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LONG READ

Hotels are breaking
people seeking asylum

Hi, I’m Jully. I’m Refugee Action’s Asylum Crisis Coordinator. I work with people seeking asylum housed in hotels.

A hotel is…

When you hear the word ‘hotel’, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Perhaps an all-inclusive resort on a sandy beach with a suite twice the size of your living room?

Maybe you’re picturing a luxurious boutique inn with countryside views and bathroom products that smell like heaven.

Just imagining these places can give you joy – fantastic, isn’t it? But for people seeking asylum in the UK, the word ‘hotel’ has an entirely different meaning.

We need to talk about the thousands of people seeking asylum in the UK who are stuck in hotels.

But it’s difficult to discuss when the word ‘hotel’ itself evokes a mental image that is utterly unlike the reality.

From what I’ve seen working in them, they should be called something other than hotels. But what?

I have some suggestions.

mental health crisis factories

human warehouses

far right thug magnets

Hotels in name only

Sure, these buildings are technically hotels, or at least used to be. But everything that makes a hotel a comfortable or desirable place to be has been removed.

What’s left are small rooms with no facilities that are completely unsuitable for families, children and, to be honest, most individuals.

These hotels are no longer places where people take a break, they are places where people seeking asylum are being broken.

I’m going to tell you what’s going on.

As a result of being forced to flee to survive, most people seeking asylum in the UK have very little money.

They need somewhere to live, and hotels have acted for a long time as short-term accommodation before being housed somewhere more permanent.

Typically, someone would stay in a hotel for a few weeks before moving on.

Eli was forced to flee her home after converting to Christianity.

She couldn't practice her religion freely.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by execution in her country.

9 months of misery

Eli and her children are one of the thousands of families stuck in contingency hotels.

She’s a 40-year-old mother of three who arrived in the UK from a country in the Middle East in March 2022. Since then, they have been living in a small room with four single beds.

“We are cramped in a tiny space,” she said. “There is no space to sit or for kids to study; they are forced to do their homework on beds that are too soft to write their assignments or on the floor in a row.

“As a mother, I need to care for their every need, and to live in such a condition makes it impossible.”

This young family was allocated to a ‘contingency’ hotel in Manchester when they arrived nine months ago, and since then, they have been living in appalling conditions.

“In the past nine months, no one from the Home Office or Serco [the accommodation provider] ever showed up to offer a permanent place or accommodation.

“We’ve been stuck in this place for God knows how long, and no one is answering our inquiries.”

From stopgap to trap

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the use of hotels has shifted to such an extent that months and months of listless waiting in them is now the norm for people seeking asylum.

These months in limbo are a direct result of truly shocking delays in the progress of asylum claims.

In December 2023, 65% per cent of asylum applicants had been waiting longer than six months for a decision, for many it’s far longer than that. As of June 2024, the BBC reported that 50,000 people seeking asylum were living in hotels.

Most of us experience hotels as an exciting, short-term base away from home. But when a hotel becomes a long term home for someone seeking asylum, the experience is completely different.

The hotel is run on a skeleton staff. You have no kitchen, and mealtimes are set in stone. If you miss them, you don’t eat.

The food is low quality and takes no account of taste or culture. Sometimes it’s even rotten or mouldy.

People have almost no money to do or buy anything outside of the hotel. Eli and her family receive only around £9 each on a weekly basis, which is hardly enough to pay for minimum essentials. And inflation over the past two years is making things worse.

“My church is 45 minutes from the hotel, so I have to walk with three young children.

“With the small amount we receive, I can’t afford to buy bus tickets.”

Some of the food served to people seeking asylum in hotels

Images: Mirror.co.uk and West London Welcome

Waiting six months for nine pounds

Here’s another example of life in hotels. I was working with a woman seeking asylum who was heavily pregnant.

Her room is on the second floor with no lift. It’s too small and she struggles to shower. She told us that she recently drank water from the tap of a hospital bathroom while waiting for a midwife appointment, because she doesn’t even have a water bottle to carry water from the hotel around in.

Why couldn’t she buy a bottle of water? Because she’s been waiting months for an ASPEN card, a pre-paid bank card that holds her £9 week allowance. The only money she can access.

I’ve seen families wait several months to get an ASPEN card. That’s months dumped in a hotel with no money whatsoever.

Another asylum-seeking family in a similar situation had to go to A&E to get their child a paracetamol.

