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Home Office admits internal failings led to refugee housing crisis

Slow decision-making in Priti Patel's department has trapped refugees in 'unsuitable' accommodation, where children's growth is being stunted

Adam Bychawski
13 May 2022, 11.11am
The average wait time for asylum claims decisions has risen five years in a row
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Senior Home Office staff have admitted that slow decision-making over asylum claims has led to almost 40,000 people being trapped for months in “unsuitable” temporary accommodation.

The department’s failures have been highlighted in a new report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, which is responsible for monitoring the Home Office’s performance.  

In the report, staff blamed the slow speed and poor quality of asylum decisions for exacerbating the accommodation crisis. The UK government is spending more than £4.5bn over ten years to house asylum seekers in temporary hotels. 

As of February 2022, more than 37,000 asylum seekers, including 12,000 Afghan refugees, were being housed in UK hotels, at a cost of £4.7m a day. This despite Home Office staff admitting to the inspector that hotels were unsuitable for housing refugees for long periods of time.

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Children are particularly affected by the long hotel stays, with charities reporting their development was being stunted by a lack of physical space and the food provided by the government’s contractors.

Chief inspector David Neal said: “It is crystal clear that the Home Office must speed up the asylum decision-making process to give people some certainty and move them through the system so they can get on with their lives.” 

He added that the Home Office “needs to be realistic” about its targets on moving people out of temporary accommodation.  The department initially said it would end the use of hotels by May 2021, though this deadline was later extended to March 2022, which it also missed.

Last month, home secretary Priti Patel claimed the UK’s asylum system was broken because “criminals exploit and smuggle people into our country at huge costs to UK taxpayers”. 

Patel added that the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda would tackle the crisis and hit out at “specialist lawyers” for contesting the policy.

But asylum legal experts said this latest report is proof of the Home Office’s internal failings.

“The asylum system is broken, but not in the way Priti Patel claims,” Alasdair Mackenzie, an immigation and asylum lawyer, told openDemocracy. “It's broken in that it increasingly fails to do its job of deciding claims fairly and swiftly, and she has presided over that.”

“Ministers have prioritised headline-grabbing measures aimed at making it harder for people to get asylum in the UK, or at deterring them from applying in the first place, whilst neglecting their most basic ministerial function of making the existing system work properly.”

Several NGOs and charities working with asylum seekers in temporary accommodation told the inspector that the bottleneck was caused by “slow decision-making”.

The Refugee Council told openDemocracy that the asylum system has been “beset with chronic delays” for years, which had led to “an enormous backlog and people living in inadequate conditions that are detrimental to their wellbeing”. 

“We are therefore unsurprised that an independent watchdog has identified this issue, the impact it has on asylum accommodation, and is calling on the government to do better,” said Judith Dennis, policy manager at the Refugee Council.

Accommodation providers told the inspector that the mental health of asylum seekers was being affected. 

One third sector organisation quoted in the report said the food provided by government contractors is so lacking in nutritional value for children that parents are being forced to use local food banks.

The inspector said that they found no evidence of any activities catered to children in temporary accommodation. 

A previous inspection of the asylum system carried out by the chief inspector last year found that there was a need for the Home Office to be “properly resourced, equipped and organised to make timely and good quality asylum decisions.”

In its response to yesterday’s report, the Home Office said it is “working to transform the asylum system, streamlining and simplifying processes to speed up decision making to increase efficiency and output, meaning that fewer people will require asylum support”.

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