Almost 400 asylum seekers are still being housed in budget hotels rooms by Home Office contractor Mears – and living on just over £1 per day – despite concerns about the “devastating” impact of “institutional” accommodation on their mental and physical health.
As Glasgow campaigners held vigils on 3 April to mark the anniversary of when asylum seekers were first moved from flats to hotels in the city, several people gave testimony to The Ferret about how depression and isolation had taken hold.
One man had been accommodated in the same small room for a year from later this month, initially without any financial support, though recently he has received £8 per week.
Despite repeated assurances that hotels would not continue to be used, figures obtained by The Ferret, dated 25 March 2021, show 379 people were still being accommodated in Glasgow hotels.
Campaigners also warned that “a wave of evictions” as coronavirus restrictions are lifted could see at least 300 people made homeless on the streets of Glasgow this summer. Those affected would otherwise be destitute but are currently being supported during the pandemic on public health grounds.
Last month the Home Office announced proposals to reform the asylum system, making claims from those who had passed through a third safe country “inadmissible” and opening holding centres – or camps – for those whose claims were being processed.
‘Hours to pack’
But the current controversy over accommodation provision dates back to Easter weekend 2020, which fell on 11 and 12 April. Dozens of asylum seekers were visited by the private housing contractor at their flats and told to pack their belongings, sometimes with just a few hours notice. They were then taken to hotels.
More were moved throughout the month, and new arrivals to the city were also accommodated there, which Mears claimed was a temporary measure to protect them from Covid-19. Campaigners claim this saved the company money on expensive holiday lets they were using, due to a shortage of suitable accommodation in the city but Mears denies this.
High profile tragedies – including the death of Syrian Adnan Olbeh at the McLay Guest House in May 2020 and the multiple-stabbing at the Park Inn hotel by Badreddin Abadlla Adam after which he was shot dead by police – resulted in some asylum seekers being moved back to flats.
But others have remained for long periods. Campaigners raised particular concerns about those who had been there for six to twelve months.
They include a 24-year-old Kurdish man The Ferret has agreed to call by a nickname – Hama – because of threats to his life in his home country of Iraq. We have checked his identity.
He left Iraq in the summer of 2019, but says he was held hostage by smugglers for several months in Turkey. He finally found his way to Scotland in the back of a lorry, arriving in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
After being arrested and held for about a week in immigration detention, he was accommodated in a Glasgow flat. He was told by Mears that he would be moved to another – where he would stay while his asylum claim was assessed – on 9 April.
“But when I was meant to move, no one came or updated me,” he said. A few days later a car picked him up and took him to the Ibis hotel.
“I asked the staff why we were here and they said it was because of coronavirus and we would be there for a few days before we were moved back to a house. But nearly a year later I am still here.
“I had no choice – I had to leave my country. If I stayed I would have been killed. When I arrived I was absolutely devastated mentally because of the journey – exhausted. But here I can’t sleep.”
He is now taking sleeping pills, along with a wide range of medications, which he showed The Ferret in a video call in his small hotel room, claiming he had not slept the previous night.
He alleged the food was badly cooked, making it difficult for him to eat, but cannot afford alternatives. Mears said three meals a day – which meet NHS guidelines – along with snacks and drinks, are made available with menus it says are “adjusted to suit “the tastes of changing groups in the hotels”.
But Hama said: “I feel embarrassed if a friend even suggests a walk to the city centre because with no money in my pocket I don’t even have enough to buy a drink,” he added. “We’re always looking out for an organisation that might be able to give us a little bit of money. It’s humiliating. It’s so hard for me to cope.
“I feel beyond depressed. I don’t even like to talk to people or socialise. I feel so isolated. Sometimes staff come and knock on the door to check on me because it’s been two days since I have been out. They notice that I have not been downstairs to take any food. But I don’t feel like eating.
“I know other people who have been here nine or ten months. But some come for two or three and then they move them out into a flat. I don’t know what’s wrong with my case. They say there are no houses in Glasgow. But why is there a house for others, not for me?”
Bashdar Ahmadi, 30, from Iran, has also been in the Ibis hotel since October, after fleeing his country, and says he feels as if he is “behind bars”.
People can leave the hotels whenever they want, but during protests last summer some used the phrase “hotel detention” because the lack of financial support combined with Covid-19 restrictions means in reality they are unable to go anywhere.
He has similar complaints about the food and claims that this, along with trouble sleeping, is affecting his health. “Physically it impacts me,” he says. “I’m taking sleeping pills. I have depression, problems with my stomach. Just like the [people] smugglers these companies are making money out of people like us.“
Savan Qadir, a member of the No Evictions campaign group, said the length of time asylum seekers had been left living in hotel rooms with very little, if any, financial support was “inhumane”.
“We think the length of stay is unacceptable,” he added. “These are human beings and they deserve proper, dignified accommodation, not hotel rooms, or for that matter barracks, but homes like other citizens.
“We see intentionality behind it. It is about the UK Government telling others: “do not come to our country or this is what will happen to you”.”
He also said the campaign group had “very high level of concern” that there would be a wave of evictions this summer, as those who had been refused asylum but accommodated by the Home Office during the pandemic once again had support denied.
“People will be forced on to the streets – both refused asylum seekers and EU citizens who don’t have legal status here any more – and they will have nowhere to go,” he added. “The pandemic is not over, the economy is damaged and support available still very limited. We are extremely worried.”
Graham O’Neill, policy manager for Scottish Refugee Council, said there was “no excuse for anyone being left in a hotel room for a year or many months, and for most of it with no money whatsoever”.
He added: “Any responsible Home Secretary would be pulling back from an institutional accommodation regime. But this Home Secretary is, shamefully, embracing it. Her “New Plan for Immigration” is, bluntly, a plan to extinguish the right to seek asylum in the UK.
“For those who do use that right, it is “reception” – ie. holding centres or camps that await. That is why we in Glasgow and Scotland – and indeed across the existing dispersal areas in the UK – must make an unprecedented effort to ensure people seeking asylum are accommodated in our communities, and never in institutions.”
A spokesperson for Mears insisted that all hotels used were “of an appropriate standard” with en-suite rooms, TV and wi-fi access, 24 hour reception and security.
The spokesperson added: ”The use of each hotel was also authorised by both the local authority concerned and the Home Office. In hotels, guidance on Covid-19 safety, social distancing and hygiene has been provided in 12 different languages and additional translation support is available on request.
“We measure feedback from service users regularly and while of course not everyone is going to be happy about a particular menu, especially given the diversity of service users, we are pleased that overall feedback from service users on the food has been good.
“Mears has worked closely with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and primary care providers to ensure that service users are registered with a local GP and have access to healthcare. All service users have access to Migrant Help to raise complaints or concerns to an independent body about the service they receive.
“As the country transitions out of lockdown restrictions, Mears will work with asylum seekers in Glasgow to find suitable longer term accommodation dispersed across the city. Mears will consult with Glasgow City Council when procuring longer term dispersed accommodation.”
Acknowledging that this has been “a difficult time for everyone in the UK including our service users” they said resident welfare managers were on hand to provide support.
Cover image thanks to Angela Catlin