Content note: this blog makes reference to suicide.
In a dark, small, room infested with insects, bed-bound, with a small window as the only connection to the outside world. It sounds like a prison cell. It’s not. This is the life of many disabled asylum seekers in Home Office dispersal accommodation.
Disabled asylum seekers are one of the most disadvantaged and marginalised groups. They are almost invisible. The asylum process is very daunting and stressful. Thanks to hostile environment policies, asylum seekers experience numerous challenges while waiting for a decision on their claim. For disabled asylum seekers, the experience is far worse; in addition to language barriers and the lack of adequate financial support or legal advice, disabled asylum seekers face another set of unique obstacles. Accessibility issues and the lack of proper medical and mental health support affect them enormously while they wait for the Home Office to decide their fate.
People with mobility issues, loss of limbs, severe mental health problems (including PTSD), blindness and deafness require accommodation with the right infrastructure, which most asylum accommodations lacks. They struggle to navigate day-to-day life. There is no separate dispersal route to process disabled people seeking asylum.
In one case, a woman in the Midlands with a severe mobility issue was housed in an accommodation where the bathroom was located on the first floor, so every time she needed to use the bathroom, she had to take a steep flight of stairs. In the long term, it became an absolute nightmare for her and caused her heart failure due to the pressure of taking many steps.
In another example, a man who uses a wheelchair was dispersed into an accommodation where he could not go out because the house wasn’t wheelchair-friendly, so he was locked up in his room for days, even weeks. In addition to that, the accommodation was located in a hilly area, so it was impossible for him to meet his day-to-day needs. He was forced to rely completely on housemates and charity caseworkers.
Often, asylum seekers with disabilities are housed in inappropriate houses: small, dirty rooms that exacerbate health conditions and have next-to-no disability equipment. They lack accessible showers and level access. Private companies run this accommodation, with lucrative Home Office contracts sitting in the hands of the contractors Serco, Clearsprings and Mears.
Some of the hotels that are being used as asylum accommodation have accessible showers and lifts for people with limited accessibility, but disabled asylum seekers require specialised medical attention, some need 24/7 care, and on-site staff have no training or qualification to support people with disabilities. Instead, grassroots groups and disabled rights and refugee rights charities with limited resources assist disabled residents.
A man staying in one of these hotels was hospitalised after falling down repeatedly in the bathroom. The place was unsuitable for disabled persons, and a relocation request was made by his charity caseworkers multiple times. The process is lengthy, and people are stuck in their accommodation for an unknown period of time. For this man, he was stuck in bed for weeks. Only interventions from the police prevented him from ending his life, which he tried to do several times. Severe depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation are direct consequences of living in conditions like these.
The complaints regarding poor living conditions for people with disabilities in dispersal accommodations are frequently dismissed, or met with inappropriate, unsympathetic responses. The political culture of demonising refugees and people seeking asylum has trickled down into the attitudes of some staff and managers in these places.
Providing suitable accommodation that meets disabled asylum seekers’ special needs is an obligation of the Home Office. Mobility equipment, accessible facilities, adaptations, and support services in accordance with the Human Rights Act 98 and Equality Act 2010 are its responsibility.
In their latest allocation of asylum accommodation policy, which was published in October 2023, the Home Office advised caseworkers to “regard to the particular vulnerabilities of asylum seekers and their children who have disabilities or serious health problems. Requests for accommodation in a particular location may sometimes be made in order to avoid unreasonable disruption of existing treatment or assistance to cope with the disability.”
In this document, the Home Office’s caseworkers are advised to consider asylum seekers with disabilities under a new practice, the Asylum Seekers with Care Needs guidance, which is currently under review. The new policy seems like a positive step toward improving living conditions.
Understanding and addressing the specific needs of disabled asylum seekers is paramount. While the Home Office is failing to provide support, it is so often charities making invaluable contributions to improving the lives of people who have disabilities and are seeking asylum.