A new report has lifted the lid on the degrading situations the Home Office is placing vulnerable people seeking asylum in
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Mazzy (not her real name) is a mother in her 20s from El Salvador seeking asylum in the UK with her husband and young son. She has stayed in hotel accommodation for nearly a year after arriving last March.
“The window in the room was sealed so we couldn’t open it,” she told Byline Times. “The walls and ceiling were mouldy. Given that my son has asthma, it was very tough. I had to spend all of my money to buy my son’s air purifier. He got sick every week because of the condition of our room and was hospitalised five times. Every week, I complained to the people in charge – they didn’t care about our condition.”
Nearly 50,000 people seeking asylum currently live in hotels where they are held indefinitely in conditions that actively harm their physical and mental health, according to the charity Refugee Action.
Although the Home Office does not publish data on the length of stay in hotels, data from Refugee Action shows that, of the adults surveyed in its most recent report, more than half had been held in in hotels for more than six months, 33% had been held for more than a year, and 8% had been in for more than 15 months.
Although families are supposed to be prioritised for longer-term housing, 95% of the families with children surveyed said they had been held for more than six weeks in hotels, 58% said they have been there for more than six months, and 27% said they have been in hotels for a year or more.
The new report by Refugee Action draws from the stories of 100 people living in hotels, their caseworkers and volunteers in London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, and Bradford. It reveals worrying findings concerning the degrading situations the Home Office has placed extremely vulnerable people in.
“This report shows the reality of asylum accommodation: a system of racialised segregation and de facto detention which is actively causing physical and mental harm and violating the human rights of people seeking asylum,” Tara Povey, policy and research manager at Refugee Action, said.
“What’s clear is that the cruelty in this system is not a result of it being broken or overwhelmed by numbers. Instead, this system has been designed to be hostile and is making millions in profits for the Government’s private contractors. And it’s a system that disproportionately impacts people from the Middle East and Africa.”
The impact of these conditions on families with children is particularly worrying, with more than 90% of the families surveyed reporting that the hotels they were staying in were unsuitable for children.
Mazzy recalled that her son lost weight during their stay in the hotel, refusing to eat the food she described as “horrible”.
“Most of the time, the meat was raw or uncooked,” she said. “Many people in the hotel got diarrhoea. We mostly survived on breakfast: an apple, banana, and piece of bread with jam or honey. We didn’t have enough money to buy food.”
One parent in the report described how their child was seen by a GP who warned several times of the outcome if his condition is not treated but to no avail.
“Now, we are witnessing all the predictions [of the GP] coming true,” the parent stated in the report. “The room is confined and restricts movement. We do not like the food and often eat only bread and milk. We have all lost weight. My son has no space to play. The hotel staff have said that if we complain about the hotel, then the Home Office will move us to Rwanda. The staff have a master key and will just come into the room.”
This parent said their family was locked in their room for a week and only had bread and milk. When they tried to ring reception, they said no one answered.
“Numerous reports on children have stated that they should never be in hotel settings or temporary accommodation for long periods,” said Povey. “I’ve heard people describe how this system is stealing their children’s childhood from them.”
While staying in the hotels, people reported that their freedom of movement was restricted and that the overcrowded, prison-like conditions of the hotel felt like living in a prison. The report deemed hotels as ‘de facto’ detention due to the shared features of other forms of detention – being held indefinitely, with freedom of movement and basic liberties restricted.
A shocking 75% of people surveyed said that the food offered was low quality and inappropriate, often described as inedible. Parents said their children have shown signs of being malnourished. Some hotels only provide cold food, others do not offer any alternatives for dietary requirements. In numerous cases, breastfeeding mothers had to stop feeding their babies because they themselves were malnourished.
There were several accounts provided of people speaking about the unsanitary conditions commonly reported in the hotels, including mice infestation, mould, leaks, and dirty carpets.
Almost one in three families surveyed said their children could not access education due to distance, lack of transport, or inability to afford school uniforms.
All of these conditions, along with several others outlined in the report, are particularly acute for children, with many parents reporting how their children’s development, mental health, and physical health have deteriorated during long hotel stays.
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“Their [children’s] development is being hindered by the fact that they are confined in small spaces for long periods with no place to play or study,” said Povey. “We’ve seen cases of how babies’ development is being held back because they don’t have the space to learn to walk or crawl. They are experiencing trauma because of the isolation and living in overcrowded noisy environments, and cannot access education, make friends or play.”
Parents have expressed anguish and grief of seeing their children living for such long periods in these conditions. “They [the parents] describe it as heart-breaking,” said Povey. “The impact on parents’ mental health is acute. Many people described struggling with their mental health as a result of seeing the impact on their children.”
When parents, or any asylum seeker staying in the hotels, complains about the state of their living conditions, the report found that some have been threatened with being sent to Rwanda.
And Povey believes it is about to get worse.
“The Government plans to replace hotel accommodation with the mass detention of people seeking asylum in detention camps,” Povey said, describing the intended outcome of the recently introduced Illegal Migration Bill.
“The bill currently being put forward by the government will hugely increase these powers of detention, and will mean that tens of thousands of people, including children and pregnant women, will be detained indefinitely. This will worsen the physical and mental health crisis that is already impacting on people being held in what is de-facto detention and exacerbate the worst aspects of this system, which will continue to be run for profit by private companies at huge cost to the public.”
Refugee Action is calling on the Government to work with and fund councils and NGOs to run integrated housing, support, and legal advice in communities, and to address the crisis in social housing. However, most immediately, the charity is urging that the Illegal Migration Bill be torn up.
“Although the report shows the terrible conditions that people seeking asylum are being forced to endure, it also highlights their resilience and how they are actively resisting and fighting for their rights,” Povey added. “An alternative to this [current] system is possible and workable.”
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