A 15-minute walk from Derby’s city centre, Laverstoke Court lies nestled in a nondescript residential area. The gated compound, once student flats, has recently become an ‘initial accommodation’ (IA) centre for over 200 new asylum seekers.
Racist backlash from white residents, outsourcing, the ‘dispersal’ regime and the failures of liberal refugee rights groups have all converged around the opening of the new facility.
G4S, outsourcing and dispersal.
Formerly concentrated in London, migrants who apply for asylum are now immediately moved to one of several large IA centres in other parts of the country. They are kept in these centres for around three weeks in relative freedom before being ‘dispersed’ to asylum housing, allowed to live with family, or deported – possibly after a stint in a detention centre.
This ‘dispersal’ regime has been dubbed “the dispersal of xenophobia” by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), and originated in the early 2000s as a New Labour antecedent of the ‘hostile environment’ policies currently plaguing the government. Combined with high-political rhetoric about ‘mass’, ‘illegal’ and ‘uncontrolled’ migration, the dispersal strategy “has set the tone for the overwhelmingly negative representation of asylum-seekers in local newspapers in areas to which they are dispersed”, a pattern which has been repeated in Derby.
In Laverstoke Court, asylum seekers are held on what is called a ‘no-choice basis’ for around three weeks, given new clothes on arrival, and £5 per day to buy their own food. Although the centre has a strict 10pm curfew and migrants can be reported to the Home Office for unauthorised absences, they are free to come and go throughout the day. Certainly, IA centres lack the viciousness of detention camps like Yarl’s Wood and Campsfield.
Laverstoke Court is run by Urban Housing Services, a G4S subcontractor. Immigration detention and management was the site of some of the earliest experiments in the outsourcing of coercive state functions, starting at Heathrow and Manchester migration detention camps in 1970. Today, immigration detention remains the most outsourced sector of Britain’s carceral estate. As David White argues in Shadow State, governments may turn to private companies to run Britain’s murky and brutal border regime in order to avoid accountability and public scrutiny. Even a former finance director of the prison service, Julian Le Vey, has slammed the extreme opacity with which the Home Office treats its immigration apparatus.
Investigations into other privately-run IA centres give cause for concern. In 2014, the National Audit Office found that G4S was routinely housing more than the upper-limit of 200 asylum seekers at the Angel Lodge centre in Wakefield. Journalistic examinations of Angel Lodge found poor catering, rude staff, and dirty facilities.
Thus far, it appears Laverstoke is undisturbed by such issues. All the asylum seekers I spoke to were sanguine about the conditions and positive about the staff.
“Everything good. For now it’s good. We get £35 a week and when we ask, they give us clothes,” one man from Albania told me.
But even if Laverstoke Court seems relatively unproblematic in isolation, it still constitutes a key part of the UK’s brutal border regime. Following their stay, asylum seekers will often be moved to disproportionately poor areas and placed in housing branded a “disgrace” by the Home Affairs Select Committee. Reports of freezing cold, mould and insect infestations have been rampant in asylum housing. The future for the asylum seekers held at Laverstoke may include insanitary conditions, doors painted and wrists marked, and a legal limbo characterised by the constant threat of incarceration and violent deportation.
After the conversion application at Laverstoke Court was approved in October 2017, an unsympathetic reaction erupted from white residents in the local area. A paper petition calling for the IA centre to be scrapped gathered over 200 signatures, and Derby City Council’s Facebook page was inundated with hostile comments.
The responses to a consultation put out by the council were overwhelmingly negative: 34 trenchantly opposed submissions met nine supportive comments. Some of the oppositional responses echo what Paul Gilroy describes as the “myth of black criminality”.
“By nature they congregate in large numbers, they will be bored because of nothing to do”, wrote one local resident. “It’s a known fact that pick-pocketing and petty crime will increase.”
Another stated: “There will be gangs of intimidating men, begging and foraging all over town.” One resident pithily summed up the prevailing mood: “House prices will go down, crime will go up, it will not be safe to live round here.”
