Asylum hotelsBlog

This blog series will feature the voices of those who are housed in hotels in the North West while waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. Asylum hotels are increasingly in the headlines, as the government uses complaints about ‘Hotel Britain’ to justify its increasingly hostile plans around asylum. However, the voices of those living in asylum hotels are seldom heard.

The purpose of this blog series is to hear and amplify the voices of some of those stuck in asylum hotels in and around Manchester – to highlight the injustice and what needs to change. This first blog explores the emergence and context of the hotels policy. In future blogs, we will hear accounts of conditions inside hotels; the lack of privacy, arbitrary and opaque rules, and the difficulties of raising a complaint; difficulties of moving on and the sense of being stuck in limbo; and finally, drawing on these interviews, our demands for dignified asylum accommodation – in communities, not camps.

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

If people ask us, ‘Where are you living?’, and we say, ‘Hotel’, they say ‘Aww, you’re so lucky’ – but it’s not a hotel, it’s a ‘nice’ prison.Fereshteh

The hotel, I’m telling you now, the hotel is the same like a prison. You go in there, you stay there, from Monday to Sunday you’re just inside there. Go collect your food, you eat, you sleep… You can’t talk to people, you’re just inside there.Daniel

The widespread use of hotels to house people seeking asylum is a relatively recent development. Under the asylum dispersal model introduced by the New Labour government more than two decades ago, people seeking asylum would spend a few weeks in a hostel, before being ‘dispersed’ on a no-choice basis to housing anywhere in the country – predominantly in run-down areas where housing is cheap. Today, however, there is an acute shortage of dispersal accommodation – because Home Office decision making on asylum claims has effectively ground to a halt. While numbers of people claiming asylum have risen, they are not at unprecedentedly high levels, and remain below 2002 levels. Owing to the Home Office’s delays in decision making, across the country over 160,000 are still awaiting an initial decision on their asylum claim. This backlog means that people are not moving on from dispersed accommodation, so providers are resorting to housing people long-term in hotels. Across the North West, several thousand people are currently accommodated in hotels – many staying for more than a year. When housed in hotels, people are entitled to just £9.10 per week – while the private contractors are siphoning off vast profits at public expense.

Even before hotels became an issue, the problems of asylum accommodation – often substandard, run by unaccountable private providers – were well-documented. All these problems are heightened in hotels. The hotels policy has emerged largely unplanned, as an ad hoc response to the chaos caused by the Home Office’s delays in decision making – but it’s having significant impacts on how the lives of those seeking asylum are governed.

Hyper-visibility, quasi-detention, grey zones

First, hotels are hyper-visible in the public eye. Although locations are not officially published, they are obvious to local residents, and lists have been published by The Daily Mail and far-right websites. This hypervisibility puts hotel residents at risk – and also keeps asylum at the top of political agendas, toxifying ‘debates’ about the issue. The obvious dangers materialised in the shocking, if wholly predictable, violent protest in Knowsley earlier this year. Following that incident, hotel residents continue to live in fear amidst ongoing hostility and abuse.

Second, hotels have been characterised as ‘quasi-detention’ and racialised segregation of people seeking asylum from mainstream society. To an even greater degree than dispersal accommodation, life in asylum hotels can feel confined, surveilled and lacking in autonomy. While hotels vary in quality, long-term confinement in any of them is closer to detention than to a home: dehumanising and undignified, with significant impacts on physical and mental health.

Third, hotels are a kind of grey zone, beyond “normal governance and accountability mechanisms”, with rules often formulated on an ad hoc basis by hotel staff. Reports of abuse and intimidation by hotel staff are common. The fragmentation between the Home Office, Serco and Migrant Help creates further confusion over rules and entitlements. At the same time, hotels are a space largely outside the purview of local authorities and charitable organisations, which often struggle to gain access and hold providers to account.

