The Facts About Syrian Refugee Dispersal



The Syrians whom the UK government have agreed to take, over the next 5 years, are expected to number 20,000.

Maggie Lennon, of the WFI National Committee is Director of a Scottish charity which works with refugees and asylum-seekers. This blog gives information about the Syrian dispersal and practical advice as to how WFI groups and other activists can respond. 


The Syrians whom the UK government have agreed to take, over the next 5 years, are expected to number 20,000, of which approximately 10-15% is expected to be sent to Scotland (2000-3000.). They are being accepted under the Vulnerable Person’s Route (VPR).

The people coming are being chosen by the government via the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refuges) and other agencies and will be brought to the UK from existing refugee camps in both Jordan, and Lebanon.

NONE of the Refugees who have made it to Europe, by which ever means, nor ANY of the displaced people in Calais will be included in this programme, or offered leave to remain in the UK.

There is a criteria for selection of the Syrians, which includes:

  • Women and children
  • Women and children at threat of, or victims of, abuse (physical and sexual)
  • Vulnerable young people (but not unaccompanied minors)
  • People with both physical and mental health issues
  • Victims of torture
  • Families with young children

If the quota cannot be filled by people with these characteristics, then others will be accepted.

All Syrians being accepted to the UK “will have undergone security checks” but there is no information about those.


Unlike people arriving in the UK under their own steam - and through the asylum process - (which also includes many Syrians) and who are granted Leave to Remain as Refugees, under the terms of the UNHCR Refugee Convention of 1951, the people arriving through this special vulnerable person’s route do NOT have, and will NOT receive, Refugee status. Instead they are being given a time limited period of 5 years to remain.

What happens after that period is not yet clear.

This status means there is no right to family re-union and may have a bearing on jobs and Higher and Further Education access (though on the latter, the Scottish Government is being pushed to waive the 3 year residence requirement which would normally attach to them). They have the right to work and get both inwork and out of work benefits.

The system risks creating a two tier “refugee” system with complicated rules which people or support agencies may breach, unintentionally.


Under the current asylum model people seeking asylum in the UK are dispersed to specific local authority (LA) areas which are given resources to support them until which time they are awarded Leave to Remain or are re-patriated.

In Scotland only Glasgow is a dispersal area, and has been for over 14 years. As a result there is a huge amount of expertise, experience and knowledge in the city and most services for asylum seekers and refugees are based there where the large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees, and critical mass (about 10,000), makes it very cost effective to deliver services for all ages and stages of integration.

UK government funding is only for housing, education and health costs are met by the Scottish Government.

With the Vulnerable Persons the dispersal has been agreed between the Home Office and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) to include a potential twenty plus local authorities in Scotland; meaning that small numbers (5-10 families at most per year) will be housed in each accepting LA. Most of these will be housed in LAs which have no dedicated or specialist services and who do not had a history of supporting vulnerable and traumatised refugees.

This wide dispersal is the pattern across the UK. COSLA has not, at present, shared which LAs have signed up to a contract with the Home Office. LAs will be given a fixed sum per head for housing and have access to further payments for health, education and special needs. Syrians will be housed in LA voids, in their housing stock


The last time such a wide dispersal took place in the UK was in 1979, with the quota of Vietnamese Boat People - which has become widely accepted as being the least successful group to have become integrated, with poor educational attainment and job outcomes for the first two generations at least. In practice many of these displaced Vietnamese, finding little in common with the areas in which they were put, or the local communities in which they were housed, moved on to the larger cities after time; but with no attendant support, many ended up in extreme poverty, or working for unscrupulous employers and gang masters and had, on the whole, an unsuccessful integration into UK society. This meant on the whole they were not able to make the sort of contribution they might have done had the process been handled differently.

More recently, in Scotland, in 2007 a large group of Congolese were housed in South Lanarkshire, away from main refugee support in Glasgow and, after the first few months of welcome from the local community, that group report years of open hostility and racism, with children doing less well in school and unemployment rate (already high amongst people with a forced migration background) much worse than refugees who live in Glasgow, and who have access to specialist support and successful employment programmes aimed at people for whom English is a second language. There are huge concerns amongst asylum/refugee/migrant supporting organisations that something similar will happen to the Syrians.


No access to quality SQA (Scottish Qualification Authority) accredited English (even though contracts between Local Authorities and Home Office demand this) and people on active benefits with Access 3 English or below must uptake statutory provision to avoid sanctions.

No access to Arabic speakers to help smooth path of integration.

No access to specialist food such as Halal butchers.

