Revealed: ‘Appalling’ reality of healthcare inside the Home Office’s asylum hotels

GPs and healthcare workers have told The Independent about a catalogue of problems asylum seekers face, from lack of maternity care to dentistry

Holly Bancroft
Saturday 10 December 2022 18:35 GMT
‘Shortage of safe and legal routes’ for migrants, Suella Braverman told by Tory MP

Asylum seekers in hotels are being left without access to adequate healthcare, leaving torture injuries untreated, children suffering weight loss, and pregnant women without maternity services, doctors have warned.

Healthcare workers told The Independent of extreme cases such as children who had multiple teeth pulled out due to lack of dental care, as well as adults suffering from PTSD and suicidal thoughts.

The Refugee Council branded the cases “appalling” and warned that “prolonged, agonising stays in hotel accommodation is increasingly damaging to people’s health”, while the British Medical Association (BMA) warned there is a “growing body of evidence” on the impact of inadequate housing conditions.

More than 37,000 asylum seekers are being housed in hotels, the Home Office says, with 10,276 adults and children waiting more than three years for a decision on their claim.

Many asylum seekers are placed in hotels by Home Office contractors without anyone notifying the local authorities or support services. This means that it can be months before people are referred to GPs or hospitals for any necessary healthcare treatment.

The number housed in these hotels has dramatically increased in the last three years. There were 1,490 asylum seekers in such accommodation at the end of 2019, but this jumped to 26,380 by the end of 2021, and 10 per cent of these were children.

All asylum seekers, regardless of accommodation, should have the same access to free NHS services in the same way as British citizens and other permanent residents.

However, with a weekly allowance of just £8.24, many cannot even afford the bus fare to get to A&E or basic medication such as paracetamol. Language barriers are also an issue, with many GPs lacking adequate translation services. Some hotels also fail to provide residents with information on how to link up with local services.

Asylum seekers being housed at a Crowne Plaza hotel, as they wait for their asylum claims to be processed

The criticism comes after it was revealed dozens of migrants with suspected diphtheria have been moved from Manston processing centre in Kent to hotels around the country. Fifty migrants tested positive for toxigenic C. diphtheriae from 1 January to 25 November this year, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.

Clinicians have now told The Independent about the complex health needs they are coming across and claim hotel accommodation can make them worse.

Examples include children with abscesses in their mouth from lack of dental care and one person who developed a bone infection from an untreated bullet wound to the leg.

The Home Office also frequently moves people between hotels in different parts of the country, further exacerbating their problems with access to healthcare, a new report from charity MedAct found.

A spokesperson for the department insisted that asylum seekers “have access to health and social care services from the point of arrival in the UK”.

Concerns about the health of asylum seekers has been raised after an outbreak of diphtheria at Manston processing centre in Kent

But Dr Jan Wise, chair of the BMA’s medical ethics committee, said: “Instead of providing safe treatment, the government’s solution is to pile trauma on trauma, squeezing people into unsuitable and ever more overcrowded facilities.

“The government must urgently improve the living circumstances of migrants and asylum seekers and ensure that they are adequately safeguarded and provided with essential access to healthcare.

“However, the chronic lack of investment in the NHS undoubtedly plays a part in these delays, which is why the government must do all it can to properly resource the system.”

Mark Davies, head of campaigns at the Refugee Council, said: “We are concerned by these utterly appalling cases, though sadly to some extent unsurprised.

“We have long raised concerns about people seeking asylum being trapped for long periods within the confines of hotel rooms where they suffer from having very limited access to the vital services they need, including health advice and ongoing support.

“Our own research shows clearly that prolonged, agonising stays in hotel accommodation is increasingly damaging to people’s health and wellbeing, causing depression and even suicidal ideation amongst many, even children.”

Home secretary Suella Braverman has been criticised for her handling of the migrant crisis

Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem MP and home affairs spokesperson, said the Home Office “does not have a grip on our asylum system”.

“This national shame rests on the shoulders of Suella Braverman,” he said. “The prime minister must commit to a full-scale national inquiry into the way these vulnerable people have been treated by this Conservative government.”

Last week Ms Braverman admitted the current rate of processing asylum claims was too low and the system was too slow, with caseworkers currently making just one decision a week on average.

But the Home Office said it does offer help to people coming to the UK as their claims are dealt with.

A spokesperson said: “We provide asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute with secure, free, fully furnished accommodation, three meals a day and a weekly allowance.

Asylum seekers struggle to access basic medication because they only receive £8 a week to spend

“Asylum seekers have access to health and social care services from point of arrival in the UK and we work closely with the NHS, local authorities and contractors to ensure that asylum seekers can access the support they need.

“This includes ensuring support is in place for pregnant women and those with newborns.”

Torture victims

Medical staff say they often see patients with horrific injuries from war, who need specialist treatment that is hard to access.

“Torture wounds that have never been addressed – some people have been electrocuted in the private parts and have problems passing urine,” one GP told The Independent. “They’ve had head injuries so they’ve got permanent headaches. One had osteomyelitis due to a bullet wound in the leg.

“One chap had his [diabetes] medication taken away when he arrived in the country and he was really sick. I told him he needed to go to hospital and he asked: ‘How far is it?’ Because he had to walk – it was about five miles. This is their reality.”

‘You are going against the grain of everything else that has been set up for these people,’ one GP said

Mental health

Mental health concerns are also widespread, clinicians said.

Dr Frank Arnold, an independent doctor and member of MedAct, said: “There is also a huge instance of traumatisation, PTSD and depression among hotel residents.”

One nurse, who works across six hotels in London that house between 150 and 350 people each, said: “Every single person is depressed or has anxiety or is suffering from PTSD.”

“You are so stuck. You can’t say ‘this is going to get better’ because you have no idea. There are people who have been waiting for two years for an asylum decision,” she said.

Poor diet

Asylum seekers being housed at a hotel near Heathrow as they wait for their asylum claims to be processed, protest over their living conditions and the length of time the claims process is taking

Asylum seekers can only eat what the hotel provides, leading to widespread concerns about quality of food, clinicians said.

A report by MedAct found food was a recurring issue impacting health, with complaints including children losing weight or not receiving breakfast.

In one case, a woman was unable to eat the hotel food because she had gallstones.

Disrupted maternity care

Asylum seekers also get moved at short notice, which can disrupt their healthcare.

“I had a lady who was a cancer patient, who had all her oncology treatment under one hospital. She was moved to the other side of London so she had to start all her services again,” the London nurse said.

One 24-week pregnant woman had received no access to maternity services before their team started visiting the hotel, she said.

David Gardner, a barrister at No 5 chambers, said he regularly supports pregnant women who are trying to challenge the Home Office on the suitability of their accommodation.

“Requiring someone who is pregnant to stay in a single room in a hotel for the entire period of their pregnancy is manifestly inadequate,” he said.

Jane Henson, who supports a number of hotels in Nottingham, said the Home Office often puts the accommodation in areas far away from support services.

She said pregnant asylum seekers in her area were well supported, but added: “The worst thing is the length of time they are there. They are stuck in their rooms, families together, and it’s hell.”

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