The United Kingdom has historically provided housing support to people seeking asylum who arrive in the country and are not immediately able to provide for their own basic needs. In recent years this system has increasingly been plagued by serious deficiencies, in violation of people’s human rights to housing, food, education, health, and social security. Instead of addressing these concerns, the UK government is moving forward with plans that double down on failed hostile environment policies by expanding already problematic ad hoc arrangements for “contingency” asylum accommodation in ways that will only increase misery and rights violations across the country.
In particular, the UK government has attempted to justify the use of barges, repurposed military bases, and similar large-scale settings as a means of reducing reliance on hotels that have themselves been repurposed as contingency asylum accommodation. This is no solution: barges and military bases have the same, if not worse, deficiencies as repurposed hotels, afford even less privacy, may be located far from population centres and essential services, and lead to well-documented mental health harms. As with hotels, barges and barracks are unsuitable for anything other than short stays for adults. And although officials have claimed that using barges and barracks as asylum accommodation will reduce costs, the UK government has never backed up that claim; to the contrary, the available evidence suggests that the use of barges and barracks will yield negligible, if any, savings.
The UK Home Office has said that it will not place families with children on repurposed barges or military bases, likely meaning that it will continue to rely on repurposed hotels as contingency accommodation for families for the foreseeable future.
This report, the product of joint research by Human Rights Watch and Just Fair, examines the experiences of families and unaccompanied children in contingency hotel accommodation and identifies practices and outcomes that fall far short of international standards and the requirements of UK law.
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In an account that was typical of those we heard, Nesreen R., a 36-year-old woman from Libya, told Human Rights Watch and Just Fair that when she and her family arrived in the UK, the Home Office placed them in Bradford, a town in northern England. Her four children were out of school for a month before she and her husband managed to enrol three of the four in a local school. School officials told Nesreen they did not have space for her oldest child, Tareq, age 14, who has autism. “It is not good for him to stay without school for a long time,” Nesreen said.
As is common in the UK’s asylum system, the Home Office then moved Nesreen and her family more than 80 miles (125 kilometres) away to another hotel, in Scarborough, in the northeast of England. The children once again had to wait a month before they could attend school. The family’s second hotel had originally opened in the 1880s and was in ill-repair. “This was a bad place,” Nesreen said. “It was very old and very dirty, the sheets and carpets were filthy. . . . The beds were all broken, and there were holes in the carpet.” The family received two rooms at opposite ends of the hotel. There were about 60 families in the hotel, and Nesreen did not feel that it was a safe environment for children.
Nesreen said that their stay in the second hotel caused their mental health to deteriorate. Sometimes she would stay in the room for three or four days at a time without going out. The time spent here was particularly difficult for Tareq. Nesreen said, “Sometimes I feel my son is depressed. I tried to talk to him about how he feels, I’ve tried to talk to him to see if he gets on with other kids. He is so sensitive. He’s crying all the time; sometimes he won’t leave his room for two days.”
Health professionals have warned that an increasing number of children in contingency hotel accommodation suffer from malnutrition and other health issues caused by the food they receive. Nesreen told us that her children, who were between the ages of 6 and 14, had “a difficult time with the food.” She explained, “Sometimes it was undercooked. The younger ones didn’t want to eat at that hotel. They all lost weight.” Their experience was by no means unusual: families in hotels across the United Kingdom have faced the struggles Nesreen described in getting her children to eat. Many people described the food they received as insufficient or unhealthy and said their children lost weight, in some cases to such an extent that their doctors expressed concern for the children’s health and development.
Nesreen’s second hotel was in such a state of disrepair that after four months, the family learned the Home Office planned to move them to a third hotel. Concerned that her children’s education would face additional interruptions before the family finally received a “dispersal” accommodation placement, long-term housing for people seeking asylum, Nesreen resisted the move. In April 2023, the Home Office placed the family in a flat in Newcastle, 90 miles (145 kilometres) away from their second hotel. When we interviewed them one month later, two of Nesreen’s children were in school, but 14-year-old Tareq and his 8-year-old brother were still waiting to receive placements.
