Asylum seekers as young as 16 years old claim they have been prevented from leaving their Home Office hotels for days in conditions an expert described as “effective detention”, an investigation has found.
People who have crossed the Channel to seek refuge in the UK have been taken to “short-term stay hotels” for interviews and have said they were told they could not leave in a potential breach of the law.
The Home Office said migrants stay at the hotels for 48 hours on average while completing screening when it hasn’t been possible to complete checks at holding facilities in Kent, and claimed they “can come and go freely as they wish”.
But a joint investigation by The Independent and Liberty Investigates has unearthed accounts from 10 asylum seekers who alleged their movements were restricted at two hotels – one in Hounslow, near Heathrow airport, and a second near Gatwick.
The Humans for Rights Network (HFRN) said it had received pleas for help from seven “distressed” young people at the Hounslow hotel, whom it believed were minors but whose ages were disputed by the Home Office. Three of them claimed to have been stuck inside the hotel for two weeks.
Three adults also claimed to have been restricted, while an NGO worker who visited a third hotel in Slough claimed to have witnessed guards “push” an adult asylum seeker back through the front entrance as he attempted to leave.
Experts said the alleged restrictions on movement amounted to “a form of incarceration”, bringing into question Home Office claims that “no one in [short stay] hotels is detained”.
The Home Office would not confirm how many short-term stay hotels it is operating, or how many people had stayed in them. But two asylum seekers staying at the Hounslow hotel claimed to have been among hundreds accommodated there since May, while an asylum seeker at the Gatwick hotel reported seeing dozens come and go.
Maddie Harris, director of HFRN, claimed that seven suspected unaccompanied children were “deprived of their basic rights” while staying at the Hounslow hotel alongside adults they did not know.
All claim to be aged 16 or 17, but officials in Dover deemed them adults after a “rapid” assessment upon arrival in the UK, Harris said. The charity is supporting them to undergo full age assessments.
Under-18s must be housed by local authorities in regulated accommodation or in specific child-only hotels. But the young people were instead transported to Hounslow the day after arriving by small boat – all between 19 July and 16 August – where they recalled being told they could not leave until their screening interviews were over: up to two weeks in some cases, the charity said.
The Home Office denied that children were placed in adult short-stay hotels and said individuals claiming to be children were placed in hotels for adults only if an initial age assessment had concluded they were over the age of 18.
Adults with potential vulnerabilities and medical issues were also among those who claimed they had had their movements restricted.
Qudrat Hijrat, 29, was taken to the Hounslow hotel after arriving in Britain in a small boat and claimed to have spent more than two months there. During this time, he was witnessed by reporters being stopped by security as he attempted to leave to pray at a mosque.
The Afghan asylum seeker was eventually allowed out after a guard radioed colleagues, but he claimed to have been sent back inside on other occasions.
This led to him spending much of his time isolated in his bedroom, compounding his depression. “I [was] going mad,” he said. “At least [they] should let me go somewhere and walk around and meet with people.”
A Syrian asylum seeker who stayed at the same hotel, but did not wish to be named, said he was told he couldn’t go outside until he’d completed an initial interview the following day, and then only after 5pm.
Stay Belvedere Hotels Limited (SBHL), which manages the hotel on behalf of Home Office contractor Clearsprings Ready Homes, and Jaguar Security Limited, which provides security staff to the hotel, declined to comment and referred requests to the Home Office.
Another asylum seeker showed reporters a document he received at the Gatwick hotel, which at that time was managed by private firm Serco. It stated: “You are free to leave the hotel whenever you like.” But it also said he would “have to ask security on your floor”, whom he claimed would often refuse permission.
“There were days where we had to wait three hours for them to let us go out,” he said. “Staying in a room for [five] days, having nothing to do, and not knowing what’s going to come next – it was difficult.”
A Serco spokesman said asylum seekers were given full access in and out of the hotel but did not respond to questions on whether security guards had refused requests to leave on some occasions.
Lawyer Pierre Makhlouf, legal director at the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees, said that the alleged restrictions at the hotels “cannot be justified” and suggested that among security contractors there was “confusion about what is reasonable and lawful”.
“This means these asylum seekers are effectively being detained, or are being led to believe they are being detained, in these hotels for days. That is a form of incarceration that cannot be justified,” he said.
In response to allegations about the restriction of movement at the hotels, a Home Office spokesperson said: “No one in hotels is detained, including those on immigration bail. To suggest otherwise is wrong.”
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