‘Night and day we cry’: A family’s year in an asylum seeker hotel
As a new report labels asylum accommodation ‘de-facto detention’, a mother details her family’s struggle
When Eli* arrived in the UK in March 2022, she was looking forward to feeling safe after fleeing danger in Iran. As soon as she stepped off the plane at Heathrow with her children, an eight-year-old and twin six-year-olds, she told an immigration officer she wanted to claim asylum.
Soon afterwards, she was transferred to a hotel in Manchester, where she has now been living for over a year with her children, waiting to receive a decision on her asylum claim.
“It’s been really bad,” the 42-year-old told openDemocracy. “Night and day we cry.”
The room is a tight fit for Eli and her children. “There are three beds – two singles and one double,” she said. “There’s a cupboard and a chair. They take up most of the space in the room.”
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After her children leave for school in the morning, Eli sits in her room, only leaving to eat, attend a once-a-week English class, and occasionally take newly arrived asylum seekers out to the city centre.
“I was a nurse in Iran,” she said, reflecting on how she is used to keeping busy. “I am so bored [in the hotel] and feel useless.”
Once the children arrive home from school, she puts the TV on for them. “But they really want to go outside,” she said. “They’re fed up and tired of being in the room.”
Eli is wary of letting her children play in the hotel corridors, claiming two of her children were hit by other guests and her daughter was approached by older boys who said they would be her “boyfriends”. She says a man also threatened to kill her after she told his wife he had been bothering her.
The conditions in the hotel, and the length of time spent there, are taking their toll on Eli and her children.
“The carpet [in the room] is very dirty and burned,” she said. “My children have no place to study. They are forced to do their homework either on the beds, which are too soft to write on, or on the floor, sitting in a row in a very small space.”
The food offered in the dining area consists of the same meals on repeat – chicken nuggets, or rice and meat that’s often undercooked.
“I have to insist on the children eating at least a little bit,” she said. “I say there is no food for later on. But they don’t eat all of it. They’re hungry.”
My children have no place to study. They are forced to do their homework either on the beds or on the floor
Although there is a doctor to treat medical problems at the hotel, she often waits up to four days to be seen. Her daughter is currently struggling with an infection, and although doctors have tried to treat it, Eli says "inconsistent" care means she's still experiencing symptoms.
When her children complain to Eli about living in the hotel, she is at a loss for what to say. “I don’t know how to deal with it,” she said. “I don’t know how to answer them.”
For Eli, there is no end in sight. She hasn’t heard anything about the progress of her asylum claim, so she remains in limbo, left to exist indefinitely with her children in the hotel.
But Eli isn’t the only parent languishing in substandard hotel accommodation while awaiting an asylum decision.
Not an isolated incident
A new report from Refugee Action, based on 100 in-depth interviews with asylum seekers in hotels in London, Manchester, the West Midlands and Bradford, revealed concerns about the state of hotel accommodation for vulnerable people claiming asylum in the UK.
The greatest of these revolved around the long periods of time asylum seekers are being held in poor accommodation and the impact of this on their mental and physical health. Overcrowding, lack of privacy, low quality food, pest infestation and mould were also all repeatedly mentioned by those surveyed.
The report described the current system as “racialised segregation” and “de-facto detention” of asylum seekers and found people who complain about the conditions have been threatened with deportation to Rwanda. It said the government's Illegal Migration Bill will make the problems worse.
“It’s important to challenge the narrative that the government is putting out that the asylum system is the way it is because it’s overwhelmed,” Tara Povey, of the charity Refugee Action, told openDemocracy. “What we have found is that the problems with asylum accommodation are baked into the system, where the government is subsidising private contractors to run below-standard accommodation. They are making enormous profits from this system and failing to provide quality accommodation.”
The impact is felt most acutely by families with children, with 90% of respondents saying the hotels were not suitable. Over half said there were safeguarding concerns. Children were reported to be malnourished due to the quality of food, and nearly one in three families surveyed said their children were missing out on education as they couldn’t access transport or uniforms.
Even though families with children are meant to be prioritised for longer-term housing, over half surveyed had been in hotels for more than six months, and one in four families had been stuck for more than a year.
“Children need places to play,” said Povey. “They need space to do their homework and study. They need an environment geared towards their wellbeing, with toys, books and activities. They need opportunities to engage in social interactions, to have access to education.”
Povey, who is familiar with Eli’s situation, said hers is not a unique story.
“The things Eli is pointing to are not isolated incidents. These are the same issues over and over again. The consistency of these reports really points to a large-scale, systemic problem in asylum accommodation.”
Hotel accommodation has been shown to be grossly inadequate. The proposed alternative accommodations are going to be even worse
Over the weekend, it was revealed the government is expected to announce plans to move all migrants and asylum seekers out of hotels and into military bases and potentially disused ferries.
Home secretary Suella Braverman has suggested the government wants to stop housing migrants and asylum seeker in hotels, which she said costs around £6m a day.
“Hotel accommodation has been shown to be grossly inadequate. All indications are that the proposed alternative accommodations are going to make it even worse,” Zoe Gardner, an independent migration policy expert, told openDemocracy.
Gardner highlighted that the issue is less about where people are housed while they await a decision on their claim, and more the length of time spent there.
“Any accommodation, even if extremely basic, is tolerable if it’s for a very short time,” she said. “If the government was making asylum decisions in a reasonable timeframe and moving people through the system very quickly, then basic accommodation would be acceptable. But it isn’t.”
Povey said the accommodation needs to be habitable, safe, sanitary, and have access to resources. She would also like to see private housing providers contracted by the Home Office held accountable. In the long term, Refugee Action wants the government to work with local authorities, councils and NGOs to provide housing support and legal advice.
Responding to the report, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not recognise the claims in the report suggesting hospitalisations, threats of deportation or restriction of movements, but where concerns are raised about any aspect of the service delivered by the hotel we work with the provider to ensure they are addressed in a timely manner.”
*Name has been changed to protect her identity
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