Reports last week that local authorities participating in the Dispersal Scheme are considering withdrawing from the Scheme are alarming but perhaps not surprising.
Dispersal is a programme run by the UK government to accommodate asylum seekers in locations across the UK on a no-choice basis. Since its implementation at the turn of the Millennium, it has attracted controversy, especially around issues relating to the housing of asylum seekers. In Glasgow, the biggest site of Dispersal in the UK, and a primary GLIMER Research location, issues with accommodation have been various and long-running.
In the early years of Dispersal, community tensions ran high and newly-arrived asylum seekers to the city experienced racism and community tensions alongside housing issues. As local stakeholders worked to address these problems throughout the following decade, new issues arose, the impact of which can be related to changes in Dispersal accommodation contracts in 2012.
The 2012 COMPASS contract removed responsibility for housing asylum seekers from public and third sector providers and instead awarded provision to private contractors, such as Serco. The decision had significant consequences for asylum seeker accommodation in Glasgow, including a decrease in housing standards, poor maintenance, unhealthy living conditions and intimidating behaviour from contractor staff. Outcry over the conditions resulted in the termination of a provider subcontracted by Serco in 2016. Since this point, GLIMER stakeholders report that Serco accommodation delivery has improved, though issues with maintenance, peripheral locations and evictions are persistent.
Accommodation conditions and issues with quality and maintenance impact asylum seekers’ lives. A Glasgow-based NGO stakeholder noted,
[Without accommodation] all your time and energy is spent on finding somewhere to eat, finding somewhere to sleep and your legal case gets put aside. [Accommodation gives displaced people] time and the space to improve their health… to get back into kind of mixing with people.
Accommodation issues are also frustrating to local stakeholders in Glasgow because the current governance of asylum accommodation contracts provides very little room for local actors to change systems and structures which are not working. This feature of asylum accommodation provision is particular to the 2012 COMPASS contract. Before 2012, asylum housing contracts were held between the Home Office and third and public sector providers to accommodate asylum seekers in Glasgow. The 2012 contract removes the involvement of the public and third sectors, and relies on an agreement between the Home Office (UK Government) and private contractors. This governance model has been described as ‘decentering’ – as a process through which local stakeholders are given operational and political responsibilities for accommodation provision, but are displaced from central decision-making processes.
GLIMER Research finds that this model of Dispersal governance impacts the activities and effectiveness of local stakeholders in three areas:
(1) In the area of urban planning and community development, COMPASS governance has reduced the scope of Glasgow City Council to engage in the impact of asylum accommodation on built and social environments in the city. Serco now has influence over both the type of housing and the location of housing in which asylum seekers are accommodated. As the COMPASS contract emphasises cost-saving measures, Serco has sought low-cost accommodation options, resulting in a push towards the periphery of Glasgow, and low-quality housing stock – both of which have impact on the social and built geographies of Glasgow. Glasgow City Council, however, has minimal scope to plan for or act on these impacts. This loss of control over the location and housing in which asylum seekers are accommodated is therefore not just a transferral of responsibility from one organisation (Glasgow City Council) to another (Serco); rather, it represents a loss of policy control for the local authority. This finding is notable in the context of research conducted by GLIMER partners in Calabria, where, despite resourcing and political barriers to refugee integration, local stakeholders have had a more autonomous role in accommodation provision for asylum seekers and refugees.
(2) In areas relating to transitions between accommodation types (for example, the ‘Move On’ transition between Dispersal and social housing following a positive asylum decision), ‘decentered’ forms of governance cause complex, intensive service delivery which involves (a) multiple stakeholders (b) multiple levels of government and (c) multiple sectors. If coordination between stakeholders breaks down, there is a strong likelihood that an asylum seeker or refugee might end up facing a (temporary) homelessness situation. It is also likely that, though the process involves a number of stakeholders, responsibility for homelessness situations, or more general system-dysfunctions will be situated at local level, either with the public or third sector.
(3) In areas relating to local networks, and especially those involving the third sector, COMPASS governance provides little scope for intervention or feedback from organisations who provided crucial frontline support that would otherwise not be accounted for.
In all three areas, GLIMER found that the governance of the COMPASS contract inhibits the mobilisation of local knowledge, networks and capacities that might otherwise be mobilised to address some of the issues of Dispersal accommodation. COMPASS governance also has implications beyond the relatively specialist service delivery area of asylum accommodation.
All of this is in stark contrast to Resettlement accommodation systems. Resettlement offers alternatives in the greater autonomy that it provides local authorities. It provides space for local actors to mobilise local knowledge that (1) answers the needs of refugees (2) answers the needs of existing communities and (3) is place and location specific. While it is not a panacea, at least concerning accommodation, it allows local authorities to mobilise systems in which they have local knowledge, connections and long-standing expertise.
With new Dispersal accommodation contracts due to begin in 2019, GLIMER findings offer both a caution and guidance for those involved in considering (a) how to structure the contracts and (b) the stakeholders to whom they might be awarded. Last week, following the publication of his review into the Home Office’s management of Dispersal provision, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, commented:
For all its efforts, […] the Home Office [is] too accepting of the limitations of the current COMPASS contracts and how things are, and too optimistic that the work it has in hand and the new contracts would bring about improvements
GLIMER participants almost unanimously advocated for an increase in autonomy for local stakeholders associated with Dispersal accommodation – we would support those calls.
 Coole, C. (2002) ‘A warm welcome? Scottish and UK media reporting of an asylum-seeker murder’, Media Culture and Society, 24(6), pp. 839-852.
 Darling, J. (2016) ‘Privatising asylum: neoliberalisation, depoliticisation and the governance of forced migration’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41(3), pp. 230-243.
 For more information on our findings please consult the WP3 report for Scotland on the outputs page of the GLIMER website.