Asylum hotelsBlog

This blog series features the voices of those who are housed in hotels in the North West while waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. Previous blogs explored the emergence and context of the hotels policy; food and living conditions in hotels; and the lack of privacy, arbitrary and opaque rules, and the difficulties of raising a complaint; and the difficulties of moving on and the sense of being stuck in limbo. This final blog, drawing on these interviews, looks at futures.

All names are changed to protect anonymity. I am also not disclosing the location of hotels for the same reason.
Written by Will Wheeler, researcher at GMIAU

In the previous blog, we heard about the experience of waiting without end. In this blog, we will start by hearing about the futures those I spoke to imagine. We will then turn to the impossibly cruel future that the government is planning for people seeking sanctuary – people like Eima, Maryam, Fereshteh, and Yousef. We will close with a vision of an alternative future – where people fleeing war and persecution are welcomed into our communities as valued members of our society.

Hopes for the future

All those I spoke to were – while struggling with the limbo in the prison-like environment of the hotel – intensely anxious about their families. Eima’s family is still in Sudan; Fereshteh and Maryam have family members in Iran; and Yousef’s pregnant wife is stuck in Turkey. Hope for the future, for all of them, is intimately tied up with hope of being reunited with their families. As Maryam explained, these hopes are about freedom: although she doesn’t have freedom now in the hotel, it is more free than Iran – and she imagines a future of true freedom for herself reunited with her family, settled in the UK.

People also talked about their plans to work once they get their papers. Indeed, Eima does not want to have to wait for her papers to arrive – once she’s been waiting for one year for her case to be decided, she can apply for permission to work, so long as her job is on the shortage occupation list. She has done a community interpreting course during her time at the homeless centre, and wants to apply to work as a medical interpreter.

Yousef, stuck in a remote hotel in the countryside, talked at length about his desire to work:

Yousef: When my paper coming, I will work, I will make a new life, a new life. Because here in UK, for example, UK help me, they take me place for sleep, they bring food. I know not good food, not good place, but I’m sleep. I’m – comfortable sometimes. I will work, I help UK, for tax. I will work, for example, I will work security. I work everything, just I work help UK, for example, also I help myself, because the UK help me. Yeah. I hope that. Because now, I’m six month here, but my language is grow, because I learn languages very very fast – and understand everything now.

Will: Your English is amazing, if you’ve been here six months only.

Yousef: Yeah, because, I need, I need, I need understand everything, because I love language English, it’s good. But, I will help UK because UK help me. In the future I will work security, driver, everything, but just – I will work.

Will: Well, I hope you get your papers soon.

Yousef: I hope that. Because I have long time my papers coming … Because, I’m, in [my country of origin], I’m stateless in [my country of origin], I’m not have any passport, I’m not have any, any future in [my country of origin].

Will: You have no rights.

Yousef: Yeah no rights, not everything. I see UK, my place, first one. When I get my paper, it’s – like, this my place.

Will: Like a new home?

Yousef: Yeah, yeah, like my home, yeah, because first home, this one, because I not have any paper on the other side.

The government’s proposed future: From Hotel Britain to Detention Britain

It is people like this that the government describes as “illegal migrants”. It is people like this that, we are told, must be deterred from entering the UK. The government has created the crisis in the asylum system by failing to make decisions on people’s claims – which is why people like Yousef, Eima, Maryam, Fereshteh and Daniel are confined for months and years in hotels. Yet, in a breathtaking piece of dishonesty, the government has cast the blame on them for daring to seek sanctuary. Worse still, in a classic divide and rule strategy, the visibility of asylum hotels in the public eye is exploited to scapegoat people seeking asylum for the myriad social crises facing the country after a decade plus of austerity.

Having fanned the flames of the crisis it has created, the government is now engaging in an unprecedented politics of performative cruelty towards people seeking sanctuary. Apparently to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of housing people in hotels, the Home Office is opening even more carceral sites. Last week, a barge – a huge, floating container, flagged in Barbados and owned by a multinational shipping company with its roots in the slave trade – docked in Portland, Dorset. This floating prison, we are told, will house 500 people seeking asylum. The first people have now moved onto an RAF base in Essex, even as court proceedings were underway challenging the legality of housing people there. Further ex-military sites are due to open soon. The government claims these moves are ‘necessary’ in order to end the use of asylum hotels. In reality, this shift to even more prison-like conditions is designed to pander to the hostility that the government has deliberately stoked.

