The miserable state of asylum accommodation provided by private firms on billion pound contracts has raised questions about whether the UK is ready to suitably welcome Ukrainians fleeing war.
In the past week British people and those abroad have reacted in horror as refugees escaping the Russian forces are turned away at Calais and told to travel to Paris or Brussels to get a visa.
While Poland has taken in 1.2million Ukrainians, the UK has issued only 4,000 visas as of Monday morning – although that number will likely increase once visa applications can be done digitally from later this week.
Three quarters of the British population back an asylum scheme to help Ukrainian refugees, while 4 in 10 want “a few tens of thousands” to be given shelter.
A Mirror investigation into asylum accommodation across the country, which unearthed sinks filled with sewage, endemic pest problems and horrible food in some properties run by Clearsprings, Mears and Serco respectively, suggests Britain is not ready to provide displaced people with the homes they deserve, campaigners claim
Bridget Chapman, a Kent Refugee Action Network spokesperson, predicted that kind members of the public would have to step up to help house Ukrainian refugees before the government announced exactly that on Friday morning.
She believes they’ve been forced to do so due to the poor state and low capacity of the UK’s asylum system, caused by years of underinvestment.
“With the will of people in the UK providing accommodation we could accommodate a lot of people, but clearly it is a governmental responsibility,” she said.
“I think we will see individuals filling that gap because the government has failed. It costs a lot of money to be this nasty.
“The cost of hotels, of patrolling a large stretch of coastline, spending millions on the boarder fence at Calais – It would be much better to offer people safe passage across the Channel.
“But now the government can’t back away from it’s incredibly hostile environment.”
Campaigners argue that chronic misspending since the system was privatised in 2012 has enriched contractors and left asylum accommodation in a miserable state.
One of those companies responsible is Serco, which won a ten year contract with the Home Office in 2019 worth £1.9billion.
People in Serco homes live a life a million miles away from the mega-contractor’s mega-wealthy CEO Rupert Soames, who is the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill and trousered £4.9million in pay last year.
A family of asylum seekers were moved into one of the properties owned by the old-Etonian’s company just before Christmas, and quickly found the flat overrun by rats, they claim.
The Iraqi-Kurds realised that something was wrong when food was left out on the side, due to a lack of a fridge in the property, and it began to go missing.
Soon their night times were filled with the sounds of scrabbling and gnawing as rats burrowed their way through the walls.
“One of the boys in particular is quite sensitive,” said a Care4Calais volunteer who campaigned for weeks to have an exterminator sent in.
“He had horrendous nightmares and kept waking up all night. The baby girl has blotches all round her eyes now. She is itching a lot.”
The family are far from the only ones to endure a miserable stay in Serco accommodation.
At the end of last year a refugee from Yemen claimed asylum seekers had been put up in cold, leaking and overcrowded rooms in two hotels in Liverpool, and often had to throw away mouldy food.
Serco said that an assistant director visited the hotel at the time and “observed nothing to evidence the allegations that have been made”.
In the five years before Serco won its mega-contract, the Home Office fined it close to £7million for failings including issues with accommodation, the Guardian reports.
The company said that its performance had “improved significantly” since then and now had a “strong reputation for service delivery”.
Another of the big three providers is Mears, which covers Northern Ireland, Scotland and the North East and was awarded a ten-year, £1.15 billion contract in 2019.
If the company’s CEO David John Miles earns what he did in 2018, then he’ll have made £4.5million by the time the contract expires, according to Corporate Watch.
Researcher John Grayson has been keeping a close eye on the service Mears has been offering for that money for the past several years, and works to highlight the grim accommodation asylum seekers find themselves living in.
He has become a main point of contact for those struggling in dilapidated and cold homes, and works hard to get them fixed.
One family he visited in 2020 had been without heating for two months, leaving the seven-year-old girl struggling with her asthma and needing hospital treatment multiple times.
Another family, made up of three disabled daughters and two parents, had witnessed their home in Rotherham flood regularly in the year Mears was handed its contract.
Large rats were a common feature in the kitchen, they told John.
John has been chronicling asylum accommodation since it was “effectively privatised” in 2012, and says things have been going downhill since then.
“People I’m in touch with say Mears (properties) are getting worse,” he told The Mirror.
“You’ll find rats, collapsed ceilings, neglected properties. Covid has meant a lot of the advice centres and networks have had to close down.
“When you get for-profit companies managing asylum housing, that is when the problems start. They’re thinking about their bottom line.
“I think it is immoral for all this money to be given to the contractors by the Home Office.
“The government has declared a hostile environment, and this is all part of that. It is a deliberate policy, which makes it even more obnoxious.”
When asked, Mears said the accommodation it provides is “suitable, clean and safe” and that it takes “any action needed” when reports of issues are made.
A spokesperson said that stories told by the Mirror date back to when it first took on its contract, and that Mears “made improvements to address any issues and bring the accommodation up to the new contract standard.”
The impact that providing substandard accommodation can have on vulnerable asylum seekers’ mental health is significant.
In 2020 Adnan Olbeh died of a suspected drug overdose in a Glasgow hotel where he had been placed by Mears after asylum seekers were made to leave flats.
A friend told the National that the 30-year-old had been suffering emotionally and felt “under pressure” following the move.
Housing vulnerable people such as Mr Olbeh, who was tortured in Syria, in hotels is both expensive for the tax payer and bad for those living there.
