Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

From sanctuary to solidarity: producing urban asylum

Jonathan Darling is Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on the connections between refugees, asylum seekers and cities and has explored narratives of hospitality, sanctuary and welcome in different urban contexts. He has conducted ethnographic research exploring drop-in centre spaces and the politics of care and is currently working on an ESRC project titled Producing Urban Asylum. Further details on this project can be found on the project website.


On Thursday 28th June 2012, Glasgow City Council passed a motion condemning the then UK Border Agency’s use of destitution as a tool to force refused asylum seekers to leave the UK. This motion not only called for the provision of cash support for asylum seekers until they are granted status or leave the country, but also sought a change in policy that would enable local authorities to provide help to those in danger of destitution. This motion marked an important shift in the landscape of asylum policy in the UK. Since then, city councils in Bristol and Sheffield have passed similar motions and a national day of action was held in seven UK cities at the end of June 2013 in order to call for changes in government policy over destitution. Whilst these motions, proposals and demonstrations may appear relatively minor compared to the dominance of an exclusionary rhetoric around asylum in the UK, they are important in how they make us think about the role of cities as places of asylum.

The role that cities play within the UK’s approach to asylum is increasingly shifting as changes in support, accommodation and the practice of dispersal come into effect. Cities like Glasgow, which has traditionally been at the very centre of the UK’s dispersal policy, are thus being faced with the challenge of renegotiating their approach to asylum as accommodation contracts are transferred to the private sector and widespread cuts to support services, legal aid and translation provision come into effect. The question of how different cities are responding to this changing environment forms part of a new ESRC project exploring the relationship between asylum and four dispersal cities – Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Sunderland. In this post I want to briefly introduce the Producing Urban Asylum project, before suggesting a number of reasons why cities may matter as sites of asylum solidarity.

DarlingBlogPIC1 The Producing Urban Asylum project has two central aims.
Firstly, to understand the effect that changes to asylum accommodation and service provision are having on asylum seekers, refugees, support groups and local authorities in different cities. Secondly, to understand how these cities are experienced by those seeking asylum.

More specifically, through examining asylum in Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Sunderland, this project will consider how dispersal is negotiated in contemporary Britain by urban authorities, asylum advocacy groups and asylum seekers. The project will thus seek to understand how the unique place histories, geographies and demographics of each city shape the experience of seeking asylum. The project therefore has five objectives;

1. To explore how different cities view their relationship with asylum seekers.
2. To examine how different cities are experienced by those seeking asylum – considering the role of asylum support networks, advocacy groups and accommodation providers.
3. To investigate the extent to which urban authorities negotiate their relations on asylum policy and provision with private providers, the Home Office and other cities.
4. To explore how asylum seekers and advocacy groups position themselves in response to negotiations over accommodation and service provision.
5. To include a range of voices and insights in the process of evidence-based policymaking on urban dispersal and asylum provision.

The project aims to conduct interviews with a range of people, including asylum seekers and refugees, local authorities, asylum support groups and networks, accommodation and service providers and national asylum support organisations and networks. The project will also involve archival research investigating the history of each city and media representations of asylum therein.

The project thus takes the view that to understand asylum there is a need to understand how abstract discussions over dispersals, numbers, ‘bogus claimants’, welfare and application figures influence and are shaped by the histories, geographies and interactions of those cities that accommodate asylum seekers. But why do cities matter? I want to suggest three reasons.

Firstly, cities matters from a practical perspective as the majority of asylum seekers accommodated within the UK are located in urban environments. There is therefore a need to understand the relations between asylum seekers and the cities they are located in. Examinations of the dispersal system all too often discuss this as a process of population management in which urban context is erased. Not only are the distinctions between dispersal to Birmingham, Bristol or Boston not considered, together with the varied levels of support, advocacy and opposition present in each of these locations, but often dispersal is discussed as an impersonal system, divorced from the lived experiences of different cities. In bringing to the fore the similarities and differences between dispersal cities, this project seeks to shed light on how different cities view, prioritise and negotiate their relationship to asylum.

Secondly, cities matter as they are seeing a fundamental reshaping of their role in relation to asylum accommodation and provision. Over the last two years the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers in British cities has been transferred from public providers to private security firms. Understandably, this move has led to growing unease amongst asylum advocacy groups over both the appropriateness of security firms running support services and over the sense of an ‘asylum industry’ being produced. This was perhaps summarised most starkly in evidence submitted by Serco and G4S to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s investigation into asylum in July 2013 where both companies described using contracts for asylum accommodation as a pathway into the wider social housing market. The emergence of this market of provision and accommodation poses significant questions over the role of cities as places of asylum, as traditional support roles are removed from public accountability. Cities matter as they are at the forefront of these changes and are experiencing the challenges, and potentially the opportunities, that such changes bring.

DarlingPostPIC2Finally, cities matter because of the opportunities they afford for creative and critical approaches to asylum policy. This arises in two senses. Firstly, as we see in the case of Glasgow City Council’s motion of opposition to destitution, a number of cities have been positioned as critics of government policy on asylum. In part, this may be an opportunity afforded by the removal of asylum accommodation contracts from public provision, as local authorities are less contractually tied to the Home Office. The negotiations that shape these kind of relationships are crucial to understanding how urban dispersal currently works. Secondly, cities have a history of creative political movements and activism that often challenges the assumptions of national governments. Cities have historically been sites of informal citizenship, whereby undocumented migrants and those seeking asylum are able to practice citizenship rights despite not having formal status. This form of precarious and partial citizenship relies on anonymity and the maintenance of piecemeal opportunities for survival. However, cities have also been places of insurgency, through which groups challenge the limits of citizenship and non-citizenship by acting as citizens despite lacking formal status. Unlike informal accounts of citizenship, these ‘acts of citizenship’ are about visibility, demonstration and contestation, often centred on articulating the role of non-citizens as part of the city. Thus, as Glasgow and other cities have shown at varying points over recent years, cities are key sites in which citizenship, asylum and rights to protection are negotiated and understood. It is therefore through being attentive to how cities may critically interrogate citizenship from the ground up, from the lived realities of local communities, organisations and campaigns, that we may harness the power of urbanism to promote rights of protection.

These three concerns with the city, as a practical dispersal location, a shifting position within accommodation and provision, and as a site for critical political practices, all orientate the Producing Urban Asylum project. This work thus seeks to ask how cities reflect the tensions and limits of asylum and how we might envisage different futures by examining the urban present. One opening here might be to think of the urban and asylum through an image of collaboration, for it is in collaboration that contemporary cities are made and remade, as much through the investments, experiences and journeys of those seeking asylum as through any other inhabitants.

For more information about the project please contact Dr Jonathan Darling, at You can also visit the project website and project blog where regular updates from the research will be posted.


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This entry was posted on September 24, 2013 by in Comment.