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Moving on? Dispersal policy, onward migration and integration of refugees in the UK

Author: Emma Nicole Stewart
Institution: University of Strathclyde
Type of case study: Research

About the research

Since the year 2000, under the provisions of Section 97 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the UK has implemented a process of providing accommodation in areas of the UK in which there is a ready supply of accommodation. This policy is known as ‘dispersal’. The effect of dispersal on individuals and families settling in the UK had not previously been studied and research carried out by Emma Stewart and Marnie Shaffer of the University of Strathclyde aimed to record the experience of refugees in the UK and to determine the factors that influence migration decisions. 

 The ESRC funded project, Onward Migration, conducted between 2012 and 2014 had the following  objectives:

  • To map the geography of onward migration amongst dispersed refugees across the UK.
  • To explore the main factors that influence individuals and/or households to migrate and how this impacts on the process of refugee integration.
  • To consider the policy implications for different levels of governance, service providers and the voluntary sector, in terms of the impact of UK dispersal upon refugee migration and integration.

 The research focused on refugees living in Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester and London.


To determine the effectiveness of UK dispersal policy and the factors that predict the onward migration of refugees, the project undertook qualitative research into the experiences of refugees through in-depth interviews conducted with individuals across the UK and quantitative analysis of the longitudinal data recorded by the Survey of New Refugees (SNR). The Analysis, Research and Knowledge Management section (ARK) within the UK Border Agency commissioned the Survey of New Refugees to provide a longitudinal study of their integration in the UK. The overall aim of the survey was to collect information on the characteristics of new refugees at the time of their asylum decision and provide data on the integration of new refugees in the UK over time. A postal baseline questionnaire was sent to all new refugees who were granted a positive decision of asylum, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave to remain between 1 December 2005 and 25 March 2007. Three follow-up questionnaires were issued 8, 15 and 21 months later. The baseline questionnaire collected information on the characteristics of refugees and asylum seekers at the time of their asylum decision, including their previous education and employment, English language ability, physical and emotional health, and their social support and service needs. Three follow-up questionnaires were used to collect information on how these refugees integrated in the UK over 21 months. Integration was considered in terms of the English language skills, employment and housing of new refugees and how these changed over time. Over 800 refugees provided information.

The movements of refugees recorded in the SNR were mapped by the project to show a general picture of refugee dispersal.  The key data variables employed were:

  • Dispersal: In the SNR, 45 per cent of refugees stated that they were living in NASS accommodation (provided by the UK Home Office) at the baseline survey. This variable was employed as a proxy for dispersal and enabled comparison of new refugees who were dispersed at the baseline survey (i.e. those living in NASS) with those new refugees who were not dispersed and chose to live with family/friends or in other accommodation.
  • Mobility: Key variables employed were those questions relating to whether a refugee has moved town or city. This question was asked at the 8 month and 15 month surveys and indicates whether a refugee moved town or city since their grant of status at the baseline (8 month survey) or in the last six months (at 15 month survey).


The project mapped the number of moves made by refugees at 8 months and 15 months to see whether individuals remained where they were dispersed to:

 Table 1: Total number of moves at 8 months, 15 months and over 8–15 months


8 months (N=1456)

15 months (N=853)

8 and 15 months (N=752)


Dispersed refugees


Rest of SNR sample


Dispersed refugees


Rest of SNR sample


Dispersed refugees


Rest of SNR sample


No moves







One move







2+ moves







Source: SNR (2005–09)


The researchers also used the data to determine whether country of origin made a difference to the rate of moves:

 Table 2: Cross-tabulation of refugee mobility and country of origin at 8 months (N=691) and 15 months (N=466)


8 months


15 months


Country of origin






85 (35%)

157 (65%)

154 (81%)

36 (19%)


44 (53%)

39 (47%)

56 (68%)

26 (32%)


17 (45%)

21 (55%)

19 (73%)

7 (27%)


20 (41%)

29 (59%)

19 (83%)

4 (17%)


23 (68%)

11 (32%)

9 (82%)

2 (18%)


112 (46%)

133 (54%)

106 (79%)

28 (21%)

Chi square: 18.679, p=0.002, df=5 (8 months); Chi square: 6.351, p=0.274, df=5 (15 months)

Source: SNR (2005–09)

Findings for policy

Findings for policy

The key findings of the project are:

• Dispersal policy has diversified the ethnic composition of UK cities, with evidence of growing numbers of refugees staying in the areas to which they were dispersed.

• Nevertheless, refugees who are dispersed as asylum seekers still have higher levels of onward migration than other new refugees.

