HOR0001

 

Written evidence submitted by Refugee Council

 

 

About the Refugee Council

 

The Refugee Council is the leading organisation dedicated to supporting people seeking asylum and refugees in the UK. 

Since November 2019, the Refugee Council has been supporting people seeking asylum who have been placed in hotel accommodation. During 2020, the number of people placed in hotels increased significant and subsequently our work expanded to cover hotels in Leeds, London, Hull and Rotherham.  We provide advice and support to people through visiting these sites directly, as well as supporting people who have contacted the Refugee Council’s telephone Infoline. Since March 2020, the Refugee Council has worked with over 400 individuals in hotels, and has delivered briefing sessions to many more.

The evidence in this submission is based on that work, as outlined in our recently-published report on the use of hotel accommodation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Executive summary

1. Since March 2020, the Home Office has increased its use of ‘contingency accommodation’, due to a rise in the number of people seeking asylum in need of accommodation. Hotels have been the most common type of contingency accommodation although ex-military barracks have also been used. The increase is a direct result of the Home Office pausing evictions from asylum accommodation in March 2020. In usual (non-COVID) times, use of asylum accommodation is reasonably static at about 50,000 at any one time, but at the end of 2020 the total supported population was 64, 041.

2. Contingency accommodation, usually in the form of hotels, is designed for use as a short-term stop-gap to fill gaps in provision of either Initial Accommodation or dispersal accommodation, or both. The Home Office normally aims to move people from Initial Accommodation and into dispersal accommodation within 35 days. Since the pandemic, people have been accommodated in hotels for much longer periods of time with people typically in this accommodation for many months, and the extended use of this hotels has had many negative consequences for vulnerable people in the asylum system.

3. People seeking asylum in the UK can often be deeply traumatised, having lived through very difficult experiences and having faced devastating losses. For some, being confined to hotels has had a negative impact on their mental health, with people self-harming, in crisis and contemplating suicide. Due to the pressure on mental health services, it is extremely difficult to get support for people and while they continue to live in these circumstances, their distress is more likely to deteriorate than improve.

4. People staying for long periods of time in hotels have often been denied basic goods, including clothing and footwear, despite the fact that many arrive with only the clothes they are wearing. The lack of essential items has been compounded by the ‘full board, no cash’ status of most hotels, meaning that unlike in dispersal accommodation, people seeking asylum are provided no cash support for things like plasters and paracetamol, instead provided only with three meals per day. Support payments for certain essentials have started to be provided, but are sometimes wrongly calculated, and can take a long time to be paid.

5. Children have been particularly affected by long stays in hotels, because they have often not been registered in school (the process being to wait until they have arrived in dispersal accommodation), missing many months of education. Digital exclusion is also common, meaning those children who were registered in school were often unable to engage with remote learning during the pandemic.

6. Lack of access to healthcare and legal advice has also been common, with people in hotels receiving or no information about how to access these essential services. This has been particularly difficult for those with specific health needs, and has also hindered access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

7. Hotels where people in the asylum system are staying have been publically identified, attracting the presence of groups of people who hold anti-migrant and racist views. Sometimes people have entered hotels, verbally abusing and harassing people. These incidents have made people feel extremely unsafe and sometimes afraid to leave their rooms or the hotel.

8. The Home Office has announced its intention to move people from hotels into dispersal accommodation as soon as possible (a process referred to as Operation Oak), and certainly by the ‘early summer’. However, accommodation providers are struggling to find alternatives meaning that thousands of people are still living in hotels and people are still being moved into them. At the end of February 2021, approximately 8,700 people were living in over 90 hotels across the UK. ‘Early summer’ is also not a target that provides clarity, and the Home Office should set a target date for the completion of this work.

9. The Home Office must ensure that full dispersal under ‘Operation Oak’ happens by ‘early summer’ (i.e. by July). Moving forward, it must stick to the previously-applied rule of dispersing people from initial and contingency accommodation within 35 days. For full recommendations about support for and treatment of people in hotels, see the final section in this document.