Tareq told us the extended time out of school was taking a significant emotional toll on him. “I feel bad. I have no friends here. I want to go to school to make friends. I want to study maths and English,” he explained. Nesreen has reached out repeatedly to the local schools in an effort to enrol Tareq and his younger brother. “I explained that he has autism and that not being in school has a big impact,” she said. “But the school keeps replying that he will have to wait.” When we spoke to the family again in August 2023, Tareq had received a school placement, but his 8-year-old brother had not.
As in the case of Tareq and his siblings, children in contingency asylum accommodation are regularly out of school with no education for long periods, even though UK law guarantees the right to primary and secondary education regardless of migration status. Children with specific needs do not appear to receive particular consideration, despite the additional, serious impact being out of school can have on their well-being. Once children are enrolled, their schools may be far from the hotels where they are accommodated. Some schools provide bus passes for children, but others do not. And when families are moved to dispersal accommodation or between multiple initial accommodations, children often face further disruption to their education, integration, and sense of security.
These and other serious shortcomings in contingency hotel accommodation violate the rights to housing, health, food, education, and social security and impede access to asylum.
Barges, barracks, and similar large-scale institutionalized settings share the serious shortcomings of repurposed hotels. As the UK’s experience of using former barracks at Manston and Napier as short-term holding facilities amply demonstrate, effectively warehousing people in close quarters poses serious—and foreseeable—health risks. For example, people living at these sites experienced outbreaks of diphtheria, norovirus, and scabies, as well as an alarming incidence of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention concluded, large-scale institutional settings such as repurposed barracks and barges “jeopardise the mental health and wider well-being of the people seeking asylum accommodated there, and make them fundamentally unsuitable for use as asylum accommodation.” Far from being an alternative to the use of hotels as contingency accommodation, they are precisely the wrong approach that will only lead to further human rights violations.
Instead of resorting to increasingly unsuitable settings for people seeking asylum, many of whom have already faced considerable loss and trauma, the UK government should urgently change its approach and reverse policy decisions that contribute to the dehumanizing, harmful environment that characterizes much of the UK’s initial asylum accommodation. Placing people in locations where legal support is very limited or nonexistent increases delays in asylum applications—particularly because the UK government has also drastically cut legal aid. Accommodating people in places where they cannot prepare their own meals means that many parents face daunting daily struggles to find food their children will eat, in some cases leading to malnutrition. Barring most people seeking asylum from working ensures dependency and misery and can lead to destitution.
It does not have to be this way. The UK government could save taxpayer money by allowing people seeking asylum to work, choose where to live, shop for their own food, and cook their own meals. In fact, until 1999, the United Kingdom allowed people seeking asylum to choose where they lived, giving them the opportunity to work to support themselves, with cash assistance as necessary to enable them to meet their needs.
Instead of doubling down on the failed hostile environment policies of the past decade, the United Kingdom should invest in a rights-respecting asylum system. To do so, it should provide people seeking asylum with accommodation and other support in ways that allow them to regain a sense of safety and stability, control over their own lives, and human dignity.
As key first steps, the Home Office should ensure that families with children receive suitable dispersal accommodation placements in houses or flats as quickly as possible, strictly applying its 19-day guideline as a deadline for assignment to dispersal accommodation.
Unaccompanied children should be placed in housing that offers the care and protection to which they are entitled. In line with a July 2023 High Court decision, they should not be placed in contingency hotel accommodation. Unaccompanied children whom border agents deem to be adults, often on the basis of appearance alone, should be housed with other “age-disputed” young people pending an age assessment that follows international standards, including by giving the benefit of the doubt in close cases.
For all other people seeking asylum, the Home Office should avoid placements in large-scale, institutionalized accommodation, including barges and barracks, in recognition of the known harms of such settings.
