Migration has long been an issue that national governments and opposition parties have used as a political football, especially in the lead up to a general election. Local authorities are often caught in the crossfire of these political battles and left to pick up the pieces on the ground. This is very much the case today.
The Rwanda plan
Last week the High Court ruled that the government’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful. The government has stated that it will now take the matter to the Supreme Court, in spite of recent estimates that the programme will cost £169,000 per person if implemented.
The Court of Appeal’s decision has brought the debate on the Rwanda plan back into public focus, with heated discussions over the past week on BBC Question Time, BBC Radio 5 Live and other media debating platforms.
This long running legal conflict over government policy, on the placement of migrants and asylum seekers, dominates the national news headlines but there have been many other legal battles, played out across the country, in respect of government plans to accommodate asylum seekers.
Government battles with councils and local communities
A few days before the Court of Appeal’s decision on the Rwanda programme the same court denied a bid from Braintree District Council for an injunction against the Home Office’s plans to place 1,700 adult male migrants at the former RAF station at Wethersfield. The council has argued that the site, 10 miles from the nearest railway station, is too isolated, with the proposals representing a “flagrant breach” of planning laws.
Other local authorities, including West Lindsey District Council, Rother District Council, Peterborough City Council and Dorset Council have all considered challenging government decisions to house large numbers of asylum seekers in other former military bases, barges and hotels.
Last month the government abandoned plans to house 500 asylum seekers on a cruise ship on the Mersey after facing opposition from the local council and MPs. The Home Office had been in talks with Peel Ports and Wirral Council to berth the ship in Birkenhead, but Peel Ports said it would require community agreement. A similar proposal for a cruise ship or barge on the Thames has also been abandoned due to opposition from London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. However, the Home Office will proceed with a barge at Portland Harbour, Dorset, for 500 migrants.
Last week The Observer reported that leaked internal memos show that a Brighton hotel – from which at least 136 unaccompanied children have previously gone missing – could reopen to accommodate more unaccompanied young asylum seekers as soon as this week. More than 400 unaccompanied children are believed to have gone missing from Home Office-run hotels – with more than 150 still missing despite police efforts to find them. Brighton and Hove City Council leader, Cllr Bella Sankey, has opposed placing more unaccompanied children at the hotel, saying it would be “unlawful and immoral” to do so, with the council warning the Home Office that it could take legal action.
These conflicts between central government and local councils have been exacerbated by the uncoordinated way in which the Home Office has sought to address the crisis, with little or no consultation with the local authorities and local communities, in which large numbers of asylum seekers are being placed.
The government needs to formulate a funded plan, in cooperation with combined and individual local authorities, to place asylum seekers in suitable accommodation with the necessary support in place. Last month Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, deputy mayor Kate Green and the leaders of Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities, wrote to the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, to seek “urgent action” to support asylum seekers and refugees, after residents in bridging hotels in the region started receiving 90-day notices to leave. The letter calls for a funding package for local authorities to provide support for non-UK nationals, including around homelessness, schools, integration and employment support.
The impacts on community cohesion
The government’s lack of joint planning and consultation with local authorities and communities is potentially feeding the spread of far-right views on asylum and immigration that presents a real threat to community cohesion, especially in our coastal towns and cities.
The Daily Express recently reported that an extremist online group is recruiting vigilantes for “direct action” in response to the arrival of migrants by boat across the Channel. The paper says the group has invited “concerned and ignored Britons to volunteer to take part in direct action”, and has claimed it will “be addressing the Quislings and institutions responsible for endangering the people of Britain”. The Conservative MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, said the news was “alarming”, saying small boat arrivals are “a serious issue” that “must be discussed and addressed with urgency and resolve, recognising the concerns that people have”, but are “not an issue to solve by confrontation and violence”.
Recent months have seen community tensions emerging in southeast coastal towns, with local residents at odds with each other as to how to deal with the small boats arriving on their shores. As a Hastings resident, I have followed the reports in our local paper covering the community reactions to the migrant crisis and its immediate impact, close to home.
Last year, I read a report of an appalling incident where some local residents attempted to prevent the Hastings lifeboat from launching to respond to a call to save the occupants of a small boat from Calais that was sinking off the coast. Thankfully, the report confirmed that a much bigger group of other local residents thwarted the efforts of those that were seeking to prevent the launch. I should add that Hastings residents have since rallied together to form a welcoming committee for those small boats of asylum seekers arriving on our shores and that a ‘sanctuary festival’ was held last week to promote the community’s positive response to the arrival of asylum seekers in the town.
Just a few miles along the coast from Hastings is Bexhill, in Rother District Council, where the Home Office is proposing to locate some 1200 asylum seekers – all single men – in a former military base. This has caused deep divisions within the local community, with demonstrators against the proposals coming into conflict with demonstrators seeking to welcome refugees to their community.
Most of those opposed to the plans do not perceive themselves to be racist or anti-immigrant – they just see the potential community conflicts and social problems that may arise from placing over a thousand young men, many of whom may be traumatised by military conflict in their home countries, in a confined environment in a small coastal town with no longer-term plan to rehouse them in the wider community. The misunderstanding between the opposing demonstrators came close to a violent confrontation, even before any asylum seekers have been accommodated in the facility.
The lack of a cohesive government strategy that engages local authorities and local communities in planning for the placement and integration of migrants and asylum seekers is seriously damaging community cohesion in our coastal towns and cities.
What can central government learn from local councils?
Back in January, an LGIU briefing examined the challenges and opportunities for local authorities in the context of an increasing population of refugees and asylum seekers (see below).
Right now, central government and the opposition need to kick the migration political football into touch and engage with local government to find the best solutions for accommodating asylum seekers and addressing the challenges of the migration crisis.
In Brighton, Dover, Dorset, Hastings, Bexhill and other south coast communities, the migration crisis is not a political football kicked around by the party political players. It is an immediate issue that needs a cross-party response to benefit both asylum seekers and local residents and maintain community cohesion. That is the lesson that the national political parties need to learn from local government if we are, as a nation, going to address the challenge of the escalating migration crisis.