Dipon Chandra Nath, Nazmush Shahadat, and Zubayer Khan, survivors of the Shadwell fire. The Big Issue has blurred the background to safeguard their location. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue
Survivors of a fatal fire in a dangerously overcrowded flat in Shadwell, east London, are due to become homeless on Monday. Speaking to the Big Issue a week before their accommodation provision ends, they also shared harrowing details about the housing situation for many international students coming to the capital for work and education.
The 16 survivors of the fire, which tore through the three-room flat they were all renting with two others, had been put up in hotels by Tower Hamlets council since the incident. But that emergency provision will end on Monday.
Now they have warned they will end up in a similar situation they were in – or on the streets – without further help from the council.
“We didn’t have any family, or anyone to help us. That’s why we’re staying in this place in the first place” said law student Nazmush Shahadat.
“We are not asking for charity or anything, we are saying help us find some place. We are gonna pay the rent, we can pay the deposit and everything else, but they are not doing anything.”
The fire, which broke out in the early hours of March 5, revealed 18 people had been living in the three-room flat. One inhabitant, Mizanur Rahman, died of his injuries days later.
Tower Hamlets council, which has admitted it received complaints about overcrowding in the property, has launched a criminal investigation.
The Big Issue spoke to four survivors of the fire, none of whom had secured a place to live, and faced living on the streets if help was not extended.
Tower Hamlets Council said that it has spent over £100,000 supporting the survivors of the fire, including hotel accommodation and a weekly allowance. It has used emergency powers to provide help to those unable to access public funds.
While the council is helping five survivors with recourse to public funds to find “long-term solutions” to their accommodation, as a condition of their visas, those with no recourse to public funds are unable to receive certain benefits.
Aspiring barrister Shahadat, 23, found the flat “by luck”, through a connection of a person he met on the plane from Bangladesh. Moving in on the night of his arrival, in October 2022, he was expecting it to be temporary, but was still living there when the fire broke out at the start of March, paying £90 a week.
Breaking his fast with an Iftar meal of fried chicken and lamb curry on Monday night, he showed scars on his arms from bedbug bites received in the flat. He described conditions as constantly dirty, with slugs, mould and bedbugs.
On the night of the fire, he was asleep on a bunk bed when a charging e-bike battery began to make sounds and produce sparks, he said. Attempts by others to extinguish the growing flames were unsuccessful.
“All of this was happening within minutes. All of a sudden, there was a huge smoke coming out. White and black smoke,” he said.
“We couldn’t see inside the room, all of us got out of the house,” fleeing to Shadwell station. Shahadat lost his father’s ring in the fire, as well as clothes. Others lost documents such as passports.
Since the fire, alongside studying for a law degree, working in a sushi restaurant and fasting for Ramadan Shahadat said he has had to try and find a place to live while moving between hotels and sharing rooms. So far, his attempts have been unsuccessful and exhausting.
The help from the council had not improved his situation, he said. The reason he was living in an overcrowded flat and paying cash-in-hand was, he said, because he was unable to find anywhere else – he had no deposit, reference, or payslips.
“They are not fixing the root problem, the basic problem we were facing before the fire. The worst thing is we are starting from the beginning again. Some of us lost our documents, some of us lost our laptops, our clothes,” he said.
Like Shahadat, thousands of students have come from Bangladesh to study in the UK, netting bumper tuition fees for universities. The number increased almost fivefold in the four years to 2022, going from 2,660 to 12,700, according to statistics from HESA.
And yet, despite their economic role, they have been left feeling unsupported when disaster struck.
“We are basically goods for them – they should treat us a little bit more like a proper thing,” Shahadat said.
Also a student is 29-year-old Ehsan Ahmed Chowdhury, who came to the UK from Bangladesh in September 2022 to study an MBA in leadership.
He found the flat through a friend who had lived there, and paid £90 a week to stay in the smallest room, where four people stayed in bunk beds and one on the floor.
It was not what he expected when he came to the UK: “When I talked to my friends, their houses looked good. My expectation was I’d get a room, a beautiful room, white coloured room.”
