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MPs decry ‘shocking conditions’ at facilities for asylum seekers

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: House of Commons/PA</span>
Photograph: House of Commons/PA

MPs have raised serious concerns about the “shocking conditions” they found in Kent holding facilities for asylum seekers, including an unaccompanied child housed in an office space for 10 days, and a girl forced to sleep on a sofa for days on end.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, has written to the home secretary following a committee visit on Tuesday when MPs saw asylum seekers held in cramped, unsafe and “completely inappropriate” facilities.

Cooper described how they found 56 people crammed into a small, unventilated waiting room before they were assigned an onward placement. There was no social distancing, or mask wearing, and it was hard to see how it was Covid-safe, she said.

“Most people were sitting or lying on a thin mattress and those covered almost the entirety of the floor including the aisles between seats. Sharing these cramped conditions were many women with babies and very young children alongside significant numbers of teenage and young adult men,” she said in her letter to Priti Patel.

The MPs also visited the Atrium facility – “essentially an office space with a large central room and several adjoining offices” – where asylum seekers were held while awaiting ongoing travel, often for several days at a time and in some cases for up to 10 days.

Cooper said the Home Office had confirmed to the committee that one of the individuals held in the Atrium facility for over 10 days was an unaccompanied child. They also said: “One girl was sleeping on a sofa in an office, as the only available separate sleeping accommodation. For children, this kind of accommodation for days on end is completely inappropriate.”

She added: “It is extremely troubling that a situation has been allowed to arise, and persist, where vulnerable children, families and young people are being held in this manifestly inappropriate office space for days and even weeks.”

The home affairs committee letter comes amid rising concern among councils and children’s charities about the legality of the Home Office housing asylum seeker children in hotels. Under the Children Act, local authorities have legal responsibility for the care of the children.

Related: Napier barracks: Priti Patel accused of misleading MPs

Brighton and Hove council has written to Patel requesting guarantees about the safety and care of dozens of unaccompanied asylum seeker children who were put up in a local hotel with just 24 hours’ notice, and without consultation. The council said it understood one of the new arrivals had tested positive for Covid, and that the Home Office was arranging PCR tests for all at the hotel.

Council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty said it had asked for reassurance about the current and ongoing care and support of the children, but had yet to receive a reply. “While we continue to push for information, we are also seeking our own legal advice to clarify the responsibilities the Home Office has for these young people and what this covers exactly.”

Separately, more than 50 children’s and refugee charities have warned the education secretary Gavin Williamson that the government, by putting asylum seeker children into “inappropriate” holding facilities with limited supervision and care, may be in breach of its own legislation, due to come into force in six weeks’ time.

This would make it unlawful for children aged 15 or under to be placed in unregistered accommodation. The charities also warn that the holding of asylum seeker children in hotels by the Home Office could amount to a breach of the Children Act 1989, which makes clear that councils are their legal “corporate parent”.

The letter, whose signatories include the Children’s Society, Barnardo’s and the NSPCC, said: “Reports of vulnerable children sleeping on military-style camp beds and being placed in hotels with limited numbers of agency staff expose fundamental faultlines in our care system, which should be able to offer loving care and protection equally to all children, irrespective of their circumstances.”

Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “Many of these children and young people have fled war and persecution and witnessed often unimaginable scenes. They arrive on our shores frightened and traumatised. For them to then be moved into hotels and holding facilities and left without the care, accommodation and health checks they need is beyond shocking.”

A government spokesperson said: “To meet our legal duties, additional temporary accommodation is being used to house asylum seeking children in safe and secure accommodation, before placements can take place through the national transfer scheme.

“The Home Office continues to work with all local authorities as well as the Department for Education to ensure needs are met.”

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