Meanwhile, the Illegal Migration Act, which received royal assent last week, will ban most people seeking sanctuary from ever being granted refugee status. It places a duty on the Home Office to detain tens of thousands of people on arrival and seek to remove them to a ‘safe’ third country. This will mean massive expansion of the detention estate. It will also mean that, if people cannot be removed, the government will be obliged to go on housing them indefinitely – in a limbo without end, unable to work or put down roots in our society. Tens of thousands of others will simply disappear into destitution and the underground economy – with no prospect of ever getting refugee status, there will be no incentive even to approach the authorities.

Such are the policies that will greet people like Eima, Fereshteh, Maryam, Yousef, and Daniel – human beings, with hopes, dreams, aspirations, as well as traumatic pasts of violent dislocation. In this blog series, we have heard how being warehoused in asylum hotels feels like prison. We have heard about children losing weight; about the retraumatising effects of sharing a room in the middle of nowhere. We have heard about lives governed by opaque rules with little to no privacy, as poorly trained subcontracted staff effectively become the faces of the state. We have heard how people who desperately want to settle in our communities, provide for themselves, work, rebuild their lives and contribute to British society, are being stripped of their dignity and autonomy.

We can only begin to imagine how much worse things will be on the barge, in the camps, and in the vast new detention centres.

An alternative future

It doesn’t have to be like this. We agree that it is unacceptable to go on housing people in asylum hotels – but the government’s turn to even more carceral conditions will serve no one except the private security companies that will continue to siphon off billions of pounds’ worth of public money, and the far-right political entrepreneurs who will continue to keep asylum at the top of toxic political agendas. These are deliberate policy choices whose purpose is to distract from myriad government failings. They are the death throes of a flailing government that has nothing to offer the country except performative cruelty, division and hate. They must be stopped.

Here are some alternative solutions:

  1. The use of asylum hotels is a problem of the government’s own making: for the last few years, the Home Office has failed to make timely decisions on people’s asylum claims, causing claims to build up into what is now referred to as the ‘backlog’. The obvious solution is to expedite decision making, ensuring that the process has integrity and people have access to legal representation throughout. Of the thousands of people currently being warehoused in asylum hotels, statistics suggest that three-quarters will be granted refugee status when they get an initial decision, and many will go on to become British citizens. The cruelty of confining people in institutional accommodation achieves nothing except ripping years out of people’s lives.
  2. People seeking sanctuary must be housed in communities not hotels, camps, barracks or barges. Against the odds, hotel residents in the North West and local communities have been finding ways to connect, and we stand alongside those living in asylum hotels by saying no one should be confined long-term in in any form of institutional accommodation. Long-term institutional accommodation for people seeking sanctuary is a recent phenomenon in this country, and it must not become the new normal. Instead of pouring taxpayer money into unaccountable and uncaring multinational corporations, asylum accommodation should be provided in communities – in accommodation managed by well-resourced local government, in partnership with voluntary sector organisations. Accommodation should be safe, dignified, and offer autonomy – and give the chance to put down roots and rebuild lives.
  3. While the current situation persists, the government needs to take urgent action to improve conditions in asylum hotels by consulting with local government and the voluntary sector – and listening to the expertise born of lived experience. Measures could include:
  • Stopping room sharing between strangers
  • Introducing proper training standards for staff to ensure that they are there to care and listen, rather than control and surveil
  • Improving standards in food, offering variety, choice, and culturally appropriate food, in dialogue with hotel residents
  • Closing all manifestly unsuitably hotels – including those in a state of disrepair and those in isolated areas or areas where they will stoke racial tensions
  • Resourcing local government and the voluntary sector to try to repair some of the damage that government failures are wreaking in people’s lives.

Where the government offers policies that are set up to fail, these are solutions that are eminently workable.

Most importantly, they are solutions that are just. We stand in solidarity with all those currently confined in hotels, and those facing removal to the barge and camps, to demand a future where those who have fled war and persecution are given the chance to rebuild their lives as welcomed and valued members of our society.