The Home Office was forced last week to concede that human rights may have been breached while it kept hundreds of asylum seekers in disused army camps. It now also faces questions over fresh allegations of abuse of asylum seekers staying in hotels – amid increasing criticism of the contractors it uses.
A media probe by ITV and the Observer over the weekend featured allegations of intimidation and sexual harassment of asylum seekers by staff while staying in hotels, as well as evidence of hotel employees being both exploited and underpaid.
Punishments have included evicting them, leaving them to sleep outdoors despite the cold winter weather
With a record high backlog of asylum claims waiting to be processed, the Home Office has temporarily been keeping several thousand asylum seekers in networks of low-cost hotels.
Controversially, it has also placed hundreds of asylum seekers in disused army barracks despite complaints from local authorities and human rights groups.
Much of the management of asylum accommodation has been contracted to a small number of companies like Clearsprings Ready Homes, despite having chequered reputations that have been widely reported in the press.
Clearsprings in turn subcontracts work to companies like Stay Belvedere Hotels Ltd, which handles asylum accommodation in around 50 hotels. It’s now in the spotlight of the investigation after staff told the investigators of their work schedules, in some cases showing 6-day weeks of twelve hour shifts and well-below minimum-wage pay.
Another major form of intimidation has revolved around hotel staff setting rules over whether or not the asylum can leave the hotel
While it was reported earlier this month that Clearsprings has government contracts worth £10bn over ten years, hotel staff told ITV and the Observer under conditions of anonymity of wages below £5.80 per hour (showing payslips) and being threatened with redundancy when complaining.
It also emerged that many of the underpaid staff were foreign nationals and students from South Asia breaking their 20-hour visa work-limit restriction rules, while in constant fear of losing their jobs.
Meanwhile, allegations of sexual harassment have ranged from unwelcome advances and behaviour towards vulnerable women but also included use of master keys to enter rooms uninvited. With the privacy invasions, women, who may have fled trauma have told of feeling ‘unsafe’ at hotels.
Another major form of intimidation has revolved around hotel staff setting rules over whether or not the asylum can leave the hotel and for how long, or in some cases obliging them to explain where they’re going. Punishments have included evicting them, leaving them to sleep outdoors despite the cold winter weather.
The rules, often pinned as notices, may have little relation to national lockdown rules, in some cases bearing threats of calling the Home Office or police as disciplinary action for leaving the hotel for over an hour – a threat clearly intended to intimidate.
A general complaint has also been over food which is frequently described as of the cheapest, least nutritious kind in minuscule proportions.
While Clearsprings has said it will be investigating the claims, MPs will also be urging the government to investigate Clearsprings, which is also the contractor managing the two disused army barracks that have held 600 asylum seekers since September.
Both camps have been heavily criticised for inadequate and unhealthy, multiply-shared living conditions leading to a much-feared coronavirus outbreak at one camp in Kent, where a fire also occurred.
In a high court hearing last Tuesday, the Home Office admitted that it had disregarded advice given by Public Health England in September that the barracks were not ‘suitable’ for being used, and that use of the barracks could have been in breach of the asylum seekers’ human rights.