Conservative, Labour and SNP MPs have raised the alarm about the “inefficient and inhumane” state of asylum housing in the UK, citing unequal distribution across the country, a dearth of adequate support for vulnerable people and “totally inappropriate” living conditions.
The politicians accused the Home Office of showing “poverty of ambition” to resolve the issues, describing Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration announced last month – which she says will “fix the broken asylum system” – as a “mess before it has begun”.
Thousands of asylum seekers have been placed in emergency hotels over the past year, often for months on end, amid mounting delays in the system, while hundreds of others have been placed in military barracks.
Under its plans, the department will introduce “reception centres”, which it says will provide asylum seekers with “simple, safe accommodation”, and it will attempt to deport those who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes. The vast majority of asylum seekers arrive via unauthorised routes.
The British Red Cross has published a report warning that asylum-seeking women, men and children were living in “unsafe, unsanitary and isolated” accommodation that fell “far short” of expected standards – and that the government’s plans would fail to address these issues.
During a parliamentary debate on Tuesday, Labour MP Neil Coyle said the UK’s asylum system was “inhumane, inefficient and expensive”, adding that the use of disused barracks to house asylum seekers marked a “shameful episode” for the Home Office.
He warned that criminals were “benefiting from Home Office policy”, describing cases where organised crime groups had “targeted” asylum seekers in government-funded premises to engage them in illegal work including drug trafficking.
Mr Coyle said: “The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government [MHCLG] might be better placed to provide some supported accommodation and local authorities are often overlooked by this authoritarian centralised government.”
Tory MP Jack Brereton complained about the unequal distribution of asylum accommodation, saying his constituency in Stoke-on-Trent had “contributed far more than most areas, but we can only take so much”.
He added: “There has been a tendency to place people in areas with low-value housing just because it’s cheaper. Yet the consequences of doing so and the impact on local services is stark. The council has found itself challenging totally inappropriate accommodation.
“Right now, on average, one person in every 250 of Stoke-on-Trent population is an asylum seeker. In one area of my constituency, it’s closer to one in 80. In some parts of the city as high as one in 30 ... There are numerous local authority areas which have not resettled a single refugee.”
Last month, seven council leaders in the West Midlands, including Stoke-on-Trent, wrote a letter to the home secretary informing her they were suspending participation in the asylum dispersal scheme.
The letter, covered by The Independent, expressed “alarm” at the fact that a significant number of new asylum seekers were to be imminently placed in their areas, despite the fact that they already exceed the recommended ratio of one asylum seeker to 200 local residents.
James Sunderland, Conservative MP for Bracknell in Berkshire, said the asylum accommodation situation had become “out of control” and that more than 200 asylum-seeking families were due to be placed in his constituency, despite concerns over fire safety and overcrowding.
He added: “We need a faster more robust asylum system. I regret, however, that the model being pursued by the government ... is not the answer. We will take our share, but we also need a sense of perspective.”
Conservative MP and former immigration minister Caroline Nokes said Home Office plans to create a new asylum facility on a military site near Barton Stacey, a village in her constituency, were “deeply suspect”.
She said: “Barton Stacey is not only remote from services such as running water, but it’s adjacent to a dual carriageway for poor safety record. It’s also next to an MoD firing range and a shooting school, so those seeking refuge from war will listen to the sound of gunshot.”
Ms Nokes, who was immigration minister for 19 months until July 2019, said that although it was “challenging” to find suitable asylum accommodation, the Home Office should take an “integrated” approach, working closely with MHCLG and local authorities.
Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch raised concerns about ministers’ plan to introduce reception centres, saying it appeared to be a continuation of the “detention” style accommodation adopted at Napier Barracks in Kent, which is housing asylum seekers despite warnings from watchdogs and health bodies that the site is not fit for purpose.
She said: “My fear is that this is a policy choice from this government. It is clear to me that there has been a deliberate attempt to conflate asylum accommodation with immigration detention with the use of disused barracks to accommodate asylum seekers.”
Ms Lynch cited a recent article in The Independent revealing that, in a blow to Ms Patel’s plans, EU countries say they will not strike bilateral deals with Britain to facilitate the deportation of refugees to Europe.
She said: “This approach is utterly unworkable. We will see more people who are deserving of asylum not even have their claims considered, while trapped in an inadequate and inhumane system for longer, costing the government more money to deliver nothing but failure.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We always take the wellbeing of all those in the asylum system seriously. Temporary accommodation, including the use of hotels, has been necessary to help safely manage demands on the asylum estate during the pandemic.
“In line with our statutory duty, individuals in full board accommodation are provided with a choice of three meals a day in line with NHS nutrition guidelines, as well as access to fresh fruit and water. Those in self-catered accommodation receive a weekly payment to cover the cost of food and other essentials.
“Our New Plan for Immigration will reform the broken asylum system. We will welcome people through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse and reducing the pressures on the system created by parallel illegal routes.”
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