Lessons on refugee integration from England’s North

Leanne Tory-Murphy visits some of the poorer areas of the UK, where many asylum seekers have been sent and where organizations do much with little to help.

By: /
March 16, 2018
refugees UK
People hold up banners during a vigil for refugees in central England, September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Darren Staples

On a brisk night in Newcastle, England, a group of varying ages, nationalities and genders crowds a dimly lit bar on a quiet street. There is the cacophony of conversation, novice fiddle players, several guitarists and choir practice as the inner door swings open and then shut, sending a momentary draft through the room.

The Crossings Group is a weekly music event in this northern city that brings together Geordies — as the locals are referred to — with newly arrived asylum seekers. “It’s very informal and friendly,” says Louise Wellington, one of the choir members. “It’s therapeutic without being therapy.”

She flips through the group’s songbook, full of pieces that members have contributed. There are songs from China, India, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Turkey, Nepal and the United States. While the pronunciation of lyrics can be difficult, she says, often someone in the group will help.

England’s Northeast is one of the country’s poorest regions, home to now largely defunct coal and shipbuilding industries. It is also home to approximately 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees, including the second-largest Syrian refugee community in Britain.

In spite of a lack of public support from the Conservative government, the longstanding economic struggle of the region and a recent populist wave that led to a Brexit vote, local, volunteer-driven organizations like the Crossings Group are finding new ways to welcome these recent arrivals and integrate them into the Tyneside economy.

As many countries move towards the right, the challenges prompted by migration and displacement, especially around resettlement and integration, are only intensifying. The migrant-serving organizations in England’s Northeast have developed community-based responses to the overwhelming lack of resources and a hostile political environment that may prove instructive for other places dealing with similar issues. 

Prior to the country’s 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act, most asylum seekers settled in London and around England’s prosperous Southeast, connecting with longstanding ethnic communities there and finding work in the vast low-wage service sector. With the act however, a new dispersal scheme was implemented, sending asylum seekers throughout the country under a plan devised by the Home Office. This was meant to ease the burden on certain local councils and relieve housing pressure in the most expensive and densely populated part of the country.

But critics say that sending asylum seekers to areas where they have few social support systems and little prospect of finding a job creates more problems than it solves. Additionally, asylum seekers have no choice about where they are sent. They often find themselves far from existing family and ethnic support networks, as well as job markets that would allow them to restart their lives.

Even more problematic: the dispersal of refugees to the poorest parts of the country is no accident. According to an investigation by The Guardian, more than half of all government-housed asylum seekers are living in the poorest third of the country. Labour MP Yvette Cooper attributes this to a 2012 policy shift under the Conservative government to privatize asylum seeker housing contracts and grant them to multinational corporations such as London-based international security firm G4S.

The company has procured housing where it is cheapest rather than where refugees are most likely to be able to start independent lives. Cooper called it “a terribly-designed scheme” that is detrimental to community cohesion and local authorities and that “creates a sense of resentment.”  In a widely criticized move, the company painted the doors of many refugee homes a distinct red, which some tenants say has made them a target for racial abuse.

The Guardian investigation also revealed that refugee dispersal is highly politicized. Over 95 percent of the almost 37,000 asylum seekers are sent to live in areas with Labour-led councils.

Mohamed Nasreldin, the director of North of England Refugee Services (NERS), which helps over 4,000 asylum seekers a year, says that “the attitude of the government is widely publicized. They want to make this country hostile to any kind of foreigner.”

Several years ago, Nasreldin’s organization saw its government funding reduced by 60 percent overnight, forcing it to seek more private funding. It currently employs 11 staff members working out of three regional offices. They oversee 50 volunteers to help fill the gaps. “With the reduction of government funding, the whole sector is fighting for the same pot, which becomes less and less, so you have to focus on the most severe and important things,” he says.

"They often find themselves far from existing family and ethnic support networks, as well as job markets."

NERS forms part of a constellation of local non-profits that are filling the gaps as best they can. As Nasreldin notes, “resources are very limited so we have to rely on each other.”

Another agency, West End Refugee Services, was started in Newcastle in the garage of its projects director, Lindsay Cross, in 1999. She noticed that asylum seekers were being bussed up to the area without enough clothes and were generally ill-prepared for the harsh weather of the north, so she began collecting donations in her garage. The initiative has since expanded. It now has seven employees and has been upgraded from Cross’s garage to the vicarage of a local church.

The organization offers a ‘Hardship Fund’ for destitute asylum seekers — those who have exhausted their legal options and find themselves in a kind of limbo where they will not necessarily be deported but nor can they legally work. They do not qualify for state support, and are often homeless and essentially invisible, sometimes couch surfing for years among friends, family or acquaintances.

It also runs a befriending scheme, where a local resident is paired up with an asylum seeker or refugee to help them orient to their new surroundings and to combat isolation.

The volunteers are not professional support workers but serve as rather “a friend that can help you” more generally, says volunteer coordinator Hannah Barnes. She says these pairings run the gamut from the intimate — one woman attended the birth of a refugee’s child — to more business-like arrangements, such as meeting up for a few hours each week to go through paperwork or attend a doctor’s appointment. One matched pair drives to the coast every weekend and just looks at the lighthouse together, she says.

These interactions can help build confidence and community cohesion as well as practical local knowledge. But locals often feel as if they aren’t doing enough. “When you're faced with a client who is seeking asylum, or is seeking status, or is at the other end of it and is destitute, the enormity of the challenges that they’re still facing, on top of what they may have been through, is huge,” she says. “It’s important to get the ‘befriender’ to understand that even if what they’re doing seems really small, it’s really valuable.”

A measure of success is that when people obtain legal status, they often decide to stay in the area rather than head to the more prosperous Southeast.

When a Syrian family was facing racial harassment in a rural area, Nasreldin recounts, they said they wanted to move. But ultimately, instead of London, they moved to the nearby town of Middlesbrough, whose population has been in decline since the 1980s. “If people are moving from the boroughs of Middlesbrough to Middlesbrough, that’s big progress,” he laughs.

While community groups struggle with a lack of resources, the show goes on. The Crossings Group went through a funding crisis last year and had to leave the spacious venue they had been using for the musical meet-ups. “We are just all in one room now,” says Wellington.

That new room, on this particular night, is full of sound — singers, fiddles, drums, guitar — emanating from small groups of musicians dotted around the space.

Despite the challenges, members of the group continue to craft songs that “evolve with input from everybody,” Wellington says.

They begin to rehearse a song they wrote called Crossings Bread: “Take a tin of mixed opinions, put them in a bowl; stir it up with empathy, and add a dash of soul. Heat the mix and listen, make sure it doesn’t boil; grease a circle baking tray, use tolerance as the oil…”