TRADITIONALLY, when people seeking asylum have washed up on our shores, the overwhelming majority - around 85 per cent - have settled in London. With established refugee communities in easy reach, support from a network of statutory and community services and generally good provision in schools for teaching English as an additional language, our multi-cultural capital has helped to make refugees feel - at least relatively - at home.
Since April, all that has changed. Bowing to the demands of hard-pressed local authorities, particularly in London and Kent where the issue has become a political hot potato, the Home Secretary Jack Straw has introduced a new immigration and asylum Act that will forcibly disperse newly-arrived asylum-seekers around the country.
But if the intention was take the political heat out of the situation, it looks set to backfire. Local authorities to which asylum-seekers are sent are expected to absorb them at their own expense, with no extra funds from Whitehall and no guidance or training on how to teach the non-English-speaking children who will enter their schools.
The key factor determining where asylum-seekers are sent comes down to where housing can be found. This is being arranged to a large extent by private housing agents contracted by local authority consortia in London and the south-east. Although, according to the National Asylum Support Service, some provide decent housing in multicultural areas located near support services, others clearly do not.
Daoud Zaaroura, director of the independent charity, North of England Refugee Service, says: "There's significant numbers of substandard housing for families. People have come to us after being placed in flats with no essentials, no electricity or gas, and no vouchers issued, so we have to give them emergency payments to tide them over. There are supposed to be contracts to ensure standards but it's difficult for southern consortia to regulate what goes on up here."
There are also reports of families being housed on isolated estates with no amenities and no nearby support. The early fears of refugee support agencies have been realised. Not only are some asylum-seekers being sent to deprived areas and rundown accommodation, but there have been increased incidents of racism in those areas.
Families and schoolchildren have been subjected to harassment. There have been verbal taunts of children going to and from school in south Tyneside, where there are only two refugee families. There are other reports of harassment in Leeds where, despite pockets of established ethnic minority communities, there are still estates and neighbourhoods where non-English people are easy targets.
Schools - sanctuaries to children whose lives and education have been disrupted - are struggling to meet these new and pressing needs in some areas. According to the Refugee Council, there are presently around 2,000 asylum-seeker children not enrolled in school. Although this is out of a total of 63,000, it still begs the question of why these children aren't being educated and how education authorities are being allowed to renege on their legal obligation to provide schooling for all children.
There is no guarantee that local schools will have places available for children and that, even when they do, these pupils will have adequate support.
Gateshead's deputy director of education David Mitchell highlights the slapdash dispersal debacle: "We come to know of these children from a variety of sources. Sometimes the Home Office informs us, or social services here. And sometimes, we only find out when a refugee family comes to the school gates. "Headteachers have been extremely positive about children from different nationalities coming into our monocultural schools. But thee are problems, like finding interpreters for languages we've never dealt with before and getting families to understand how British schools are run.
"It would be nice if there was money from the Government to address the demands we're facing. We're being heavily stretched."
According to a recent Audit Commission report, some schools are reluctant to take on refugee children because they can't provide language and learning support. Jill Rutter, education officer at the Refugee Council, adds: "Some secondary schools in particular are unwilling to take on asylum- seekers because they're worried about how it will impact on their exam results and how that will look in the league tables."
A spokesman for the Local Government Association concurs. "We have no doubt that some secondary schools have turned asylum-seeker children away," he says.
The association has produced guidance for the Department for Education and Employment to send to chief education officers and heads on the legal entitlements of asylum- seeker children to education. Under this, LEAs will be expected to include provision for asylum-seekers in their development plans.
The spokesman says: "The Secretary of State should encourage chief education officers and heads to ensure that asylum-seeker families have accessible information on education, including early-years provision and pastoral services. They should ensure proper induction with adequate support, particularly for mid-term admissions.
"And there should be specific support arrangements for 15 and 16-year-olds, which means not sticking them in GCSE classes in which they can't cope. It's not beyond the wit of senior council officers to ensure that these families have access to school places within 10 days of dispersal and that once in school, they have the appropriate support."
But the process of identifying what support is appropriate can be complex, especially when a pupil speaks little or no English and they're arriving mid-term or late in the year.
Cathy James of the National Association of Head Teachers sees the issue from another angle: "These children have particular needs. They have to be able to learn not just the language, but how to navigate their way through the curriculum. And when faced with these considerations, every head must be thinking 'What is this going to be doing to my results?'"
Few would argue that schools should be at the forefront of helping newly-arrived asylum-seeker children. Yet to do that adequately they need the training, expertise and resources.
They also need to be able to provide a curriculum that addresses issues around cultural difference. For example, special GCSE preparation groups may need to be established before refugee children can enter the fray of coursework and exams.
Having to do all this when the "dispersal" mechanisms are so hit-and-miss, and when there is no additional cash to support the needs of the children concerned means that many are likely to miss out on educational opportunities in the months - and perhaps years - to come.
There are no official Home Office figures on the number of
asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK, but it is estimated to be between 220,000 and 300,000.
Between January and March of this year, there were 495 new
asylum applications by children and young people under 18.
Currently, there are 89,900
asylum-seekers awaiting decisions on their cases, most of them in
London and the South-east.
Just over 40 per cent of
applications decided in May were granted either full refugee status or exceptional leave to remain in the UK on compassionate grounds.
According to last year's figures, Britain came second in the
European league tables for receiving asylum applications. Germany came first with 95,331 followed by the UK with 71,180.
Most refugees are from China, Sri Lanka, Iran and Afghanistan. <