4b. Dispersal

no services were set up to welcome [refugees who were dispersed]…just a person in the council who was dealing with that issue, he said ‘Ok, we have some void [empty] houses’…and unfortunately most of the asylum seekers have been put in the most deprived areas, even the voided houses [which] no…British [people would] accept…So there were…cultural barriers [and] a lack of services, even an organisation…to welcome those people (refugee from DRC, arrived in Britain in 2002)

Refugees without status were forcibly dispersed to towns and cities across Britain from 1999 (although there are earlier historical precedents), with no choice over where they were sent. Areas for dispersal were often selected primarily on the basis of cheap or vacant housing. This reflects refugees’ status as presently unwanted members of the reserve army of labour, who capital has no place for within Britain. Tony Jefferson argues that prior to the First World War the large numbers of casually employed workers in Britain required more directly oppressive policing in order to maintain stable capitalist accumulation.[1] Similarly, in the recent period the presence of refugees within the imperialist heartlands has posed a threat to the consensual maintenance of capitalism. Significantly in the context of imperialism, the existence of coherent and self-conscious diasporas with a sense of shared identity between immigrants in imperialist countries and their oppressed countries of origin, rather than with the national ruling class of their new home, poses a threat to national borders on both an ideological and practical level.[2] Dispersal has played a role in countering this threat in a number of ways, by physically separating refugees with status from those without, by separating refugees without status from the rest of society, and by separating refugees without status from one another, often just at the point that they were beginning to form new relationships.[3]

Refugees’ lack of control over where they are dispersed has contributed to particular problems of isolation for some refugees. For example, women’s refuges have been given inconsistent responses by UKBA about whether resources are available to move refugee women who are experiencing domestic violence at the location where they have been dispersed.[4] The British state has no interest in refugees remaining in Britain, because they are driven by imperatives that override demand for their labour, and consequently the state has little interest in providing any but the most basic means of survival. The state has even less interest in helping refugees without status to integrate with other working class people. Such integration could both offer solidarity for refugees’ attempts to remain in Britain and advance their rights, and fundamentally threaten the divisions amongst workers of different countries, which imperialism relies on to undermine resistance to the super-exploitation of oppressed countries. By disrupting connections with other refugees, support networks and other sections of workers, the dispersal system has undermined the potential for collective resistance and increased pressure for refugees to accept the positions assigned them within the international division of labour.


[1] Jefferson, T. (1991). ‘Discrimination, disadvantage and police work’, in Out of Order? Policing black people, edited by E. Cashmore and E. McLaughlin. London: Routledge,

[2] Gilroy, P. (2001). Against Race: Imagining political culture beyond the color line. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[3] Hynes, P. (2009). ‘Contemporary compulsory dispersal and the absence of space for the restoration of trust’. Journal of Refugee Studies, 22(1), 97-121.

[4] Chantler, K. (2010). ‘Women seeking asylum in the UK: contesting conventions’, in Gender and Migration: Feminist interventions, edited by I. Palmaryet al. London: Zed Books, 86-103.

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