Middlesbrough: How do people living in dispersal areas feel about asylum issues?

Until recently Middlesbrough’s population was falling, due to the loss of its traditional industries. Alongside this trend came falling house prices and empty properties, something that has made this town attractive to G4S, which manages asylum support on behalf of the Home Office. For a while, Middlesbrough had the highest proportion of dispersed asylum-seekers per head of population of any place in the UK, although numbers have subsequently fallen. Today, just over 500 asylum-seekers live in Middlesbrough out of a population of 140,000.

The housing of asylum-seekers in Middlesbrough came to national media attention, when G4S admitted to the Home Affairs Committee that the front doors of asylum accommodation in the Gresham area had all been painted red by local housing sub-contractors of G4S, making residents more vulnerable to racist attack, it was alleged. So it is not surprising that asylum-seekers and refugees are a subject of local debate in Middlesbrough.

The media coverage given to the ‘red door scandal’ portrayed Middlesbrough as a town that did not really welcome refugees. However, we found that attitudes to asylum-seekers and refugees were largely similar to other parts of the UK, with concerns about asylum-seekers balanced against recognition that they had fled war and persecution and deserved sympathy.

I think its people generally don’t have an insight into the situations that’s those people have had to come from. You don’t, that’s never sort of portrayed in the media about the terrible lives that these people have had to live, but generally people don’t know about that.”

While most people generally got on, our Middlesbrough citizens’ panel were concerned about residential segregation, with most asylum-seekers and many EU nationals living in the town centre. As in other parts of the UK, members of the Middlesbrough citizens’ panel also felt that benefits acted as a pull factor, with the movement of people across Europe advanced as evidence of the UK’s attractiveness. The flight of refugees across Europe led on to extensive discussion about asylum support. Our citizens’ panel had seen asylum-seekers use pre-paid cards in shops and knew that they were also housed in furnished accommodation. There was a level of resentment from some who felt that offering such and an allowance of £35 a week was overly generous, and was more than British citizens were offered. At the same time, many panel cited examples of fake news and misinformation about asylum support

“I’ve heard people say things like ‘they get given a car’, when obviously they just don’t”.

Our Middlesbrough citizens’ panel felt that policy that prevented asylum-seekers from working was illogical. Rather, asylum-seekers should be allowed to work.  This would enable them to make an economic contribution, help integration, as well as addressing public concerns about the pull of benefits.

The two meetings we held with the citizens’ panel and with local stakeholders raised some thought-provoking issues about social integration. Most people who live in Middlesbrough have little or no close social contact with asylum-seekers, with both groups rarely getting to know each other personally. Asylum-seekers move into and out of Middlesbrough every day as their asylum cases are processed. This transience, language barriers, and a lack of money limited their social interaction with the wider community.

Despite these barriers, we saw some positive initiatives to bring asylum-seekers into contact with the wider population. These included a community lunch at the pioneering Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), which runs a community day every Thursday. This involves a wide range of creative and discursive activities, open to anyone and including those English language conversation or activities that are dementia friendly. Community day had a real buzz and it was encouraging to see the social mix of the large numbers of its participants.

Yet there are asylum-seekers and refugees in Middlesbrough who are isolated and who don’t participate in the activities that are on offer. Much more could be done to help asylum-seekers learn English, alongside understanding this country’s norms and traditions. As in many parts of the UK, language and induction courses for asylum-seekers are mostly provided by civil society organisations and there is a big variation as to what is on offer. Syrian refugees, evacuated to the UK through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme are entitled a package of local integration support, while those granted UN refugee status after they make their own way to the UK are not.

Above all, our visit showed the importance of social integration in building a new immigration consensus. Without social contact misconceptions can arise, as they have done so in Middlesbrough. There was broad support from the citizens’ panel to offer asylum-seekers the right to work and an appetite for activities that break down social divides between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Middlesbrough.

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