Asylum children in Scotland have spent months living in overcrowded B&B rooms with their families and struggled to access schooling, due to long delays with the asylum screening process.
Charities claim that since January this year over 30 asylum seeking children and their families have been accommodated for between 50 and 174 days – almost six months – by Home Office contractor Mears Group, usually sharing one room with their parents and siblings of all ages.
Under Scottish housing law, families with children can legally spend no more than seven days in B&B accommodation, as it’s considered unsuitable. But because these families are fleeing violence and persecution in countries including Syria, El Salvador, Iran and Iraq, their housing rights in Scotland are trumped by UK Immigration laws.
Families staying at the Glasgow B&B often arrive already traumatised, say campaigners, with the additional uncertainty about their future causing distress.
The office of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland said the situation breached their human rights and called for proposals for a Scottish asylum system to be considered.
The accommodation placement is supposed to be a short stopgap of no more than about two weeks, before a move to a community-based flat to stay while their asylum claims are assessed.
However due to severe delays in Home Office screening interviews, which allow families to start the asylum application process, they have found themselves living in limbo.
Though meals are provided, families are completely destitute and receive no money or benefits until their claim is accepted. The process is sometimes taking months. They then receive £8 per week.
The Home Office told The Ferret that strict protocols meant all children should be registered at school, but it is claimed that last term dozens were not.
Grassroots charity Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment (MORE) intervened last month when they discovered that multiple families had missed months of schooling, including at least one who had not been at school in Scotland for a whole term.
Glasgow City Council says it registered the children as soon as the issue came to light. But MORE claims some children have still not been registered, and is looking for reassurances that new arrivals will not face the same wait.
It has managed to fund an iPad for one family. But other charities said families who had been out of school had been left without any devices to help them with online learning, or paper-based learning materials.
Safeguarding concerns were also raised with The Ferret. While most children are sharing overcrowded rooms with their parents, some older ones have been given single rooms, which are not always nearby. This, said one charity, was causing “great stress for parents, children and staff in the hotel alike”. Single men and women are also housed in the B&B.
Mears said it tries to “use adjacent rooms wherever possible and we would discuss the arrangements with the family”.
Others, they said, were finding their health and wellbeing impacted. Two years ago last Thursday, Syrian asylum seeker Adnan Olbeh was found dead in his room at the guest house. He had repeatedly sought help for his mental health.
Mears said a weekly NHS clinic was held at the hotel and its Resident Welfare Managers “are required to escalate any mental health concerns”.
The Ferret spoke to one parent, whose children had missed months of school due to being at McLay’s Guest House. They were fearful about being identified but said the whole family had been struggling with low moods. They added: “The children get very tired and upset. They cry several times during the day.”
The children missed home, and home cooking, while in the hotel, they said, and had little to occupy them all day long.
Nick Hobbs, head of investigations for Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commission, claimed the current situation was in contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which should give all children – regardless of their immigration status – the right to adequate housing.
“Hotel accommodation is wholly unsuitable for children and families and should only be used on a short-term basis in an emergency,” he added
“It is gravely concerning that children are being left for unacceptable periods of time crammed into hotel rooms and without the financial support they and their families need, leading some to become destitute.
“This is a violation of their human rights with severe impacts on health, education and development that can last long into later childhood and adulthood.
“An alternative Scottish Asylum Support and Accommodation provision should be given serious and detailed consideration.”
Yvonne Blake, of MORE, said she was shocked to discover that children in the hotel had been missing school. Just days after she raised the issue she was told that all the children had been registered by Glasgow City Council.
She remains concerned that more children could fall through the gaps and said they should be moved out of the guest house and into the community.
“This abhorrent practice is inconsistent with the Scottish Government’s commitment to end child poverty and its constant mantra that “Refugees are welcome here”,” she said. “Education is a devolved issue. They should step in and make sure that children are not missing school.
“It is affecting mental health and wellbeing. Being excluded from school is affecting how children view themselves, making them wonder: “what is wrong with me?” Questions like that lead to life-long damage. This is a racialised issue.”
Gillian Wilson, chief executive of Community Infosource, said its Asylum Seeker Housing (ASH) project had been holding drop-ins for families at the hotel. She agreed there had been a failure to ensure children at the hotel could access education.
“The children have limited opportunities for stimulation, and are being deprived of their right to education as families are being told that they cannot be registered in schools until they are moved into community based accommodation,” she said. “Parents are desperate for their children to be able to attend school.”
Esther Muchena, services manager at Scottish Refugee Council, said its new family project was aware of 11 families – with a total of 31 children – who had been placed in McLay’s Guest House by Mears since this January.
She claimed when the asylum system was working, some children might wait until they were settled in community-based accommodation to register for school so they didn’t have to move their child.
But severe delays in processing asylum claims by the Home Office, had left families waiting with “their lives on pause”. One family the charity supported had been accommodated in a shared room with their children for almost six months.
Six families had been in the hostel for more than 100 days – over three months – and another had been there for 50 days or more, according to its figures.
Muchena said: “This is a way of seeing asylum seeking children as totally different from other children. We are not considering here that every child matters.
“Children need to be nurtured. Some are already traumatised and living with parents struggling with trauma. They don’t know how to keep their children engaged with nothing to do, nowhere to go and either no money or very little.”
Pinar Aksu, of Refugee for Justice – a campaign group calling for an inquiry into deaths in the asylum system – said: “It’s frankly shameful that no one has learned anything since the death of Adnan two years ago.”
“Mears, the politicians, the council…no-one does anything when we raise our serious concerns and there is no accountability. Nothing has changed and the Borders and Nationalities Bill will make things even worse.”
A spokesperson for Glasgow City Council said it had no oversight of asylum accommodation by Mears in the city.
They added: “Education officers stepped in to support families after some misinformation regarding enrolment was highlighted to us. Pupils are now attending city schools.
“In Glasgow we welcome all children of all nationalities and have a robust and established foreign national enrolment process.”
A spokesperson for Home Office provider Mears, said it had “reduced” hotel use and claimed McLays was used only as short term accommodation.
“Mears aims to arrange accommodation in the community as quickly as possible,” they added. “There are some families where, due to family size and needs, accommodation takes longer to arrange.
“Where there are school aged children, Mears has a process in place with Glasgow City Council education authority to support them to attend school. Mears staff work directly with the education authority to ensure registration, uniforms and transport are provided.”
The system in place for children
A Home Office spokesperson said there was a system in place to ensure all children housed at the hotel were assigned a link officer who measured them for a school uniform and found a local school.
They were not able to say why this had not happened.
“The asylum system has been under mounting pressure for several years,” they added. “Increased and sustained intake and a growing number of people awaiting a decision have led to delays in concluding asylum claims.
‘’Our Nationality and Borders Bill will fix the broken asylum system, enabling us to grant protection to those entitled to it and to remove those with no right to be here more quickly.
“However, this should not force students to miss out on their education and we have extensive agreements in place with Glasgow City Council to ensure anyone in this accommodation is placed and inducted into a school as quickly.”
Social Justice Secretary Shona Robison said: “This is not acceptable. Asylum policy is reserved to the UK Government and we have repeatedly raised the inhumane issues around the asylum system with them, particularly in relation to accommodation, and will continue to do so.
“People seeking asylum should be accommodated within communities, with access to essential services and support that they need. The Scottish Government is clear that all children, including children who are seeking asylum, have the right to be provided with a school education.”
The Ferret contacted McLay’s but was told its management did not want to comment.
This story was co-published with the Sunday National.
Photo Credit: iStock/chameleonseye