While he described conditions as “lower than zero” he said those in the flat – who had recently come to the UK – found camaraderie.
The landlord previously told the BBC he did not know 18 people lived in the flat, and that he believed he was renting to three people.
But Chowdhury laughed when told this, and said the landlord came every day to collect cash and cook for the tenants.
Since the fire, Chowdhury is living in his third hotel. Like Shahadat, he has been told the council has no duty to help him beyond this.
When asked by the council what he will do when the hotel provision ends on Monday, he said: “What I’ll do? I’ll come to your office, I’ll talk, and if you don’t give me anything I’ll lay down on your floor. I have nothing here.”
Dipon Chandra Nath found the flat via a paper listing posted in the nearby Whitechapel neighbourhood, the day after he came to the UK, in January, to study an MSc in management.
He has also been unable to find anywhere to live after Monday, only able to find overcrowded flats like the one in Maddocks House.
“Everything is not good for us,” he said.
“Still now, I am anxious about the situation because I don’t get any house. And after the 24th, I don’t know.”
Zubayer Khan, who paid £100 a week for a bed in the flat, had also been unsuccessfully hunting.
As an Italian national, he said the council said it had a duty to help him, but had not followed through.
“Rent is fine for me, but I need help from other organisations,” he said.
“I’m not finding anything.”
A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson told The Big Issue:“We recognise the extremely difficult situation the survivors of the Maddocks House fire have been faced with, and have done our utmost to ensure they have been supported and their welfare provided for since the fire took place.
“Since March 5, we have provided emergency hotel accommodation to 17 survivors, a weekly allowance totalling £1,250 per person, and welfare support and housing advice. Around £100,000 has been spent by the council cumulatively.
“Though the council did not have a legal obligation to offer this continued accommodation and support, we have done so until now under emergency powers to support those affected by the fire.
“We have made sure that everyone has been informed ahead of time regarding the arrangements for the hotel. We have been in regular contact with the survivors and provided as much notice as possible, so they have time to find their own accommodation ahead of the hotel booking end-date.
“We have also done what we can to help signpost tenants to find alternative accommodation, and have been assisting five survivors – who are entitled to recourse to public funds – in finding long-term solutions to their accommodation.”
A spokesperson for the Tarling West tenants and residents association said the council had a responsibility to act after the complaints it had received.
“We recognise the generosity of the Council in organising emergency housing for the survivors of the Maddocks House Fire up to the end of Ramadan,” the spokesperson said, but stressed the need for the council to “make good” for both the survivors and surrounding residents affected by the fire.
As well as community groups, the residents have been receiving support from Apsana Begum, the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse.
Begum said it was “vital” the investigation into the fire offered clarity on what happened, and added: “What is clear already, is that this incident cuts to the core of the inadequacy of our current housing system. In my constituency and across the country housing provision is not fit for purpose. Too often private profit is placed above people’s need for a safe home. Since the fire, I’ve been in awe of the support provided by local people including neighbours and the Tenants and Residents Association (TRA). But it cannot be left to volunteers to fix this crisis.
“We need a substantial political response to the issues of overcrowding, fire safety and housing inequality, that puts the lives and safety of tenants and residents at its centre. Since becoming an MP in 2019, I have seen the impacts that our broken housing system is having on residents of Poplar and Limehouse. The fire of March 5 brings these impacts into sharp focus,” Begum told The Big Issue.
“I will continue to work with local residents, TRAs and Campaigners to ensure that we develop a wide-ranging and appropriate response to the housing crisis, as well as ensuring that the voices of those affected by the March 5th Fire are not forgotten.”
Sian Smith, of the Tower Hamlets branch of the London Renters Union, called on the council to extend help to the survivors.
“Overcrowding and the exploitation of migrant workers are symptoms of a wild west rental sector that prioritises the profits of landlords over the basic safety of renters,” said Smith.
“Migrants and Black and Brown people in particular are pushed into precarious and unsafe housing by extortionate rents, a lack of basic protections, and racist discrimination.”
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