. Profits before People: Britain’s unjust housing system preys on asylum seekers | Ceasefire Magazine

Analysis | Profits before People: Britain’s unjust housing system preys on asylum seekers

The logic of asylum housing is simply an extension of the housing system in the UK more broadly. They are both underpinned by profiteering, deregulation, and racism, write Bogumila Hall and Ola Hall.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, October 27, 2021 18:26 - 0 Comments

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A woman protests for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow, UK, 2020. (Credit: Liverpool Echo)

When Waleed, a Yemeni refugee in his mid-twenties, reached the UK after crossing the English Channel, he could barely move. Waleed is disabled, an after-effect of the polio he suffered in his early childhood. The leg brace that normally allows him to walk had been damaged during his arduous journey across continents, and the pain in the limb was severe. It was July 2020, Waleed was fingerprinted and taken from Dover to a hotel in central London, where he was told he would stay for a few days. The hotel is part of the large infrastructure, known as ‘contingency’ or ‘initial accommodation’, where asylum seekers are meant to wait — in theory for no longer than 35 days — until they are placed into more conventional housing. But more than 12 months later, Waleed is still there.

Hotels for asylum seekers are often referred to by the likes of Nigel Farage as 4-star accommodation, and by the state as too generous, yet  the conditions in these places are far from luxurious. Waleed’s room is infested with mold, cockroaches, and mice. He complains that the food served in the hotel is unhealthy, often inedible and expired, but residents are not allowed to cook for themselves. As a disabled person Waleed struggles particularly with climbing the stairs, and on the many days when the lift in the hotel is not working, he is not able to leave his room.

In addition to hotels, military barracks, such as the Napier Barracks, near Folkestone, and Penally Camp, in Pembrokeshire, have been used as ‘contingency accommodation’ for asylum seekers. Their outrageous conditions have rightly sparked protests. As a result, Penally Camp was shut down, and a court recently ruled that housing people at Napier Barracks is unlawful  (despite this, the barracks remain open).  Meanwhile, the harm endured by the asylum seekers in hotels — less visible and accumulating over time — remains rarely acknowledged. But as research shows, these living environments, too, have detrimental effects on people’s physical and mental health, particularly when hotel rooms are not used as a short-term solution (as they are supposed to be). In law, people like Waleed, who have an ongoing asylum claim and are considered destitute, should be transferred to a temporary form of housing, usually a flat or a shared house, known as ‘dispersed accommodation’ (because of the way they are scattered across the country).  While the hotel residents in contingency accommodation are desperate to be housed in these more homelike places, they too have been described as  ‘squalid’, ‘unsafe’rat-infested’ and ‘unfit for human habitation’.

The reality is that sub-standard accommodation is part of the business model of the companies to whom the Home Office has been outsourcing housing provision for asylum seekers for the last twenty years. Today, this ‘asylum industry’ involves a complex chain of companies, contractors and private landlords, with little transparency over or accountability for their actions. In the unregulated private housing sector, asylum seekers are little more than a lucrative business opportunity; and the fewer rights they have, the more profitable they can be.

Just as degrading material conditions contribute to asylum seekers’ vulnerability, insecurity is also manufactured through a myriad of spatial strategies that contain people, and keep them invisible, distanced and precarious. For example, the ‘dispersal policy’, introduced in 1999, serves to divide and control asylum seekers, by relocating them to different places across the country on a no-choice basis and making sure that “there will be no more than one asylum seeker per 200 residents”. As has been well documented, this leaves migrants isolated, vulnerable to racist attacks, socially excluded and often without access to GPs and school places for children.

The disregard for asylum-seekers’ lives is also evident in the manner in which they are transferred from initial to interim housing. The transfer often happens with no prior notification, as happened to Waleed one day in April 2021. He was woken early in the morning, and simply told to pack his belongings and board a minibus, without any explanation as to where he was going. After six hours of driving, Waleed learnt from Google maps that he was somewhere near Manchester, in a two-storey house where, he told us, he couldn’t even access the bathroom. This was despite the fact that Waleed had long since provided the Home Office and Migrant Help — the charity contracted by the Home Office to “support asylum seekers” — with documents proving his limited mobility. Nor did it seem to matter to the Home Office that Waleed was receiving medical help in London and was in the middle of the lengthy process of obtaining a new leg brace.

Waleed protested and was eventually taken back to his hotel room in London, where he remains,  fighting the bureaucratic machinery — founded, as the late David Greaber argued, on structural violence. Roughly once a week, Waleed is woken and asked to board the same coach to be moved somewhere else. Waleed refuses to comply, as he does not trust that the house assigned to him will be suitable for his disability. And with good reason: the Home Office and Migrant Help claim in their correspondence with Waleed that they have not received any information about his condition. After a year of living in London, Waleed is sick of his hotel room but at the same time is worried that he will lose the informal network of support he has built and the healthcare he is receiving.