Finally, hotels have become a convenient hook for the government’s increasingly hostile plans around asylum – in a blatant piece of dishonesty, the blame is put on the people daring to seek sanctuary, rather than on the Home Office’s failed decision making. Seeking to justify the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which if enacted will amount to a ban on claiming asylum, the Prime Minister claimed that the status quo is “completely unfair on the British people, who have opened their homes to genuine refugees but are now having to spend nearly £6 million a day to put up illegal migrants in hotels.” At the end of March, announcing plans to house people seeking asylum in barges and military sites, the Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick declared: “These sites are undoubtedly in the national interest. We have to deliver them if we are to stop the use of hotels. We have to deliver them to save the British public from spending eye-watering amounts on accommodating illegal migrants.” This rhetoric, it’s worth noting, is at odds with the less well-known stories of the welcome and support offered by many local communities to hotel residents.

But amidst all the political noise about hotels, the voices of those confined within them are excluded. There have been courageous acts of protest – a hunger striker in Stockport protesting about ‘inhumane and degrading treatment’ in the hotel; a rooftop protest in Carlisle – one resident complained of “being treated like prisoners”. However, given the controversy of the issue, open, public resistance carries risks – the protest in Carlisle was filmed and shown on far-right YouTube accounts, attracting tens of thousands of views. In a setting where staff have threatened people with removal to Rwanda just for complaining, it isn’t surprising that people should be fearful of speaking out.

Hearing the experiences of living in asylum hotels

In a series of interviews, I asked people what they thought it most important that people hear about the experience of living in a hotel. In a homeless day centre in Manchester, I talked with an enthusiastic and dedicated Sudanese volunteer, a medical interpreter called Eima, who had been living for 11 months in a hotel with her teenage son, before finally moving to a house. Amidst the intense anxiety about her family left in Sudan, she spoke of the sense of wasted time and the wasted talent and skills of all those in the hotel – she herself had 20 years’ experience working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. On moving, her son told her: “Mum, just now, today we arrived to UK. The last eleven months are gone. Those eleven months ago, don’t count them that we are in the UK, no – just today, after we get this house, we are in UK.”

I also visited a Farsi-speaking charity partnering with a local church to deliver support for hotel residents. There I spoke with two volunteers, Fereshteh, a geneticist, and Maryam, an industrial designer. Maryam has been in the hotel for four months with her teenage son. Fereshteh has been there eight months, a single mum with a 2 year old and a 6 month old baby, born while she was living in the hotel. Both of them talked of the struggles of parenting in a highly regulated space, where they faced regular intrusions on their privacy. Amidst all the surveillance, when they urgently needed help, like medicine for a sick child, no one cared.

Finally, I attended an ESOL class in a church in a rural town. Men were brought to the class by minibus from an all-male hotel 4 miles away in the countryside. After the hour-long class, they were bussed back to the hotel. Yousef, who is stateless, whose pregnant wife is stuck in Turkey, talked of the isolation of the hotel and its crushing effect on his health. He also talked of his hope to get his papers, to be reunited with his family and to feel like he had arrived in a new home – after a lifetime of statelessness. My conversation with another resident, Daniel, was cut short as it was time for them to go back – before leaving, alongside his clear statement that the hotel was a prison, he also had time to express his cynical belief that they were being kept in the hotel to make money for the hotel company: “we are like customers to them, so they have to keep us there.”

In the coming blogs, we will hear these voices in more depth. These voices are not meant to be representative or offer a full account of life in asylum hotels. Every experience is unique, varying according to hotel, location, staff, but also according to the person’s own history, their past experiences – often including traumatic histories of imprisonment – and the family members they’re separated from or struggling to support through the limbo in the hotel. All the people I spoke to, however, shared a simple message: that no one seeking sanctuary should be confined long-term in hotels, or any other institutional accommodation. At a moment when the government is proposing even more carceral, segregated conditions on barges and military sites, it is crucial that this message is heard loud and clear.