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An infrastructure for resettlement – how well placed is UK local government to mobilise for the Afghan Resettlement Scheme?

Published 19 October 2021 / By Jacqui Broadhead

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Introduction

The announcement of a new Afghan Resettlement Scheme has posed questions about the capacity and readiness of local government to mobilise. There are important lessons which can be learned from the infrastructure developed as part of the Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) scheme – but some systemic challenges and lessons which have so far remained unlearned.

Understanding the new schemes

The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) which welcomed people directly from Afghanistan is an expansion of an existing programme (launched in April 2021). This will be complemented by a future Afghan Resettlement Scheme, aiming to resettle 20,000 Afghans. Whilst ARAP focusses on emergency evacuation of personnel directly from Afghanistan, it is believed that the new resettlement scheme will focus on those displaced to countries surrounding Afghanistan and will be supported by UNHCR in accordance with new guidance set out by the Home Office (Home Office 2021).

It is this scheme which this blog focusses on and the ways in which it might learn or build upon the previous Syrian VPRS. The VPRS settled 20,000 refugees from 2015-2020 and included a major role for local authorities – leading on coordinating resettlement, alongside local partners and NGOs.

What is the capacity of local authorities to mobilise? 

An initial question was in relation to the numbers which the scheme could support. Whilst this has now been announced as 20,000, with 5,000 arriving in the first year, initially the Home Office stated that this would be developed based on local authority capacity.

It is not straightforward for local authorities to estimate capacity. It is dependent on a number of factors, some practical (in relation to, for example, housing availability), and some systemic, but it is undoubtedly also a political decision. Media and public pressure was integral to the expansion of the VPRS, at speed, in 2015 (Armbruster 2019) and the Afghan scheme is being established in similar circumstances, allowing for similar rapid ‘pledges’ by a wide range of local authorities.

Whilst only a third of councils had committed to the scheme (The Telegraph 2021,) this number is increasing as new pledges are made. The scheme is voluntary and therefore at the discretion of individual local authorities. Given that the proposed scheme is at the same level as the VPRS it does not seem unrealistic that local authorities should be able to mobilise at least to a similar level.

How does the new resettlement scheme fit in with existing schemes? 

However, the scheme also sits within a wider ecosystem. Local authorities are supporting arrivals under the Hong Kong (BNO) scheme, Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASCs,) those accommodated through asylum dispersal, existing commitments to other resettlement schemes (including the UKRS launched in March 2021.) They have responsibilities towards those in the community, including those prohibited from accessing mainstream welfare benefits as a consequence of the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition and as part of the ‘everyone in’ response to the pandemic as well as those in need of support through the EUSS scheme.

Negotiation with the Home Office on each of these schemes remains largely piecemeal, with each scheme considered in isolation. Some attract direct funding, others are expected to be absorbed within existing capacity.

The tension between different programmes and the different commitments made by local areas can also be seen in the responses by local government leaders. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, wrote that ‘Afghanistan cannot be seen in isolation from the wider pressures on the asylum system’ (The Mirror 2021), noting that nearly half of all asylum seekers are placed in the North of England, with on 6% in the South (outside of London). This is significant as asylum dispersal is provided by private contractors and does not provide integration support for local authorities. Mandates for local authorities have been much discussed for asylum support (including UASCs), but to date, never implemented, leading to inequalities across the UK, for both dispersal and resettlement.

Funding for resettlement is a similarly complicated question. The Syrian VPRS provided a per capita funding allocation. This means that a family of four received four times the funding of a single adult – though it is unlikely that there would be four-fold costs. Funding can be shared between families, but this structure does mean that councils offering small flats in high-cost areas received considerably less funding that other areas (in some ways the reversal of the situation for asylum dispersal). 

In response to this some have called for a ‘place based’ offer – negotiated with each region and with sufficient and rationalised funding, in order to provide greater certainty and to allow areas to plan over the medium to long term. This would allow areas to be proactive, rather than reactive and to build a more permanent infrastructure, rather than one which waxes and wanes with short term funding programmes and which inhibits the capacity to develop effective integration support.

How can integration support improve? 

There is no UK wide integration strategy, and whilst local authorities have responsibilities for integration, they have limited resources and little guidance. Some local authorities have developed their own guidance, including through our own Inclusive Cities programme, which provides a framework for 12 UK cities to develop a proactive approach to integration, including through resettlement. Whilst the resettlement scheme does provide dedicated resources and some structure as to what is required, it can also highlight gaps in existing provision.

One example of this would be English language (ESOL) provision. An ESOL strategy for England has been expected since Autumn 2019. In its absence, there are major gaps in provision – concentrated around pre-entry ESOL (for those with little to no English,) courses linked to an employer, or happening outside of work hours and courses for those with caring responsibilities. Reviews of the VPRS have consistently found a lack of intensive ESOL provision to allow for rapid language acquisition and that the links between formal provision (through colleges for example) and community classes are too weak. Welcome additional funding through resettlement can plug some of these gaps in the short term, and can highlight problems, but it cannot solve them and remains a costly way of providing services without economies of scale.

These issues are replicated in many areas of integration provision – including health care (in particular mental health), housing and welfare benefits, initial orientation and welcome, advice provision, employment support and education. Resettlement programmes require the development of local expertise in all of these areas. All too often, in spite of good will and local collaboration, they reveal threadbare mainstream provision and a lack of long-term integration planning.

Monitoring and evaluation of integration programmes remains limited and inhibits the ability to understand what works best and what is needed. COMPAS has begun work on a new project, Measuring Integration at the Local Level, which will empower local authorities to more effectively use the Indicators of Integration framework (Home Office 2019) and other guidance to plan and measure integration interventions. A new Refugee Transition Outcomes Fund also aims to support local authorities to take a more outcomes focussed approach to refugee integration, with a particular focus on greater employment support.

The Syrian VPRS has demonstrated local government capacity to mobilise and deliver, especially through a funded programme. However, it will remain piecemeal and precarious until integration support is properly defined and supported.

References 

Armbruster, H. (2019) "It was the photograph of the little boy": reflections on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme in the UK, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42:15, 2680-2699, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2018.1554226 

Burnham, A. (2021) 'Every part of the UK must do its bit to help those refugees fleeing Afghanistan', The Mirror, 26/08/21 

Hymas, C. (2021) 'Two Thirds of Councils shun Afghan Refugees', The Telegraph, 02/09/21 

Home Office (2019) Home Office Indicators of Integration framework 2019, third edition https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/835573/home-office-indicators-of-integration-framework-2019-horr109.pdf

Home Office (2021) UK Refugee Resettlement: Policy Guidance https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1011824/Resettlement_Policy_Guidance_2021.pdf