‘Nobody is happy here’: The asylum seekers stuck in Home Office hotels
Residents tell openDemocracy of feeling segregated from society as they're left for months on end in tiny hotel rooms
“They call it prison or they call it hell,” said Abu*, describing the temporary accommodation he has been housed in by the UK Home Office for the past nine months. “Nobody is happy here.”
When he fled Sudan in late 2019 after a sudden military coup put his life in danger, Abu hoped to build a new life in the UK.
Instead, the 40-year-old has found himself segregated from society, living in a “separate community” of asylum seekers in a hotel in Yorkshire, with no certainty over his future.
Amenities at the hotel are basic. Abu’s small room has a bed and clothes rail, but no cupboards or a fridge. Meals are provided, but the food is “like the weather here in the UK – unpredictable”, Abu told openDemocracy over the phone. “We say, just eat, as long as it’s not dirty, just try to eat and fill your stomach, because you don’t have any other option.”
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
Elif*, another asylum seeker, said that when she first arrived in the UK – scared, suffering panic attacks and unable to sleep – and was placed in a similar hotel in London, she struggled so much with the unfamiliar food that she lost 12 kilograms.
Now, almost a year later, she remains stuck in the same hotel, unable to understand why her asylum claim is taking so long. She misses her husband and two young children, who she was forced to leave behind in Turkey when she fled for her safety.
The 38-year-old finds it difficult to get by on the £8.24 that asylum seekers living in hotels receive each week. As most asylum seekers are banned from working while their asylum claims are being considered, this money is intended to cover essentials – but it fails to stretch to necessities such as phone data or clothes.
“I’m a hardworking person,” said Elif, explaining her frustration at not being able to seek employment. “I have a master’s degree, I can speak English. I want to work.”
A desire to work is common among those awaiting asylum claims. A report published this week by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the British Red Cross found that many asylum seekers in the UK are being pushed into “informal work in exploitative conditions” due to “low levels of financial support and the lack of the right to work”.
I don’t want free time – if I do, I always think about my family, about my children, and I cry
Life at the hotel is boring, with little to do. Elif tries to keep busy by taking free IT lessons, improving her English, and attending drama classes run by Women for Refugee Women. “I don’t want free time – if I do, I always think about my family, about my children, and I cry,” she said.
While residents of these hotels are free to come and go as they please, Abu claimed that most are too scared to leave, fearing that going out could result in them missing an opportunity to be moved to longer-term accommodation.
“If you go somewhere and suddenly a transfer comes, you will miss it,” he said. “They will punish you by having to stay for more months, waiting for another opportunity.”
A Home Office spokesperson disputed this – claiming it was entirely untrue that anyone would miss out on being transferred to longer-term accommodation due to not being at the hotel at the time. They said people were given plenty of notice – plus a date and time – that a transfer would take place.
‘I can’t take this anymore’
Charities and campaigners have long warned that hotels are not suitable accommodation for people seeking asylum, many of whom are traumatised and vulnerable.
In a recent report, the Refugee Council said it was “deeply concerned” about the mental health of people stuck for long periods at hotels, noting that its staff had seen an increase in depression and even suicidal ideation, including in children.
At least 17 asylum seekers provided with Home Office accommodation – including hotels – died by suicide or suspected suicide between April 2016 and May 2022, according to a report published by Liberty in June.
In February 2021, the Home Office announced it would “accelerate” the movement of asylum seekers out of hotels and into long-term housing. Yet the Refugee Council reported the number of asylum seekers living in hotels almost tripled during 2021, reaching a record 26,380.
Of these, 378 people had been in hotels for more than a year and 2,826 for more than six months. This is despite the Home Office’s own guidance stating hotels should be used only as a last resort and only for a maximum of 35 days, after which people should be moved to longer-term accommodation.
People tend to cope with living in hotels at first, explains Caroline Norman, a project manager at the Refugee Council. Then, “five months later, they start to say, ‘I can’t take this anymore, I just want to get out of here. I feel like I’m going mad, I’m just staying in my room’.
“It starts to really get to them and they can’t wait to get out.”
Elif said she feels safe at her hotel, but that’s not the case for everyone. Some hotels have attracted harassment and far-Right activity.
Hope Not Hate reported that Britain First supporters held 79 demonstrations in front of hotels housing migrants across the country between January 2021 and June 2022. In one instance last August, members of the group turned up at a hotel in Hove that was housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, whom they filmed through a window.
Questions have also been raised over the safeguarding of people, particularly youths, staying in these hotels. Last month the Daily Telegraph reported that almost 50 unaccompanied child migrants had gone missing from Home Office-approved hotels in the past ten months.
The report by the UNHCR and the British Red Cross, which was published this week, found evidence that traffickers were targeting Home Office-approved hostels, hotels and houses of multiple occupancies in efforts to exploit vulnerable asylum seekers.
Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, said that a year after 30 children disappearing from a hotel in his constituency, the Home Office was still using it to house vulnerable lone minors. “That’s 12 months where they should have been able to find more appropriate, safe and secure accommodation,” he told openDemocracy.
The Home Office said it took the welfare of those in its care extremely seriously.
Kyle also pointed out that the hotels are also costing the taxpayer hugely – with the Home Office currently spending almost £5m a day on them.
The government hopes to reduce hotel use by opening ‘accommodation centres’ where thousands of people could be held, which it says would be more cost-effective. But plans to house 1,500 people at a former RAF base in Linton-on-Ouse, in North Yorkshire, have been met by fierce backlash from locals.
Mabli Jones, the deputy director of Asylum Matters, said: “These centres will segregate and harm vulnerable people, and have been planned with no consultation with local communities.”
How the government deals with people makes me feel like I’m not accepted in the UK. I worry about my future
In a statement to openDemocracy, the Home Office said “an increase in dangerous small boat crossings” has put “enormous pressure” on asylum accommodation, increasing the department’s reliance on hotels. “Our New Plan for Immigration targets people smugglers and will speed up the removal of those with no right to be here,” a spokesperson said.
But Jones said the use of hotels – and other unsuitable accommodation, such as Napier Barracks in Kent – is “rooted in the Home Office’s failure to make timely and accurate decisions on asylum claims”.
Pinar Aksu of the Maryhill Integration Network, which supports refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow, said people should be housed within communities instead, where they would have better access to health services, education and wellbeing support.
Abu said this would have made his life “much easier”. As it is, he feels increasingly disillusioned by the way he has been treated.
“When I arrived at the airport, the people dealt with me in a very good manner,” he said. “That made me optimistic about how life will go here in the UK.
“But you get shocked, how the government is dealing with people. It makes me feel like I’m not accepted in this country. I start to be worried about my future, me and my family here.”
*Names have been changed
Get our weekly email