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20 March 2024

Inside Britain’s asylum backlog

Rishi Sunak claims he has cleared the “legacy” waiting list of claims and is emptying hotels. Thousands are still waiting.

By Anoosh Chakelian

I’ll always remember the first time I glimpsed the inside of an “asylum hotel”. Beyond the Channel-battered dinghies washing up on Kentish shingle, nothing encapsulates Britain’s bitter asylum stalemate better than the 350-odd hotels controversially commandeered by the Home Office across the UK. In June 2023 such hotels housed 50,546 people awaiting asylum decisions. Now costing £8.2m a day – an arrangement described in March by the former home secretary Priti Patel as “obviously not working” – these places have become temples of local resentment. Parties and weddings are cancelled at short notice as the hotels win government asylum contracts and clear their bookings.

To the public, the word “hotel” implies holiday and rest. But asylum hotels are no fun for anyone. While locals find them frustrating, asylum seekers are stuck in unfamiliar places with no work or direction. Unaccompanied minors are particularly vulnerable, according to the children’s commissioner for England Rachel de Souza, who found a “troubling” lack of safeguarding at these hotels and told me “they are not a place for children, particularly traumatised children”. Children have no space to play or do their homework, young people share rooms with older adults, and there are regular reports of poor hygiene, damp and cockroach infestations, Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz of the Praxis refugee charity told me.

In November 2022 a contact at one sent me some disturbing photos – the smooth, pudgy limbs of a four-year-old blotched with a galaxy of bed-bug bites. The boy was from El Salvador, fleeing gang violence with his teenage sisters and mother. Complaints were ignored: a hotel manager told the family to sleep “fully dressed”. They were also ill from eating the undercooked chicken repeatedly served by catering staff.

A smart Georgian terrace with white columns and hanging baskets flanking its entrance, their hotel looked on the outside like a decent place to stay for a weekend break – the kind that would supply a trouser press, shoehorn and serviceable scrambled eggs. But inside, dozens were miserably trapped. The family who sent me the images arrived in summer 2022 and are still there today, stuck in the same room on the outskirts of a populous English town I won’t name (asylum hotels have attracted riots and roadblocks). They have scars from the bed-bug bites, and anaemia after avoiding the food for so long.

Ministers claim to be closing asylum hotels – a recent pledge was to empty 50 by the end of January – but I discovered that in March the government quietly updated its plan published online to remove further such numerical targets. And new figures from the spending watchdog reveal the government’s recent attempts to move people from hotels into less hospitable barges and former barracks is costing £46m more than simply sticking with the hotels.

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Rishi Sunak insists he has achieved his aim to clear the “legacy backlog” of asylum claims made before June 2022 – ahead of his promise to “stop the boats”, alongside the Rwanda deportation scheme that returned to the Commons on 18 March. But thousands of asylum seekers from that time are still waiting. The UK Statistics Authority chair even warned the Prime Minister against losing “public trust” by misleadingly claiming he’d met his target.

Asylum seekers, lawyers and other insiders tell me the race to clear this “legacy” list has led to many cases suddenly being withdrawn, with people left in a status-less limbo or even ending up homeless. Overall, 98,599 cases remained unresolved as of January this year. As well as a dismal experience for those waiting, it worsens community tensions: asylum seekers cannot work and are often housed in poorer areas. I’ve heard of “government gazumping”, whereby the Home Office buys up rooms that councils have made offers on to provide temporary accommodation for their residents. As I found in August visiting the Bibby Stockholm, a barge docked at Dorset’s isle of Portland intended to sleep 506 men, some locals feel their new neighbours are getting something for nothing. One Pakistani on board, fleeing his country’s blasphemy laws, agreed. “We are doing nothing, and you’re paying for everything,” he told me. “Let us work, we want to pay taxes, help the economy.”

In a dank east London church, I recently met Rose, 21, a Cameroonian who applied for asylum in 2019. She wore a silver cross and black waterproof. “I’ve been waiting so long and don’t know where I stand, so it’s hard to do anything for myself or make plans,” she said. She couldn’t work, lived in a cramped shared room, and wept over how much she missed her daughter who she planned to bring over once she had settled here. “I learned English growing up. My grandma used to talk to me a lot about the UK and the Queen,” she said. “A place that’s fair where everyone has rights. But, like in Africa, you have to fight for your survival on your own here. It’s not so different.”

Hana, 23, left Syria to avoid being drafted into the Kurdish militia. She crossed through Turkey, Greece and Ireland to join her husband in Scotland, travelling by plane. Speaking in Arabic through an interpreter on a video call from Glasgow, she told me she was still awaiting a decision, having requested asylum in October 2022. “If it was granted, I would feel safer and I could learn English, continue my studies and apply for a job.”

Throughout these conversations, I reflected on my late dad’s own journey to London, where he ended up after escaping the Lebanese Civil War. Like so many I spoke to, he was fond of Britain, spoke good English, and already had a family member here – his brother. It was still tough. He worked illegally at first: as an usher in West End theatres, which meant a bonus cultural education as well as wages – talk about scrounging… But he wouldn’t recognise those grim hotels, nor today’s wilful bureaucratic blindness to war. His home country of choice, the one that gave him a passport, feels different now.

[See also: Why Reform’s rise is deadly for the Conservatives]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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