The Daily Mail led the way last Thursday, its headline declaring that 9,000 asylum seekers were now being housed in hotels across the UK.
In Coventry and Runcorn, local newspapers exploring the same figures dispensed tales of local guesthouses turning away paying customers in favour of housing refugees. Incensed, right wingers from Britain First filmed themselves as they entered some of the hotels identified and started banging on doors.
And yesterday, as Priti Patel vowed to overhaul a system she says is rife for abuse by “do-gooders and lefty lawyers,” she remained remarkably quiet on recent document leaks suggesting the Home Office has considered housing migrants on islands 4,000 miles from the UK, using water cannons to push back boats in the channel, or building a wall (sound familiar?) in the channel itself, to prevent tiny, precariously-loaded dinghies from crossing into UK waters.
The picture the Home Office wants to paint is clear – that of asylum seekers arriving illegally and then draining our resources. But just how accurate is it?
On the frontline
Nowhere have the realities of Britain’s hardline approach to immigration been more keenly felt in recent months than in Glasgow. The Scottish city has been home to two separate tragedies – the death of Mercy Baguma, an asylum seeker found dead in her apartment in August and, prior, the shooting of Badreddin Abadlla Adam by police after his attack at the Park Inn Hotel on 26 June, which left six people injured. He had been suffering from mental health difficulties.
These cases, while utterly tragic, are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind their headline grabbing horror lie thousands of individuals, holed up in limbo across the UK, unable to integrate into their new communities as the coronavirus crisis has changed the way we house those awaiting leave to settle here.
This is the picture Refuweegee, a charity that works to welcome new arrivals into Glasgow, sees daily. The organisation takes its name from the colloquial ‘weegee’, a term used by Glaswegians to describe those hailing from their city. And its aim is to help those who arrive within its boundaries feel that they too can be accepted as one of the city’s own.
“Refuweegee was set up to provide a welcome to people who have recently arrived in Glasgow,” its founder Selina Hales explains. “At the very beginning, that was about connecting the existing community with the arriving community through welcome packs. We would ask residents to donate essentials like toiletries, a hat, scarf, gloves, some Scottish items – which always end up meaning Irn Bru, shortbread and Tunnock’s Teacakes! We also asked them to write welcome letters.”
The letters, handwritten by locals of all ages and backgrounds and designed to provide a moment of connection at an unsettling time for incoming residents, have become Refuweegee’s calling card. “I didn’t want Refuweegee to be an organisation you could only connect with if you had money to give,” Hales says. “I wanted anybody, no matter what age and no matter what capacity, to be able to say welcome to people. It’s a gesture of kindness. People can see from a letter that another person has taken the time to sit down and write them a personal message, with some advice about where to visit, an apology about the weather, or a joke about our difficult to understand accents, just lovely little nuances that really make a difference.”
At the start, in 2015, the charity was distributing around 120 of these packs a month. Now, it’s sending out 150 parcels a week, containing everything from nappies and baby formula to mobile phones and sanitary products.
“There’s this massive misconception that people arrive and are given a house and benefits, that it’s just this straightforward, streamlined process. And the reality is, you arrive and yes, you are given shelter, but shelter might be a bedsit with a shared bathroom, no cot for your baby, no connections to the outside world, and £5.75 to live on a day. That’s just enough for an all-day bus ticket, but that’s also to cover your food, your toiletries, any medicine that you need. So, a lot of our work now is about plugging as many of those gaps as we can.”
The use of hotels, Hales insists, is a misnomer. In reality, the facilities that have been taken over to house refugees act more like prisons, and holiday vibes are very hard to come by.
“The most depressing thing about hotels is that those people aren’t expected to live on £5 a day – because their food is provided at the hotel, the authorities remove their asylum benefit, so the people housed there are given no money at all. All of their freedom is taken away, and that’s really why people are being put in hotel detention. It’s a cost saving exercise that has been justified as a safety measure.”
The inference is that people are being housed in luxury, I suggest. Yes, Hales agrees, but in reality, “The hotel environment is hideous. You’re restricted to a single room. Your food is provided in a sort of shared canteen space. The food we’ve been sent pictures of is quite often a plate of roast potatoes, a slice of cheese, and if you’re lucky, some tinned vegetable. That’s what constitutes being given a meal. You’re then not given access to asylum support, so you have no freedom to buy your own food. Because you’ve got a roof over your head and you’re not supposed to go anywhere, you don’t then need additional clothing or anything else. So, it’s another product of the rights removal process. And it’s simpler to do when everybody’s detained under one roof. It’s a very long way from what we think of as a hotel.
“People were moved in, people with families. One of the people that was hurt at the Park Inn was a 17-year-old minor. He should never have been placed in a hotel environment without additional support, yet he was. The housing provider in Glasgow said that there were no families or pregnant people that had been put into hotels. Seven pregnant people were found to be living in hotels after they did the investigation into Park Inn.”