Asylum accommodation and support should operate from the premise that children should grow up in secure and suitable environments, with appropriate and nutritious food on the table and their education, health, and best interests prioritised. Adults as well as children should be able to rebuild their lives with assistance and support that affirms their human dignity. Meeting these fundamental human rights should be the starting point and form the building blocks for the UK’s approach to asylum.
A mother watches her two children in a hotel room
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair interviewed more than 100 people for this report, including 52 people seeking asylum (27 of whom were children) who were either living in or had recently left hotel accommodation provided by the UK Home Office in cities and towns across England, including Bournemouth, London, Maidenhead, Newcastle upon Tyne, Reading, Slough, Stockton-on-Tees, Wokingham, and York. Most interviews took place between May 2022 and May 2023. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair interviewed some people more than once, in some cases following up between June and August 2023 with people we first interviewed in 2020 to understand their progress in the asylum system.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair also conducted meetings with staff and volunteers from 50 charities, support groups, other nongovernmental organizations, and local authority staff.
We spoke with a mixture of families and unaccompanied children who had come to the UK via different means. These families and unaccompanied children were from a variety of countries, including Afghanistan, Albania, Egypt, El Salvador, Georgia, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Mexico, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, and Yemen.
Interviews were semi-structured and covered topics relating to initial reception conditions, age assessments, asylum procedures, hotel accommodation, education, health, and welfare. Most interviews were conducted in person at the hotel itself or at a nearby location. Some were conducted remotely over the phone. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair also conducted physical visits to hotels in Bournemouth, Ilford, Maidenhead, Reading, and Wokingham.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair researchers conducted interviews in English or Spanish, in some cases with the aid of interpreters. The researchers explained to all interviewees the nature and purpose of our research, that the interviews were voluntary and confidential, and that they would receive no personal service or benefit for speaking to us, and we obtained explicit and informed consent from each interviewee. This report uses pseudonyms for all children and adults.
Human Rights Watch and Just Fair sought comment from the Home Office and from each of the three companies contracted by the Home Office to provide asylum accommodation. Two of these companies, Mears and Serco, responded to our specific questions, and we have included these responses in relevant sections of the report. Clearsprings Ready Homes referred us to the Home Office for comment. The Home Office had not replied to our request for comment at the time of publication.
In line with international standards, the term “child” refers to a person under the age of 18. As the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and other international authorities do, we use the term “unaccompanied children” in this report to refer to children “who have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.” The term “migrant” is not defined in international law; our use of this term is in its “common lay understanding of a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons.” It includes people seeking asylum and refugees, and “migrant children” includes asylum-seeking and refugee children. Many disability rights organizations in the United Kingdom adopt the social model of disability, reflecting that model in the terms used to describe disabilities. Human Rights Watch and Just Fair acknowledge that language and terminology may be used differently across time and contexts, reflecting the evolving conceptualization of disability, and that individuals may choose to self-identify in various ways. Whatever language or terminology one uses, human rights still apply to everyone, everywhere.
The focus of this report is England, and the statutory framework and data collected apply to England but not necessarily to devolved nations in the UK. The research did not examine first-hand developments in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, the three other constituent parts of the UK. Researchers did, however, hear from national and local nongovernmental organisations that operate elsewhere about the housing of unaccompanied children and families with children in other parts of the UK.
I. Seeking Asylum in the United Kingdom
Most asylum applications in the United Kingdom are ultimately granted. Yet waiting for this determination takes many months, and sometimes years. During this time, most applicants are not allowed to work.
The UK provides accommodation and small amounts of cash support for people who are unable to provide for their basic needs while their asylum claims are pending. People who received accommodation under the system should receive long-term (or “dispersal”) accommodation, typically a flat or a house, after a few weeks in initial accommodation, which may be in a hostel setting. But the UK government’s under-resourcing of the asylum system and other policy decisions mean that stays in initial accommodation regularly exceed Home Office guidelines. As a result, the number of spaces in dedicated initial accommodation is insufficient. To meet the need, the companies contracted by the Home Office to provide accommodation for people seeking asylum have increasingly relied on hotels.
