Council Leader Says Asylum System is Designed to Fail

Shantanu Rajawat blasts Home Office over its handling of the crisis

Shantanu Rajawat. Picture: MyLondon/Facundo Arrizabalaga

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December 20, 2023

Hounslow Council has labelled the government’s asylum system ‘a failure by design’ as local authorities across the country are forced to take on refugees that ‘fall through the cracks’. Leader Shantanu Rajawat has launched a scathing criticism of the Home Office’s handling of asylum seekers in light of a council report looking into the health and well-being of those still waiting for refugee status living in the borough.

The nearly 50-page report explores the physical and mental impact that living in hotels (sometimes for several years) and with the stigmatised status of ‘asylum seeker’ has had on those coming to the UK who are often vulnerable, a large proportion being children. The report speaks of the sometimes dire conditions asylum seekers live in while awaking approval to remain in the UK.

This includes cramped living spaces, poor food nutrition, lack of privacy, poor health care and mother and baby provision, no safe, healthy outdoor spaces for children to play, poor integration with the community, and having to share rooms with strangers. The impacts of these conditions have been found to have caused physical and mental harm as well as safeguarding issues, including depression, suicidal thoughts, gestational diabetes due to poor nutrition, and risk of domestic and/or sexual abuse.

Hounslow has the second-highest number of asylum seekers living in hotels in any local authority area in the country. During the research period of the report, there were around 2,302 people seeking asylum in Hounslow, nearly 70 per cent (1,591) of whom were living in hotels in the borough.

Speaking to Local Democracy Reporting Services Cllr Rajawat said that unsafe and unhealthy conditions as described in the report could be exacerbated by plans for the Home Office to increase hotel capacity. He said, “These are people fleeing destitution and really bad circumstances. They are put into hotels where the conditions are not great, the food, for example, isn’t something I would give my worst enemy let alone someone I want to support, those conditions are really really bad.

“Now the Home Office is talking about increasing capacity in hotels in Hounslow but as part of that putting two unrelated people in the same room, that is unsustainable and really really awful.”

These conditions have affected some of the people who are most vulnerable with children being a particular focus of the report. Within the document are case studies, some of which refer to these children – who make up approximately 1 in 5 (18%) people applying for asylum in the UK in 2023.

The case study tells of a four-year-old child who has become so withdrawn that they refuse to leave their Home Office hotel room. Health professionals fear the child could be suffering from clinical depression.

The report found that in 2022, there were 87 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) in Hounslow. Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children are children and young people under the age of 18 years who are seeking asylum in the UK and who have been separated from their parents or carers.

While their claim is processed, the local authority is responsible for their care. The report that many boroughs are also receiving increased UASC applicants from contingency hotels.

A significant issue facing local authorities when dealing with asylum seeking children is a matter of figuring out how old they are says Cllr Rajawat. The council has sometimes struggled with information provided to them in order to properly assess what a person coming into the borough needs.

Margarita Fruentes had little time to find somewhere to live after being evicted from a Home Office hotel
Margarita Fruentes had little time to find somewhere to live in Hounslow after being evicted from a Home Office hotel. Picture: Facundo

For instance, if a person is underage, the council should find them a school place and offer extra support. He told LDRS, “In the early days, we would often be notified after the asylum seekers had arrived. The problem with that is we don’t know what steps for verification have been taken, we assume they have a valid application but we can’t be sure but more so than that we don’t know what they are bringing into those hotels in terms of preexisting health conditions and fundamentally how many of them were kids because there is a big problem with the Home Office being about to age verify. The implication for us is we have a duty [for the children].”

Cllr Rajawat says that it has sometimes been down to social workers to figure out if someone is an adult or not. “We have very well-trained social workers who are sometimes looking at someone presenting as a kid or as an adult and saying actually we think you are an adult or actually you are a child. It became very very difficult and we have a duty to age verify those people within a certain period of time but with the increase in number coming in very very quickly that becomes very very difficult.”

The council leader says that communication between the Home Office and the council has improved but he says that many of the issues that local authorities have been lumped with have not been fully resolved. “It has got better because I sat down in front of the Immigration Minister, who has recently resigned, and highlighted that problem. But there are still lingering behaviours that we think could be better.”

A lot of the problem for local authorities like Hounslow is that the Home Office uses third-party companies like Serco and Clearsprings to procure places for asylum seekers across the UK with no input from councils in those areas. Cllr Rajawat says that instead, the government should direct funding towards local authorities, which he believes are better suited to handle the situation.

“[Third parties] are just going in [to local areas] and finding beds that all they have been instructed to do, whereas if you look at it as a whole system, we firmly believe that once these asylum seekers are here they are our residents, why not let us treat them in the same as we would do with any other resident and work with them in a holistic way.”

The council leader says that the whole asylum system in Hounslow is currently costing £6m, which is unfunded. Housing is another issue for local authorities, who appear to be expected to act as a stop-gap for asylum seekers once they are granted the right to remain in the UK.

Many refugees are homeless when they leave Home Office hotels, putting even more strain on local authorities already oversubscribed housing waiting lists. The council leader adds, “They used to get 28 to leave the hotel once they got their status that has now been reduced to seven days. To the best of my knowledge, we aren’t informed [when someone leaves a Home Office hotel] and, even if we were informed, seven days is not enough time to be able to turn around and sort out accommodation when you’ve got a waiting list of 7,000 anyway.”

Cllr Rajawat added, “It’s an imperfect system, which in my view, is designed to fail, it is absolutely designed to fail.”

“There doesn’t seem to be a willingness to correct the process and there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to allow local authorities into the system.”

A Home Office spokesperson said, “Despite the number of people arriving in the UK reaching record levels, we continue to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute.

“We engage regularly with local authorities and provide them with funding through various grants to help them house asylum seekers.”

The Home Office added that any concerns raised with third-party providers are addressed and resolved quickly. The Home Office says it expects the highest standards from its accommodation providers which it speaks to daily.

It admits that age assessments are challenging and there is no single age assessment method which can determine an individual’s age with precision. Many of those arriving in the UK who claim to be children, often don’t have clear evidence like an original passport or identity document to back this up.

In the absence of valid documentary evidence, Home Office officials will treat a claimant as an adult if their physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggest that they are significantly over 18 years of age, in-line with the Home Office’s published age assessment policy.


Rory Bennett - Local Democracy Reporter

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