By Aileen Voit
The recent report by Refugee Rights Europe, researched in collaboration with MEENA Centre for Women and Children and the Baobab Women’s Project in Birmingham, raises considerable concern about the living standards for asylum-seeking women in the UK.
In the United Kingdom, asylum seekers are entitled to be provided with accommodation and small cash support while they await their asylum decision. While the UK has set certain standards in national laws and regulations concerning the reception and treatment of asylum-seeking individuals, the Home Office, which outsources the provision of asylum accommodation, has faced frequent criticism around the substandard conditions provided in said accommodation. Inquiries by the Home Affairs Committee in 2017 and a report published in early 2018 by Refugee Rights Europe (RRE) exposed unsanitary and unsafe conditions and gaps in accessible information and complaint procedures in asylum accommodation in London. The RRE report corroborated issues previously highlighted in a research study by the charity Migrant Voice, which found that the poor standards in the accommodation centres caused or exacerbated high levels of stress and mental health issues in asylum seekers in Birmingham.
Other reports and findings from charities, journalists and activists have further exposed the highly unsuitable conditions experienced by women in asylum accommodation. To further highlight the dire situation of asylum-seeking women and urge for a change of these conditions, RRE set out to research the living conditions of asylum-seeking women in Birmingham, in collaboration with MEENA Centre for Women and Children and the Baobab Women’s Project in Birmingham.
Unsanitary and unsafe conditions
The research found that half of the interviewed women reported that they had slept rough since arriving in the UK, highlighting gaps in the accessible provision of accommodation for asylum seeking women in all stages of the process. Asked for their current housing situation, 53% reported that they were currently accommodated in asylum housing with only few rooms, 15% were sheltered by charities, and an alarming 12% reported being destitute, with the majority of all participants having spent more than a year in asylum accommodation. Further, over half of the participants were sharing a room with at least one other person, with some sharing with up to 8 other persons, while 44% reported that they had their children staying in their accommodation with them. When asked about the condition of the accommodation, half of the participants found their accommodation ‘dirty’ or ‘very dirty’ when they moved in and nearly all reported unsanitary furniture and broken items such as heating, which added to the general stress experienced by many of the women and an understandable worry about their children’s well-being. Of particular concern were the apparently widespread problems with vermin in the accommodation, with 66% or respondents reporting that they had seen rats, mice or cockroaches and 26% having experienced bed bugs.
The women further reported struggling with the location of their accommodation, many being located far from available services and support networks, including GP offices and amenities. Such circumstances added additional risks and challenges to the already vulnerable group and further isolated the women. Other participants raised concerns about having been moved around frequently and with short notice.
Concerning the safety and security of the women, 41% reported not feeling safe in their accommodation, raising concerns about the presence of unknown men and non-residents in their accommodation, the quick turn over of residents and lack of functioning door locks. A whole 31% reported having witnessed violence within the accommodation and an alarming 19% had experienced some form of violence themselves.
Lack of complaints procedure and accountability
When asked about complaint procedures, 32% of respondents reported not feeling safe raising issues about their accommodation to their landlord or housing officer because they were afraid of losing their accommodation, did not want to seem rude or ungrateful or were not confident in communicating in English or were not able to access adequate routes for grievances and communication with their housing officer in a language they could speak and understand. A worrying 39% of the women did not know where they could go for help in case of problems with their landlord. This posed a particular concern as 41% of the women described their relationship with their landlord or housing officer as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ and 29% reported bad treatment by their landlord including bad language and bullying behavior. Only 54% of the women said they had access to all housing-related documents in their native language or could access a translator or person to explain the tenancy agreement prior to signing, with 29% reporting they had signed documents giving consent which they did not understand.
Mental ill health
Qualitative data from the survey and additional interviews, with both support workers and women themselves, further suggested worrying degrees of poor mental health among women in asylum accommodation. Such issues appear to be exacerbated by difficult living circumstances, lengthy and complex asylum procedures and the fact that the women are frequently moved between accommodation locations. Researchers observed high levels of stress among the respondents, which was corroborated by team members at the Meena Centre, who reported rising numbers of children and women who were self-harming.
Another element of uncertainty and anxiety related to the immigration reporting centres where the women are required to sign periodically, and the fears of detention. One Cameroonian women said: “Every time you go and sign you never know… I don’t even want to remember how it feels, because when you go it’s like if you could never be back because they can take you … you literally live in constant anxiety!”. Moreover, those held in immigration detention reported struggling both mentally and physically following their detention. A woman placed in detention for 6-7 months during her asylum process, explained that she still suffers from the effects of this experience: „They didn’t treat me well, maybe because they thought I was lying, they were treating me like a criminal…I feel really sick and I panic and I stress because of that time in detention when I wasn’t feeling well“.
Following the publication of the inquiry carried out by the Home Affairs Select Committee on the use of immigration detention in the UK, RRE signed a joint letter to the Home Secretary alongside Baobab Women’s Project, the Meena Centre and other civil society organisations calling on the government to urgently end the use of indefinite detention. The damning report criticises the government’s approach to immigration detention as being ‘shockingly cavalier’ and highlights numerous failings in the protection of vulnerable displaced people in the UK.
In light of these findings and considering the right to an adequate standard of living for all human beings, the Home Office must uphold safety and good living standards during the asylum-seeking process. While we find ourselves in a challenging environment where the new Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts (AASC) have again been awarded to two of the much criticized accommodation providers, namely SERCO and Clearsprings, it is vital that that the Home Office ensures adequate and informed support services, well-functioning grievance procedures and the accountability of service providers.
Regardless of legal status, we all have the right to a dignified standard of living.
 Enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which extends to “everyone including non-nationals, such as (…) asylum seekers”. Further, the Home Office’s Statement of Requirements for Accommodation and Transport obliges housing providers to “provide safe, habitable, fit for purpose and correctly equipped accommodation in areas agreed with the Authority, including appropriate related services for those Service Users, either single or in groups, nominated to receive such services by the Authority.”