Since lockdown began, the Home Office has moved more than 5,000 asylum seekers from immigration detention centres and temporary accommodation into empty hotels across the country.
Now, many of these asylum seekers are facing the daily threat of violence from gangs of far-right vigilantes who are organising aggressive campaigns of harassment against them.
“I feel that I’m not totally safe,” explains Hamid*, an asylum seeker from Yemen who has spent the last three weeks at a hotel on the edge of a major airport. “I don’t know what will happen next.”
Every week, videos are shared online of extremists groups travelling to these hotels to harass asylum seekers and hotel staff. Hamid tells Novara Media that some of his friends, who have also fled the brutal war in Yemen, have faced intimidation while being housed at a hotel in Sheffield.
“Someone came from outside. He was opening his phone for a video, and he asked them [Hamid’s friends] why they came to this country”, Hamid recalls. “He was speaking to his phone, saying: ‘They don’t deserve to be in this hotel’.”
After the video went online, more and more far-right protesters started turning up to harass the asylum seekers. “Because of that, many people, many refugees were attacked in the street. Because of these videos. Because people said they are bad people, they are dangerous.”
‘I don’t know what is going on, there is no communication.’
At the end of March, the government announced a three-month suspension of evictions for asylum seekers whose claims have been decided in order to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Over the following months, the number of people in the UK asylum system rose. Consequently, the government started moving asylum seekers from both detention centres and temporary accommodation into hotels in order – they claim – to “make sure they are able to follow social distancing guidelines”.
But for many asylum seekers being housed in hotels, social distancing isn’t possible. In July, the UK Home Affairs Committee published a report into asylum accommodation during lockdown, noting widespread concern for the safety of those being housed in hotels, which were often found to be “overcrowded and lack[ing] adequate sanitation, with children having no space to play or to receive education, and with meals often eaten in crowded and shared spaces”.
In a statement given to the website Detained Voices, one unnamed asylum seeker said that visitors had been blocked from entering their hotel, and that residents were living under curfew. According to the statement, those inside are hungry and isolated, receiving only a child-size box of cereal for breakfast, and struggling to access mental health support.
“I have not been getting any support with my psychological condition. I get flashbacks from back home when my father passed away from a car bombing,” said the unnamed Yemeni, who fled the country around the time the war began in 2015. “I don’t know what is going on, there is no communication.”
The Home Office did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment on these issues other than to provide generic information on asylum accommodation, and did not respond when asked how the government is addressing the concerns highlighted in the Home Affairs Committee report.
But poor living conditions and lack of communication aren’t asylum seekers’ only problems. Rightwing vigilantes, who accuse the government of prioritising housing for refugees above housing for homeless British military veterans, are targeting hotels with campaigns of intimidation.
Over the past few months, hit-lists posted on far-right conspiracy sites have attempted to identify the 53 hotels where the Home Office are temporarily housing people.
According to a member of reception staff, around 300 people are currently being housed at the hotel where Hamid is staying. Asylum seekers inside say the doors to their accommodation are guarded by regular hotel employees, rather than professional security, and they fear that vigilantes set on confrontation could harm them.
What’s more, restrictions on entering the hotels have frustrated legal monitors, who aim to ensure that asylum seekers are receiving appropriate legal support at each stage of their asylum process – including appealing against their removal.
Tom Kemp, a researcher at Nottingham Law School and spokesperson for SOAS Detainee Support, is deeply concerned about this. “Housing hundreds of refugees – including families with small children – in hotels […] without adequate support and legal advice is extremely worrying.”
“We’re concerned that they’re not designed with a plan for long term settlement, they’re designed for keeping people there, pretty much in the dark.”
Deportation and destitution.
Last week, some 400 asylum seekers were scheduled to be relocated to a disused army barracks in Folkestone, Kent, labelled the UK’s first “migrant camp”. Just this morning, The Times disclosed the government is also considering processing asylum seekers on disused ferries moored off the coast of the UK.
Hamid fears that he’ll be one of those moved to a new location, where he’ll be locked down with even greater restrictions on movement. What worries him more, however, is what happens if his asylum application is rejected.
In a letter sent to charities last month, the Home Office announced an end to the asylum seekers eviction ban, meaning those whose applications are refused will face eviction from their accommodation “with immediate effect”, even as coronavirus infection rates spike. Refused asylum applicants will be given 21 days to leave the country – or face deportation.
Under the so-called Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers like Hamid can be removed to EU countries they passed through on their journey to the UK.
In fear for their lives, last month detainees at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre – some who have now been split up between different hotels and some who are still detained at the centre – led a hunger strike against their deportation.
In September, the deportation of 20 asylum seekers was blocked by a high court judge just hours before a charter flight was due to take them to Spain. The ruling came after another group of deportees were left destitute on the streets of Madrid, with the judge ordering that the flight could not go ahead if the asylum seekers could face a similar fate.
For Hamid, who was forcibly fingerprinted in Spain and will likely be returned there if removed, this is his biggest fear.
“Maybe I will beg, to have food, because I can’t work in Spain, I’m not allowed to work. I don’t speak Spanish, the government will not support me, I know that,” says Hamid.
“Maybe I will die, I don’t know. Maybe the gangs will ask me to work [with them] for free or for a little bit of money. I don’t know what will happen to me. God only knows. I will live a rough life.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Matthew Ponsford is a journalist who has written for Thomson Reuters, Financial Times Weekend, BBC, Deutsche Welle, New Internationalist, and The Guardian.