Does migration have to be a national issue - or could it be localised?

The Home Office's immigration system is in a mess. Perhaps it's time to let councils have more of a say in running it, instead.

Nazek Ramadan
24 November 2017

Image: We are all immigrants, Alisdare Hickson/Flickr.

This week, a Syrian boy arrived in Hammersmith and Fulham - the first refugee to be brought to the borough from the camps in Greece.

The Home Office identified him as extremely vulnerable fourteen months ago. They agreed he was eligible to come to the UK under their very limited refugee protection scheme. Two months later a West London council, Hammersmith and Fulham, told officials they had a place for the child.

But the Home Office did nothing for a year. It is only this week that the boy arrived.

In that year, his condition has worsened. He has attempted to take his own life.

The picture is being repeated across the UK. Around the same time Lewisham offered to take 23 children. Just one has arrived. Bristol offered ten spaces and received none. Hundreds of offers were outstanding when the Home Secretary abruptly closed the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied child refugees.

Tabloid writers would have us believe that residents are hostile to migrants. But in fact Britain’s communities are stepping up and keen to do their bit, while the Home Office is running in the opposite direction.

If communities and councils are willing and able to take control, why can’t we give them more of a role in migration strategy and policy?

It’s not as if the Home Office is discharging its responsibilities effectively.

Take another example - Europeans currently resident in the UK. The Home Office admit they are struggling to recruit enough caseworkers to register EU citizens intending to stay. Deportation letters are being issued in error, causing no small amount of fear and stress.

Everyone across the political spectrum claims in principle to be committed to an unconditional European right to remain. But in practice the issue has dragged on since the Brexit vote, with citizens still in limbo.

Campaign groups representing European residents, including the3million, have proposed that councils also be put in charge of registering resident Europeans exercising their post-Brexit residency rights, taking a form of ID such as a council tax bill or driving licence. The process would be spread widely and avoid the problems associated with processing millions of applications in one central department.

It has long been taken for granted that migration and borders are necessarily a national issue to be controlled by an agency like the Home Office. But the case is mounting for a more local approach – not just on standalone issues such as Brexit and refugee protection, but on broader service provision.

Take asylum housing, where centrally contracted firms have presided over a regime where the state ploughs vast amounts of money into substandard, squalid housing in which vulnerable people are forced to live. Our own January report called for the system to be taken over by council housing officers, after the alarm was raised by dozens of people seeking asylum in the West Midlands.

Then there’s the gap in post-asylum provision, identified in the report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees earlier this year, where new refugees not on the resettlement programme face a cliff-edge of support and often end up destitute shortly after claiming refugee status. The All Party Parliamentary Group on social integration has also lamented the lack of strategy and coherent thinking around ensuring that newcomers and residents are mixing and living well together.

These issues could be addressed with an approach that centres the social and economic needs of people on the ground – both existing communities and newcomers. What we currently have is the opposite – a national strategy dictated from corners near the very top; corners of politics that are obsessed with driving down raw numbers at all costs, regardless of the consequences.

The Home Office is too vulnerable to these short-term damaging demands from politicians. Their strategy is trying to do complex social policy by spreadsheet, and the consequences include a “hostile environment” characterised by racial profiling, inflaming tensions and turning citizens into immigration officers.

The immigration system is mired in crisis, its approach facing criticism from its own inspectors and even from the former chief of NHS England. There’s an ongoing review into the horrors of the detention system they operate. Ironically, people on both sides of the migration debate see a powerful, distant bureaucracy that rarely responds to their needs. But there’s a simple way to give those most affected by the system more of a stake in it, and it’s past time some of its responsibility for our communities was moved closer to those communities. 

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