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Many asylum seekers are living in shameful accommodation


4 min read

We all feel happier, healthier and more secure when we live in habitable and secure homes. Which is why it’s vital that people, including families and children, who have experienced trauma live under a roof where they feel safe and can begin to rebuild their lives. People such as refugees.

But Refugee Action’s new report, Hostile Accommodation: How the Asylum System Is Cruel By Design, has found that people who have sought protection from war and persecution in the United Kingdom are being held indefinitely in conditions that actively harm their physical and mental health.

A two-year-old girl needed dozens of stitches in a head wound after the ceiling in her asylum home caved in on her. Mothers so malnourished by the unhealthy food served up in their accommodation are unable to breastfeed their new-born babies. A disabled man in a wheelchair was housed in an 11th floor flat in a block where the only lift regularly breaks down, imprisoning him in his home.

Our asylum workers have documented hundreds of similar cases in just three cities. Our survey found one in four families with children have been in hotels longer than a year, three in four people feel malnourished or hungry, and 70 per cent have mental health issues.

A two-year-old girl needed dozens of stitches in a head wound after the ceiling in her asylum home caved in on her

It’s the tip of the iceberg. Across the UK tens of thousands of people live in crowded hotels for months and years, eating food that lacks nutrition, with no access to education, work and leisure, and exposed to racist violence.

And there are tens of thousands more people living in “dispersal” housing that’s too often damp, insecure, mouldy, pest infested or literally falling down.

The problems are baked into a system that allows private accommodation contractors to operate at arm’s length from the Home Office and work on a “cheaper the housing the bigger the profit” basis.

A High Court verdict into Home Office failures to find appropriate housing for four disabled people highlighted this profit incentive. It said “the provision of accommodation that needs most resource is least profitable for the provider”.

Better homes require more resource. Or worded another way, better homes eat into profits.

And the profits being made by the accommodation providers are staggering. Clearsprings’s financial report for the year ending January 2022 shows that its profit before tax increased by 580 per cent in one year from £5,086,588 to £34,589,745. Mears Group financial statements list adjusted profits before tax at £22.4m for the year ending December 2021, and Serco listed an operating profit in year-end 2022 of £217.6m – an increase of £1m from the previous year.

In Serco’s 2022 annual financial released last month it said: “Our contract to provide accommodation for asylum seekers is now the largest in the Group.” This is easy money made from human misery and subsidised by UK taxpayers. But government policy and performance has brought us here.

It was the government that negotiated these profit-friendly accommodation contracts – that disincentivise the supply of good-quality accommodation and limit Home Office oversight.

And it’s the government that has overseen a near collapse in asylum application decision making, creating a backlog of claims that sits at 160,000 and is rising quarter on quarter.

People seeking asylum are just one of many groups government housing policy has failed. The most important action it can take is to fix the decades old and still-growing crisis in social housing.

But there are alternatives to the current asylum-industrial complex. The government should fund councils and charities to run integrated housing, support, and legal advice service in communities. Charities and councils could team up to provide habitable community housing, such as forming partnerships to buy homes, as they have done in some parts of London.

And while private companies run government accommodation contracts, the Home Office must improve accountability and reporting and impose financial penalties on providers who fail.

Housing people in homes that harm their health is inhumane, inhibits integration and prevents them from rebuilding their lives. Overhaul the system and refugees – and the UK taxpayer – will benefit.


Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action

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