Profiting from pain: Accommodating asylum seekers in England

The medical consequences of contingency accommodation

Read the report

Raul (name changed) was directed to my door by one of the hotel staff. When he sat down he was rocking back and forth and couldn’t make eye contact—so anxious he couldn’t keep still. When my patients are exactly my age, it impacts me even more. I waited for a translator and we began the assessment. From the first few sentences, it was clear he was experiencing horrendous symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After ruling out immediate risk I phoned the GP to get an appointment. He was so unwell at this point he couldn’t leave the hotel. Loud noises and horns on the nearby roundabout were enough to send him into a PTSD spiral, so he had only been leaving with his Palestinian friend who supports many in the community. We agreed that when I was in that hotel I would walk him to the GP, and for the following weeks this was our arrangement as we began to get him  medication for sleep, antidepressants, and things he needed to get through the crisis.

After these initial weeks we started assessing his physical issues, which included chronic leg pain from a bone injury caused by an assault; constant migraines from a lack of sleep (and the fact he lacked glasses for 9 months) and stomach issues—likely a combination of the notorious hotel food and anxiety. I eventually managed to get him an appointment at a psychotherapy centre who specialise in supporting victims of torture. On the day of his first appointment, the hotel forgot to book him a taxi. On the second, rearranged trip, the taxi dropped him off nowhere near the building and drove off. This resulted in a panic attack so severe that Raul was almost hospitalised.

Working in the contingency accommodation is a privilege. We are supporting some of the bravest and most tenacious human beings on the planet—people who have overcome so much to get themselves and their families to safety. But after surviving this trauma, they are stuck. Once the adrenaline wears off the depression hits and they are forced to occupy an endless limbo as bureaucracy decides whether they are deserving of a life, or should be punished for their tenacity.

While there are many caring and well meaning individuals working within the system, the support people receive varies widely. Too often the reliance on NGOs and charities to plug gaps is too great, and Home Office decisions to relocate people without notice means they can lose what little support and stability they had overnight. With hotels providing inconsistent comfort, contingency accommodation is ultimately an insidious extension of the detention system—just with better beds.

A new report prepared by the Migrant Solidarity Group, surveying professionals working with those housed in contingency accommodation, has found that inadequacies exist across medical and legal provision, social services, integration support and basic, essential areas of care.

In addition to food provision not meeting basic nutritional needs and the social isolation from loved ones and the community in which asylum seekers are placed, respondents described how frequent moves:

  • disrupt continuity of care,
  • impair appropriate safeguarding measures for vulnerable adults and children and
  • cause delays in access to primary and secondary care services

Asylum seekers have found themselves in the firing line of an increasingly hostile rhetoric over the past ten years. From the “go home” vans championed by former Home Secretary Theresa May, to current Home Secretary Suella Braverman stating it is her “dream” to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, and the tragic attack on the Manston asylum processing facility in October 2022, this vulnerable group have been victimised, used as a political football and as a dog-whistle attack on immigration and multiculturalism as a whole.

The reality described by respondents in this survey is a far cry from the luxury lifestyle that has been suggested to be enjoyed by people seeking asylum who are housed in hotels. As anti-immigration sentiment is stoked, unkind and inhumane treatment has become the norm, rather than the exception.

This normalisation of hate speech isn’t grounded in an online comments section, it comes from up high: just look at Braverman’s statement that “we need to be honest with the public, there is an invasion of our south coast” the day after a terrorist attack on migrant housing. It is also deceitful: numbers are steady and lower than in the early 2000s, lower than most other countries in Europe. It is purposefully divisive, at best xenophobic and at worst openly racist. Anti-migrant rhetoric has been compared to the antisemitism spouted by German leaders in the lead up to WWII.

This is on a background of children’s lives risked through outbreaks of diphtheria at overcrowded processing centres, and targeted for modern day slavery as they go missing from contingency accommodation. This is not, as the Government would have us believe, out of necessity: this is a political choice and an intended punishment of a population of which almost 80% are granted refugee status when they apply, and a further half of those initially refused being successful on appeal.

Meanwhile, private businesses—both those running the processing centres and the contingency accommodation sites—benefit from record profits. At Clearspring Ready Homes, who manage contingency accommodation, profits have increased six fold, with share dividends of around £28 million. Mitie Care & Custody, who run Manston processing centre, have reported a 600% increase in profits. These rising dividends represent large sums of public funds going to corporations profiting from deeply inhumane conditions, with a green flag from the Government.

With this new report, the MSG hope to shed further light and alert the public to the conditions in contingency accommodation. These findings are corroborated by reports by other organisations, such as Doctors of the World [PDF] and the Refugee Council.

The treatment of asylum seekers in these facilities is an attempt by the Government of a new, malignant normality: detention camp facilities for refugees. By not speaking and acting out, we are at risk of becoming complicit.

by Maya Bowles, Catarina Soares, Francesca Burns & Joanna Dobbin on behalf of the Medact Migrant Solidarity Group