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Priti Patel’s Asylum Prisons

Priti Patel's Home Office has announced plans to house asylum seekers in a prison-style complex. The aim is simple: to criminalise people who seek the human right of sanctuary.

Earlier this month, the Home Office announced plans to house around five hundred asylum seekers in ‘temporary buildings akin to an open prison’ near a small village in Hampshire. The proposals followed on from damning reports over conditions at two sets of army barracks in Pembrokeshire and Kent, which had also been repurposed during the pandemic to house people in the asylum system. Criticism focused on access to healthcare, legal support, and basic amenities, along with the presence of far-right protests at the sites, which meant that people were subject to racist violence and intimidation if they tried to leave.

But while visions of barbed wire-encircled camps, patrolling gangs of white racists, and militarised zones used to house groups of racialised people might evoke the dystopias of films like Children of Men, public criticism has been relatively muted. 2020 has been the kind of year in which horrors can get buried or be ignored.

The moves fit clearly into the warped gunboat fantasies and far-right pandering of the current government, and are a show of force that the Home Office is well aware has little effect on the actual reasons people cross borders, but the type of accommodation provided for people in the asylum system has been part of what Liz Fekete calls a ‘philosophy of deterrence’ for thirty years. Military camps for asylum seekers are a particularly brutal iteration, but one made possible by decades of government moves to reposition what should be systems of social support, care, and shelter as a ‘deterrent’ through a spectacle of ‘toughness’.

The History of ‘Toughness’

Exclusionary laws, racist violence, and poor quality housing have been used to try to ‘deter’ migrants from coming to Britain since at least the collapse of Empire, but it was under New Labour that the particular legal scaffolding that cemented asylum accommodation as a deterrent was put in place. Railing against a ‘broken’ asylum system, and playing heavily on tabloid hysteria and racist mobilisation around ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and ‘economic migrants’, Home Secretary Jack Straw proposed a raft of changes to the system in a 1998 White Paper entitled ‘Fairer, Faster, Firmer: A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum’. This became New Labour’s flagship 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, which brought in a voucher system to replace cash benefits, a national system of ‘no choice’ dispersal, and a huge increase in the detention estate.

Straw solidified a separate tier of housing and support for asylum seekers in the 1999 Act through an appeal to deterrence, arguing that ‘the availability of cash benefits in the social security system is a major pull factor that encourages fraudulent claims.’ The same logic was threaded into the new dispersal system, which removed any choice over where people could live while they made an asylum claim, relied on poor quality—often void, or partially abandoned—housing, and utilised a vastly expanded system of monitoring, surveillance and detention. The majority of new ‘dispersal areas’ were located in under-resourced cities and towns around the deindustrialised North, the Midlands, and Scotland – places with existing problems with poverty and badly maintained housing.

The main criticisms of asylum support have changed little since its inaugural use: the housing and furniture is terrible quality or insufficient for particular people’s needs, the money is not enough to live on, the area often feels unsafe or far away from basic amenities, and it’s hard to get in touch with anyone about problems. Another refrain heard from people in asylum accommodation is that they feel constantly surveilled, facing house inspections and regular ‘reporting’ appointments. Many already say that they feel like they ‘live in a prison’.

Both internal and external reports corroborate the fact that the condition of the housing stock is abysmal. Common issues include mould, damp, cold, broken or inadequate furniture, and pests: a typical Home Office audit of properties in Middlesborough in 2016 found 91% of the housing had ‘urgent defects’.

Proving Destitution

The asylum support rates are also widely understood to be insufficient, with an increase of just 3p this year—from £39.60 to £39.63 per adult per week, equivalent to £5.66 per day—branded ‘inadequate and insulting’ by various NGOs. In 1999, this rate was set at 70% of the equivalent adult Jobseeker’s Allowance payment, but it hasn’t risen over time alongside it.

Instead, the figure is now calculated by the Home Office by analysing ‘primary source data collected by the Office for National Statistics about expenditure by the lowest 10% income group among the UK population’ on various ‘essential items’, a kind of financial race to the bottom where asylum seekers’ lives are conditioned by the suffering of the poorest parts of the wider population. The last Home Office overview of the rate, in 2017, broke down the figure into weekly payments, such as:

  • Clothing: £2.80
  • Food and non-alcoholic drinks: £22.62
  • Toiletries: £1.00
  • Healthcare: £0.92
  • Household cleaning items: £0.92

£4.30 was allocated for weekly travel, and nothing for phone communication, with the Home Office explaining that it does not consider travel and communication ‘essential needs in themselves’. A one-day bus pass for an adult in Glasgow costs £4.70.