Violence and despair
The case had a huge emotional impact on Hales and her staff. “Horrific doesn’t even cut it,” she says now. “The most horrifying thing about it is how unsurprised anybody who works in this field was. There’s that awful period of time everybody is waiting for names to hit the press. But to our team, it didn’t really matter who was involved because we all know a hundred different men in this city who were feeling that isolated, that vulnerable, that unsupported and that close to breaking point. Whether we knew them directly or indirectly or not at all made not a zip of difference to how much it hurt to know that person had been pushed to that place.”
For Hales’ team, one of the major frustrations of the hotel system has been that volunteers are often barred from entering the buildings to deliver support they’ve been asked for. “We do hotel-specific food packs, stuff that can be made with only a kettle. But the housing provider in Glasgow, Mears, has refused entry to a lot of volunteers and refused delivery of those packs. They said that they’ve done an investigation into whether or not people are happy with the meals that they’re provided, failing to recognise that they are seen as a figure of authority. That if they knock on someone’s door, wearing a lanyard, a refugee will often say everything’s fine. Authority figures are very often terrifying to people who have fled their own country.”
From Hales to the Home Secretary, the one thing everyone involved in immigration agrees on is that urgent reform is needed. There though, the consensus ends. So, what one change of approach does Hales believe could create immediate benefits? “The de-privatisation of the housing contract,” she says, without hesitation.
“The biggest, biggest issue is housing, and the fact that it’s being used by the private sector to make profit. The UK government decided it was a good idea to privatise that contract and give it to the cheapest bidder, and then the whole thing fell apart and people ended up being housed in bedsits. People ended up with no front doors, being told to just prop things against them. With rats that they were too scared to tell housing officers about because they thought it would affect their asylum claim.
“The list of things that have been tolerated is endless and all of it started with the privatisation of that contract. No local authority is perfect, but if the control was given back to local authorities, I think it would create huge change. Because they’ve never been running a business. They’ve always been running a community service and that’s a massive difference.”
Instead, the private housing system currently in place helps few and hurts many, she insists, not least the hotel staff forced to deny entry. “The staff that work in those hotels didn’t apply for jobs as detention officers. They applied for jobs in hospitality and they now find themselves working in a space that is basically being used to detain people. Hotel staff were hurt in the Park Inn incident as well as other people staying in the hotel. We are putting everyone at risk with this set-up.”
Education, education, education
The asylum debate seems to have become more combative than ever in recent weeks. As TV news crews chase down boats and MPs debate the use of wave machines, it would be easy to believe that we are living through a crisis. In fact, the number of new asylum cases being lodged in the UK fell by 23 per cent in the first six months of 2020, compared to 2019.
For Hales, it’s just one example of how hard it can be for people to seek out facts and form an educated opinion. Social media, she says, can be as much a hindrance as a help.
“A lot of people have to step out of the echo chamber of negativity that you’re surrounded with by the news. For us in Refuweegee, we have to step out of the echo chamber of positivity. We’re an organisation that attracts the people who want to make change happen, to make our communities a nicer place for everybody.
“We receive beautiful letters from children and adults every single day. We are overwhelmed by donations to the point that we are constantly refusing stuff. So, it’s very, very easy for us to go, ‘Glasgow’s wonderful. We’ve just got this down. Everyone’s so nice’.
“But step outside that bubble for a second, and you realise you don’t really get an honest answer to people’s experience of the city until you have built a certain level of trust with them.
“Once you’ve known people for about six to eight months, you start to realise that there is not a single person of colour in this city who hasn’t experienced a form or racism. We see the response from people who can and want to help, and that’s not generally from the areas of the city with the highest poverty levels, which is where the refugee community are put.
“So, there’s still huge amounts of work to be done and we have to step out of our bubble and acknowledge we’re still learning as well.”
While that can feel like an endless task, for Hales, the motivation to keep going comes, not from the horror stories, but from the moments of light. Last month, her team was contacted by the support worker for the 17-year-old boy injured at the Park Inn. He’d just been moved into a flat, butil needed food.
Keen to do more than just feed him, the Refuweegee team did a bit of digging, found out the teen liked Disney, and sent along a small TV and some DVDs with his food parcel. The reaction, she says, was overwhelming.
“The whole team ended up in tears afterwards. And those are the moments you cling onto. It’s not about the horrific thing that happened to make people realise these are just humans, like us, who need help. It’s the moment you realise that sometimes, all it takes is Moana DVD to totally change somebody’s entire outlook. Those moments are beautiful, and it feels very, very special to get even just a little glimpse of that.”
To learn more about Refuweegee’s work, or to support the charity, click here