Tony Benn, a politician who in character and ideology was the utter antithesis of Donald Trump, once said: “The way a government treats refugees is very instructive; it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”
Chilling words indeed, given the publication this week of a House of Commons report which branded the housing provided to asylum seekers “shameful” and “a disgrace” – rat-infested, flea-ridden, and managed by hostile and threatening staff.
The report, published this week by the Home Affairs Select Committee, details truly appalling conditions faced by some asylum seekers as they wait for their claims to be processed, in accommodation administered by private providers like Serco and G4S. The report did not pull any punches:
“It is clear that in too many cases Providers are placing people in accommodation that is substandard, poorly maintained and, at times, unsafe. Some of this accommodation is a disgrace and it is shameful that some very vulnerable people have been placed in such conditions.”
Refugees reported housing riddled with vermin, with landlords and property managers uninterested in dealing with infestations of rats, lice, and fleas. One asylum seeker told the committee of rats running over the kitchen table as her children ate dinner. Another reported that the constant presence of rats in his bedroom triggered flashbacks of the rat-infested cell where he was detained and tortured in his country of origin, leaving him distraught and suicidal.
Asylum seekers reported being treated with hostility and being made to feel ‘sub-human’ or ‘like animals’ by the private landlords and sub-contractors who manage the properties on behalf of the government. Others reported being bullied by intimidating and aggressive staff:
“I was made to feel very uncomfortable and unsafe. There was an occasion the area manager visited me unexpectedly. He was very rude, intimidating and abusive. I had to report that to the police. Then on the same day, he switched off the boiler so we had no heating or hot water [ … ] I genuinely feared for my safety.”
Funding cuts and a lack of suitable accommodation means that asylum seekers are often housed together in overcrowded shared accommodation, where insensitive allocation raises tensions and leads to severe stress:
“Some of the problems raised with us include individuals from ethnic and caste groups who are in conflict being housed together, a transgender woman being made to share a bedroom, and families with young children being placed in shared accommodation leading to concerns around safeguarding and child protection.”
This problem is not going away. Ever greater numbers of asylum claims are being logged with the Home Office, which is struggling to cope with the backlog: over 77,440 applications are currently listed as “work in progress” – a doubling inside four years – with some 20,000 waiting for an initial assessment of their refugee status. This explosion in numbers, and the attendant delays in processing, mean that private contractors like G4S are now housing more people than their contracts allow funding for. With contractors already losing money, and the government committed to further cuts in the overall budget, there’s only one possible outcome: ever worsening standards in housing and support for these most vulnerable of people.
The final injustice catalogued by the report is that the asylum seekers are overwhelmingly housed in the poorest, most deprived boroughs of the country – those where local council resources are already stretched to breaking point. The wealthiest local authorities have simply refused to accept any asylum accommodation at all. So while there are 1,042 asylum seekers housed in Bolton and 1,029 in Rochdale, affluent constituencies like Theresa May’s seat of Windsor & Maidenhead, Jeremy Hunt’s Surrey South West, and Chris Grayling’s constituency of Epson and Ewell, have not a single one. As Steve Hildritch points out on his Red Brick blog, “perhaps we shouldn’t be too smug in our moral superiority in relation to Trump: just as the richest nation on earth is keeping out refugees, so are the richest towns in Britain.”
Refugees, faced with such a broken system, frequently end up sleeping rough on the streets. We here at Commonweal are working together Praxis Community Projects – a leading immigration and asylum support service based in East London – to help provide a solution to this humanitarian crisis. The project aims to provide cross-subsidised housing for destitute migrants, such as asylum seekers, survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation, and those seeking refugee status fleeing violence abroad. We’re proud to be tackling this injustice in partnership with Praxis – learn more about our work here.
– Ben Martin, Policy & Communications Coordinator