Revealed: the harsh realities of life for vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers. Part 1

Photo (cropped) by Alisdare Hickson Wikimedia Commons

This is part one of two transcripts of interviews conducted by one of our local readers with a local volunteer doing what they can to mitigate the challenges faced by those demonised by Suella Braverman and this government. We are not naming either the interviewer or the interviewee lest this lead to repercussions. It’s appalling that we have to even consider that to be a possibility. Another volunteer we spoke to recently said that volunteers and charity workers will not speak out for fear of being denied access to the people who need their help and punishment for those refugees who do anything other than meekly submit to their fate. Many of these people have fled war, persecution and the effects of the climate crisis. What was that about a society being judged on how it treats the weakest members? Shame on us.

[Transcribed painstakingly by one of our proof readers, Anna Andrews, the interviews are largely verbatim, with only the inevitable hesitations, repetitions and incomplete sentences edited out to assist clarity and flow. ]

So how did you get involved initially with the asylum seekers?
I was doing some voluntary work for a local charity and we heard that there were asylum seekers in the area and some came to see us, and then we ended up going in to the hotel; we were there right at the beginning when they first arrived, so we were able to access the hotel fairly easily and take clothes for them and so on; there was no-one else going in.

Were they brought here on buses?
Yes, they were all brought down from London; not everyone had the same history, but basically they arrive in the country, they get processed, held and then dispersed to hotels.

What support did the local authority give?
Well, eventually – after months – they sort-of designated someone from a local community development trust-type thing … but, again, they didn’t really provide any funding.

How many asylum seekers were in the two hotels where you were volunteering?
Approximately a hundred in each.

Families? Single people?
In one hotel it was children, families and single people – over-18s – and couples over 18; and in the other it was just males over 18.

And what sort of support did social services give?

But they have a legal obligation!
Well, even with referrals – and there were some – still nothing was done.

What about the local MP?
Again, nothing. Well – he was actively opposed to the hotels, so therefore he actively discouraged any support, and wouldn’t help in any way.

And we discussed a comment that somebody in the local MP’s office made …
Because the children were being moved from the hotel in the middle of a school term, the request to the MP was: ‘can we at least allow them to finish their year in school’– after it had taken us three months to get them into school in the first place – ‘let them finish the year’. The secretarial aide finally got back to me and he basically said, “Kevin Foster is taking it to the highest people he can in government, but it’s not going to happen”. And then he said, word for word: “Yeah, it’s unfortunate that the children are being penalised for their parents’ actions.”

So there’s no kind of recognition of the fact that there’s a mother who’s brought three children over the Channel in a small boat to save their lives?

No, no, no. What he was saying was, basically, that they shouldn’t be here.

So how do you feel about the Ukrainian refugees? They’ve had a massive welcome here.
Well, rightly so, that should be extended to all refugees. Again, I’ve asked for support from a few local charities which have been supporting Ukrainians, and there’s been little-to-no response. And when I asked someone, “what’s the difference between these people fleeing war and those people fleeing war?” the answer was, “well, Ukrainians are more like us, they’re European”. There was a lot of money put aside for the Ukrainians – thousands of pounds for uniform for the Ukrainian children.

For school uniform?
Yes. For the Ukrainian children.

So what about the children in the hotels?
I approached [the charity] and said, ‘obviously, the same principle applies. They need school uniforms too.’ Eventually they agreed, but originally they said the money was only for Ukrainians.

You had to fight for it.
Yes. And then the uniforms that they were given were not good enough.

That’s so sad.
But the numbers of people coming from Sudan, from Syria, are actually quite small compared with the number of Ukrainians and the people from Hong Kong who have been invited to come over here – the numbers are quite small. Do you feel this group are being deliberately targeted?

Yes, absolutely. Yes. And it’s not just a ‘feel’; it’s evidenced, you know; there is purposely no safe route for them to come. And it’s not illegal, though they are referred to as illegal. The language they’re using is deliberate. And three years ago, Priti Patel put a stop to processing claims – I don’t know the exact figures but ,previously, I think, about 80 per cent of applications would be approved in, six months to a year? Now we’re only processing five per cent in a year. So the backlog has been purposely created.

