum welfare system will be run by a new Home Office agency, in a completely segregated regime featuring compulsion and surveillance. Although the Home Office says its plan is to develop ‘clusters’ of asylum-seekers in areas where local refugee communities already exist, the Bill expressly prohibits either location or the asylum-seeker’s preference from being taken into account in allocating accommodation. Areas where there is unfilled housing will be designated ‘reception zones’ (local authorities are obliged under the Bill to notify the Home Office of all their empty properties), and asylum-seekers will be sent there. To ensure that they stay there (and don’t have unauthorised guests), powers of entry and search of their accommodation are built in to the Bill, and the Post Office will have to notify the Home Office of any redirection of asylum-seekers’ mail. If they leave their ‘designated accommodation’ their support is terminated.
The Bill adopts and builds on the ad-hoc practices of sub-subsistence level support for asylum-seekers developed by local authorities which found themselves legally responsible for asylum-seekers’ support after the Tories’ abolition of welfare and housing benefits for in-country and rejected asylum-seekers in 1996. Many London boroughs, faced with expensive and increasingly scarce temporary accommodation in London (where 80 percent of asylum-seekers are) began sending them to southern coastal towns and to the north. As an Asylum Rights Campaign (ARC) report, Out of sight, out of mind reveals, authorities soon found that a policy of dispersal resulted in a halving of those seeking accommodation from them. They offered no choice, and in at least one case reported by ARC, police escorted a distraught Kosovar family from the social services office on to the train to Hull.
An estimated 28,700 asylum-seekers are expected to be dispersed out of London by March 2001. No central strategy is being devised to ensure there is adequate legal advice and representation in the ‘cluster areas’, or adequate interpretation facilities, or for that matter health, counselling, social services or educational provision.
Another principle is cashless provision. Benefits in kind (board and lodging, and sometimes vouchers for toiletries) were introduced post-1996 by authorities which claimed they were prevented by law from giving cash. Its inclusion in the Bill is expressly to deter ‘economic migrants’ from claiming asylum. Asylum-seekers who are able to stay with friends or family or who can call on the support of an established refugee community will be free to live where they like, subject to the Home Office power to attach a condition of residence at a specified address to their temporary admission to the country. But those asylum-seekers who have no such support, or whose community can provide accommodation but not the means of subsistence, will have to swallow the workhouse rules of the new regime. And all support stops when an appeal is lost, even if there is a judicial review of the decision.
Clearly, one rationale for the measures is deterrence, which is a European, not merely a British policy. Policy is made in Brussels, at least in broad outline, and the European policy continues to be to make life unpleasant for asylum-seekers within the confines of Geneva Convention obligations of reception. Most European countries now have an asylum reception system involving a degree of compulsion, or a voucher system: Britain has gone for both, for about the harshest possible option for those who need support. Thus, while not reneging on the letter of its duties towards refugees, it sends a message to middle England that Labour is tough on the ‘asylum scroungers’.
Perhaps the government is also frightened of the spiralling racism seen at Dover, where a combination of stretched local services, an opportunistic far-Right group and a virulently racist local press quickly stirred popular anti-refugee feeling to fever pitch after the arrival of a few hundred refugees from Slovakia and the Czech Republic and, more recently, of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. It does not want the social costs of anti-refugee racism the disturbance of the peace, the threat to public order of the far Right mobilisations, the electorate’s disaffection. But the compulsory dispersal of asylum-seekers is not the answer to popular and far-Right anti-refugee racism. The lesson of the past thirty years, in Britain and Europe, is that you can’t control racism by institutionalising it.