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Melissa Weihmayer

March 27th, 2024

How councils can help with asylum policy

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Melissa Weihmayer

March 27th, 2024

How councils can help with asylum policy

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The constant flux of Government asylum policy makes work very difficult for local authorities. Melissa Weihmayer argues that the Government should instead treat councils as equal partners who can help support asylum seekers in ways the Home Office can’t.


The number of asylum-seekers housed in London has increased significantly since 2020. This has created major challenges for London’s borough councils. With asylum policy managed by the Home Office, and the housing of asylum-seekers overseen by private-sector contractors, it is often unclear what role local councils should and could play to support those seeking asylum living in their boroughs. New and rapid changes in the Government’s asylum policy exacerbate the challenges, forcing local councils to respond in reactive and crisis-like ways, unable to plan for the medium or long-term. This has serious ramifications for people seeking asylum, who receive little orientation to their local environment, and any support to prepare for integration into the United Kingdom is highly variable, if available at all.

Even in councils that can offer longer-term support such as the provision of English classes, the flux of asylum policy from the Government creates ruptures in peoples’ integration journeys. An example of this is the recent closure of a hotel in the London borough of Waltham Forest. The Home Office notified hotel residents that they would be moved to other hotels or accommodation within five days. This solicited protests from the residents in the community as well as those residing at the hotel, some of whom had been living there for over a year and had developed strong connections in the community. In reaction, the local council frantically called council officers in other boroughs to help support the continuity of care, schooling and service provision for those asylum-seekers relocated within London. But others were moved outside the city altogether. The council was powerless to stop the relocations, as this was a Government decision. But things don’t have to be this way.

Years of tightening budgets for local government have resulted in a gradual loss in its capacity to govern and enact basic policy functions.

A new policy brief outlines recommendations for how to improve collaboration in responses to asylum. A starting point is for the Government to view local authorities as key partners in asylum policy by consulting them regularly, sharing information more consistently, and making funding available for their response.

Budget-cuts, housing crisis and lack of policy clarity

Underlying the challenge of councils to support people seeking asylum are three key issues: the reduced budgets and capacity of local government since 2010, the lack of affordable housing options in London, and an unclear role of councils within asylum governance.

Years of tightening budgets for local government have resulted in a gradual loss in its capacity to govern and enact basic policy functions. Local governments, some facing bankruptcy, have been forced to prioritise key areas of service provision to uphold their statutory obligations. This means letting go of roles that do more of the political work of strategic planning, outreach and communications, and coordination. This leaves fewer people able to maintain relationships with other teams within the council and external partners such as the voluntary and civil society sector. Similarly, councils have lost analytical workers with skills for data analysis, monitoring of programmes, and experimenting with new approaches to service provision. This leads to a loss of efficiency and an inability to assess the changing needs of residents. Those councils in London that were able to retain political and analytical skillsets were better able to adapt and learn as the asylum situation changed.

London’s housing sector also affects asylum seekers. On the one hand,  the relative availability of hotels makes London a reasonable place to procure hotel accommodation, but the relative unavailability of temporary accommodation and affordable private rental sector housing means that asylum-seekers will likely need to leave their boroughs and even the city once they obtain refugee status.

This lack of clarity over distribution of responsibilities has led to a patchwork approach in which some local authorities recognize that their statutory duties extend to the support of asylum-seekers and others do not.

Finally, local governments are not given an explicit role within asylum policy aside from serving as “corporate parent” to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. However, many of their statutory obligations, such as care of vulnerable adults and children and safeguarding requirements, still apply even if it is the Home Office and its contractors, not local governments, who are managing asylum accommodation. This lack of clarity over distribution of responsibilities has led to a patchwork approach in which some local authorities recognize that their statutory duties extend to the support of asylum-seekers and others do not. The shared responsibility has been underscored by a high court case involving a person seeking asylum accommodated in the London borough of Croydon. The decision in January 2024 affirmed that local governments, not the Home Office, are responsible for moving a person with specific care needs to more suitable accommodation if hotel rooms hinder their care.

What councils can still do

Despite these severe pressures on local government, it’s possible for councils to respond more proactively to various challenges that asylum-seekers face. Doing so is a form of resistance against both the crisis narratives within migration discourse as well as the frantic policymaking practices of the central government level. The councils successful in addressing asylum-seekers’ needs did so through experimentation and information-sharing with other councils, making creative use of existing resources and adjusting their internal structures to create asylum teams.

London-wide initiatives are helping spread information and knowledge across the city. The Greater London Authority established an Asylum Welcome Programme to bring council officers together to improve the social integration of people seeking asylum. Eleven councils participated in a series of design lab workshops in which they discussed how to better tailor programmes and services to the needs of people seeking asylum. This programme culminated in the launch of the Asylum Welcome Toolkit with practical guidance for local authorities across London and beyond for developing their responses to asylum. The toolkit supports the development of capacity more widely, going beyond the skills and expertise of individual borough council officers to make these resources available to all.

Only through collaboration can council, city and government levels develop policies that mitigate hardship for asylum-seekers and pressure on local services.

This approach demonstrates that responses that support asylum-seekers are possible and even effective, improving outcomes for both people seeking asylum and the communities in which they live. It counters the relative silence on councils’ work supporting people seeking asylum, for which some fear political backlash. The councils that are more open about their asylum work are generally those that have achieved or are working towards Borough of Sanctuary status, including Lambeth, Lewisham, Waltham Forest, Barnet, Islington, Greenwich, and Newham, among others in London. For example, Lambeth provides resources such as orientation materials directly for “sanctuary seekers” on its website.

Sustaining and growing capacity for responding to asylum in London is not just about accumulating expertise; it also depends on collective action among councils to influence asylum policy. With councils starting to advocate for changes through lobbying letters, such as on the poor conditions of asylum accommodation, the rapid movement of people in and out of accommodation, and lack of communication and resources from central government, they are demonstrating their awareness of the negative effects of asylum policy on the ground. Councils are also refusing to be sidelined, demanding to be not only consulted but also seen as equal partners in the development of asylum policy. Only through collaboration can council, city and government levels develop policies that mitigate hardship for asylum-seekers and pressure on local services.

Council responses to the Government’s asylum policy serve as an important case study about the capacity of local governments to confront and adapt to new and complex challenges. If we get it right in asylum, then we will be better equipped for facing other unpredictable situations such as heatwaves and floods related to climate change, and public health crises such as COVID. This makes a case for restoring the governance capacity of local councils for asylum responses and beyond.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: on Shutterstock

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About the author

Melissa Weihmayer

Melissa Weihmayer is is a PhD Researcher in Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the LSE. Her research examines the governance of forced migration in cities. She has worked on issues of migration and displacement in various roles internationally and in the UK for over seven years, including with the Greater London Authority.

Posted In: Immigration | Local government | LSE Comment
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.