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. This blog looks at the difficulties of moving on and the sense of being stuck in limbo. The next, final, blog will, drawing on these interviews, outline 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

‘They see everybody like one problem’

Hotel accommodation, as we have seen, deprives residents of autonomy in multiple ways. Even so, people go on asserting agency – including by striving as best they can to move on from accommodation that is proving intolerable. In the second blog, we heard Yousef describing living in an isolated hotel in the countryside, sharing a room with a stranger. The experience resonated painfully with his traumatic history of imprisonment and torture.

A lot of people in this hotel one year, two month – not transfer. I’ve been six months. Not transfer, nothing. They [Serco/ the Home Office] – they see everybody like, like one problem. Because everybody have different situation, different story, different problems. They, the people see everything like one, one problem. I have, I have message from my doctor, and in the message he write, ‘This person Yousef, he need one room, special room, because he have a problem.’ The doctor write. But when I take this paper to the staff, they talk to me, ‘No, we can’t help you, because this one is not… we put your name in the list for special room’. But they not help me, because I’m six month I’m not see any person in special room. … But they, not help me.

In the last blog, we heard how, even when hotels wanted to help, ‘they have their limitations’ – it is not in their power to move people to a new address. So requests have to go through Migrant Help, which is contracted by the Home Office to operate a helpline dealing with asylum support issues. This contract is separate from the accommodation contracts.

So Yousef called Migrant Help. He’d called twice, first three months ago, then two weeks ago. I’m talking to them, they write, ‘Yeah, Yousef, you need one room, special room’. But they not help me. I need, I need special room for me.

‘You have to wait, you have to wait, that’s it’

The other people I spoke to faced similar issues with Migrant Help failing to help. Eima, the Sudanese volunteer in the homeless centre, had learnt that it would be impossible to move on for the first six months – but after that she called Migrant Help on a monthly basis.

You know, but this Migrant Help – very difficult to reach them. We have to open the line, one time I opened the line for two hours, for three hours. Listening for the message, until they answered. When they answer, ‘We can’t, we don’t have anything for you.’ That’s it. … I emailed them, I emailed the Home Office, I emailed Migrant Help, I emailed charities, all of them. There is email, but – I didn’t hear anything from them. You have to wait, you have to wait, that’s it.

Later in the interview, I asked about the feeling of waiting.

Hearing nothing. … Try to call anyone to help, there is no help, then I have to stop. Again, after one month, two months, I will start again, call here, send email here.

At the same time, everyone is aware of the churn of residents as some leave and new people arrive – but, as Eima emphasised, there is no discernible logic:

Sometimes they are moving people after three months. Then I told Serco, ‘This is unfair, people just came two months, three months, then they are moved.’ ‘No, this is not from us, this depend on the case’ – what case? All of them, we are asylum seeker. Why, what is the case? They are ok, this lady she is not sick. I feel happy for her, because she is going, no problem – but she different. They are telling me, ‘This is not from us’. I don’t know from who, but… nothing to do.

Without any obvious logic to the system, residents are left to speculate:

I heard that, according to the one who is holding your file. Maybe your file is down, maybe your file is outside, just like chance. All the people that are living there, they know this. If you are lucky – they will do it for you. If you are not lucky – it will be down. I don’t know if this is the truth, I don’t know, but this is what I heard.

‘Why they are keeping people like this?’

Eima declared: The problem living in the hotel, very long time, is very difficult, you know many people they are taking tablets, and this you know, will cost the NHS, right! You will have more cost!

She also talked about the effect on her and her son of waiting in the hotel.

Very, very difficult, very hard – we suffer a lot. I went to the doctor two times, they gave me medicine. Difficult to sleep. Even my son, many times he is hitting the wall, he go to the washroom. He even injure his fingers. ‘I don’t want to stay here, I don’t want, let us go outside of this hotel, I don’t want to stay.’ He went also to the doctor, he talked to the doctor, the doctor also talked to him, and I think he raise his problem to someone else. They communicate with me, they send him something like to do activity, so let him busy all the time, so not think about this. That’s why always he’s telling me, ‘I want to do boxing’, because there is a stress inside him, he wants to do boxing, he prefer only boxing.