Last month the government admitted it is spending £4.7m a day on accommodating refugees from Afghanistan and other asylum seekers in hotels, a figure four times the amount previously stated.
“We do not want people in hotels,” Home Secretary Priti Patel told the Commons, admitting that “we do not have the infrastructure … in terms of housing and accommodation.”
“We should not be housing people in hotels.”
Despite this ambition, a lack of investment in cheap, suitable asylum accommodation leaves the government at the mercy of either private landlords or large hotel chains.
Several hundred asylum seekers live in the vast Crowne Plaza hotel near Heathrow, which has a high perimeter fence – installed to stop far right groups attacking the property, one volunteer has claimed.
A 24-year-old man who had slept under a bridge in the Calais Jungle was found dead there last year, two months before someone climbed onto the roof and threatened to jump off.
Those who aren’t placed in hotels may find themselves in repurposed buildings, such as Napier Army Barracks in Kent.
Saleh*, who had to leave Yemen because of the war, found himself in the Holiday Inn Express in Slough in the summer of 2020 before one day he was told to get in a car with ten minutes’ notice.
Rather than being deported as he and the 50 asylum seekers travelling with him were expecting, Saleh was taken to the military compound in Folkestone.
“In my block there was 32 people, 16 rooms, with only two toilets,” he told the Mirror through a translator.
“The situation was bad. The showers had four together in one room and they expected people to shower side by side with no privacy.
“There were Yemeni, Sudanese, Iranian and Syrian men only in the whole barracks. We felt we were in a prison.
“There was security at the doors. You weren’t allowed to be back later than ten. It was as if we were under watch or had committed a crime.”
Saleh stayed at Napier during the pandemic and said there was no social distancing.
The food was also “terrible” – often just pasta with no sauce, twice a day, which would be collected after a 20 minute queue in the rain.
A man sleeping close to Saleh in rooms separated by white sheets attempted to kill himself during his two month stay.
An independent report later found seven suicide attempts and seven incidents of serious self-harm at Napier alone.
In the past five years to 2021, 51 people died in asylum seeker accommodation, including three babies.
Three people lost their lives to Covid and four people killed themselves.
Many asylum seekers are left with the feeling that while they have finally arrived in Britain after long and difficult journeys, its financial riches and the richness of its culture are still out of reach.
Since 2016 Mohammed* has lived with five other men in a small flat in Uxbridge, just a few miles away from the Prime Minister’s constituency office.
His home often smells of the rubbish left by a restaurant downstairs, which may be why his room is regularly infested with mice and cockroaches.
Mohammed’s apartment was one of 18 in the area which have five tiny bedrooms and no communal space, besides kitchens and bathrooms left filthy from a lack of maintenance.
For many asylum seekers fear of having their applications to stay in the country rejected lead them not to complain, despite conditions which would be considered completely unacceptable on the private market.
Some get help from volunteers such as Sarah Miley, who started work with Care4Calais after seeing the huge exodus of people from Afghanistan last year.
She has been trying to help a family who live in a “horrible smelling” flat in Ilford, which has a regularly flooding washing machine and a sink which bubbles up sewage.
“They say it is awful,” Sarah said.
“The littlest girl has been quite ill because of the mould. The mum and her seven-year-old daughter often feel sick with the smell, but no one has come round to help them.”
This flat, Mohammed’s home in Uxbridge and Napier Barracks are all run by Clearsprings, a private company which provides asylum accommodation in the South and Wales.
They were offered a £1billion ten year contract in 2019, while their CEO Graham Ian King took home more than £4.3million over the past five years.
Ms Chapman added: “The deal the Home Office did with Clearsprings is worth a billion pounds.
“That money could have been invested in good quality, decent housing for refugees, and other people in the future.
“We are putting public money into the pockets of profiteers who are providing very poor quality accommodation.
“We could have invested that money in good quality social housing, but that money is gone now.
“As a tax payer myself I am happy to pay my taxes, I am not paying my taxes to line the pockets of executives.”
The Mirror recently visited a B&B two miles down the road from the Crowne Plaza where a mother and her blind daughter, from Iran, spend almost all of their lives in a small room.
At weekends they look out of their window as Brits party late into the night at weddings and birthdays out front, unaware that market rate rooms hidden round the back are filled with people who’ve fled war and famine.
Serco, which was unable to respond to the rat infestation claim due to efforts to protect the family’s identity, said in a statement: “Serco was awarded contracts to provide asylum accommodation support services following a competition to ensure the Home Office achieves value for money.
“These contracts are designed to ensure individuals seeking asylum receive decent accommodation and require high standards of responsiveness to any issues with the accommodation.
“When an asylum seeker finds a problem with their accommodation, they raise it through an independent helpline and it is then passed to Serco.
“We are required to respond to the issue within set times and we are confident that we are fulfilling our contractual requirements. Any issues with vermin are addressed through pest control specialists.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘’Our contractors provide asylum seekers and their families with clean, warm and Covid-secure accommodation as the Home Office is legally obliged to.
‘’The Home Office builds value for money into all contracts and expect high standards from accommodation providers who inspect all properties at least monthly and respond quickly when maintenance issues are reported.
‘’The New Plan for Immigration will fix our broken asylum system, making it fair to those who need our help and firm on those who abuse our hospitality.’’
Clearsprings were also contacted for comment.
*Name has been changed
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/rats-sewage-cockroaches-uks-failed-26426687 Rats, sewage and cockroaches - UK's 'failed' asylum system is unfit for Ukraine crisis