There must be an inquiry into decisions taken by the Home Office and its housing contractor to move hundreds of asylum seekers from flats to hotels, say refugee campaigners.
The call comes in the wake of a major incident at the Park Inn hotel in Glasgow city centre. Six people were stabbed and hospitalised, and the attacker shot dead by police at lunchtime on 26 June at the hotel, where about 100 asylum seekers were being accommodated by Mears Group.
Those in hospital include 42-year-old policeman, David Whyte, pictured left. The first police on the scene arrived just two minutes after the attack on staff and other residents. Some people lay bleeding on the steps and in the hotel reception.
The injured are understood to include a 17-year-old boy from Sierra Leone, and other men who police said were aged 18, 20, 38 and 53. Two were hotel staff, the other two asylum seekers staying at the hotel.
The attacker is also understood to be an asylum seeker. People who claimed to know him said he had been mentally unwell before the attack.
Asylum seekers were moved into hotels from flats back in March by the Home Office’s outsourced accommodation provider Mears Group, as part of Home Office’s Covid-19 planning. Meals have been provided but all financial support, worth £5 a day, was terminated.
Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing, said it was now critical that the Home Affairs Select Committee investigate the move. People must be immediately moved back to residential accommodation, she added.
On Thursday Mears, which won a Home Office contract to house asylum seekers in Glasgow last September, admitted it had not carried out vulnerability assessments before moving people back in March. This was despite high levels of trauma and mental health difficulties experienced by those they were housing.
Campaigners said everybody in hotels must now be urgently re-housed with financial assistance re-instated.
Outstanding vulnerability assessments should be done with adequate mental health support provided, they added, due to overwhelming levels of psychological distress reported by asylum seeking residents.
Support group Migrants Organising Rights and Empowerment (MORE) claimed that some people who had been evacuated from the Park Inn following the incident didn’t know where to turn, and sat on pavements, hungry, traumatised and frightened for many hours.
They were finally taken to another hotel, some after 10.30pm. One man told volunteers he could not even buy a bottle of water because he had received no money for months.
Positive Action in Housing said once there, the hotel residents were told to sign “occupancy agreements” though not all could speak English.
Charities and support groups told The Ferret they had been escalating concerns about the mental health of asylum seekers in city centre hotels for months.
In May Syrian refugee Adnan Olbeh was found dead in his room after reporting that he was struggling with his mental health.
In recent weeks, with campaigners claiming little has changed despite the tragedy, calls for action from Mears have been become increasingly desperate with several charities reporting people were not able to cope with the loss of control over their lives.
Up to 100 had been refusing food intermittently in an attempt for their plea to be heard by the authorities. They wanted to be moved back into the community and have their support re-instated.
With hindsight, did we have time to do that [initial vulnerability] assessment as lockdown came in? Maybe, maybe not. But that is certainly one of the learnings we have taken onboard. And hopefully will never have to repeat again.JOHN TAYLOR, MEARS GROUP
In evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee and in letters, the firm sought to reassure politicians that the situation was under control, claiming no pregnant women or families had been moved to the hotels.
But at a press conference on Thursday Mears Group chief operating officer John Taylor confirmed to The Ferret that the company had moved asylum seekers from flats into hotels back in March, without assessing their mental health or other vulnerabilities.
In follow-up emails to The Ferret on Friday it said 12 pregnant women had in fact been accommodated in hotels, including one for four weeks. It also said three families had been housed at hotels. They insist all were moved within 72 hours. One source has repeatedly told The Ferret two families were there for more than a week.
Taylor said at the press briefing: “We made the decision, rightly or wrongly, to move everyone from initial accommodation where we didn’t feel we could support them because we weren’t aware of the circumstances around freedom of movement, and [how to get] cash out to people, so we moved them all to hotels. We felt that was the safest thing to do initially.
“We were then able to work with people to say: “Is a hotel the right place for you as a pregnant women, or as another individual?” If not, and we work with Migrant Help and the health authorities, we were then able to move them into the right accommodation. That’s the process we went through.”
He acknowledged that “there were vulnerabilities” and that “the hotel setting is not appropriate for all people”. He added: “Maybe we should have done it differently. We just didn’t have much time.”
When asked if Mears knowingly moved trafficking survivors, pregnant women and families into hotels, he replied: “If you were to put it that way, then yes.”
He added: “With hindsight, did we have time to do that [initial vulnerability] assessment as lockdown came in? Maybe, maybe not. But that is certainly one of the learnings we have taken onboard. And hopefully will never have to repeat again.”
