The UK has a proud historic record of providing a safe haven for people fleeing war, conflict and persecution, including Ugandan Asians in 1972, Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, people fleeing the Holocaust in Germany and central Europe in the 1940s.
There are many ways in which Tory led governments since 2010 have betrayed that tradition, more of which we will see this coming week as the pernicious Nationality and Borders Bill is debated at second reading, but amongst them the way that housing is provided for those seeking asylum in the UK stands out.
Housing for asylum seekers is currently provided by the government under two types of contract – ‘initial accommodation’ and ‘dispersal accommodation’. Initial accommodation is typically provided in hostels or hotels and is intended for no more than 3-4 weeks. Dispersal accommodation is more likely to be self-contained private rented accommodation, where asylum seekers can live until their claim for asylum is processed.
There is an initial accommodation site in my constituency, and I have frequent contact with the residents there. Most residents have fled situations of extreme danger and hardship and many are deeply traumatised. They are grateful to be in a place of such comparable safety, and very reluctant to complain or raise concerns, they appreciate the staff who often go above and beyond their job descriptions and contracted hours to provide services and support. Yet the appalling nature of this government’s approach is clear to see.
It is common for asylum seekers to remain in initial accommodation for months or even years at a time, far longer than the expected 3-4 weeks. The budget for food in initial accommodation is very low. Asylum seekers are not allowed to undertake paid work, they receive less than £40 a week for subsistence and the only independent cooking facility provided is a single microwave, so opportunities to supplement the food provided on site are limited. The food is poor quality, bland and has little variety, so residents staying in initial accommodation for extended periods often end up eating very little.
The monotony of life in initial accommodation is often intolerable, particularly for asylum seekers who have suffered horrific experiences prior to arriving in the UK. For weeks at a time during the pandemic, asylum seekers have been confined to single rooms, often with no Wi-Fi or data. The lack of positive activity, sense of purpose and distraction from the trauma they have suffered is unbearable for many and mental health support is very hard to access. Asylum seekers are at the mercy of the Home Office, which can take months and years to decide on an application for asylum, and the government doesn’t even have a monitored service standard for some types of applications.
The government contracts do not provide for basics such as underwear, clothing and shoes. These are issues of basic human dignity. Just this week, I heard a heart-breaking story of a woman who broke down sobbing as she was given clean underwear by a kind NHS worker, because she had got her period whilst travelling to the UK and been unable to wash or change for days. This was not provided as a matter of course under the government contract and no-one had previously asked about her needs.
The situation is particularly bad for asylum seekers with disabilities and/or young children. It is very hard for children in initial accommodation to access school places and there are meagre play facilities on site.
The worst of the initial accommodation involves the use of military barracks, and the government was recently found by the High Court to have provided inadequate and unsafe accommodation at Napier Barracks in Kent, where a major Covid outbreak was deemed to be inevitable.
The conditions at Napier barracks are truly shocking. The court found that there were serious fire risks, the barracks were dirty and unhygienic, and that being in an environment which resembled a prison was likely to result in a deterioration of the mental health of asylum seekers. Former residents of Napier Barracks have spoken about the impossibility of sleep at the barracks which also has intolerable mental health impacts – sleep deprivation is often used as a form of torture, and that is what these asylum seekers experienced.
The punitive approach taken by the government is the polar opposite of the response from local communities in many areas where there are initial accommodation sites. In my constituency, there are local community organisations and faith groups who provide support and advice, sustaining hot meals, friendship and conversation, activities and play for children. I know that whenever there is a need for clothing or a pram, our community will strain every sinew to meet that need. There are many moving examples of friendship, solidarity and support.
Our communities are also stepping up to help refugees in other ways. Community sponsorship – a government scheme in which communities can apply to welcome a refugee family to their area – has been growing steadily in recent years, including in my constituency where two families have so far been welcomed by members of our community who have provided housing, funding and support to enable them to rebuild their lives following unimaginably difficult experiences.
The Tories choose to use asylum seekers to fuel their culture war. Instead of upholding our proud tradition as a country of refuge, treating those who come here seeking sanctuary with dignity and compassion and establishing application systems which are efficient and reliable; their housing provision can be anything but a place of refuge, and their asylum system traps people in limbo for months and years at a time.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The essential requirements of human dignity are clear – privacy, nutritious food, clothing and underwear, the ability to communicate with family and legal representatives, access to medical care, including mental health support. This is the very least we should offer to those who come here looking for a place of safety, and these things should be specified and funded in any government contracts for accommodation. There should be additional funding for local authorities with initial accommodation and dispersal accommodation in their areas to be able to meet the needs of asylum seekers, including mental health needs to begin the process of recovering from trauma.
This week, Parliament will debate the Immigration and Borders Bill, an appalling piece of legislation which if it is passed will allow the government to return asylum seekers to the nearest safe country they have passed through on their way to the UK; or to hold them in third country reception centres. Labour will vote against this Bill. I hope that as MPs across the House debate this Bill each one will ask themselves whether this is how they would want their loved ones to be treated should they ever have the misfortune to have to flee conflict or persecution and seek sanctuary in another land. How we treat those who have faced unimaginable pain, hardship and loss is a measure of our society and under the Tories the UK is falling far short.