The VOICES Network Briefing on Asylum Accommodation

The VOICES Network Briefing on Asylum Accommodation 

What’s wrong? 

Everybody deserves to live in a place where they feel safe and secure. As refugees and people seeking asylum we have been forced to leave our homes and come to a new country, often alone and without our families. This is challenging enough, but the additional stress of not having somewhere safe to live and sleep has significant impact on a person’s wellbeing. 

‘We are fleeing war and persecution and our trauma always lives with us. Being put in a cramped army barrack, detention centre or solitary hotel room makes us relive difficult pasts. This destroys mental health and denies people seeking asylum the right to truly rebuild our lives. This treatment of people seeking asylum is a stain on Britain’s global reputation for being a welcoming and generous country.’ 

(Abdullah, VOICES Ambassador) 

In April 2021 the Home Secretary launched a consultation around the government’s New Immigration Plan to reform the UK immigration system and introduce a Borders Bill. The VOICES Network are deeply concerned that, rather than addressing the existing problems with asylum accommodation, the proposed changes will exacerbate the difficulties asylum seekers in the UK face. The most significant change, to determine who is entitled to asylum based on how they arrived rather than why they came, goes against the 1951 Refugee Convention which the UK helped to draft. When you are fleeing war or persecution, it should not matter how you travelled to find safe place. We are also extremely worried about the planned use of reception centres to house asylum seekers which will isolate and separate people from communities and prevent them from creating vital human connections.  

See the full VOICES consultation response here

‘We, as asylum seekers and refugees, worry a lot about the proposed government immigration plans. Refugees and asylum seekers need compassion, understanding, as much as shelter. Because believe me, there are a few things in this world worse than the feeling of an unwelcome guest.’ 

(Khansaa, VOICES Ambassador) 

What needs to change? 

It is our hope that we can create change to see a humane asylum system which allows people to live in safety and dignity. However, our experiences show that the conditions and treatment received in asylum accommodation at present is far from this. Accommodation is often unsuitable and the experience is filled with uncertainty, insecurity and fear resulting in long lasting damage to people’s mental health and the retraumatising of people who have already suffered great hardship. We want to work with the government and communities across the UK to change this.  

‘Showing humanity to people fleeing persecution is the right thing to do.  We are all human beings and deserve to live in dignity and safety.’ 

(Saffie, VOICES Ambassador) 

i) VOICES Network Key Concerns 

  1. Institutional forms of accommodation including barracks, detention centres and the proposed use of reception centres are not suitable places for people to live. These types of accommodation deprive people of their liberty, the conditions experienced are often retraumatising and are known to create short-term and longer-term mental health issues. 

‘For many of us, life in the camp only increased our insecurities and re-traumatised us. It would be difficult to design a system that more perfectly delivers despair and deteriorating human health and mental capacity than these “asylum camps”’. 

 (Kenan, VOICES Ambassador and former resident of Penally Barracks) 

  1. Our experience of asylum accommodation is that it is often unfit for people to be living in. It has been found to be dirty, unmaintained and in some cases, vermin infested.  
  1. The Home Office awards private companies contracts for housing people seeking asylum, they are for profit companies and are not adequately concerned with the welfare of the people they house. There is a lack of accountability for the companies providing accommodation. 

‘Accommodation should be provided locally, not contracted to large corporations. People seeking asylum should be engaged and communicated with at all stages of our journeys. And above all, we should be treated with fairness, dignity and compassion. We have seen the worst of the system, but we know there can be better.’  

(Abdullah, VOICES Ambassador) 

ii) VOICES Network Key Recommendations 

  1. The government should not proceed with its plans to build reception centres. 

People seeking asylum should be housed within the community where they can access services and develop vital connections with others. 

‘We are so isolated and lonely, and this treatment is devastating…We thrive in our communities if given the chance. Making sure this happens should be a priority in the UK Government’s plans to reform the asylum system, rather than putting us into centres separated off from the rest of the world.’ 

(Saffie, VOICES Ambassador) 

  1. The government must end the use of military barracks immediately.  

Their use in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was irresponsible and cruel. The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that all of the men housed in both Napier and Penally barracks had experienced depression and about a third at Penally had felt suicidal.   

‘I found it so hard to accept that the United Kingdom – which had always been a beacon of good government – was treating us in this way. Between us we had fled torture, false imprisonment, war and civil conflict. We now found ourselves inside exactly the sort of institution many of us had already experienced in our home countries and which brought back terrible memories and stirred up traumas.’  

 (Kenan, VOICES Ambassador and former resident of Penally Barracks) 

  1. Asylum accommodation should be designed for human beings. 

We need accommodation that is clean, safe and secure and within the community. Free access to Wifi is vital when we are in a foreign country far from our loved ones. 

‘Through my asylum journey, I get to know that, unfortunately, governments are dealing with refugees and asylum seekers as a number in the news. But here I am. I am not a number. I am a human. A person. A mother who has been forced to flee her home country, leaving three children behind. This is not something I wanted, but I had to.’ 

(Khansaa, VOICES Ambassador) 

  1. The government should introduce a formal, third-party inspection regime to ensure transparency and accountability. 
  1. The treatment of those in asylum accommodation should be humane.  

A culture of care rather than hostility should be cultivated, for example by providing trauma training for service providers who will be working with vulnerable people. 

iii) Concerns and recommendations in more detail 

Issue 1 – Reception Centres and Institutional Forms of Accommodation  

We are concerned that Reception Centres will be another form of indefinite detention which would retraumatise refugees, many of whom have already suffered torture, war, human trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), particularly when there is no time limit.   

