A mass stabbing in Glasgow in June revealed the plight of asylum seekers crammed into hotels during lockdown
On the last Friday of June, at about midday, Badreddin Abadlla Adam left his room at the Park Inn hotel in Glasgow, walked down to reception, and stabbed six people. The 28-year-old, an asylum seeker from Sudan who had been placed in the hotel as part of the UK government’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, stabbed and seriously injured three other residents, two staff members and a policeman who arrived on the scene. Adam was shot dead by armed officers shortly afterwards.
The incident, which took place as Scotland was still under stringent lockdown, was initially reported by some media outlets as a potential terrorist attack, although police later dismissed this explanation. It was immediately seized on by rightwing activists, to claim that the country was threatened by an influx of “illegal” immigrants.
Instead, the Park Inn incident has highlighted the increasingly precarious situation of people who seek a safe haven in the UK, even as the government proposes more severe measures to deter them. Adam is one of three asylum seekers who have died in Glasgow since the start of the pandemic, a series of events that has shocked the city, and left campaigners and politicians calling for a public inquiry.
At the end of March, B, a 30-year-old Syrian who spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity, was one of several hundred asylum seekers in Glasgow who unexpectedly received a knock on the door. He had been sent to Scotland’s largest city after arriving in the UK the previous autumn. Glasgow hosts about 10% of the 35,000 people who claim asylum in the UK each year, under a policy known as dispersal. Like other recent arrivals, B was living in his own small apartment; a two-room space in a hostel. He had his own bathroom, and he had privacy.
At the door, however, was an employee of Mears Group, the Home Office contractor that manages asylum accommodation in Glasgow. “They said, ‘you need to get ready,’” B told the Observer, “‘you’re being moved to a hotel because of coronavirus.’” Across the city, hundreds of others were receiving the same call, as Mears abruptly moved about 350 asylum seekers – for the most part, recent arrivals who were living in temporary accommodation – into six hotels. Parliament heard in June that many received little or no notice, and that among them were pregnant women and survivors of trafficking and torture.
In theory, this was a decision taken to ensure people’s safety during the pandemic. But, B said, when he arrived at his new accommodation, a bed and breakfast in the city centre, he found a “horrible situation”. More than 100 people had suddenly been thrust into communal living, sharing washing facilities and queueing for meals. Before, most had been receiving the standard asylum support payment of £37.50 a week, but because food was being provided, this was halted by the Home Office.
“We didn’t have freedom,” B said. “We had no money, we couldn’t choose when to eat or what to eat, and nobody could tell us how long we would be there.” B was also concerned that social distancing was more difficult than in his previous home.
Throughout April, the hotel population grew to more than 500 as asylum seekers continued to be sent to Glasgow. J, a young Iranian who arrived in the city that month, told the Observer – also on condition of anonymity – that while at first he found it a relief to be somewhere safe after a “painful” journey to the UK, the accommodation soon came to feel like a “stylish prison”. Both interviewees said that food sometimes arrived undercooked, and that this led to protests by residents.
“We had so many people ask us, ‘when will this change?’” said Selina Hales, director of Refuweegee, one of several local charities that provided additional food parcels to hotel residents. “People were in a totally controlled environment and one of the main frustrations was the isolation.” A spokesperson for Mears told the Observer that meals were in line with NHS nutrition guidelines, and rated “good” in a survey of residents. They added that there were no recorded cases of Covid-19 in hotels during lockdown.
According to the two asylum seekers, however, the fear and uncertainty prompted by this new situation began to take its toll on people’s mental health; B said that some of his friends were reminded of their experiences of being detained, either in the countries they had fled or on their journeys to the UK. “You could see people starting to unravel,” said Jack Macleod, 21, who worked for several months serving food to residents of the six hotels. Housing and welfare managers, employed by Mears, were available on site, but according to Macleod, many asylum seekers he spoke to felt abandoned.
“People would come and talk to me,” said Macleod, “they would say ‘this place is making me really depressed’. The only thing I could say, because I’m not a counsellor, is ‘just try and hold on’.” Eventually, Macleod said, he left the job – a minimum-wage role he applied for via an agency when he lost his previous job at the start of the pandemic – because he felt he was being forced into the role of ad hoc social worker.
Many asylum seekers suffer abuse before they reach the UK, and the Observer spoke to several people who work with refugees in Glasgow who described how the hotel conditions exacerbated some people’s existing psychological trauma. “We got used to hearing people express suicidal thoughts,” said Dylan Fotoohi, a Glasgow-based activist who helped organise food distribution during lockdown, and has since co-founded the campaign group Refugees for Justice. The spokesperson for Mears said all residents had access to mental health support through a dedicated NHS team. During lockdown, however, this team was stretched as members were seconded to hospital coronavirus wards.