Because they had no money.

“I don’t have any answer.”

The overall effect is a total lack of control and independence. People have nowhere to go, nothing to do and no means to do it anyway.

They’re trapped, and the conditions they are trapped in are often terrible.

For Eli, her children don’t have space to be kids. “They are frustrated, and because of that, they fight with each other a lot.

“They keep asking me why we don’t live in a house like their peers. Every day, they pray for us to be dispersed.”

Dispersal means being moved on from hotels into more permanent asylum accommodation.

Eli is apprehensive about her children’s wellbeing, as any mother would be.

“It is very hard to explain our situation to three young kids who cannot comprehend what’s happening.

“They ask me why we have to stay in the hotel, and I tell them because this is the law. They respond by asking why the law forces us to live in such a condition. I don’t have any answer for them.”

It's no exaggeration to say that 100 per cent of the people seeking asylum housed in the hotel I visit regularly are struggling with their mental health.

For many it is very severe, but it’s easily understandable. People who’ve lost their homes fleeing war and persecution are traumatised.

The ordeal in hotels both aggravates the existing damage and creates new pain.

Far right threat

It’s depressing to think that some in the UK believe that people fleeing war and persecution are not suffering enough. 

But the far right do exist, and they regularly actively harass people seeking asylum outside, and even inside hotels. Violent mobs have gathered outside hotels chanting hatred and racism. 

The far right’s lies about hotel conditions, benefits, the number of people claiming asylum and that the right to claim asylum contends with the rights of UK citizens – fall apart when exposed to any scrutiny. But they do have influence. 

Despite warnings, some prominent MPs have decided to increase the risks of violence against people seeking asylum by publicly revealing the locations of hotels where they are staying. 

Lying about hotels and whipping up resentment against people trapped in them is a dangerous game. But while politicians play games, it’s people seeking asylum that face the danger.

Mental health crisis factories

Content note: this paragraph includes reference to suicide.

There’s a reason that ‘mental health crisis factories’ was one of my suggestions for renaming these hotels.

To understand their impact on people seeking asylum’s mental health, we must dig into the link between accommodation and mental wellbeing.

Housing that is safe and meets basic standards is central to anyone’s mental health. According to a report by the charity Shelter, one in five adults suffers from mental health issues because of bad accommodation.

One of the Home Office’s statutory obligations is to ‘provide for [asylum seekers’] essential living needs whilst their claim for asylum is being considered’, providing safe housing for people who would otherwise be destitute.

The way hotels are being used does not uphold this responsibility. Essential living needs are being neglected. The reality is that people are being forced to live in prison-like conditions with poor quality food and no access to essentials such as sanitary products and medication.

The mental health ramifications are huge. You can understand how the depression and anxiety builds.

Imagine being isolated in a small, dirty room, uncertain about the future and feeling forgotten as the asylum system that your life depends on grinds to a hault.

Liberty Investigates, the investigative journalism group, revealed that 23 people seeking asylum are confirmed or suspected to have died by suicide in Home Office-provided accommodaton between 2020 and 2024.

Who is responsible?

Many of these hotels aren’t suitable housing even for a short time, let alone for months or, in some cases, more than a year.

But holding anyone accountable for these conditions has proven difficult. 

Migrant Help is a charity contracted to deal with people in asylum accommodation’s complaints and inquiries. But the evidence from the people I support suggests that they have failed to do so adequately.

We also know that the private accommodation providers contracted by the Home Office are not responsive to people when they need something and often do not carry out repairs.  

In the end, the Home Office decides who goes where and it’s the backlog in decision making – which remains above 100,000 – that has led to so many people being stuck in hotels for so long.

I hope the information above and our campaign below help you to understand the truth about hotels as asylum accommodation.

At the very least, now I know that when you discuss or read about it in future, you’ll be thinking about the reality that refugees face.

Refugee Action’s Most Wanted

The asylum system should be there to make people safe, not to make rich people richer. But private companies are swimming in taxpayer-subsidised profits while providing unsafe accommodation to refugees.

Find out more about the companies, the contracts and the cruelty that underpins the UK’s for-profit asylum system by visiting our Most Wanted campaign page.

You’ll also find hope for an alternative, and how you can help us to get there.

 

REFUGEE ACTION'S MOST WANTED

Who's profiting from
refugees' misery?