‘You cannot imagine how this feeling is, being stuck in a never-ending circle of waiting … which has a very bad mental and physical impact on the residents at Napier Barracks’ 

(VOICES Ambassador and current resident of Napier Barracks)  

The use of reception centres, detention, hotels, army barracks and all other institutional forms of asylum accommodation is cruel. Research shows consistent evidence of the severe and harmful impact of detention, involving a loss of liberty and the constant threat of return to the country of persecution. For many asylum seekers this experience is retraumatising as it is reminiscent of the deprivation of liberty and human rights which was experienced in the country of origin. Recent evidence shows the clinical harm caused by the use of barracks as housing for asylum seekers, increasing the experience of depression, re-traumatisation and suicidal ideation.  

‘Asylum accommodation should keep us safe and protected but it often re-traumatises and puts vulnerable people at risk, especially those of us forced to live in army barracks and hotels. This isn’t living, it is just existing at the mercy of the Home Office.’  

(Abdullah, VOICES Ambassador) 

The use of reception centres will have a damaging impact on both mental health and integration. Being accommodated in isolated centres exacerbates the sense of disorientation and lack of belonging which people seeking asylum already face. It means that people are unable to make vital human connections and contacts in their local community and are less able to engage with the asylum process. Detention-like conditions are a barrier for people to fully disclose their experiences which impact the chances of a fair assessment of our asylum claims.  

Recommendations – Reception Centres and Institutional Forms of Accommodation  

  1. End the use of institutional accommodation such as hotels, army barracks, detention and reception centres. Finding suitable accommodation should be carried out with local government and local community groups. 
     
  1. Accommodation should be in the community; we should be allowed to make connections and friendships which are vital for wellbeing. Being in the community also allows access to services including schools, GPs and community support groups which enable people to gain information and engage with their asylum cases. 

Issue 2 – Humane Conditions 


We believe that accommodation for people seeking asylum should be designed for human beings not ‘asylum seekers’, we are people who deserve to live in safe and dignified accommodation. 

‘Close your eyes for seconds and put your foot in any asylum seeker’s shoe. Vulnerable, voiceless, powerless, and struggle in the middle of the sea with your loved ones running away from the war that you can’t stop or change … and when you are safe at the end on a secure safe country … you will be asked to learn new language, new culture, and stuck in a frozen asylum system living with £5 per day in a dispersal accommodation or in a hostel with £8 per week or trying to deal with your life in barracks with no financial support or any human rights.’ 

(Zaina, VOICES Ambassador) 

The experiences of those who have lived in asylum accommodation demonstrates that it is often not fit for purpose. Many of us have experienced a lack of privacy and independence. Initial accommodation for people seeking asylum is often in hostels and hotels where staff have entered rooms without permission or notice. In some places people are not allowed the independence to cook for themselves. Dietary requirements may not be taken into consideration, and it has been known that when people are unable to eat certain foods, they are forced to go without meals.  

Repair and maintenance requests are often left unaddressed, families are often housed in spaces which are too small and do not have access to the internet or TV. There are no clear time frames given for those in emergency accommodation. Living in a state of uncertainty is extremely stressful and damaging. 

‘Once I was put into the emergency accommodation, there was no time frame given to me and weeks and months passed by where I wasn’t given any information about when or where I would be given my accommodation. During this phase, I saw several of the people I met being moved without any notice and in some instances they would be told: you have one hour to pack your bag and we are moving you without even being told where.’  

(Zain, VOICES Ambassador) 

Recommendations – Humane Conditions 

  1. Housing should be safe, clean and secure. There is a need for free Wifi to be available for those seeking asylum; we need to be able to contact our loved ones who are far away and to be able to keep up to date with the news. 
     
  1. Those in emergency or initial accommodation should have clear communication as to how long they can expect to live there. Before being moved, we need sufficient notice to prepare to move to a new place.  
  1. Dispersal accommodation should be provided in communities which are safe and supported to have an understanding of migration and displacement rather than the current government approach to house asylum seekers in marginalised areas. 

Issue 3 - Third Party Accountability and Staff Training  

 
At present, asylum accommodation is run by third party, for profit companies such as SERCO and Mears Group. In our experience, service providers’ primary concern is cost, not the welfare of those they are accommodating.  

 
Housing staff are often from a security background and can be intimidating and disrespectful. They are often unaware of the needs of asylum seekers with regards to health and legal advice. We believe that in asylum accommodation, people should feel cared for and supported rather than scorned and belittled. 

When complaints are made, they are often left unaddressed. However, for those going through the asylum process, there is often a fear that making complaints might impact on their asylum claims, leaving people feeling unable to challenge their conditions and treatment. In order to address these problems a third party inspectorate is needed. There also needs to be transparency as to who is responsible and a clear complaints procedure which assures people that their asylum claims will not be impacted. 

Recommendations – Third Party Accountability and Staff Training  

  1. Staff working with people seeking asylum should have training on trauma-informed approaches to ensure good practice as they will be working with vulnerable people who have experienced great hardships including war, torture and persecution. A culture of care and respect should be cultivated to look after those who seek safety. 

About the VOICES Network 

All too frequently services are delivered for people, policies are written about people, and stories are told on behalf of people. The VOICES Network creates a powerful way in which services, policy development, and media work can be co-produced to have more impact, and to close the gap for refugees and people seeking asylum to be able to speak up about, and achieve real change on the issues that affect us.  

The VOICES Network is a collective of people with lived experience of the refugee and asylum system in the UK. Members of the Network, VOICES Ambassadors are experts by experience, and we speak up to: 

  1. Change minds (through engaging with the media and communities) 
  1. Change policy (through engaging in advocacy with decision-makers) 
  1. Change practice (through co-producing services and strategy) 

VOICES Ambassadors are spread across Scotland, Wales and England and form an independent group that does not represent any organisation.  

We’d love to hear from you. For further information contact: voices@redcross.org.uk 

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