Eima had so far been waiting 11 months, and she had not even had her asylum interview, let alone a decision – despite the fact that the escalating war in Sudan made it obviously impossible to return. She talked again about the effect of waiting on her son:

Yeah, he’s missing his father, his brother, his sister. Sometimes he cannot sleep well during the night, until early in the morning. You know, one day he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t go to school, because he did not sleep – continuously he’s awake.

Eima emphasised that it is not only her and her son waiting – and she described the talk that swirls around the hotel about the latest government plans and what they will mean for residents.

I heard about ship, like big ship [for housing people seeking asylum], I heard about that, and some of them they said will send to Rwanda – that’s why the people they are scared. You know what is the topics that they are discussing all the time – ‘They will give us, they will not give us’; ‘They will give us, they will agree for us, they will not agree for us’; ‘It will be easier to make,’ what do you call? – ‘reunion for our family, or not. We can bring our family, or not.’ Like that, all the time. All the talk, is focused on this one. All the time. Even when we meet each other, ‘Hi, how are you? Any news? Did the Home Office call you? Did you finish interview?’ Like that. Nothing. Only this, all day focus on this one… You know here [pointing at head], thinking thinking thinking all the time.

I asked about the possibility of protesting – Eima said people were too scared. But she did tell me about a lady with two children who vanished from the hotel. Eima had assumed they had been put in a house, but it turned out they had disappeared. No one knew where they had gone. They disappeared. Even one time, my son told me, ‘Let us go out.’ Where will we go? Where will we go? Eima described how he asked her, Why we came here? Why you bring me here?

Just before our interview, they had, fortunately, been moved to a house.

He’s ok now. But before, he was blaming me all the time, he was crying. You know what he was doing in the washroom, with… like this [demonstrating hitting the wall]. He think, he think, he think. And I told Serco two time, he is doing like this. They did not do anything. He said, ‘Why they are keeping us here like a prison? I told him, ‘We are going wherever we want to go, we can go outside, don’t say like this.’ But he mean, ‘Why they are keeping us inside here for a long time, why? This is not a life.’ … He told me, ‘Tell them like this.’ And before, when he used to come with me here [to the homeless centre], he complained to them, ‘I need someone, I need someone to listen to me.’ He talked to them, ‘Why they are keeping people like this? It is better if they release them – let them work!’

Striving to live better

Despite the obvious misery of what interviewees described, all are actively striving to make the interminable limbo more bearable and – despite their segregation – participate as best they can in wider society. Maryam and Eima talked with pride about their sons’ hard work at school. Fereshteh had battled to get her toddler into a nursery, where he is thriving. Yousef is studying English with enthusiasm – and getting into the town on his bike as much as he can, despite the dangerous road and his asthma. Maryam, Fereshteh and Eima have thrown themselves into volunteering opportunities. Eima’s manner entirely changed when she talked about volunteering at the day centre – she beamed as she described working in the café, sorting donations, and helping with interpreting at reception.

All of them also talked of the warm sense of welcome they felt from local communities around the hotels.

Eima: You know, these British people, they are very nice, they are very kind. When I meet them, you know during the whole this period, on the bus, they are very nice, they are very kind. All of them. I did not see anything from them, even one time.

Yousef: This area is good, very very good. The people here is very very very good, English people – every time help me, everybody help me.

Indeed, Eima, Maryam and Fereshteh all agreed that when they moved to a house, they wanted to stay in the same area. In fact, it is a further cruel injustice that when people do move they are invariably moved to a completely different area. Despite the segregation of living in the hotel, people are, against the odds, putting down roots – only to be ripped out again when they are eventually relocated. For children in school or, like Fereshteh’s son, in nursery, this is particularly hard.

My interviewees’ emphasis on welcome is not, of course, to downplay the racism and abuse that many hotel residents have faced across the UK, or the dangers in putting people seeking asylum in such hyper-visible locations – the violent protest in Knowsley, where hotel residents continue to face abuse, stands as a stark warning. The hate and hostility are certainly present, fanned by the government and the right-wing press – and these attitudes are mobilised to justify ever more cruel policies towards people seeking asylum. But there is another story, much less often heard – where people seeking sanctuary are valued as human beings and active members of our society.

In the next, final blog, we’ll look at futures – the futures interviewees imagine for themselves; the impossibly cruel future the government is proposing, where people seeking sanctuary are to be detained on barges and military camps and denied access to asylum; and the alternative – just, kind, and possible – future we demand.