Lack of clothing and footwear

During our work in hotels, we have regularly seen people in the asylum system whose only clothes are the ones they were wearing when they arrived in the UK. As the Home Office does not provide clothing for people seeking asylum, the Refugee Council has worked with the general public and local businesses to secure donations. While the response and generosity has been welcome, this is clearly not a sustainable solution and has still meant that people have had unsuitable clothing for many weeks.

Without suitable footwear, people seeking asylum cannot leave hotels to exercise, or travel the often-long distances to access services. Laundry services have also been problematic in hotels; as people have to rely on them to clean and dry clothes, they have been forced to stay in their rooms while their only set of clothes has been cleaned, sometimes taking several days.

Limited access to cash

Unlike those living in dispersal accommodation and receiving asylum support, most people living in hotels are accommodated on a ‘full board’ basis where their meals are provided, and have no access to cash. This means they cannot buy essential items – for example, our staff have received request for items such as plasters, paracetamol, umbrellas, nail clippers, combs, pens and notebooks.

Although this issues was regularly highlighted with the Home Office as hotel use increased throughout the pandemic, it was not until October 2020 that they agreed to pay a small cash payment of £8 per week to some of the people living for extended periods in full-board accommodation. This allowed people to buy some essential items, or use public transport.

This payment is limited to people on a specific form of asylum support, however, and therefore leaves many excluded. There have also been delays in getting payment out to people, and on correct calculations of payments.

Lack of access to health services

Many people in the asylum system, including those that the Refugee Council works with, have complex health needs. Yet they have often not been able to access appropriate treatment because they have been provided with little or no information about accessing primary healthcare, including registering with a GP.

Access to the COVID-19 vaccine has been facilitated through a person having an NHS number, which is generated via GP registration, so this is a particularly concerning oversight. It has left many people who would be eligible to access the vaccine unable to do so as they are not in the system.

Placements in hotels have often failed to recognise the physical health needs of those seeking asylum. For example, people with mobility problems have been placed on the higher levels of hotels that have no lifts.

Access to education

Support has not always been available to ensure school-age children living in hotels are enrolled at their local school, meaning children have often missed many months of education.

During the schools closure as part of the national lockdown, where learning was taking place remotely, children in the asylum system often missed out because the hotel Wi-Fi was not suitable, or learning was very difficult in the context of the family all living in one room.

Although schools are now reopened, these problems persist when children are trying to do their homework. As people have been staying in hotels for many months, children’s education has been severely disrupted.

Access to decent food

The quality of food provided in many of the hotels is a major cause of concern. Food often arrives in small portions, with limited options available to people. The quality varies widely across hotel sites, with some hotels providing little or no fruit.

People with specific dietary needs have found it difficult getting food that meets their needs, for example the case of a man who has underlying kidney problems not being able to access enough water and fresh fruit and vegetables which made his condition worse. Children are often given the same type of food as adults despite having different needs.

The Refugee Council was contacted by a mother whose teenage son had been hospitalised after losing three kilograms in weight. As people are currently staying in this full-board accommodation for many months, repeated poor quality meals contribute to the declining physical health of people placed there.

Safety of residents

Hotels where people seeking asylum are staying have been identified publically, attracting groups who anti-migrant and racist views. On several occasions, people have entered hotels and harassed and verbally abused people seeking asylum, sometimes filming these activities and putting them online. People have therefore felt extremely unsafe in certain hotels, sometimes afraid to leave their rooms.

Refugee Council is also aware of one incident where a hotel worker was shouting racist abuse at residents. In addition there have been reports of a general lack of sensitivity from staff working in hotels or for catering companies that supply them.

People in the asylum system have no choice as to where they live, and therefore have to endure hostility and an atmosphere of fear. Even more worryingly, Refugee Council has worked with unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum and have been placed in hotels after they have incorrectly been assessed as adults. This is an extremely vulnerable group, with key safeguarding considerations, and need to be supported as children rather than placed in adult-only accommodation.

Digital exclusion

People in hotels have limited access to the internet and many do not have mobile phones. This situation has been made worse by the widespread confiscation of people’s mobile phones by the Home Office on arrival in the country.

