Why are so many asylum seekers sent here without money to pay for them?
One in four people fleeing persecution are now being housed here by the government. But can the poorest parts of the region cope?
Parts of the left would deny it even needs discussing at all.
But it does have to be asked: can the region cope with the sheer number of asylum seekers being placed in its poorest areas?
Increasingly residents and local politicians say no. One in four of England’s asylum seekers - and one of five of those in the UK - are now in Greater Manchester, mostly in areas still clawing their way out of recession. They are startling figures.
Home Office statistics from November show the region now has more asylum seekers than Wales and Scotland put together. At around 1,000, Rochdale has more than the whole of the south east of England. Bolton isn’t far behind.
Or to put it another way, Greater Manchester is accommodating 5,586 asylum seekers while the Prime Minister and Home Secretary’s local councils – between them – have NONE.
The reason for this dates back to Tony Blair. Fifteen years ago a flurry of publicity about the rent being spent housing asylum seekers in the south east and London led to a new approach.
It was a simple one: they were shipped out to the places that have the cheapest housing. And that has carried on ever since.
More than a decade on, those communities are now feeling the strain. The areas with the cheapest housing – the Rochdales, the Oldhams – are inevitably often those already lagging behind in terms of jobs, skills, income, investment and quality of life.
“Quite often they are placed in the poorest areas...so you get an over-concentration in one area. That causes tremendous community tension"They also already have the greatest reliance on public services and have seen the biggest council cuts in the country.
But because asylum seekers do not bring with them any extra government funding, those services – schools, councils and health services, particularly – are put under extra pressure without any additional funds.
And that’s before you get into the thorny issue of community cohesion.
The Home Office used to fund two different things when settling asylum seekers. One was rent, while the second was a 'support allowance' to deal with any general issues that might arise. When the system was outsourced a few years ago, however, that second support payment was scrapped, leaving councils to pick up the bill for a lot of problems.
Rochdale’s Labour council leader is blunt. People are just being ‘dumped’ there.
“Most of them are single men,” says Coun Richard Farnell. “Where they come with children we have to look after them and get no money from the government whatsoever. And obviously then they put a strain on the health service and so on.
“Quite often they are placed in the poorest areas where the housing is cheapest, so you get an over-concentration in one area. That causes tremendous community tension.
“We also have to deal with lots of low level anti-social behaviour problems. They are poorly supported by the Home Office’s contractor, Serco, and are not allowed to work so have got no money and are hanging around causing problems in the local community.”
But his biggest beef – like many of the frustrated local politicians you speak to in areas like his – is the unfairness.
“It’s grossly unfair that places like Rochdale, where we have enough problems of our own, are having all these asylum seekers dumped in the borough.”
The housing asylum seekers are put in often would have been knocked down otherwise, says Jim McMahon, formerly Oldham council leader but now Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.
“It’s that heavy concentration on a couple of streets in a very, very small neighbourhood,” he says. “Because it’s cheap housing, you also get economic migrants as well. But some of these places just need to be demolished.
“If you don’t talk about it, it leaves room for people to talk about it for other reasons.”
He is clearly conscious of the shadow Ukip and parties further to the right now cast over Labour politicians in this neck of the woods. There are signs Labour nationally is trying to talk about it, but it is still far from holding a coherent or agreed view.
Shadow immigration minister Keir Starmer visited Oldham last week to find out the picture in a borough that has long welcomed in people from all over the world.
He admits his tour of the country will not be an ‘easy ride’.
“I do accept that many in the Labour party have not really wanted to have the difficult conversations with people about immigration,” he says.
“What Labour can’t do is start with the assumption there are some views we don’t want to hear or are somehow not legitimate.”
“It’s grossly unfair that places like Rochdale, where we have enough problems of our own, are having all these asylum seekers dumped in the borough.”Where asylum seekers are concerned, he says the system is clearly not working. And both he and Jim McMahon point out that the government – under heavy political pressure – has announced that each Syrian refugee it lets in under its latest aid programme will bring £20,000 of national funding to the area who puts them up.
That’s not the case for regular asylum seekers, however.
Keir Starmer notes the government has created a ‘false distinction’. Jim McMahon is more forthright: “They should cough up for the rest.”
In the public’s mind people are not neatly divided into ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘refugee’ or ‘economic migrant’, of course. Serco does not force asylum seekers to wear red wristbands reportedly introduced in Cardiff.
So often local people begin to feel as though they are simply under siege from abroad.
When I spoke to a group of asylum seekers for the first part of this project, last week, they universally insisted English people were hugely welcoming, during the course of recounting heartbreaking stories.
Immigrants have been welcomed into the region over centuries, particularly the last 100 years, helping to build not only Manchester but also Greater Manchester.
Like London, if perhaps to a lesser extent, the region - and the city at its heart - has been fuelled by immigration: from Irish to Jewish to Muslim.
But it might not be that simple when the influx is this large, and the communities are already so stretched by other problems.
“Why are they all in our area? Why?"
Joyce Todd, Tammy Lowe and Nick Watson all live on Villa Road in Hathershaw, Oldham.
Their road of red-brick terraces has seen a churn of different nationalities over recent years, which they insist has not been a problem in and of itself. Joyce bought her house in 1979 and says she has lived next to Indians, Pakistanis, Poles and Czechs. She made friends with them, she says.
A few years ago there was an asylum-seeking household of Somalis and they caused no problems, either.