No specialist provision to integrate children into mainstream classes in school quickly as the numbers in each LA do not merit a special bilingual support approach as was used in Glasgow and which ensured all Asylum seeking children in Glasgow were able to be taught in English in mainstream classes within 6 months.

No access to comprehensive translation services as numbers do not merit the expense and investment.

Concerns about local Job Centre and DWP staff not fully understanding the barriers and concerns about increased sanctioning.

No access to specialist Employment/Retraining/Upskilling support which understands the qualifications and experience of workers from overseas and can act as a bridge to employers.

The criteria for selection suggest highly vulnerable people with multiple needs who are further from the labour market who may not have access to centralised services such as trauma support.

There is no data available on pre-existing English levels (if any) but the criteria for selection would point to low levels of English which means even greater support needed yet the wide dispersal will keep people from others who may have been through the system and who know it and can advise and act as informal translators.

There is no data available of people's pre-existing skills jobs or experience which raises fears of people accessing only the most basic unsustainable entry level jobs.  It is important to note that LAs who equate the needs of the Syrian as being similar to the needs of Eastern Europeans who have settled in their areas (especially with regard to employment and language support) and who they feel they have manged to support, may be making a grave miscalculation. Eastern Europeans tend to settle in much larger groups and are much more resilient. Being voluntary rather than forced migrants they have not suffered the trauma of displaced people and many Eastern Europeans had a decent grasp of English or there were enough of the diaspora in a region to allow translations and support within the community. This is not the case with small isolated groups of Syrians spread around the country.


Ask your local council for full info about how many people are residing or are planned to reside in your LA.

Ask if an English benchmark* or skills audit** has been done to discover what their potential is to work, and get settled more rapidly

Find out of there are people with ESOL (English for Speakers of Other languages) or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualifications or experience in your community who might support language development

Find out of there are retired teachers available to perhaps set up some community English Language classes (teachers of foreign languages are best as they know how languages are learned and how to teach effectively) Some Syrians will also speak French.

Find out of there are any local Arab speakers who might give some time but remember while modern standard Arabic is the language of education it is not the native Arabic of any Syrian. Syria has over a dozen regional and national dialects and variances including a version of Kurdish, Persian and Levantine Arabic.

Set up conversation classes locally/conversation cafes.

Set up induction days, mentoring, buddying system ***

Learn about Syria, its economy can you point to it on a map? What does its flag look like?

Be prepared to offer services and support that are gender specific.

If there is no Halal meat provider in your area ask if a local butcher would consider buying in from Halal wholesalers from Glasgow or other major city

Integration is a two way street, so if you are involved in any induction sessions make sure you ask information about the Syrian’s local customs, habits etc.

Food is a good way to share experiences set up food sharing/cooking classes once a month - trade a Scottish dish for a Syrian dish.

For those that have English suitable for work (Access 3 as a bare minimum) set up a job club.

Arrange for an introduction/tour round a local College even for people who aren’t studying English there (you might need interpreters).


DO NOT EVER ask someone to tell you their story, it’s not anyone’s business.

Realise that people integrate more successfully when they are empowered to do so themselves, so don’t feel obliged to do everything for them, making mistakes and learning is part of a successful integration process.

Many of the Syrians here will have family back home or elsewhere and too much media attention may pose difficulties for people back home. We know that Syria monitors social media and is always on the look-out for people they regard as dissidents so asking people to give interviews to local papers/radio stations might get their photographs/names back in the wrong hands. There are agents of the Syrian government even in Glasgow trying to find out who and where the Syrians are

Report all instances of hate crime and racism. Organised groups should consider becoming a centre for the Reporting of Hate Crime through Police Scotland

Be careful of making religious assumptions or getting involved in religion. 10% of Syrians are Christian and of the 90% who are Muslim the vast majority, 74%, are Sunnis with 13% Shia population. You should be aware of the very tense rivalry between both sects; heightened at the moment due to tension between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. A large proportion of the Sunnis (about 10%) are not Arabs, but Kurds.

Some resources

*Scottish Government benchmarking toolkit. Though it requires people with ESOL or TEFL qualifications to assess it also has a variety of packs and information for both learners and practitioners

** Skills audit templates and support can be acquired free of charge from Bridges Programmes in Glasgow, a specialist agency in social and economic integration of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants Bridges are also willing to be the main point of contact for groups to provide advice and guidance through Bridges Founder and Director and WFI National Committee Member, Maggie Lennon [email protected] Tel.: 0141 558 6129

*** for support for a mentoring programme

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