By Stephen Hale
If you listen to Home Office ministers, you might be forgiven that the only issues in asylum worth addressing are people crossing the canal in boats. They would be very wrong for the way they are.
Last week a highly respected and influential group of MPs shed light on an issue on which urgent action is needed: the asylum crisis. Ministerial decisions and chronic policy failures are seriously damaging people in the asylum system. Covid has greatly exacerbated these risks and the consequences for the health and well-being of those affected by these errors.
On Friday, the House of Commons Audit Committee released the results of its investigation into the move from asylum shelters in 2019 to three new private providers: Serco, Mears and Clearsprings.
The new service for advice, problem reporting and authorization was also in the crosshairs. The main feature is a hotline for asylum seekers, a central contact point through which they can ask for advice and report disrepair in their houses.
The MPs did not take any blows in their assessment. These contracts were “doomed”. They had a “significant impact on the lives of asylum seekers” which was “exacerbated by the pandemic crisis”.
None of this was new to us at Refugee Action. Even before Covid, we saw unacceptable problems with asylum support: increasing delays in financial support, incredibly long waiting times for the hotline and the creeping use of hotels. All of these created or exacerbated poverty, isolation and mental health problems. In fact, the sheer number of bugs in the system meant it quickly began to tumble as the coronavirus rocked the country.
Where we are now should affect us all. People and families in the asylum system are being forced to live in dangerously dilapidated houses or to stay for months – in some cases more than a year – in hotels that are completely unsuitable for long-term stays. Alternatively, we see the latest manifestation of the Interior Ministry’s attack on the dignity of the people in the asylum system – dumping in disused army barracks. The results in terms of people’s health, wellbeing and safety have been disastrous.
You don’t have to look any further than the brewing crisis in residential areas where most asylum seekers live. These properties have been in poor condition for years and are getting worse and worse. When the new contracts were introduced, employees were unable to report expiration as the hotline was overloaded. As soon as the Covid arrived, providers paused non-urgent repairs. As a result, the housing stock continued to deteriorate and many properties simply remained uninhabitable.
A mother we support watched helplessly as the ceiling in her asylum house collapsed on her two-year-old toddler and split her head apart. The young girl was hospitalized and it took 20 stitches to repair the wound.
A video that another mother sent to our service team showed water flowing from the apartment upstairs into her house and onto the bed where her young son slept. Nothing could be done, she was told, because the fault in the property was above hers.
MPs focused on the exponential increase in the use of hotels as accommodation. Despite a sharp decline in the number of people coming to the UK to seek asylum since the pandemic began, hotel use has increased tenfold.
Far from the four-star treatment that some critics claim people receive, the reality is appalling. The hotel experience – overcrowding, bad food, inability to isolate or distance oneself, shared rooms, controlled movements, no money, far right attacks, and limited access to health and legal advice – affects the mental health of the people we support.
What composes the horror is not knowing when it will end. The home office expects the providers to remove people from hotels within 35 days. Some of our customers have been locked in hotels for almost a year without any financial support.
The most recent manifestation of this is perhaps the most worrying: the rounding up and quasi-incarceration of people in disused barracks, leading to furious protests from asylum seekers under the conditions inside the buildings.
Many organizations that support the people in the barracks say that most people experience social isolation because they do not have access to mental health care and do not have adequate food and other support. Almost three in five report security concerns, including vulnerability to hate crime.
Here too, the result of terrible conditions in the already pressurized mind can be terrible. On Thursday evening last week, the night before the MPs’ report was published, a young man attempted suicide in Kent’s Napier Barracks. Thanks to the quick intervention, his life was saved.
It is impossible to avoid systemic racism shaping asylum policy. When colored people die disproportionately from the coronavirus, asylum seekers – mostly colored people – are brought to overcrowded and unsanitary accommodations. When hotels and barracks become targets for the extreme right, residents are punished with restrictions on their freedom.
These problems are not isolated. They’re not just anecdotes – a few bad examples in an otherwise well-functioning system. These are serious and systemic problems. Ministers need to open up and listen to evidence from organizations that work directly with people in the asylum system.
Instead of denying this evidence and curtailing people’s rights in the asylum system, they need to get to grips with these flaws and develop effective, humane and compassionate solutions for asylum seekers. For all of us.
Stephen Hale is the managing director of Refugee Action.
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