In Derby, I approached one man whose house lies about 35 metres from Laverstoke Court, and asked if I could put a few questions about the centre to him. “No,” he replied. “But you can burn it down if you want.”
I was told that at least three local residents had sold their houses in anticipation of the centre’s opening. Although all the white men I spoke to were vehemently opposed to the centre, other residents were either oblivious to its existence or entirely supportive.
“I think it’s just a humanitarian decision,” one young black man, Wahab, said to me. “When I see them [asylum seekers] in congregation together I just think that they’re trying to get together and figure out where they are, because it’s a new place for them […] So far as the crime goes, I haven’t heard of anything recently, so I just think it might not be anything to worry about. You can’t assume the worst of people, you’ve got to expect the best of them.”
A woman who helps run a local shop nearby, Moriarty’s Sandwich Bar, told me how although she was initially opposed to the planning application, she read up on asylum issues and completely changed her mind. She now spends time trying to counter some of her customers’ regressive views.
One man I met, Robert, has worked since he was 16 and spent 11 years in the army. He suffers from trapped nerves in his back, and struggles to get decent work, travelling to Burton-upon-Trent for £7.40 an hour. Robert, who is white, points to migration as an explanation of his precarity.
“I can’t get to see a doctor, because there’s a queue of immigrants, they’ve made appointments before me […] The fact of the matter is that we’re allowing millions of people to come into our country […] A lot of the people that are coming into the country are settling and are bringing all their mates in.”
Sadly, it seems unlikely that the refugee rights organisations I encountered in Derby are doing enough to build a working class anti-racism.
Refugees are welcome here?
A number of organisations in Derby working on the issue came together for ‘Refugee Week’ on the day I visited the city. The public meeting comprised around 30 residents keen to help counter some of the dominant understandings of refugees and asylum seekers.
I was surprised when a local community support police officer took up a seat before the event started. There was virtually no discussion of significant resistance to detention, deportation or current border policies. The long list of suggested Refugee Week activities ranged from cake sales to playing football with asylum seekers, interspersed with vague slogans about ‘our shared future’.
Some of the organisations, like Derby Refugee Advice Centre (DRAC), do extremely important work providing asylum seekers with technical support and advice, and members of DRAC attended local public consultation meetings to try and allay locals’ fears about the IA centre at Laverstoke Court.
Janet Fuller, manager DRAC, explained the difficulties that small organisations working on the issue can find themselves in.
“What we do at the refugee advice centre has to be on a day-to-day basis, dealing with day-to-day issues”, she told me. “We have to try and make judgements about the best way of giving asylum seekers and refugees the best possible experience we can locally.”
This might mean avoiding or sidestepping thorny political issues in order to maintain working relationships with local residents, other refugee organisations, and even G4S.
“If we do too much of the wider political stuff the danger is that it has a negative effect on the day-to-day things we can do here, so we have to make judgements […] I’m not saying there isn’t a need for campaigning on a national level about a whole range of issues in relation to asylum [but] it’s difficult enough to do what we do, because of the current climate, and we need to be working positively with other organisations.”
Some of the same organisations involved in the Refugee Week event are inside Laverstoke Court, working with the G4S subsidiary to provide services to asylum seekers. These organisations face a very real dilemma: by engaging with the needs of asylum seekers within the centre, are they legitimating a vital node in a fundamentally unjust border regime? Their actions may be providing a subsidy for the Home Office, and compromising their ability to be critical of Britain’s racist practices.
Other models do exist. Detained Voices work in solidarity with detainees inside Yarl’s Wood and other centres, and North East London Migrant Action (Nelma) combine bread-and-butter case work with a strong analysis of state racism. Although the reigns of charity law and institutionalisation are tight, they are not forever fastened.
Opposition to Laverstoke Court has come almost entirely from the right. Derby’s progressives have largely chosen the path of collaboration with G4S and the Home Office in the hope of achieving short-term improvements for asylum seekers’ conditions. Whether they will be able to prevent Laverstoke becoming like many other parts of Britain’s border – violent, arbitrary and racist – and whether they can stop the far-right from filling the space an anti-racist critique might have taken, remains to be seen.