Mobile phones are not a luxury item and are needed to access vital information, support, and advice, including contacting Migrant Help, the support provider for anyone in the asylum system. With many services only operating remotely during the pandemic, access to phones and data is even more important.

Although the Home Office, via accommodation providers, did distribute SIM cards to people, these were not useful for those without handsets. Additionally, providers can distribute phones, but the Refugee Council’s experience shows this has not been done for everyone. Instead, a few handsets have been provided for all the residents of one hotel, or they only have access to the phone when the welfare manager visits the accommodation site.

This is entirely inappropriate when people need to speak about sensitive and urgent issues such as their asylum claim or health needs. Lack of access to phones and data has also been a barrier in accessing COVID-19 testing and receiving results.

Access to legal advice

Pre-pandemic, the usual protocol for those living in initial accommodation (including hotels), was not to give information about legal aid providers, on the basis that people would be dispersed to different areas and would then need a legal aid firm local to them.

However, this has not been appropriate for people now living for prolonged periods of time in Initial or contingency accommodation, who will need legal advice while they are staying there.

Those in hotels are not routinely being given information which makes it difficult for them to get advice and representation at an appropriate time. People who do get a legal representative struggle to find confidential space to discuss their case, have access to the phone, the internet or the ability to scan and print documents.

This can seriously affect the progress of an asylum case and the ability of people to fully engage with the asylum process so that the decision on their claim is right the first time.

Recommendations

1. In accordance with the commitment made under ‘Operation Oak’, the Home Office must ensure that all people currently living long-term in hotels are dispersed by ‘early summer’ (i.e. by July). The process should be transparent, with updates available to stakeholders, and early information provided to those in the asylum system.

2. The length of stays in hotels should be reduced. The Home Office usually aims to move people from Initial Accommodation into dispersal accommodation within 35 days and this limit should be rigorously applied to those in hotels which are not designed for long-term living.

3. Provide people with essential clothing, such as coats and shoes, so they can go outside and are not confined to their rooms when clothes are being laundered.

4. Provide a cash allowance to all people accommodated in hotels so they can buy essentials. People are given basic toiletries, but without cash they cannot buy items such as such plasters, paracetamol, umbrellas, nail clippers, combs, pens and notebooks. They also cannot use public transport to attend appointments or access crucial services.

5. Ensure that people are helped to register with GPs so they can receive critical medical help and allow them to access the COVID-19 vaccine. People in hotels should receive the same information and support from the accommodation providers as those in dispersal accommodation, which includes information to help contact and register with a local GP surgery.

6. Assess people’s needs prior to placement to ensure that people’s needs can be met. For example, those with mobility issues should not be placed on high floors in buildings with no lifts, and for some with particular health and dietary needs hotels will never be suitable so alternative accommodation should be found. Robust processes should be put in place to ensure that children are not placed in adult accommodation.

7. Support families to register their children with schools, to prevent children missing out on education. Accommodation providers should support families living in hotels to access schooling in the same way that they are contracted to do for those in dispersal accommodation.

8. Ensure that people are provided with appropriate and nutritious food. This includes making sure that specific dietary needs are catered for.

9. Ensure people feel safe while living in hotels. People seeking asylum should be protected from abuse and harassment from anti-migrant groups. If people become targets, they should be moved from that site. Hotel staff and other contractors should be briefed on the needs and experiences of people seeking asylum, and employers should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to any staff found to be abusive or inappropriate.

10. Replace mobile phones confiscated by border officials, and provide mobile data so people can access critical support from GPs, legal representatives and other services. Individuals should have their own devices and data, rather than having to share with others or rely on hotel or support staff.

11. Ensure that people are given information about accessing legal advice. Accommodation providers are required to provide this information as part of their ‘move in’ briefing when they are placed in dispersal accommodation. This should also be provided to those in hotel accommodation.

June 2021

British Refugee Council (commonly called the Refugee Council) is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, [No 2727514] and a registered charity, [No 1014576]. Registered office: 134-138 The Grove, Stratford, E15 1NS, United Kingdom. VAT reg no: 936 519 988

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