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'Is this a hotel or a prison?': Life as an asylum seeker in Home Office accommodation

Asylum seekers and migrants face overcrowding, unappetising food and mental and physical health struggles in Home Office accommodation

Home Office hotels

This is Barry House, and the overcrowded room where Omer was asked to sleep on the floor for the first night. Image: Supplied

“Is this a hotel or a prison?” Omer says as he describes his life in Home Office accommodation. He came to the UK as an asylum seeker more than three years ago, after a threat to his life meant he had to flee Saudi Arabia and leave his family. He’s been bumped from one temporary accommodation to another ever since.

He is far from alone. Asylum seekers like Omer are put in overcrowded rooms while their applications are considered, beds separated by makeshift curtains with cloth on a string, stuck in a monotonous routine “reliving their trauma and worried about the people they’ve left behind”, the Labour MP Helen Hayes says.

Food is bland and makes few adjustments for health conditions such as diabetes or other dietary requirements, if any at all. Many people’s health is affected and children refuse to eat. The majority have fled horrors at home, only to spend months and even years stuck in crowded Home Office accommodation.

Around 50,000 asylum seekers are living in “initial accommodation” in the UK, which includes hotels, according to official government statistics as of December 2022. This is nearly 20 times the number of people in December 2019. 

Omer came to the UK in 2019, having fled Saudi Arabia due to tensions around his Eritrean ethnicity. “I found myself without any choice,” he says. “I left my family. I started my plan to stay in the UK. I didn’t have any experience or relationship with people in the UK. I didn’t know how to claim asylum.”

He was put up in Barry House, an initial accommodation in East Dulwich, south London. “It was in very bad condition,” Omer said. “It was a very crowded building. They didn’t have space for people. There were four bedrooms and five beds in each one. They said someone had to sleep on the floor until they got us an extra bed. Unfortunately, that was me.”

Hayes, the MP for East Dulwich, has repeatedly raised her concerns about Barry House with the Home Office. “Whole families are sharing a single room without a dedicated bathroom and having to share a bathroom with lots of residents,” she comments. 

She says residents are only supposed to be in Barry House for two to three weeks, but she has known residents to be in Barry House for months, even years. 

A mother with two teenage children and her mother-in-law who is a wheelchair user all shared a room for three years. The teenage girl is an “impressive young woman” who wants to be an architect, but she wasn’t able to do her GCSEs or A Levels while in Barry House. 

“She got more and more depressed,” Hayes remarks. “Every time I saw her, she was thinner and looked a bit more unhappy than the last time. She started to lose hope in the future as a consequence of being there for such a long time and never seeing her life move on.”

The Home Office has said the length of time spent in initial accommodation can vary, but around three to four weeks is normal. But recent research from the House of Commons Library shows the average stay has increased to around six months. 

A Home Office spokesperson told the Big Issue: “Despite the number of people arriving in the UK reaching record levels, we continue to provide support for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute.”

Hayes says the reason people are there for so long is because of backlogs in the application process. The Illegal Migration Bill intends to curb the number of asylum seekers arriving in the UK, but Hayes says “there is nothing in the bill that will deal with the problems with getting people through the system once they arrive”. 

The long periods spent in these hotels leads to mental health problems.

“I’ve certainly seen people suffering from depression, anxiety and PTSD,” Hayes says. “Barry House is not a conducive environment to being able to come to terms with what you’ve experienced and move on.”

Omer stayed in Barry House for a few months before he was moved to a hotel in Cardiff. There were five people in each room, and it was also in a “very bad condition”. “We had one toilet inside the room with a broken door,” he says.

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A Home Office spokesperson said: “We expect high standards from all of our providers, and any asylum seekers who have problems with their accommodation can contact Migrant Help 24/7, every day of the year.” 

Omer feels that communication was insufficient. After his asylum claim was refused by the Home Office the first time, and because of miscommunication, Omer became homeless for 40 days. He was taken off the streets when the pandemic broke out and then moved to a hotel in Muswell Hill, 10 miles away on the other side of the capital.

Omer has stayed in a number of Home Office hotels, having fled Saudi Arabia four years ago. Image: Supplied.

He spent a year there. The options for food were limited. Migrant Voice found that few asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation have access to basic kitchen facilities, with even kettles barred from rooms. 

“There were no different food options for different people,” he adds. “If you have health issues or if you are vegan, they don’t have any different options for a meal. We were served the same food every day at the same time.”

Hayes says this is a problem in Barry House too. “The food is a really pressing day-to-day concern for the residents there. I regularly have families approaching me and saying: ‘I can’t get my children to eat any more.’ The food is so unappetising and it really is affecting their health. We haven’t seen any shift in approach at all.”

The Home Office claims “asylum-seekers in receipt of catered accommodation are provided with three meals a day along with snacks and water, and a weekly allowance where eligible”. 

Omer has type one diabetes and cannot eat canned or processed food. He gave staff members his medical records, but they needed a letter from a GP. “It took around a month and my diabetes was getting worse,” he says. 

“One time I took food from the canteen, I wanted to be outside. They say you’re not allowed to eat outside. I said: ‘Is this a hotel or a prison?’ They say we have to follow the rules.”

Hayes has concerns about the health of residents. “The NHS does an absolutely brilliant job providing health services,” she explains. “But it’s an unsuitable environment for people who have issues associated with trauma. And there are issues around providing care for residents who are disabled or pregnant women.”

Omer is now in a better accommodation which makes adjustments for his diabetes – but others have been left behind. 

Hayes says asylum seekers arrive in Barry House with nothing. They have no shoes, clothing or winter coats. “The Home Office contract doesn’t even extend to providing underwear, and I would say the very basics of human dignity. 

“That is assumed to be a local community responsibility, but the council is not funded to provide that either. The local community is very willing to help, but there aren’t storage facilities for second-hand clothing or baby equipment for example. It becomes quite a logistical effort.”

Hayes met a mother who had been placed in Barry House from North London with her family. They’d entered the asylum system because they’d been in the UK on a student visa, which had come to an end, but during that time, while she and her husband were students, it became clear that they faced a threat to their life back home. Her husband’s brother had been murdered. 

She was travelling every day from Barry House to Enfield to take her daughter to primary school because she didn’t want to disrupt her daughter’s education. She sat on a park bench through the school day. She couldn’t afford to buy lunch. She would then pick up her daughter and bring her back to South London. Hayes says that was devastating. 

“I have met many residents of Barry House over a long period of time. They are some of the most humbling conversations I’ve ever had with people who have got such skills and talents and potential. Their lives have been devastated in their own countries and they desperately want to be able to start to rebuild and settle and contribute to our country.”

Hayes has consistently raised her concerns about Barry House with both the government and the private contractor, including in Parliament in July last year. She claims the response has often been to “deny the problems and state that everything has been done in accordance with the Home Office contract”. 

The Home Office told The Big Issue it cannot comment on the operational arrangements for individual hotels, but it works with providers when concerns are raised. Clearsprings Ready Homes, which is the provider for Barry House, denied to comment. 

“The Illegal Migration Bill and this government’s narrative around the asylum system sets up a very different portrayal of those residents, which doesn’t reflect the reality,” Hayes adds. “My experience of Barry House is a window into a system that is really broken, like so many things across the country after 13 years of Conservative government.”

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