The Ukrainians’ applications were processed within 24 weeks.
And that should be standard across the board, the same for everyone. There are people now in hotels who’ve been there, waiting, for three years. Some of the people I’ve been working with have been there for a year.

And they haven’t been processed.
No, nothing. No movement. I’ve asked them if they know anyone who’s been processed. I’ve heard of one or two who have been processed and accepted – the majority of people are accepted eventually – so what we’re doing is [just deliberately] delaying … it’s a political move…
They’re being used as a political tool, and it’s a hostile environment. That was the plan, wasn’t it? [To create] quite a hostile environment, so people won’t come here… But the government clearly don’t understand what people are leaving, and yet they’ve had this terrific understanding about Ukraine: lots of charity, lots of love. And then you’ve got two hotels full of people that it would seem nobody cares about…

Can I just ask you what the conditions were like in the hotel? About their food, what money they get?
Ok, so, the hotels: people seem to believe that these asylum seekers are staying in these lovely hotels with, you know, a menu – a menu! – for breakfast, lunch and dinner; but these are run-down hotels that generally aren’t fit for purpose – well, maybe not all of them, but that’s my experience. They’re run-down – might have been used during lockdown for homeless people but they’re not functioning tourist hotels; a lot of them are in a state of disrepair. I went into one and the roof had fallen in and there was water coming in – in the food area; damp.
Most of the usual hotel facilities aren’t available – the kitchens are closed, so there aren’t any cooking facilities. Food is brought in daily – initially it was brought from London. They did change that so it came from somewhere closer, but still a few hours’ drive. And the food that’s brought in every day is microwave portions, so all you have is a row of microwaves in the hotel so that people can heat up the food themselves. And there’s fruit available, and tea, coffee, water.

So these are microwave meals – could you live on them?
No, they’re small. If you think of a takeaway-size meal … it’s hot… but they’re small. And they’re poor quality; I wouldn’t feed the meals to my child.

Do they make any concessions to dietary requirements?
Not really; everything’s halal. Apart from that, they expect a doctor’s letter. Even if you said, ‘I don’t want to drink cows’ milk’, you wouldn’t get any alternative unless you had an official letter saying you’re allergic. It was just bog-standard. No choice. At set times of the day.
I’ve seen the food: very poor quality. It was rice or pasta, or some sort of potato. And same, same, same. And I saw people losing weight, you know? And then the money –

Yes – the money. The government website says that everyone gets £47 a week; but from what you’ve told me, it doesn’t differentiate between people in private accommodation and people in the hotels. And many of the people coming on the boats end up in the hotels, don’t they? So the £47 – that’s only for people who are in private accommodation?
Yes, if you’re in a hotel and your meals are provided, you get £9.10 a week. And most people in the hotels use that to subsidise their food.

What about if you’ve got a baby – is there any extra?
If the child is under three, you get an extra £2 or £3; under five – it’s a few pounds.

So this family that we’ve talked about: there were three children; would they get £9.10 for each child?
Yes, it’s per child and that would go to the parents.

And that has to cover absolutely everything.

The only things the hotel would provide are food, soap, toothpaste, and toothbrush; women would get sanitary towels, babies would get nappies. That’s it. So everything, anything, else, you needed, you’d have to buy.

Schools for the children: how is that sorted out?
Well, that was a battle. It’s a bit of a loophole because the government say there’s no duty on a local authority to provide education for children if they are in what is deemed to be temporary accommodation, or ‘initial’ – which in theory should mean a few days. The reality is, people are staying in ‘temporary’ places for months and months – years. So it took three months for the children to access education, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and people not actually knowing what the rules and laws are …

Were you the kind of conduit for this?
Yes, I had a lot of conversations with the council.

With huge thanks to both participants. Look out for part two.