Instead of taking steps to reduce the use of hotels by ensuring that people can be matched quickly with and moved into appropriate longer-term accommodations, and in the face of rising costs and mounting public criticism, the UK government has announced that it will use barges, ferries, disused military bases, and former prisons as initial accommodation for people seeking asylum. The Home Office began to move some people to an airbase in July 2023 despite the known harms of such settings and even though estimates suggested its plan would yield little, if any, savings.
The UK received just under 75,500 asylum applications during the year ending March 2023, up from the 56,500 applications received in the 12 months ending March 2022, and the highest since 2002, when the UK received more than 100,000 asylum applications. UK asylum application numbers are broadly a reflection of conflict and political instability. For instance, the Home Office acknowledges that the increase in asylum applications from Afghanistan in 2022, when people from that country were the second-most-common nationality applying for asylum, was “likely due to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.” Asylum applicants are a tiny fraction of the UK population. The 91,047 applicants for asylum made between April 2022 and March 2023 equals about 0.1 percent of the UK’s population. As the Refugee Council points out, “In terms of the number of asylum applications per head of population, the UK ranks 22nd highest in Europe.” Around three-quarters of asylum applications decided in 2021 and 2022 were successful at the initial decision. Adverse decisions can be appealed; just over half of appeals decided in the year ending March 2023 were successful. In partial explanation for these grant rates, a Home Office analysis notes that “[c]urrently, there are a large number of applications from individuals from recognised countries of conflict.” At the same time, wait times for initial decisions on asylum applications have increased in recent years, with applications decided in 2021 taking an average of 20 months to receive an initial decision. At the end of 2021, of the approximately 101,000 people awaiting an initial decision on their asylum applications, 62 percent had been waiting for more than six months. In fact, the UK had the second-largest asylum backlog in Europe; only Germany, which received more than three times as many asylum applications, had more people waiting for an initial decision on their claims at the end of 2021. As of November 2022, more than 40,000 people had waited between one and three years for an initial decision on their claim, and 725 people—including 155 children—had been waiting for more than five years, the Refugee Council found. At the end of March 2023, more than 170,000 people were awaiting an initial decision on their asylum claims. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged that the Home Office will decide all asylum claims that have been pending since June 2022 by the end of 2023. The Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, and other groups have urged the government to prioritise cases of people from countries with the highest asylum grant rates. Support for People Seeking Asylum
People seeking asylum who are “destitute,” meaning that they do not have adequate accommodation or funds to meet other essential living needs, are entitled to asylum support, including accommodation. To meet this obligation, the Home Office is required to offer immediate support, including initial accommodation, to people who “may be destitute.” This support is intended to be temporary, allowing a person’s essential living needs to be met while the Home Office evaluates their circumstances. If the Home Office then finds that they do not have adequate accommodation or the ability to meet essential living needs, the Home Office offers them ongoing support, usually including longer-term-accommodations (often known as “dispersal” accommodation), while their asylum claim is pending. Support for people who are “vulnerable,” including children and people who are pregnant, older, or disabled, should take into account their special needs. More generally, the Home Office has a duty to carry out its functions “having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the United Kingdom.” Initial accommodation for people who receive temporary support is usually in “full-board facilities,” meaning that all meals are provided; people ordinarily do not have access to kitchens to prepare their own meals. Full-board food service should include “complete and adequate provisions for pregnant women, nursing mothers, babies and young children, for whom three daily meals may not be sufficient, and people who need special diets e.g. gluten free.” People seeking asylum also receive small amounts of cash support if they would otherwise not be able to meet their essential living expenses.
