'Isolated' refugees in Newcastle hotels left without fresh food or Covid protection during lockdown

An inquiry has slammed the conditions refugees and asylum seekers were living in during the pandemic. Credit: NCJ Media

Refugees living in Newcastle hotels during lockdown were left "vulnerable" and without fresh food or basic Covid protection, a damning report has found.

An inquiry by councillors has slammed the living conditions experienced by refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the city during the pandemic.

The Newcastle City Council probe also criticised a lack of appropriate medical facilities, identified security issues caused as hotels were targeted by far-right groups, and claimed that the situation reminded torture victims of being in prison.

A Tyneside charity has called the use of hotels as accommodation an "inhumane" way to treat people fleeing persecution.

Mears Group, which has been contracted by the Home Office to provide housing for asylum seekers in the North East since 2019, said it needed to use hotels due to an "acute shortage" of suitable homes and that people's safety was "of the utmost importance".

City councillors launched the scrutiny review in January 2021 to uncover the housing conditions provided by Mears and what impact Covid-19 had on asylum seekers' wellbeing.

Roughly 2,000 people were placed in hotels across the North East, Yorkshire and Humber region during the pandemic and hotels are still being used by Mears in Newcastle today, with the report saying asylum seekers were spending up to six months living at two sites in the city.

The council's findings, first published in August, include concerns over a "lack of basic Covid protection" resulting in virus outbreaks.

Dozens of virus cases were previously reported at the Novotel Newcastle Airport in Kingston Park in April 2021.

Afghan refugees at Kabul Airport, August 2021 Credit: ITV News

Councillors also reported that a lack of medical facilities meant doctors had to see patients in hotel conference rooms and criticised "poor communication" between Mears and local GP practices.

Food provided to asylum seekers was said to be low quality, with little variation and no fresh food, while there was also an absence of communal or kitchen space.

The report also found reports of broken heating and blocked drains, that there were "increased community tensions" caused by the concentration of young men in the hotels, and that the locations became the target of far-right groups.

It adds: "The BMA (British Medical Association) estimate that 40% of asylum seekers have experienced torture, and the hotels 'remind them of prison or being in barracks' and are therefore re-traumatising, with PTSD going undiagnosed. People were isolated and vulnerable, and there was a need for social support."

The report makes a series of recommendations including improved staff training, ensuring there is adequate fresh food and that people do not miss meals, and providing "proper care" by setting up clinics within the hotels.

Hannah Barnes, director of the West End Refugee Service, said that asylum seekers forced to live in hotels "experience intense difficulties in multiple areas" and "often fare much worse than those who are housed out in the local community".

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: "Living in one room, on £8 a week, with limited access to facilities, unable to cook your own food and with no easy access to local services and support, presents serious challenges and is having a significant impact on people's mental health.

"The council and local charities have all stepped in where they can, but the model itself is deeply problematic, it is at its heart an inhumane way to treat people fleeing persecution."

Mears said it would take on board the council's recommendations.

A spokesperson added: "Due to a significant rise in the number of people seeking asylum, and a shortage of suitable accommodation, the Home Office is using hotels in all areas across the UK. Mears has assessed hotels prior to using them, to ensure they are of an appropriate standard.

"All hotels that we have used offer en-suite rooms, with TV and wi-fi access and 24 hour reception. Three meals a day are provided to all services users, menus are varied and the nutritional content is in line with NHS Eatwell guidelines.

"The safety and welfare of our service users is of the utmost importance to Mears and we have in place a team of Resident Welfare Managers who are on site at hotels daily. We are also working very closely with other partners, including health and welfare teams and NGOs to support service users.

"Mears aims to move service users on to suitable accommodation in the community as soon as possible but there is currently an acute shortage. We are working to procure additional accommodation and working with the Home Office to, where possible, prioritise moves for those people who have been in hotels for the longest time.

"The NHS is responsible for healthcare provision for asylum seekers. Mears works closely with the CCG and have, where able, set up spaces in hotels to facilitate healthcare appointments and support service users to register and access health services.

"At accommodation sites, Mears is following all public health advice on Covid. The NHS is responsible for access to Covid related testing and vaccines."

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