Whilst for us the word hotel evokes relaxation, luxury and breakfast buffets, the reality for refugees being accommodated in hotels across the UK is anything but a holiday.
How has the situation arisen?
There are 395 hotels currently being used across the country to house refugees. In the last couple of years, the use of such hotels has increased significantly due to a growth in arrivals arising from conflicts such as the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as more people arriving by boat. A combination of this rise in arrivals with the backlog of asylum cases which built up during COVID-19 has meant the government has needed to accommodate more people for longer as they await the result of their asylum case. Contingency accommodation in hotels was implemented as an interim measure due to a struggle to provide enough longer term ‘dispersal’ accommodation. The hotels are not suitable as long-term accommodation, the Home Office itself admits through its aim to only house people in them for a maximum of 35 days.
Fundamentally, hotels are designed for short stays, but reports show hundreds staying for as long as a year, thousands for 6 months and tens of thousands for 3 months. Some headlines draw attention to the luxury of hotels being used, of course across the country they are variable in quality, but it is important to consider that despite the building, the people living inside are not receiving 5-star turndown service. The running of the hotels is outsourced to private firms who provide very basic support: 3 meals a day, cleaning equipment and repairs to facilities.1
Lisa Nandy, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities, summarised the situation in a recent BBC interview: "The government contracts big companies to provide what they call asylum support, instead these companies maximise the profit they make, they put people into some appalling accommodation without help or support - people who've been through hell and back before they even reached this country."
In 2021 the Home Office announced Operation Oak, a promise to move people out of the hotels by the summer that year, yet the number of people in hotels has only increased since then. The narrative for moving refugees out of hotel accommodation is focussed on the impact of the use of hotels on the public and the cost incurred on the taxpayer. We must also try to step beyond the closed hotel doors and consider what a prolonged hotel stay means for a resident.
Lack of safety
Articles about the housing of migrants in hotels have periodically been covered in the news, which has attracted the attention of people who hold anti-migrant views. There have been reports of people entering hotels and waiting outside hotels and filming people. Last month in Knowsley, a protest outside a hotel turned violent with a police van set on fire and counter-protestors surrounded and intimidated. Videos of larger scale protests and those individuals harassing refugees have circulated on social media and through the news have made hotel residents feel extremely unsafe and sometimes afraid to leave their rooms. Living in safety is a fundamental human need and often is the reason that makes people leave their homes and become refugees in the first place. The current situation only puts people through another period of living in fear.
The situation is even more stark for unaccompanied children who are placed in these hotels because they have been incorrectly age assessed as adults. This mistake seems to be more common than not, a report by the Refugee council highlighted that of the 233 people they had helped to appeal their age assessment 94% had been wrongly age assessed as adults. Whilst being alone in a hotel room as a child might make us picture a scene from Home Alone 2, still then Kevin’s mum shouts at the staff “What kind of hotel lets a child check in alone?”. Even if a child is age assessed correctly, they can still be placed in a hotel with social services support. The sombre reality came out at the start of this year with a Home Office minister announcing in the house of Lords that 200 children placed in hotels have gone missing, the likelihood is that these hotels have been targeted by criminal networks and the children trafficked and exploited.
Lack of autonomy
When placed in contingency accommodation, refugees are often awaiting the result of their asylum case. This means that they have no ability to work in the UK. When staying in these hotels people receive £9.10 per week (recently increased from £8.24 due to the cost-of-living crisis). This hugely limits people’s freedoms as the hotels used are often on the outskirts of cities away from essential services like GPs and supermarkets. In Oxford, for example, a return bus to get into the centre is £4. Some however, might want to use their money to buy clothes or footwear as often people arrive with only the clothes they are wearing. This can also restrict their freedom massively as sometimes people may only have a pair of flip flops or slides which limits their ability to exercise and access appropriate services which are usually over an hour’s walk away. Hotels also often don’t let people clean and dry clothes in their rooms so if people don’t have multiple sets of clothes they have to wait in their rooms until their clean clothes are returned. Equally some might want to use the money to supplement the food they are given as many accounts have described it as unsatisfactory, including GPs who have concerns about children she has seen who are not gaining weight properly because of the food provided.
Lack of community
Many of the hotels used lack a social space for people to interact with others and form any sense of community, and even when they do language barriers can make this difficult. The location of the hotels and lack of money also makes it difficult for people to join any local communities in the UK. There have been stories too of Home Office border officials taking phones from refugees as part of attempts to identify people. This kind of digital exclusion further disconnects them from their communities from home as they cannot stay in touch, but further removes them from vital information about local services available to them.
Lack of access to services
As mentioned previously, the location of hotels often makes it difficult to access vital services such as health services, legal advice and education. People are often provided with little or no information on how to access these services. In the case of legal advice this hugely increases the anxiety of residents as their futures depend on the outcome of their asylum case, but people are left directionless. In terms of education, families with school age children struggle to initially enrol them, and when they manage to their education is still severely disrupted by the fact that they have likely been staying in a hotel for months and could at any point be moved to dispersal accommodation in a different part of the country.
Importance of local charities
All of this might seem a dire and impossible situation, instead we should turn to the fantastic work that local charities are doing to support people living in hotels. In Oxford, a charity called Asylum Welcome works with refugees living in hotels across the county providing them with information in different languages to help them access services that they need. Local charities themselves create communities, and specific projects which put activities on at/near hotels provide spaces for refugees to create connections which as humans we so vitally need. They also offer refugees more autonomy with projects that offer people alternative transport methods like Sanctuary Wheels in Oxford which donates bikes to refugees. I encourage you, then, to look to your local charities and see if you can help, whether that is volunteering and donating your time, or donating to a project such as a foodbank.