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Treating Asylum Seekers Better Will Make Our Society Better

Awaab’s law was passed in July 2023 and implemented in January 2024. It is named in memory of Awaab Ishak who passed away aged two in 2020, having suffered from an extreme respiratory problem brought on by prolonged exposure to mould in his home – a one-room flat in Ilminster block on Rochdale's Freehold estate. Even before Awaab was born, his family had raised their concerns to the local authorities about the persistent black mould in their flat, only to be told that the mould was caused by their “lifestyle choices” - how they dried their clothes; what they cooked; how hot they took their showers - rather than a structural problem with the flat. Only when their two-year-old son, Awaab died from chronic respiratory problems induced by the mould did the local authorities take seriously his family’s complaints. Awaab’s law now exists with the hope that no child or adult will again have to suffer illness or death due to substandard social housing conditions, and tenant “lifestyle choices” can no longer be used by landlords to evade accountability for structural problems. It marks a turning point in the rights of people living in social housing.

Since 2020, at least thirteen other children have died in accommodations administered by the UK government. These children, however, were living in asylum accommodation, which is exempt from Awaab’s law. Asylum accommodation is not classed as social housing.

A report published by Doctors of the World condemns conditions in asylum accommodation as inhospitable, causing and exacerbating physical and mental health problems amongst residents. Oddly, or indeed rather predictably, the Home Office refuses to publish data on the deaths of asylum seekers in its accommodation, but since 2020, there have been at least 86 deaths of people seeking asylum living in UK asylum accommodation, with 24 people seeking asylum having died by suicide. Conditions in asylum accommodation are typified by widespread cases of infestations, mould and dampness; collapsing ceilings including in homes where children are living; ignoring the needs of people with disabilities; and failure to meet even the minimum standards of hygiene expected for safe and healthy living conditions. The accommodation providers face no repercussions for such deplorable conditions. They are not considered culpable for the deaths on their premises.

Asylum accommodation not being classified as social housing is an absurdity. In the UK, people seeking asylum are prohibited from privately renting or accessing council housing and instead, if destitute, are offered on a “no-choice” basis, basic accommodation known as ‘dispersal’ housing, which can be anything from a hotel, to converted military barracks, moored barges, or ordinary houses. Asylum accommodation providers are private corporations – Clearsprings Ready Homes, Serco, Mears, and most recently, Bibby Line Group Ltd. – subcontracted by the government. Because no formal agreement is made between the asylum accommodation provider and the person seeking asylum, the person has no security of tenure and is not guaranteed any implied covenants of repair. Therefore, the onus is on the government to ensure that destitute people seeking asylum are provided somewhere safe to live. So why is Awaab’s Law not being applied to asylum accommodation?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak erroneously opines that hosting asylum seekers jeopardises the British economy and diminishes public resources that should be going to British citizens. This sentiment reverberates across his Party and sadly, amongst some sycophantic opposition MPs.

In reality, people seeking asylum are prohibited from accessing most public resources and are forbidden from working (unless their asylum outcome has been pending for over a year, in which case they may be able to work,but only in professions such as cleaner or carer, and for lower wages than British citizens). 

Moreover, if asylum accommodation is not classed as social housing, it is wantonly disingenuous to say that asylum seekers are “taking homes away from British people”.

Rather than address the fact that, for example, there are almost 1.5 million fewer social homes today than there were in 1979, it is convenient for the Conservative Party to blame refugees and migrants for the lack of social housing. In fact, it is proving shrewd to deflect blame onto refugees for all the adversities that 14 years of Conservative governance have inflicted upon British society.

“I am not a scapegoat!” These are the last words Leonard Farruku was heard saying before he died by suicide, detained on the Bibby Stockholm asylum vessel. Farruku’s fellow residents are still hounded by media of all hues for wasting taxpayers’ money.

However, this does not explain why Awaab’s law does not apply to asylum accommodation. The real reason is that the UK’s asylum system is extremely profitable.

Whilst the government complains that asylum seekers are costing the taxpayer £1.5 billion a year, Mears, Serco, and Clearsprings boast a collective profit of over £800 million – profits made by compromising the health and safety of asylum seekers.

In no remotely significant capacity is taxpayer money being spent on asylum seekers. Contentions that, were it not for sponging refugees, the NHS and the education system would be showered with funds are laughable. Just as under the present system, that money would go to lining the pockets of corporations and their shareholders.

When laid bare, the government lets people suffer and die in its accommodation to sustain the wealth generated by the profit-driven asylum system.

Degrading asylum accommodation conditions won’t make social housing better - just as sending hundreds of refugees to Rwanda won’t revive Britain’s moribund economy. Every person, regardless of their status in the UK, is deserving of safe housing, because every person is deserving of safety.

If we want a better society, the well-being of each person in the country must overrule the satiation of corporate greed. Demanding a fair asylum system is an essential plank in this journey.

Awaab Ishak died from neglect by his local authority and by the UK government. In the wake of his death, there is hope that this will never happen again to anyone living in social housing. But how many more people will die in asylum accommodation before the government admits that Awaab’s Law should only naturally be applied to asylum accommodation?

I wish none.

Image: PA/via Open Democracy

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