Initial accommodation is intended to be short-term. The Home Office has usually suggested that it aims to move people to dispersal accommodation within 19 days, though at times it has stated that it expects these moves to happen within 35 days. Between September 2019 and February 2020, people spent an average of 26 days in initial accommodation before they received longer-term accommodation. Stay lengths in initial accommodation increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Well after the end of pandemic lockdowns, many people in initial accommodation, including most of those interviewed for this report, described stay lengths of six months or more—in the case of some families, well over two years—before they received dispersal accommodation.
The Use of Hotels as Initial Accommodation
The Home Office has arrangements for 1,750 places per night in dedicated initial accommodation for people seeking asylum. When the number of people requiring initial accommodation exceeds this capacity, the Home Office uses hotels as contingency accommodation. About half of the people in hotels are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan, and Syria, meaning that their asylum claims “have an exceptionally high likelihood of being granted,” analysis by the Refugee Council has found. The use of hotels on a contingency basis as initial accommodation increased significantly beginning in 2019. The National Audit Office found that “between July and October 2019, the number of people in initial accommodation increased by 96% from 1,678 to 3,289.” Between October 2019 and July 2020, “the number has averaged 2,800, of which more than 1,000 people have been in hotels each night, rather than in dedicated housing for asylum seekers.” The UK’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration observed in a 2022 report that “[b]y November 2021, 21,500 asylum seekers were being accommodated in 181 hotels, more than double the figures in May 2021.” In March 2023, some 51,000 people seeking asylum were in 395 hotels, of which 363 were in England, a government source told BBC News. These figures likely do not include people who arrived in the UK under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme or the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, under which just over 21,000 Afghans had arrived in the UK by March 2023. People arriving under these programmes are not seeking asylum. Many have, however, stayed in temporary accommodation similar to the initial accommodation offered to people seeking asylum who would otherwise be unhoused—in most cases, far longer than anticipated. About 9,300 Afghans were in 67 “bridging” hotels under these resettlement programmes as of December 2022. At the end of March 2023, 8,799 people who had arrived under the programmes were in hotel or other “serviced” accommodation; by the end of June 2023, the number was 6,575. Approximately half were children. Afghan women evacuees placed in “bridging” hotels said that months in a setting meant to be temporary had meant a loss of routine and personal space, led to increased domestic violence, and harmed their mental health. By the end of May 2023, the Home Office had notified all Afghan evacuees that they had three months to find their own accommodation. The UK government said that it was funding “settled accommodation,” houses or flats for people who were unable to find accommodation on their own, but about 20 percent of Afghan evacuees were homeless after their eviction from bridging hotels, the Local Government Association estimated in August 2023. In addition to single adults and families, the Home Office has housed unaccompanied children in hotels since July 2021. More than 3,000 unaccompanied children were placed in hotels that year, including 725 who were under the age of 16. As of June 29, 2023, 192 unaccompanied children, including 53 under the age of 16, were in hotels. A lawyer for the Home Office acknowledged that one 9-year-old had been in a hotel, a placement that lasted less than 24 hours, but it was not clear when this placement occurred. Nearly all unaccompanied children placed in hotels are boys. Officials were aware that the Home Office did not have the legal authority to be “running a children’s home,” in the words of one entry on an official risk register. These and other internal documents reviewed by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration repeatedly warned at least as early as August 2021 that doing so was unlawful. For instance, another risk register entry noted: “[If the Home Office] continues to run [unaccompanied asylum-seeking children] hotels without any statutory responsibility . . . we will be breaking the law and continuing to run unregulated children’s homes and continuing to expose [the Home Office] to illegal activity, burnout and trauma.” After the Home Office effectively lost track of several hundred unaccompanied children who went missing from these hotels, a family court judge ruled in a case brought by the human rights organisation Article 39 that unaccompanied children who arrive in the United Kingdom should be in the care of child protection authorities rather than the Home Office. In a separate legal action brought by Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK), a child rights organisation, the high court found in July 2023 that the Home Office’s routine housing of unaccompanied children in hotels was unlawful because UK law imposes the duty to accommodate and look after unaccompanied children on local authorities. As of June 2023, the Home Office had still not located 154 of the unaccompanied children who went missing from these hotels. The Home Office continued to place unaccompanied children in hotels after the high court’s ruling that the practice was unlawful; 130 newly arrived unaccompanied children were in hotels as of August 15. Unaccompanied children wrongly deemed to be adults are also placed in hotels, where they are housed with unrelated adults; the Home Office does not publicly report the number of unaccompanied children who receive hotel placements as adults and are subsequently found to be under 18, but a report by the Leeds City Council found that 30 unaccompanied children had been wrongly categorised as adults and placed in hotels in the city between January and August 2023. For a time, the Home Office attributed the rise in the use of hotel accommodation to the Covid-19 pandemic, saying, “It has been necessary to temporarily house a proportion of asylum seekers in hotels to make sure they are able to follow social distancing guidelines.” While the pandemic certainly contributed to the increased use of initial accommodation, the reports of the National Audit Office and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration show that reliance on hotels for initial accommodation began well before the pandemic started and has continued through 2023.