Crucially, people’s entitlement to asylum support is tied to their status as ‘destitute’ without such support, creating constant issues if people receive gifts or bits of money from friends, which can be presented by housing officers as a breach of support conditions. One woman I met in Glasgow last year had her support payments sanctioned for months after an unannounced home inspection found a wi-fi router that was being paid for by her friend. It didn’t matter to the Home Office that this woman’s two children were both studying for college and needed internet access: the point was that this ‘sign of wealth’ contravened the punitive conditions of near-destitution she was supposed to be held in.

A 2019 report on these searches by the Glasgow NGO Women’s Asylum Seeker Housing Project included testimonies from women like the following: ‘a housing officer entered the bedroom without giving me time to dress’; ‘they came in while I was in the shower’; ‘they came into my bedroom when I was sleeping’; ‘I came home to see that my stuff had been moved.’ ‘It’s like I am nothing,’ one respondent added.

Housing Scarcity

Feeling like ‘nothing’ and that one’s home is a ‘prison’ is a clear part of the ‘philosophy of deterrence’ in asylum accommodation, but that philosophy has taken on a new strength during the pandemic. In May, the Home Affairs Select Committee discussed how asylum accommodation providers had been tasked by government minister Chris Philp in March to urgently ‘source more accommodation’ because of increasing pressure on the system. Hundreds of people were moved from their housing to ill-prepared budget hotels. As highlighted by the No Evictions Network, in Glasgow, many were taken from safer own-door housing to these overcrowded spaces, despite claims that they were only being used as initial accommodation for new arrivals.

Maltreatment as ‘deterrent’ is here met by the context of an acute housing crisis after decades of inadequate public investment. The underlying fact is that privatised asylum accommodation providers, who took on new contracts to manage this provision in 2019, simply haven’t got enough dispersal accommodation. As a recent Home Office audit noted,

During summer and autumn 2019, the number of asylum seekers entering initial accommodation rose. Meanwhile, the providers did not have enough dispersed accommodation to move people to quickly enough. From July to October 2019, the number of people in initial accommodation increased by 96%, from 1,678 to 3,289.

By November 2020, this had ballooned to approximately 9,500 asylum seekers, ‘currently accommodated in 91 hotels across the UK’. Many are being held for well over the 35 days supposedly set as a limit for ‘initial accommodation’, including 428 school-age children as of 1 October.

Key to this new form of punitive accommodation was a side-stepping of the usual local authority approval needed to disperse asylum seekers. This measure was taken against a backdrop of rapidly deteriorating communication between government and local authorities, as many threaten to leave the dispersal scheme. The militarised camps have been fast-tracked with a similar lack of local authority consultation, something we can expect to see more of as the Home Office and private providers try to source available housing stock at the rock-bottom prices required to make the contracts profitable.

Residents in the hotels faced a lack of social distancing and hygiene systems, a cessation of their monetary support, and repeated issues with food, medical care, and legal access. In such a context it’s tragic but unsurprising that there have been several outbreaks of Covid-19: 122 recorded positive cases to date. Following a series of freedom of information requests, the Guardian reported this week that twenty-nine asylum seekers have died in Home Office accommodation so far this year – many of them unnamed, and in unknown circumstances.  

Solidarity Beyond the System

It’s against this backdrop of limited housing stock, local authority disquiet, a reduced detention estate, and far-right pandering that the Home Office are moving to hold asylum seekers in militarised camps around the country.

But as grim as the proposals are, we should also interpret them as a response to campaigns and resistance against the brutal asylum system: Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment, Living Rent and The No Evictions Network in Glasgow, Sheffield Against Asylum Evictions, South Yorkshire and Asylum Action Group, various London anti-raids and renters’ unions, and many more have been using direct action, direct support, and anti-racist community organising tactics to oppose evictions and fight for good quality housing for all. Long-term campaigns against immigration detention have meant that the Home Office has felt highly scrutinised in using its detention estate capacity throughout the pandemic; along with releasing hundreds of people, it has also repurposed some detention sites into militarised ‘reception’ housing for asylum seekers, further blurring the line between detention and asylum accommodation.

Devolved and local branches of government have already been exploring ways to avoid compliance with Home Office rules, and the camps themselves. After the Stansted 15 protest blocked a charter flight in 2017, the Home Office moved to try and deport people through military air bases. Similarly, they now seek to sever the connections and forms of community that have sustained housing struggles among people in the asylum system and their neighbours by utilising remote and inaccessible military sites. As Priti Patel rails once again against a ‘broken’ asylum system, pushing forwards on ever-more draconian immigration changes and a ‘Fair Borders Bill’ that already looks set to be ‘a flagrant breach of the UN Refugee Convention’, it’s important to hold onto the ways in which people within the system and the communities they are part of have continued to fight back.

New groups like Camp Residents of Penally are already showing the possibilities of organising inside and around the camps. ‘Deterrence’ as a spectacle of ‘toughness’ has been embedded in asylum support and accommodation for decades – but it can and should be resisted through practices of care and solidarity amongst those in asylum accommodation, and those outside it, too.