Asylum Seekers Left In Mould-Riddled Properties Provided Under Home Office Refugee Scheme
The Home Office in Westminster, London (Alamy)
The Home Office has been accused of a "cruel dereliction of duty" after a refugee family were left in damp, mouldy accommodation provided under the government's controversial asylum accommodation policy.
Labour accused the Home Office of “scrambling around” trying to solve the issues when “too often asylum seekers are suffering in unacceptable conditions", following 12 years of the asylum system being “broken”.
As soon as you enter the two bedroom property allocated to Fatima*, her husband and three small children, the smell of damp is overwhelming. Despite having lived in the east London flat for seven months, they have few possessions apart from childrens’ toys. The walls are bare, apart from the stains left by persistent mould, and the living room and kitchen have very little evidence that a family of five occupies it.
But even getting to this point has been a struggle for the family who first arrived in the UK in summer of 2021. Having previously fled from their war-torn home country, they arrived at a UK airport where they claimed asylum before being placed in a single room in a hotel occupied by other migrants. It would be their home for the next 10 months before more permanent accommodation was found, during which time Fatima gave birth to her third child in the hotel room. Despite the conditions and the impact it was having on their children, one of whom has a significant learning disability, they faced delays in the Home Office finding them a more suitable home.
"I was pregnant there and my child was born in the hotel. I told them I have a disabled child, that I was pregnant and my child had been born there but they didn't listen to me", Fatima told PoliticsHome through a translator.
Eventually the family were moved to a two bedroom flat in east London provided on behalf of the Home Office by Clearsprings Ready Homes, one of the companies contracted by ministers to provide accommodation to refugees under the Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts (AASC). The AASC programme allows the Home Office to meet its statutory duties to “accommodate asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute”.
Worth around £4bn over the next 10 years, the AASC contracts won by Clearsprings along with outsourcing giants Serco and Mears Group hand over responsibility for securing, running and maintaining thousands of properties across the country for asylum seekers while their claims are processed. But the scheme has been dogged by criticism from refugee charities, who are often left to advocate on behalf of families when they believe they have been placed into substandard accommodation.
Those fears have increased in recent months as the number of migrants illegally crossing the Channel in small boats to claim asylum in the UK continues to hit record highs. Housing providers have been left scrambling to secure more accommodation for asylum seekers as ministers attempt to reduce the number of people put up in expensive and unsuitable temporary hotel accommodation.
Fatima and her family are among thousands of asylum seekers given accommodation under the AASC scheme, but their time in the property has been beset by problems, damp and mould in particular. The property’s four rooms are affected by damp to varying degrees, something which Fatima has repeatedly complained to the housing provider about due to the potential harm it could cause her children.
"My child touches the mould and tries to eat it and put it in her mouth which is dangerous", Fatima said as her youngest child crawled around the room, avoiding a patch of damp which she says continues to return no matter how often she tries to clean it.
"I contacted [the housing provider’s] housing officer three months ago when the mould appeared and asked them to come, but they just told me to open the windows, but I can't do that because it's cold,” Fatima explained
"They know we have this problem with the mould, but they just said to leave the windows open 24 hours-a-day. I can't do that because my child gets cold and sick."
Clearsprings said they “cannot comment on individual cases” but they “treat any complaint of this nature very seriously and the health and safety of the people we accommodate is paramount to us”.
While the housing provider has made monthly visits to the property, the family say they were only able to secure some limited repairs after contacting local migrant charity, RAMFEL, who intervened on their behalf. The charity say they pressed Clearsprings to carry out work to tackle damp issues because leaving the windows of a ground floor flat open permanently was clearly not a safe or acceptable solution for the young family.
"Finally [the housing provider] came and cleaned the mould but I think that was because of RAMFEL,” Fatima added.
While some work was carried out, a significant patch of mould in the bedroom where the infant child sleeps was left untreated. The family said the contractor told them the paint used to treat walls damaged by mould could be harmful to the child.
A spokesperson for Clearsprings Ready Homes said they could not comment on individual cases.
"Clearsprings Ready Homes treat any complaint of this nature very seriously and the health and safety of the people we accommodate is paramount to us," a spokesperson said in a statement to PoliticsHome.
But Nick Beales, Head of Campaigns at RAMFEL said the family's case was not unique in his experience and felt that conditions at Home Office provided accommodation were often only addressed following the threat of legal action.
"The standard of Home Office asylum seeker accommodation is often squalid and unsanitary, with complaints and threats of legal action required before any change occurs," Beales told PoliticsHome.
He added that he “dread[s] to think” about the sort of conditions asylum seekers might be forced to live with if they didn’t have the legal assistance provided by charities.
There are concerns that a significant number of new asylum seekers arriving in the UK, often with poor English and little money, are unable to secure the limited help offered by charities.
"More and more asylum seekers are unrepresented despite being eligible for legal aid," Beales continued.
"A recent report found that as of June 2022, half of asylum claimants did not have a legal representative. It is very likely thousands of people are therefore suffering in silence in inadequate and even dangerous accommodation or seeing their complaints to the Home Office and their contracted partners go unanswered."
Labour's Sam Tarry, Fatima's local MP, told PoliticsHome the apparent failure to provide adequate accommodation for her family represented a "cruel dereliction of duty".
"It's appalling that vulnerable families are being dumped in slum accommodation," he said.
"The government and the appropriate authorities must urgently intervene to ensure that this family and other vulnerable people are properly housed and supported."
But until their asylum claim is processed, Fatima’s family are likely to remain in the flat, with major pressures on the asylum system, making alternatives hard to come by.
Labour's shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock blames the situation on the Conservative government, who he believes have had ample time to fix a system in crisis.
"They openly admit that our asylum system is broken – and they should know given that they have spent the last 12 years breaking it," he told PoliticsHome.
"They are making just half the number of decisions that they were making seven years ago and as a result there are 37,000 asylum seekers stuck in temporary accommodation, costing £6m a day in hotel bills alone,” he continued.
"The result is that the Home Secretary is scrambling around, [and] dishing out huge contracts to private companies without proper scrutiny and accountability, meaning that too often asylum seekers are suffering in unacceptable conditions."
A Home Office spokesperson said the department was dealing with "unprecedented pressures" on the asylum system and that they did not wish to comment on an individual case without PoliticsHome disclosing the address of the property.
"We are clear that we are dealing with unprecedented pressures on the asylum system and despite this we continue to ensure that the accommodation provided is safe, comfortable and secure," they continued.
"Overall, we remain satisfied that our accommodation contractors provide a good standard of accommodation and we have strict processes in place to respond promptly to maintenance issues and any complaints from residents.
"We take complaints extremely seriously and where issues do arrive we ensure they are acted upon quickly."
*Name changed to protect their identity
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