Hotels used as initial accommodation are usually far more spartan than the word “hotel” suggests. “It is worth noting that even when hotels are used as a form of accommodation, it is highly unlikely that asylum seekers are receiving the same quality of service that a paying guest would receive,” a House of Commons Library report observed. In particular, “[h]otel accommodation usually lacks facilities for children and suitable accommodation for families to share for extended periods,” as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found in a 2020 report. In fact, as detailed more fully in this report, Human Rights Watch and Just Fair’s research has found hotel accommodation to be frequently unhealthy and unsafe for everyone, and wholly unsuitable for children and families.
Contracts for Provision of Support
In 2019, the Home Office contracted with three companies, Clearsprings Ready Homes, Mears Limited, and Serco Limited, to “meet the accommodation and essential living needs of eligible asylum seekers.” The 2019 contracts replaced an earlier arrangement that had been in place since 2012. Under the new contracts, the companies are required to provide a total of 1,750 initial accommodation places on a permanent basis and are allowed to use hotels if more places are needed. The value of these contracts to the three companies will exceed £4.5 billion in total, with Serco expected to receive £2.1 billion, Mears £1.4 billion, and Clearsprings £996 million over their 10-year term. The Home Office has not made the contracts themselves public, but it has posted a “statement of requirements” for the companies it has contracted with to provide accommodation. The statement of requirements includes general provisions that each company “shall ensure that it complies with all relevant mandatory and statutory requirements,” including the duty to safeguard children from harm and promote their welfare, along with Home Office policies relating to housing, food, hygiene, and child protection, among other areas.
The requirements call for accommodations to be licenced for their intended use and suitable for people with specific needs and be safe for use and maintained to specific standards such that they are habitable, fit for purpose, and adequately equipped. Meals in “full-board” accommodations should include at least one vegetarian option, “cater for special dietary, cultural or religious requirements,” and “meet appropriate nutritional standards,” including for people with “health or other specific requirements.” The companies providing accommodation should support people to register with a general practitioner (a primary care doctor, GP). They should also “manage anti-social and violent behaviour (including violent extremism)” involving or affecting people in the accommodation they provide. All contingency accommodation should meet the standards for initial accommodation providing full-board, as set out in the statement of requirements. The cost of initial accommodation was much higher than that of long-term (or dispersal) accommodation under the previous contractual arrangements. In 2017, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee observed that initial accommodation “cost[ed] around three times more to provide than the dispersal accommodation that follows and it is not regarded as suitable for long stays.” In May 2023, more than 50,000 people were in initial accommodations at a cost, according to a government source, of more than £6 million per day. Although the UK government has not released detailed figures of how much it spends on dispersal accommodation compared to initial accommodation, it is likely that initial accommodation continues to cost more than dispersal accommodation per person per day.
The Home Office contracts have been lucrative for the companies that provide asylum accommodation. Clearsprings Ready Homes increased its profits more than sixfold in 2021, with its three directo