Their issue now, they say, is a sudden influx of Roma people – economic migrants, rather than asylum seekers – onto their road and the culture clash that has brought.
Yet they are also aware of the high numbers of asylum seekers being placed in Oldham.
“People are aware of it,” says Joyce, 56. “Why are they all in our area? Why? The government don’t want them in their ivory tower, do they?”
Is she worried about sounding racist? No. “I’m only saying what other people are thinking.”
Tammy lives over the road in a council house with her three children, a teenage daughter and two small twins. When the twins were born, she asked for a house with an extra bedroom, she says.
“They just partitioned one of the bedrooms instead because they’ve got no houses,” she says. They seem baffled that Oldham is chosen because it supposedly has plentiful cheap housing, when residents are unable to access housing themselves.
Nick, 45, has a number of health problems and walks with a stick. He used to work, but has just had to wait three months to get his disability allowance through after his health got too bad. He notes the government has just committed another £1.2bn in aid for Syrian refugees.
“Where’s the money for people who live here?” he asks.
'There is little political incentive to move asylum seekers out of Labour areas'
The two issues - asylum and EU workers - are inextricably linked for many people, particularly in areas that are affected by both, but have less in the way of public services.
But while David Cameron’s cure for Europe is still being worked out ahead of a referendum, the sickness in the asylum system seems easier to diagnose.
Nevertheless when we ask the Home Office about its asylum policy – officially called ‘dispersal’ – they provide their usual answer: it has been in place since 2000.
All local authorities have to agree to housing asylum seekers before they are placed there, it says. (Councils say this is simply not true – that they often have no idea who is being placed, or where.)
“We work closely with local authorities to ensure that the impact of asylum dispersals is considered and acted upon. We will work with any local authority that raises concerns about asylum dispersal,” adds a spokesman.
In Rochdale’s case, Richard Farnell told the government enough was enough just before Christmas and said the borough could not accept any more. He will not be happy until the number drops ‘considerably’, however.
“I want to see David Cameron’s constituency and all the other well heeled towns and cities in the UK take their fair share,” he adds.
Yet you can see why the Tories wouldn’t be madly keen. There is little political incentive to move asylum seekers out of Labour areas and into theirs. Equally if you start housing asylum seekers in areas such as Windsor, Witney or Westminster again, the sheer amount of public funding required for their rents would doubtless spark an outcry too.
Nonetheless the unease the current asylum system fuels over immigration will do David Cameron few favours in the upcoming EU referendum. Joyce and Nick both voted Ukip in the last election.
Nine out of Oldham’s 20 council wards are now at official saturation point for asylum seekers, according to Jim McMahon. Yet the borough, like others across Greater Manchester, has consistently faced an unequal cut to its council funding since 2010.
On top of that, it emerged this week that Tory councils such as David Cameron’s in Oxfordshire are to received an emergency wave of bonus funding thanks to pressure from Conservative backbenchers - areas that have already, in some cases, seen their funding rise as ours continues to plummet.
How much of that pot will go to Oldham, Rochdale, Manchester? Nothing.
Oldham - and other places like it - is now facing a ‘perfect storm’ of high asylum numbers, thousands of new European workers, disproportionate cuts to public services and – in Jim McMahon’s words – ‘crappy jobs’.
Resentment inevitably builds. What of community cohesion, in a borough that 15 years ago erupted in race riots?
“We have got a history of welcoming people and by and large, public support is still there,” he says.
“But it’s very fragile.”
COMMENT: We are not calling for the door to be slammed in the faces of vulnerable people...but asylum system is not working
Five thousand asylum seekers – the number, or thereabouts, currently living in Greater Manchester – sounds like a lot.
The figure appears particularly startling, given that there are none at all in David Cameron’s local authority.
It’s important to get that into context.
There are 2.5m people living in Greater Manchester, meaning those people, many of whom have fled unimaginable persecution, account for only 0.2pc of the region’s population.
We should not forget that those who have fled persecution in centuries gone by have helped build our city, our communities.
The M.E.N. has been clear that our area should play its part in welcoming the latest wave of people seeking refuge from the Syrian war. We stand by that. Britain, and within it Greater Manchester, needs to hold out a helping hand.
But there are two reasons why the existing situation is of growing concern.
Firstly, the asylum seekers already living here have arrived with no government funding to help our already under-resourced northern public services cope.
They are not ‘taking our jobs’, as some believe, because they cannot legally work.
But they will still need the help of local authorities, schools, GPs and hospitals. And councils are picking up the bill for basic support because the government has cut that funding.
Charities are increasingly having to fill in the gaps, but there is only so much they are able to do.
It makes no sense for ministers to acknowledge the cost of a Syrian refugee to public services and not that of people in similar situations – those fleeing Afghanistan, say, or Iran.
Secondly, people with little in the way of support, or often English skills, are being concentrated in some of the deprived parts of the region – areas that already feel they have more than their fair share of problems, including the quality and availability of affordable housing.
Even Labour, which has been traditionally reticent on this issue, is now speaking out on behalf of the communities affected.
Oldham West’s Labour MP is right to say that public support still exists. But he is also right to warn that it is fragile.
We are not calling for the door to be slammed in the faces of vulnerable people.
But an asylum system originally set up nearly a decade ago, for reasons that at the time made sense, is now not fit for purpose.
Not for the people within it, or for their neighbours.