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Asylum seekers in Blackburn and Darwen could double
THE number of asylum seekers in Blackburn and Darwen could double following a change in the management of the system, it can be revealed.
And the increase could put ‘intolerable strains’ on the towns’ social cohesion and public services, political leaders warn.
The number of refugees in the borough could rise from 350 to 700 by the end of the year under a new contract with a private sector company.
Although the vast majority of asylum seekers are not considered to be extremists, experts believe a minority are.
It is feared that these Islamic extremists driven out of countries like Somalia and Yemen could arrive in Blackburn without warning and try to spread their radical doctrine throughout the town’s mosques.
Blackburn MP Jack Straw has written to Home Secretary Theresa May to try to change the government contract with private company Serco and limit numbers to the current 350.
He acted after the firm refused to accept a formal cut in the limit saying: “The cap is set by the government, not Serco.”
The deal, worth an estimated £175 million to Serco over seven years, covers the North-West, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Blackburn with Darwen Council will now lose the current £300,000 a year of Whitehall cash it uses to pay for a seven-strong team to carefully place and support them.
Mr Straw, the Home Secretary responsible for the original contract, has held a series of meetings with Blackburn with Darwen Council, the UK Border Agency and immigration minister Damian Green about the issue.
Mr Straw, Blackburn with Darwen council leader Kate Hollern and her Tory counterpart Coun Michael Lee said they were seriously concerned at the failure to formally lower the cap from 700 asylum seekers to 350.
The borough receives asylum seekers under the existing contract when they enter the UK.
None are sent to other towns in East Lancashire under the “dispersal” system on arrival, although individuals and families may move elsewhere in Lancashire or Britain, later with Home Office approval.
Civic leaders said the new limit could lead to:
- social and racial tensions wherever the predominantly African, Middle Eastern or Eastern European refugees are placed
- a shortage of low rent accommodation for existing residents;
- extra pressure on council homeless, housing and social services;
- shortage of school places; and
- excess demand on GPs and NHS services.
Mr Straw said: “I am concerned that we do not have the existing services in place to cope with more than the current 350 asylum seekers.
“I am asking the Home Secretary to cap the numbers we can receive under the new contract at that level.
“The Border Agency and Serco have given assurances that they will not increase the numbers of asylum seekers in Blackburn with Darwen to more than the current 350 but unless the cap is reduced from 700 we cannot be sure they will be honoured in the future.
“There is already considerable government concern about the radicalisation of local young Muslims. If we get new asylum seekers coming into the area it is important that they are properly monitored and checked.”
“There are other places in the North West like Preston who currently have no dispersed asylum seekers who are just as suitable to receive some.”
Coun Hollern said: “I share Jack’s concerns. We believe the current number of asylum seekers in Blackburn is the right balance.
“At the moment we have a contract with Twin Valley Homes to house asylum seekers but that will not continue with Serco.
“When these families come to the end of their short-term tenancies they could end up at the council’s front door as homeless and we will have to pick up the tab with no extra money to do so.
“We are also concerned that Serco will buy up cheap rented property from landlords, possibly at a higher rent, so that when the existing tenants come to the end of their leases they will become homeless and it will be the council’s responsibility to house them.
“We are worried about whether Serco will provide the necessary level of services for these refugees in the town as we have done. We will be losing £300,000 of government cash at a time of severe cuts in our budgets and yet may have to pick up the bill to fill in the gaps for services for these asylum seekers as result of this change.”
A UK Border Agency spokesperson said: “Any proposal by accommodation providers to introduce more asylum seekers into an area would have to be agreed by us. This would clearly involve discussions with local councils and other agencies to ensure community safety and the impact on the area is taken into account.
“UKBA and Serco already work closely with local councils, police and charities to share information on a regular basis and this will continue.”
A Serco spokesman said: “The cap is set by the government, not Serco. Every property that will be procured has to be approved by the local authority. UKBA and Serco will continue to work closely with local authorities, police and charities to share information on a regular basis. The local authority has responsibility for checking on all the issues raised.”
Adel Darwish, Political Editor of the Middle East Magazine and a Sky TV commentator on Middle East and Islamic affairs, said: “Certainly Somalia, Yemen, Chechnya and Algeria are areas of conflict where asylum seekers and refugees are likely to include radical Islamists of just the kind that the government is concerned about radicalising UK Muslim youth.”
Mr Lee, leader of Blackburn with Darwen Council before the Tories lost control in 2010, said: “I support Jack Straw and Kate Hollern in seeking to keep the maximum number of asylum seekers in the borough at 350 - or even reduce it. We have done our bit. There are other local authorities who have taken none so far which could take some.
“There is a maximum we can take. We have handled immigration into Blackburn well. Sometimes you just have to say we can take no more.
"Blackburn with Darwen Council must have the final say on how many asylum seekers we take and where they go. They need to be placed properly with the correct support services in place which is what we have been able to do since 2000.”