The UK has a proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing conflict and persecution. Providing habitable, fit-for-use accommodation is one vital component. When the system for providing asylum accommodation fails, it undermines that tradition.
The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill sets out plans to introduce new ‘accommodation centres’, where people seeking asylum will be housed. According to the organisation Asylum Matters, these facilities, if allowed to come into being, risk permanently instituting the concept of large prison-like refugee camps in the UK.
Back in 2020, I wrote to the Home Secretary to express my concerns about the conditions and suitability of the Penally base in Pembrokeshire, which was used to house asylum seekers. Some of the people who were moved there spoke about how the conditions left them feeling unsafe, and some said that they had been left with psychological trauma. The Home Office ended up rehousing all the asylum seekers last January, amid safety concerns.
A new report from Asylum Matters and their partners highlights the current experience of asylum seekers who have been housed in institutional accommodation – group settings with shared facilities, such as hostels, hotels and army barracks. According to the report, ‘The defining characteristic of institutional accommodation is that it has specific organisational features, such as set mealtimes or security restrictions, which mean that people accommodated there cannot exercise full control over their lives and their day-to-day activities’.
The research that underlines this report found that institutional accommodation causes harm to people placed in such settings. Harrowing testimonies likened the accommodation to being in a form of detention, with people feeling like they were being deprived of fundamental liberties. They had little or no choice over their meals, had to stick to curfews and were ignored or even humiliated by staff. Two respondents to the research were pregnant women who struggled to access nutritious food, suitable antenatal care and even emergency medical assistance following complications. The Government face replicating situations like this on a much larger scale, should these ‘accommodation centres’ open.
Our asylum system is failing. However, the Government seem to have a different view on who it is failing, how it is failing, and what to do to respond. Instead of treating asylum seekers like human beings who have fled from traumatic circumstances, this Government seems to want to make life even harder for them. The Home Secretary had an opportunity to learn from the disastrous handling of the use of the Penally and Napier bases. Instead, she has doubled down.
The Government has lost control and all sense of compassion when it comes to dealing with asylum seekers. The report from Asylum Matters only highlights the concerns that I and others have raised. I will continue to call on the Government to treat asylum seekers with the dignity they deserve and to address the deeply entrenched structural problems within the current system.