A Home Office policy forcing asylum seekers in hotels to share bedrooms is allegedly causing distress and could escalate community tensions, campaigners have warned.
The Home Office is rolling out room sharing as part of a plan for a “dramatic expansion” of hotel and hostel accommodation in Scotland with up to 3,000 people to be housed across the country by the end of the year – more than double the current figure.
The Ferret understands that scores of people in hotels in several Scottish towns, including East Kilbride and Falkirk, have already been told to share rooms as part of the “hotel maximisation policy”. Hotels in other towns and cities are to follow suit.
A letter informing people of the policy from asylum housing provider Mears – seen by The Ferret – acknowledges the change may be “unsettling”. It advises people can request who they want to share with, though guarantees only that their roommate will be “as compatible with you as possible”.
Though describing it as “compulsory” the letter adds: “If you have a diagnosed medical condition or disability, your situation will be given further consideration.”
Traumatised and isolated asylum seekers
But campaigners say many isolated and traumatised people struggle with their mental health, and will find sharing a room for many months on end difficult to cope with. The average time spent in hotel accommodation, where people are provided with basic meals and just £9.10 per week, is about nine months.
In theory anyone who is homeless in Scotland may be asked to share a bedroom if they are offered emergency accommodation for a maximum of seven days. But in practice people in mainstream homeless services are only asked to share rooms with other family members.
Fears raised with The Ferret were not only for individuals. Campaigners and local authority sources claim the rapid increase in numbers could also escalate racial tensions.
Far right groups such as Patriotic Alternative Scotland and Homeland – whose supporters have included neo-Nazis and former members of the British National Party – have already been accused of trying to exploit concerns in Erskine over asylum seekers being housed in the MGM Mutha Glasgow River Hotel on the outskirts of the Renfrewshire town.
Pinar Aksu, advocacy coordinator for Glasgow’s Maryhill Integration Network (MIN) said the room sharing policy was “extremely problematic”. “There are questions about what risk assessment Mears will actually do before putting people together to share a room,” she added.
“When someone has experienced trauma – is recovering from war or has been trafficked or example – it’s not ok to expect them to share for many months with someone they don’t know.
“We know that in Erskine, which has been targeted by fascists, many people are scared to go out already. Doubling up [room sharing] will lead to a significant rise in the numbers and that could create further division in the community.
“I’m really worried that something bad is going to happen here. We have seen tragedy unfold before and we need to take the risks seriously. People shouldn’t be in hotel accommodation like this as it is. Before the pandemic they were housed in communities – why has this changed?”
In June 2020 six people were stabbed and hospitalised at the Park Inn, Glasgow, where about 100 asylum seekers were being accommodated by Mears Group. The attacker, later revealed to be struggling with his mental health, was shot dead by police.
Asylum seekers from hotels in Scotland, including those in Erskine and Falkirk, told MIN Voices support group they often felt isolated with the location of the hotels making it difficult to access community groups and services. Others said they felt scared or unwelcome in the community as a result of protests and stayed in the hotel as a result.
Glasgow SNP MP Alison Thewliss claimed the impact of sharing rooms extended far beyond overcrowding. “It has severe consequences on the physical and psychological health of those individuals,” she said. “The lack of space and privacy can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, and even mental health problems, which are already prevalent among this vulnerable population.
“As well as the impact on the individuals themselves, doubling the numbers of asylum seekers in small and at times unwelcoming communities can strain local resources, create tensions, and perpetuate negative stereotypes. It’s crucial that we recognise the strain this places on both asylum seekers and the communities hosting them.”
Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, chair of the Scottish Parliament’s cross party group on migration, also raised concerns and added: “Instead of seeking to maximise the profit of private accommodation providers, the Home Office need to tackle the backlog and reduce the need for inappropriate hotel accommodation altogether.”
In July Mears reported record revenue of almost £1bn and profits of £35m – an increase of 37 per cent from the following year. Its accounts added that “both financially and operationally, the most significant contracts for the group are those under which we provide accommodation and support for asylum seekers.”
A Mears spokesperson confirmed the Home Office had instructed all asylum accommodation providers to implement room sharing at hotels. “This is being done to optimise bedspace capacity against the backdrop of an acute shortage of accommodation,” they added. “Mears will implement changes to room occupancy in line with the legal and contractual guidelines set by the Home Office.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office added: “Despite the number of people arriving in the UK reaching record levels, we continue to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute to meet our legal obligation.
“To reduce hotel use, asylum seekers will routinely share rooms with at least one person where appropriate. This will minimise the impact on communities while we stand up alternative sites.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/moonmeister