• Multiple factors influence refugees’ decisions to stay or move on from dispersal locations, including co-ethnic and local communities, employment, education, life course, housing, place of dispersal, racism and health; variations are evident between different nationality groups.

• Onward migration can be a positive step taken towards integration, but it is also caused by homelessness, lack of employment, limited housing options or lack of job training, all of which can lead to instability and poor integration outcomes.

• Refugees may migrate onward or decide to stay after being dispersed, but neither of the two options can be regarded as always being the best for integration.

 Economic factors, in particular the ability to find and maintain work, were important to keeping an individual in one place. A lack of available work could lead to refugees moving elsewhere in the UK:

“I think about leaving Cardiff because most of my friends are in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds … Also jobs in Cardiff are not good. It’s a very bad job market here. There are not many companies in Cardiff and the city is developing, but it’s not there yet.” (Dyako, Male, Iran, Wales)

The research also found that refugees from specific countries of origin were more likely to move than others. Eritreans appear to be much more likely to move town or city at 8 months after grant of status (65 per cent) when compared with the other nationalities. For some refugees, finding a location where there were others from their country of origin also played a part in decisions to move, whilst others sought areas that were away from established communities in order to maintain a private life:

“I don’t want to know the other people, yes, you can want to speak or live with them but then they are always, no, it’s better like, staying on my own. I’m a grown up person now, there’s no way I can, you know, share with, I want, I need my privacy anyway…” (Thelma, Female, Zimbabwe, North West)

Refugees who were proficient in English felt less need to live within a community from their country of origin, suggesting that, for those who do not already have proficiency in English, access to English language teaching and support could help refugees settle in a location: 

“If I can speak the language, it’s not important to live with my community. So I can live anywhere. Yes, once I speak English I can live anywhere.” (Birhane, Male, Eritrea, Scotland)

An increased time in a particular location fosters stability and increases the chance that an individual will stay there – once a place starts to feel like ‘home’ moving somewhere else becomes less appealing:

“That time I started to like it in Glasgow and got used to it. I’ve already been five year now… If I can settle here, I don’t think I can go and live in another place. I used to Glasgow. I feel at home here, I used to the place. Only thing is there is no work here, no jobs.” (Goitom, Male, Eritrea, Scotland)

Examination of refugee onward migration patterns provides detailed insights into personal journeys and local community interactions. Research results helped to explain the appeal of specific places and people’s experiences in those locations, which can guide policy responses and improve services for refugees. Providing the appropriate services for refugees to access English language teaching, support to find work and making community links stronger, so that people feel ‘at home’ more quickly could enable refugees to settle more quickly and move less frequently.

Policy recommendations

Policy implications of the findings were examined in the key areas of employment, local communities, education, housing, racism and health. A number of recommendations are discussed in the full report conclusion, and six separate policy briefings, but below are the top five policy recommendations:

  • The UK Government should allow asylum seekers to choose their dispersal location, subject to availability of adequate housing.
  • The UK Government, local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions should ensure refugees are fully supported until they are in receipt of mainstream benefits and have access to housing after grant of status.
  • Local authorities should develop clear guidance on the application of the ‘local connection rule’ to refugees and consider introducing flexibility for refugees who move to a city to seek employment or access training.
  • Local authorities should develop, coordinate and monitor a local refugee integration strategy, promoting a multi-agency approach.
  • Local authorities should initiate multi-agency partnerships to tackle racism.


Use in Policy

The research was referenced in the response to the Consultation on New Tenancy for Private Sector Response submitted by the Scottish Refugee Council in December 2014: “As the vast majority of refugees are working age and able bodied people, geographical mobility is an important part of progressing their lives through education and study” to support the Scottish Refugee Council’s assertion that “We consider that allowing for tenant flexibility is likely to improve these outcomes for refugees and the wider Scottish population.” (, pages 6 and 7)


Further information

For more detailed information, see the full report:  Stewart, E. and Shaffer, M. (2015) Moving on? Dispersal Policy, Onward Migration and Integration of Refugees in the UK, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

For full details of the Onward Migration project please visit the website:

For further information please contact: Emma Stewart:


The dataset collected during this project has been deposited in the UK Data Service. Onward Migration: Integration and onward migration of dispersed refugees in the UK includes 83 in-depth interviews that were conducted with refugees across the UK and contains detailed migration histories of these individuals. Interviews typically were audio recorded, lasting one to two hours, and are transcribed verbatim. The interviews are anonymous, and certain data has been redacted in the deposited transcripts to protect individuals. The dataset is available under Special Licence conditions. For more information about accessing the dataset, please contact the UK Data Service.