The British state’s approach to asylum seekers (in their vast majority racialised populations from the Global South) says a lot about how some bodies are valued so little that living in harm’s way — in military barracks, infested hotel rooms or inaccessible houses, seems legitimate. As asylum seekers are systematically confined to undignified living conditions, the sanctuary that asylum law promises to people who flee violence and trauma seems like a fiction.  But it is important to recognise that the problem of the ‘asylum housing industry’ is not a fringe issue, or a matter of migration management only. The logic of asylum housing is simply an extension of the housing system in the UK more broadly. It is underpinned by profiteering, deregulation, and also racism, which determines who lives where and in what conditions. The housing of asylum seekers mirrors this larger housing crisis in the UK; the two are interconnected and should not be thought apart.

In the current neoliberal conjuncture in Britain, the home is regarded as an asset rather than a shelter, and private property is protected over people. Decades of privatisation and financialisation of housing and land have created a landscape that benefits corporate landlords, property managements firms and private developers, leaving ordinary people unable to access secure and affordable housing. Prior to the pandemic, there were around 170 evictions per day in Britain, according to conservative estimates. It is hard to assess how many evictions have taken place during the pandemic but, as the Guardian reports, despite a temporary ban  (now lifted) on evictions, tens of thousands of tenants have already been made homeless. In ‘normal times’, displacement is mundane. In London alone, gentrification has displaced around 200,000 people in the past two decades, destroying the fabric and bonds of local communities. Others are trapped living in substandard conditions: it is estimated that one in three people in the UK lives in poor quality housing. The detrimental effects of this have been all too salient during the Covid-19 pandemic, where housing insecurity and overcrowding contributed significantly to the transmission of the disease.

The pandemic has also laid bare the fact that race cannot be absent from discussions about housing inequality. As the empirical evidence shows, in England, black people are three times more likely to become homeless; non-white people are also much less likely to own a home and much more likely to live, and die, in rented, overcrowded, squalid and unsafe housing. The fire in Grenfell Tower — inhabited largely by the racialised poor and migrants — is the most tragic reminder of this.

It is no accident that racialised populations — whether citizens, migrants or asylum seekers — are disproportionately affected by housing dispossession, displacement, and harm. Nadine El-Enany has argued astutely that the Grenfell tragedy has to be seen through the lens of the afterlives of British colonial practices of spatial ordering, guided by the notions of white supremacy and racial hierarchies. Indeed, as James Trafford traces clearly in his book, Empire at Home, racism in housing has a long history. Trafford points to the continuity of colonial logic ingrained in property relations that manufacture people’s dispossession and render them disposable — from mortgage redlining in post-war Britain, to inner-city segregation of racialised populations and exclusions from social housing, to ongoing practices of landlord exploitation of migrants. The practices of housing asylum seekers in military barracks and squalid hotel rooms, or scattering them into isolation throughout the country, exhibit the very same logic: Differentiating and dividing across racial lines, and producing and maintaining the vulnerability of those whose lives are deemed exploitable and expendable.

If Grenfell today is the most striking illustration of neoliberal and racial logics that govern the UK’s housing system, it has also become a symbol of resistance. Four years on, Grenfell survivors refuse to be sidelined, and demand accountability and justice, insisting on an investigation into how institutional racism played into the tragedy. Likewise, Waleed’s refusal to be moved into unfitting housing is an act of agency enacted against structural conditions that aim to render people like him invisible and powerless. From grassroots mobilisation and many examples of direct action, to asylum seekers’ hunger strikes and refusal to cooperate with the Home Office,  marginalised communities are at the forefront of confronting housing inequities. In doing so, they teach us that housing justice requires racial justice, and that calls for dignified and secure living conditions for migrants are part and parcel of the struggle for decent, affordable and accessible housing for all. These struggles are inseparable, connected and united as they are against ideologies that devalue life and prioritise property and profit over people.

Bogumila Hall

Bogumila Hall is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures, at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Her current project focuses on transnational journeys of Yemeni refugees, exploring questions of border violence, mobility struggles and social lives forged on the move. Her research is funded by the National Science Center, Poland (project number 2019/35/D/HS3/00038 ). She is on Twitter@BognaHall

Ola Hall

Ola Hall is a PhD researcher in Anthropology at the University of Ghent and part of the Property and Democratic Citizenship project funded by the European Research Council. Her doctoral project explores racism and colonial logic in British housing. She is on Twitter @olasaeidi

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