Opinion

Families sharing single rooms plagued with damp and mould: Reality of life in the asylum system

The poor conditions of Home Office-provided accommodation for asylum seekers are widespread across the country and have been well documented – including in a new report released by Human Rights Watch and the charity Just Fair

The poor conditions of Home Office-provided accommodation are widespread across the country. Redit: Left, Just Fair. Right: Brandon Hattiloney/No 10 Downing Street

Maria spoke to me from the end of her bed in a west London hotel. She shares the small room with her two children, aged 3 and 5. One plays on the floor next to her; the other sits and coughs continuously.

She tells me they have lived in different hotel rooms like this for the past year and half, while waiting for a decision on her asylum case. UK government guidelines says she should have been in this ‘temporary’ accommodation for a maximum of 19 days.

One and half years of trying to raise a family in a cramped single room, having to share beds or sleep on the floor, and eating poor-quality food while unable to cook their own. For the children, the effects are even more acute, growing up without space to play, living in severe damp and breathing in toxins from the black mould on the walls.

After a year of living there, her five-year-old son developed a chronic cough. In May, he received a preliminary diagnosis of asthma.

Maria’s story is far from unique. The poor conditions of Home Office-provided accommodation are widespread across the country and have been well documented – including in a new report released by Human Rights Watch and the charity Just Fair. The report finds that children across England are being denied a childhood because of their immigration status.

The reality of life for people living in this system is far from the image painted by the right-wing press and the home secretary. To suggest that this temporary housing amounts to living in luxury is a cruel joke: instead, people seeking asylum are trapped in a network of former hotels, hostels, barges, camps and military barracks that slowly strips them of their humanity and basic rights. This isn’t just immoral – it also breaches the UK’s international human rights obligations.

Mould in Maria’s Asylum accomodation. Credit: Just Fair

From damp and mould-covered walls like Maria’s, to legionella-infested barges, people seeking asylum are routinely denied their human right to housing. Without liveable conditions or access to healthcare, their right to health is being breached. And placed far from schools for years at a time, children are denied their right to education.

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Why are families seeking asylum forced to live like this? The UK government likes to present these conditions as unavoidable, but this is simply untrue. There are two key roots to the problem, both within their power to address: the housing crisis and the privatisation of accommodation for those seeking asylum.

First, the shortage of housing facing the UK. Instead of recognising housing for what it is, a basic human right, successive UK governments have for decades pursued policies which have dragged the country into a deep and painful housing crisis.

There is a severe issue with the supply of housing, which has consistently not kept pace with demand. Frustratingly, this lack of suitable stock is often pointed to as a reason nothing can be done, disregarding the fact that housing stock is something which is well within the UK government’s control. Steps could be taken in both the short and long term to address this.

Next, privatisation. As Maria sits in her tiny room with her unwell child, you might expect that this ‘home’ came at little public cost. But the opposite is true.

The UK government first outsourced and privatized asylum accommodation in 2012. By 2019, the Home Office had contracts with three large for-profit companies: Clearsprings Ready Homes, Mears, and Serco.

The value of these contracts now exceeds £4.5 billion in total. While vulnerable children’s rights are trampled, the companies the UK government pays to run this accommodation rake in the profits: Clearsprings increased its profits sixfold in 2021, with its three directors sharing dividends of almost £28 million. There are obvious and serious defects in a system which allows private companies to profit while children suffer.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is undeniable that this money could be better spent and put instead into a system that meets the basic needs of the people in its care.

The next UK government should, as one of its very first acts, enact a plan to end the housing crisis in the UK. Building the homes this country desperately needs would benefit everyone but would be particularly impactful to those at the sharp end: people sleeping rough, families experiencing homelessness and people languishing in inadequate asylum accommodation.

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There should also be a review of the privatisation profit model which has seen costs increase as standards have plummeted. It is absolutely right that taxpayer money is used to ensure vulnerable children have a warm bed at night and something decent to eat, instead of lining the pockets of corporate giants.

Finally, the UK’s asylum system should be reformed so that it protects their basic human rights to housing, food, healthcare and education.

For people like Maria, her children, and the thousands of others in the same situation, these changes would mean the difference between ill-health, dependence and suffering, versus safety, agency and dignity.

Alex Firth is research and communications officer for Just Fair, a UK human rights charity campaigning for economic, social and cultural rights.

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