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Hotels are breaking
people seeking asylum

Hi, I’m Jully. I’m Refugee Action’s Asylum Crisis Coordinator in Bradford. 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 an 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.

Almost 70 per cent of asylum applicants have been waiting longer than six months for a decision, for many it’s far longer than that. In November 2022, it was reported that 37,000 people 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, 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 £8 each on weekly basis, which is hardly enough to pay for minimum essentials given the way prices have spiked this winter.

“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: and West London Welcome

Waiting six months for eight 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 container 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 £8 daily allowance. The only money she can access.

From what I’m seeing now, I’d say it’s taking an average of six months to get an ASPEN card. That’s six months dumped in a hotel with no money whatsoever.

Another asylum-seeking family in a similar situation had to go to A and 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 at present 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. And it’s getting worse all the time. 

Mental health crisis factories

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.

A joint investigation by the Observer and Liberty revealed that at least 17 people died by suicide or suspected suicide in accommodation provided by the Home Office between April 2016 and May 2022.

Whose fault is this?

These hotels are not liveable for short periods, 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.

One of the main issues most people have with Migrant Help is a long calling queue. On those occasions when the call goes through, the process of dealing with people’s issues is too lengthy, making it ineffective, or; most of the time, the staff’s respond with ‘it is out of our hands’, ‘we are not responsible for that, and you have to contact the Home Office’. 

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 – 160,000 people are currently waiting for one – that has led to so many people being stuck in hotels for so long

What should a home have?

Problems with asylum accommodation aren’t confined to hotels.

Whether it’s dilapidated holiday camps, barracks, detention centres, houses or flats, we’ve seen terrible incidents like roofs collapsing on toddlers and deaths from infectious disease.

What’s the answer? What should a home have? We’ve set out the standards that asylum accommodation should meet.