Today
Wed 3 March 2021

Sian Norris reports on the photos shared by a charity which expose the struggle of people seeking asylum living in temporary accommodation

Images circulated on social media by the charity West London Welcome have raised concerns about the food provision given to families seeking asylum and living in temporary accommodation such as hotels. 

The photos show a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, the same dish being served repeatedly over consecutive days, or food that is too spicy for children to eat. 

“For as long as people seeking asylum are in temporary accommodation, the food needs to be nutritious and fresh, with fresh fruit and vegetables, the kind you’d want your own child to eat,” Leyla Williams, deputy director of West London Welcome, told Byline Times.  

The charity runs a food bank for people seeking asylum as well as providing practical support and legal advice. 

The images were shared on the day the Guardian revealed that the company Clearsprings, which manages accommodation for people seeking asylum in the south of England, stands to earn £1 billion over 10 years for its work for the Government. 


Surviving on £8 a Week

Families and individuals seeking asylum are often housed in temporary hotel accommodation before being dispersed into Home Office housing around the UK. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has meant families often having to spend longer periods of time in temporary accommodation, with some people Williams supports living in hotels for “months on end”. 

Because people seeking asylum are provided three meals a day – or ‘full board’ – they are only entitled to receive £8 a week from the Home Office. Those who have been dispersed into community housing are entitled to £37.75 a week. 

People seeking asylum in the UK are not legally allowed to work or claim benefits such as Universal Credit. This means that families in hotels are entirely dependent on the food handed out by the accommodation provider and the £8 a week allowance. This £8 has to cover any additional expenses, from clothes to toiletries, as well as travel costs such as attending check-in appointments with the Home Office. 

“£8 a week is a very small amount of money,” Williams said. “And that only came into play in autumn last year. If they don’t eat the food provided they go hungry. We know families who have lost a lot of weight because they can’t eat the food. In the end, it’s a total lack of choice, people eat the food or go hungry.”

Williams and her organisation are particularly concerned about the provision of food for pregnant women and women with newborn babies. 

“You have pregnant women with no access to a kitchen, when you start thinking about sterilising and milk, the ability to care for your baby and yourself before giving birth, that’s when we become really worried,” she said. “We worry about everyone of course, but it’s a real issue for pregnant women who aren’t able to eat good food. We worry about the impact on their ability to have the vital healthy diet they need while breastfeeding.”

The food provision is also an issue of dignity for people seeking asylum, many of whom are vulnerable, traumatised and cut-off from society during a pandemic. 

“We are talking about some of the most vulnerable people in society,” Williams added. “You often have nothing but the clothes you arrived in. Sometimes the Home Office will have taken your mobile phone from you at the border. The one thing you have to look forward to is a hot nutritious meal. If you’re not even getting that, what does that mean for people? And what does it say about our society?”


A Catalogue of Controversies

The Home Office outsources asylum seeker accommodation in London and the south of England to Clearspring Ready Homes – an organisation which has faced controversy over its accommodation before. This has included the management of the Napier Barracks, which has been the subject of protests and criticised for its “prison-like” conditions. In January, a Coronavirus outbreak meant that nearly one in four residents at there tested positive for the Coronavirus. 

In December, a report by Corporate Watch exposed numerous issues with accommodation provided by Clearsprings, including “leaking plumbing, damp, broken fire alarms and electrical sockets, and infestations of cockroaches, rats and mice”. Its analysis found that the company was paid £68.7 million for its services in the year ending 31 January 2020. Its latest accounts show that the directors paid out a dividend of £1 million in November 2019 and £2 million was paid in the year to 31 January 2019. 

Clearsprings’ parent company, Clearsprings (Management) LTD, is owned and controlled by Essex businessman Graham King. Over the past five years, the company’s highest-paid director has taken home £3.6 million in salary and other employment benefits.


Vulnerable Residents 

The food provision for people seeking asylum in temporary accommodation points to wider concerns about the wellbeing of those being housed in hotels. 

“People need to be in safe housing, with kitchens they can cook in, in communities, not in hotels,” Williams insists. “We have women who have been trafficked or abused who don’t leave the room. Or they try and get away from the hotel as much as possible because it reminds them of their own history.” 

Williams is also concerned about women seeking asylum who may have endured gender-based violence and exploitation being housed in hotels with mostly male staff.

“The system is not set up in ways that care for vulnerable people and vulnerable women who often live in these places are in a state of anxiety and as a result ongoing trauma is exacerbated,” said told Byline Times.

Within the hotels, people seeking asylum support one another – both emotionally and practically. More confident women in the hotels, for example, advocate for other residents, including by requesting sanitary products from the male hotel staff. 

“People want to support each other,” Williams added. “That informal network of support from the wider migrant community is invaluable. I don’t know how people would be surviving without each other.”

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “As required by law, we provide asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute with free, fully furnished accommodation and cover their utility costs. They are provided with a choice of three meals a day in line with NHS nutrition guidelines, as well as access to fresh fruit and drinking water all day.”

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