I scrolled down to the comments section at the end of an article about the expanded Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme and the measures local authorities will implement to help meet the needs of refugees beginning to arrive in the UK. As expected, there were comments about how these new arrivals were not as worthy as other excluded groups in the UK.
With councils strapped for funding, little provision for social housing in some of the most deprived areas, a tabloid media obsessed with perpetuating myths about migrants, and a government content to reproduce these assumptions in policy - I doubt many of us would be surprised by this opinion and will have heard it ourselves countless times.
The logic behind the argument that we can only support specific groups of vulnerable people rests on an assumption that funding for public services is zero sum. It is based on the idea that if one group is supported then other groups will miss out, and so the response ends up being to blame the group which has been supported and to suggest that they are less deserving. Migrants of all kinds are a common target for this thinking, both because national borders strongly shape the judgements that we make about who to consider as deserving of social justice, and because their impact on public services is over-reported and exaggerated.
With refugees arriving from Syria, the government has provided a funding scheme to local authorities to support the costs of settlement. Under pressure from the Local Government Association, this funding has been increased to extend beyond the first year, although the specifics of this commitment are not yet known. Reflecting on the decision, Councillor David Simmonds (chair of the Local Government Associations Asylum, Refugee and Migration Task Group) commented that ‘no community should be faced with the decision of having to close libraries or children’s centres in order to meet the costs of supporting refugees’.
Indeed, no local authority should be faced with such a choice. Many local councils will struggle to meet the needs of their local populations, but this won’t be due to the arrival of refugees. It will be down to austerity policies which are repeatedly undermining the efforts of local authorities to meet local need.
A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year examined the impact of austerity policies on local government and poorer communities, and found that despite the innovative strategies employed by local authorities to minimise the impacts of spending cuts on the most vulnerable, there is still ‘a clear limit to the capacity of local councils to shelter poorer groups from the worst impacts of austerity’. Indeed, the same report notes that local government as a whole has suffered a 27 per cent reduction in spending power since 2010, with the greatest reductions in the most deprived areas of the country. It is the logic of austerity driving forward these cuts which presents the real threat to public services.
As an affluent and developed country, there’s no reason for us to make zero sum choices about which vulnerable populations to support. Yet our ability to support the vulnerable is undermined by the ways in which years of austerity have deepened levels of deprivation across the UK. The arrival of refugees won’t exacerbate these problems; rather, austerity is the real and ongoing threat to public services.