In a follow-up email, he later claimed that “staff had discussions with everyone affected prior to moves” and as a result some people with health and other vulnerabilities were housed elsewhere.
Breakdown of trust
On the morning of 26 June, all seven Glasgow MPs had turned down the invite to attend Mears’ briefing. Chris Stephens MP said this was due to a breakdown in trust following claims in the company’s letter and evidence it gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee early this month.
Stephens said: “What Mears are claiming and briefing ministers is not the reality on the ground”. He has written to Chris Philip MP, Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, asking him to clarify the situation.
Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing, claimed all the facts led to the conclusion that an inquiry, with proper scrutiny from the Home Affairs Select Committee, was now needed.
“We don’t really know what happened here but six people are in hospital and a man was shot dead,” she said. “There needs to be an inquiry into the decision to move people there.”
Any inquiry must cover the decision to move them from residential homes, during a pandemic, remove financial support of £5 per day, without doing vulnerability assessments, she added.
It should also investigate claims made by the No Evictions Network about the denial of medical treatment and cover the circumstances of Adnan Olbeh’s death, she said. Qureshi has worked with the family and pieced together his journey from Syria to the UK and on to Glasgow.
“Serious questions need to be asked,” she said. “The detail of Adnan’s story is relevant. It shows us a picture of what is happening. People want to be able to live their lives.
“It’s become a big issue because what little control asylum seekers have over their lives – and it’s very little – has been taken away.”
She said many people in the hotels had been imprisoned, tortured or faced other horrors in their countries of origin.
They were then re-traumatised, she added, by living with the threat of deportation while going through a drawn-out asylum system, sometimes for many years, which has been criticised for practising a “culture of disbelief”.
“We are calling on Mears to put people back into residential accommodation immediately,” she said.
Serious questions need to be asked. It’s become a big issue because what little control asylum seekers have over their lives – and it’s very little – has been taken awayROBINA QURESHI, POSITIVE ACTION IN HOUSING
On 25 June Mears confirmed it would start that process from next week. However it also claimed that a lack of suitable accommodation in the city would be “a challenge”, leading to concerns of delays from campaigners.
Since winning the contract from Serco last September, the company had started using a UK-wide agency to source accommodation for new arrivals to Glasgow.
The company has a target to then move people to less temporary accommodation for the duration of their asylum claim within 19 days, but many had been in what the Home Office calls “initial accommodation” for several months.
When the pandemic hit, it is alleged it terminated contracts with these landlords without notice, before moving people into hotels.
Qureshi said there could be no excuses for failing to move people. “They had an accommodation provider but they decided it was too expensive,” she said. “It’s not a challenge unless your focus is on profit and share price. They took asylum seekers out of accommodation that was available.
“They didn’t do vulnerability assessments and these need to be done now.”
She said asylum seekers had told the charity had told them about their distress at having no money. They are not allowed to work while in the asylum system and asylum support for those in hotels has never been re-instated.
They report being unable to phone home because they can not afford phone top-ups, she claimed. Women have said they have no money to buy sanitary products. “People don’t want charity,” Qureshi added. “They want to be able to provide for themselves.”
A spokesperson from MORE said it had repeatedly contacted Mears Group with concerns about the mental health of asylum seekers in the hotels and had been dismissed. They said yesterday’s events had left people re-traumatised.
“People who were in that hotel fled from their own countries with nothing but the clothes on their back,” they added. “They were brought right back to that place yesterday.
“We have said again and again that how this has impacted on people’s mental health needs to be taken seriously. Where is the duty of care? How can Mears now be trusted to provide safe housing for people applying for international protection [through the asylum system]?” The charity is raising emergency funds to support those effected.
Scottish Refugee Council said it was “devastated” for all involved. It too confirmed it had been raising concerns for months and urged that people were given safe homes from which to rebuild their lives.
Following Friday’s tragedy Mears said in a statement: “Mears Group is deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic events in the heart of Glasgow today. We are contracted by the Home Office to provide housing and support services to asylum seekers in Scotland.
“We will not anticipate a live police investigation, but we can confirm that the attack happened in a hotel where we are housing asylum seekers during the lockdown period.
“We will provide more details as we are able to and our priority is to look after the welfare of our service users who will no doubt be traumatised by this terrible event. Tonight, we also think of the staff in the hotel and our colleagues at the scene – all are in our thoughts.”
It has directed other queries to the Home Office.
The Home Office has been contacted for a comment.