Asylum seekers: The homes where ceilings have fallen inon January 9, 2022 at 12:00 pm

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BBC investigation into accommodation for asylum seekers has reveals concern about housing conditions

A toddler in hospital after a ceiling collapse

Damp, debris and falling ceilings – a BBC investigation into accommodation for asylum seekers has uncovered serial concerns about housing conditions.

Refugee organisations say they hear regularly about properties residents believe are unsafe, and they struggle to get help on a national phone line.

The concerns come after a year of mounting controversy over how the Home Office is managing asylum seekers.

Projections suggest the UK could house 80,000 asylum seekers by next year.

The government puts asylum seekers in accommodation run separately to social housing.

After previous criticisms, the Home Office reorganised contracts in 2019 under three companies: Mears, Serco and Clearspring Ready Homes.

A fourth contract paid for a national phone line, Migrant Help, to handle complaints and pass them to the housing companies.

Despite these changes, and more money devoted to the contracted homes, some support organisations say they still find residents who are concerned they are in in poor-quality housing.

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Who is in housing and at what cost ?

  • Some 41,000 asylum seekers under the main scheme
  • Housing for others, including hotels, brings total nearer 65,000
  • Officials project there could be 80,000 by next Spring
  • Home Office pays about £560 per person per month – the lower end of the UK rental market.
  • Total costs depend on how many people are in the system but it’s projected to be £4bn over 10 years
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Residents like Adam and his family, housed last year in West Yorkshire.

The police officer and his wife fled sectarian tensions in an African nation and were placed in a home in Bradford.

Last May, a bathroom leak developed and water began coming through downstairs. Adam reported it and there were visits by a repair team. Two weeks after the problem emerged, a ceiling collapsed.

Adam's wife with their daughter

As the debris fell, Adam’s wife instinctively bent over her daughter to protect her.

“I was in the room upstairs, and all of a sudden I heard a noise and the missus was on the floor… all the plaster and wood was on her head,” said Adam. “My baby was shouting and screaming.”

The baby was unscathed, but Adam’s wife received treatment for concussion.

“I could have lost my baby that day. I think it’s in the system where things are going wrong – it’s not the people – I think it’s a system.”

The home was provided by Mears – and it told the BBC a repair team had not found water ingress or timber decay before the incident. The firm said it had responded properly and promptly once it became aware.

‘Time of transition’

Mears moved Adam and his family to a new home – the BBC saw that property, which was clean and safe.

A spokesman for the company said: “As the only new provider, taking over from the previous contracts, this has been a time of transition as we have worked to make improvements and bring accommodation and support up to the new standards where many properties had been in constant use for many years.

“During the pandemic, in line with all social landlords, we prioritised more serious repairs and paused less serious repairs. A catch-up programme is now underway.”

There is no suggestion Adam and his family’s incident is the norm – but research indicates that neither was it an isolated experience.

That collapse was predated by another in Bradford in the autumn of 2020, in which a child suffered an open head wound that required stitching.

Refugee Action, a support organisation, said the Sudanese mother and her support worker had tried to flag her concerns on the national phone line. Mears moved the family to a new home after the incident.

A ceiling collapse after a leak in London

In another example from last May, a family in London say they too repeatedly called Migrant Help to report a leak in the property. The father recorded a video of the aftermath of the collapse for Migrant Help.

The provider, Clearsprings Ready Homes, declined to comment.

“I’ve worked in this area of work for nearly 20 years. And I’ve never seen it as bad in terms of the housing and the accommodation that people are experiencing,” says Tim Naor-Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action.

“Our partners across the sector are also reporting very similar things. We are very, very worried that there is going to be some catastrophic incident at some point, somewhere in the country.”

Mixed picture

When refugee charities made Freedom of Information requests for information about the severity and frequency of complaints, and how Migrant Help was performing, the Home Office turned them down.

But a September 2021 Home Office survey of asylum seekers, obtained by the BBC, hints at a mixed picture. Only six out of ten respondents were happy or very happy with accommodation.

The residents who had concerns complained about cleanliness on moving-in and the responsiveness to requests for repairs.

Debris from a ceiling fall in London

The survey’s low response rate means it is hard to draw firm conclusions – so BBC News contacted more than 30 community organisations whose caseworkers have thousands of contacts with asylum seekers every year.

Eight out of ten of the organisations told us that most weeks they heard concerns about accommodation. A quarter said they heard reports every day.

Some asylum seekers told the charities they felt their homes were generally unclean, and the most common problems were reports of mould or a lack of hot water.

Twenty-three of the organisations had come across clients worried about ceilings – although there was no suggestion that this was commonplace.

The vast majority of organisations believed the service from the Migrant Help phone line was highly variable, poor, or exceptionally poor with half saying it could take three goes to get a complaint logged.

The Home Office says the BBC’s survey is not representative – but one striking example from a year ago in Greater Manchester illustrates the concerns shared by many in the sector.

Residents of a house there say they spent six weeks on the phone to Migrant Help complaining about problems with a blocked drain. There was ultimately a flood of sewage up through the kitchen sink.

Sewage in a kitchen in Manchester

The provider of that home, Serco, has declined to comment – but the BBC understands the company had checked the home over before the residents moved in and believes it then did everything possible to deal with the problems with the drains once it was made aware.

Ultimately, the area’s wastewater utility company dug up the road to replace the drain while the damaged parts of the home were refitted.

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Has asylum accommodation been previously criticised?

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The Home Office says 80% of surveyed residents are satisfied with Migrant Help – but the phone line had also experienced unprecedented demand due to factors including the pandemic.

It was satisfied that it was now meeting its targets. The BBC has tried to contact Migrant Help separately for comment.

“We are dealing with unprecedented pressures on the asylum system and, despite this, we continue to ensure that the accommodation provided is safe, comfortable and secure,” said a Home Office spokesman.

“We remain satisfied that our accommodation contractors [are] providing a good standard of accommodation and we have strict processes in place to respond promptly to maintenance issues and any complaints from residents. We take complaints extremely seriously and where issues do arrive we ensure they are acted upon quickly.”

Back in West Yorkshire, Adam, the police officer turned asylum seeker, is still waiting for his case to be decided. But he’s also urging the Home Office to look again at whether the accommodation system is properly working.

“I don’t need any compensation,” he says. “I just don’t want someone to be a victim like me in the future.”

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