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‘Punched, chased and abused in the street’: Asylum seekers living in terror at riot-hit hotel

‘The hotel staff tell us we’re safe at the hotel, but whatever happens to us outside the hotel is our responsibility,’ one victim tells Lizzie Dearden as police investigate 15 incidents

Saturday 29 April 2023 13:47 BST
Police outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley, Merseyside, after protesters demonstrated against asylum seekers staying at the hotel
Police outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley, Merseyside, after protesters demonstrated against asylum seekers staying at the hotel (PA)

Asylum seekers living at a Merseyside hotel are being subjected to violence and abuse after the site was thrown into the spotlight by a violent protest earlier this year.

People living at the Suites Hotel in Knowsley have been targeted in a wave of attacks – in which they were punched, chased by mopeds, and verbally abused in the street – following an anti-migrant riot on 10 February.

Police have recorded 15 crimes against asylum seekers and staff since the disorder broke out, with many residents now too scared to go outside.

More than two months on, a victim called Ali* told The Independent: “We have no idea what will happen, and when we ask the people in the hotel, they give us no information.

“They have increased the number of security guards at the hotel, and they’re always guarding the door. We can’t even leave to buy groceries. The hotel staff tell us we’re safe at the hotel, but whatever happens to us outside the hotel is our responsibility and they cannot provide our safety outside.”

Another asylum seeker living at the Suites Hotel said: “We feel a state of despair and panic as a result of the recent events, and the situation is getting worse as we can no longer leave the hotel.

“In the beginning, it was limited to insults and racist insults, until it came to severe beatings.”

Home Office contractors have increased security measures and advised residents not to leave the hotel after dark for their own safety following the February protest, which saw a police van set alight and angry crowds throw fireworks and missiles at police.

The protest was sparked by unsubstantiated rumours that a man living at the hotel had inappropriately approached a teenage girl, and came weeks after far-right group Britain First filmed the Suites Hotel as part of a pattern of similar stunts.

Ali, a 25-year-old Iranian man, told how he was attacked as he made his way to a hospital appointment on 24 February.

He said he was approached by a man and a woman who blocked his way and started shouting insults. He added: “The man was holding a water bottle and threw it at me. Afterwards, I didn’t even go to the hospital and returned to the hotel to report the incident.”

Ali, who fled Iran late last year after being caught writing anti-regime graffiti during a wave of protests, said he did not know that he was being smuggled to the UK and feared he was going to die crossing the Channel on a small boat in the middle of winter.

He said he was given no information on where he was being taken after being rescued at sea and brought ashore, and was initially kept in a London hotel before being moved to Knowsley.

Police van set on fire in violent protests outside Knowsley hotel housing asylum seekers

“They told us to get on the bus. Even though we asked them where they were taking us, they said they didn’t know,” Ali said. “Then we were transferred to the Suites Hotel.”

He was not aware of any problems before the protest in February, and said everything had felt “normal” until the violence broke out.

Ali heard about the social media video that sparked the demonstration, and does not blame local people, saying: “I assume they felt their families were in danger. I’m not saying only we are [in the] right and have this right to live a normal, safe life.

“They’re also right, and their concerns make sense. Maybe our arrival disrupted their lives. Because we couldn’t understand English, we couldn’t say anything.”

Ali said that from that day on, reports have trickled in about people being attacked while away from the hotel, while Home Office contractors have held security briefings and advised residents not to go out after dark.

“We are always stressed when we have to leave the hotel,” he added. “When we go out, they threaten us and look at us angrily. We no longer feel safe.”

Ali has not yet had an asylum interview and has been given no information about the progress of his claim, which is among almost 140,000 in a Home Office backlog. The backlog has been worsened by failing attempts by the department to declare the claims of people who arrived on small boats “inadmissible”.

Ali’s request to be moved away from the area has been refused by the Home Office, and several asylum seekers are preparing to launch legal action over similar decisions.

Last week, the first case heard at the High Court saw judges rule that an Afghan man who had previously survived kidnap and torture must be transferred out of the Suites Hotel for his own safety.

The court heard that he had started self-harming during the protest, and was prevented from killing himself by fellow asylum seekers. Following the protest, he was filmed and spat at outside the hotel.

A police van was set alight and fireworks were thrown during the protest outside the hotel in Knowsley (PA Wire)

The man’s lawyers told The Independent that he had been punched in the face by a man on an electric bike while walking back from a corner shop earlier this month.

Other similar incidents include a violent attack on 27 February, when two asylum seekers on their way back from a doctor’s appointment were attacked by “up to five men”.

Volunteers from the Care4Calais charity were told that both men suffered injuries and needed medical treatment. It now arranges taxis for vital appointments.

The following day, police were called when another Suites Hotel resident was attacked by two men “on electric bikes and armed with batons”. Both incidents are being treated as hate crimes.

On 15 March, another resident reported that he had been violently attacked by someone on a moped and was chased back to the hotel.

Care4Calais has received other reports of verbal abuse, and believes some asylum seekers have not reported incidents to the police because they are too afraid, or believe no action will be taken.

The charity’s founder, Clare Moseley, said: “The one thing that all refugees have in common is that something truly terrible happened to them to bring them to our shores.

“That further abuse and harassment should occur here is deeply disturbing. Given the shocking scenes at Knowsley in February, it is a scandal that no steps have been taken to relocate this group of refugees.”

Merseyside Police told The Independent that 15 crimes against residents and staff at the Suites Hotel had been recorded since 10 February.

Police in riot gear after a demonstration outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley on 10 February (PA Wire)

Superintendent Karl Baldwin said: “These incidents are being robustly investigated, and each is completely inexcusable. For residents and staff connected to the premises to be targeted is wrong. We will continue to work closely with the premises, as well as our partners, residents and communities, to ensure all information is acted upon.”

Supt Baldwin hit out at the “rumour and misinformation” stoking local anger, after police said a man arrested over the incident that sparked the protest was not living at the Suites Hotel.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The welfare of asylum seekers in our care is of the utmost importance, and we work closely with the police and our contractors to make sure appropriate safety measures are in place.

“Whenever we seek to use sites for asylum accommodation, we engage with the local police and other stakeholders to ensure the safety of residents and the wider community. We continually review the security at asylum accommodation sites with providers.”

A spokesperson for contractor Serco said its staff had not imposed a curfew at the Suites Hotel but had issued advice to residents.

*name changed to protect anonymity

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