On 5 May, Adnan Olbeh, a 30-year-old Syrian, was found dead in his room at McLays guest house, one of the six hotels. According to friends, Olbeh had been detained and tortured in Libya, on his journey to Europe, and was complaining of flashbacks. In response, the Scottish Refugee Council – the country’s leading refugee charity – sent a letter to the UK home secretary asking for urgent action to “lessen the risk of further tragedies” in the hotels. There was no reply. The Observer has seen a copy of this letter, dated 14 May, but a spokesperson for the Home Office said they did not receive it.
It was not until the stabbings in June – six weeks after Olbeh’s death – that some people began to be moved out of the hotels: the Park Inn was evacuated soon after the incident, and many of the residents were later rehoused in apartments. But why did the Home Office and its contractor find it necessary to put so many there in the first place? In public statements, Mears has said that it was partly for health and safety reasons: housing people together reduced the number of trips across Glasgow that staff had to make during lockdown, and made it easier for health workers to visit asylum seekers.
Another possible reason is that it was running out of places to house people. Since 2012, asylum accommodation has been outsourced to a set of private contractors, but the system has been beset with problems: a report by the National Audit Office in July found that “providers had struggled to establish their supply chains, resulting in poor performance, delays and additional costs”.
One particular pressure point is in the provision of what’s known as “initial accommodation” – the temporary housing that people who have no means to support themselves are placed in when they arrive in the UK. Mears, one of the UK’s largest private social housing providers, took over the contract that covers Glasgow in September last year, from the outsourcing giant Serco. Within weeks, it was facing a shortage of accommodation.
In response, the company began renting serviced apartments – short-term lets, normally used by tourists and visitors to the city – on the open market. On 22 April, a spokesperson for Mears Group told the Scottish news website the Ferret that it had been using these short-term lets, and that it had been forced to move people into hotels because of “restrictions on the property market” brought by the pandemic.
The spokesperson stressed that this decision was taken to ensure the “safety and wellbeing” of the asylum seekers, but was such a move really in people’s best interests? A condition of the Home Office housing contract is that providers must be “proactive” in identifying the needs of vulnerable people in their care – yet Mears’s account of whether it carried out adequate checks before moving people into hotels has been inconsistent.
During the summer, parliament’s home affairs committee held hearings on the UK government’s response to the pandemic. In written evidence supplied to the committee on 10 June, Mears Group stated that it “risk assessed which service users it was appropriate to move, taking into account health advice”. At a press conference on 25 June, however, the company’s chief operating officer John Taylor described the move as a “blanket decision”. Once people were in hotels, he said, “it became obvious that there were vulnerabilities and that the hotel setting isn’t appropriate for some people”. The company then backtracked a few hours later, saying it held “discussions” with asylum seekers prior to deciding whether to move them. The Home Office also says that Mears held a meeting with each person before deciding whether or not to move them.
In its report, published on 28 July, the home affairs committee advised that asylum seekers “should not have been moved to new accommodation during the pandemic without justified and urgent reasons for doing so, or without a vulnerability assessment demonstrating that the move could be made safely”. A spokesperson for the Home Office told the Observer that the department was conducting an evaluation of asylum accommodation and support services in Glasgow during the pandemic. On 24 August, however, Glasgow’s seven MPs walked out of a meeting with the Home Office, in protest at what they said was a refusal to commit to publish the evaluation, or share its results with them. In an open letter, the MPs stressed their dismay and anger at the “mistreatment” of people who were “unceremoniously shunted, at very short notice, from safe, secure serviced accommodation into hotel rooms, for an indefinite period, with no money and no control”.
Within hours of the stabbings at the Park Inn, the incident attracted the attention of rightwing activists. “Horrible tragedy in a Glasgow hotel housing illegal immigrants,” tweeted the Brexit party leader Nigel Farage. “All over the UK, hotels are filling up with young men who are coming across the Channel every day. It is a massive risk to our wellbeing.”
Farage’s comments were immediately condemned by a range of politicians, including Scotland’s justice minister. But throughout the pandemic, Farage has used his platform to encourage a sense of crisis around asylum, describing the recent rise in boat journeys across the Channel as an “invasion” and publishing short films on social media in which he claims to “investigate” the use of hotels across the country to house migrants. Members of the fascist group Britain First have also tried to exploit the issue, forcing their way into several hotels in England, confronting and intimidating residents on camera.
All this, combined with the government’s own tough talk on migration, gives the impression that the UK is experiencing an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers. Yet although there was a slight increase in asylum claims last year, they fell sharply in the first six months of 2020. While more than 2,000 people crossed the Channel in boats during this period – a phenomenon that has dominated the headlines – arrivals by other routes dropped from 8,455 to 4,850, according to the head of UK Visas and Immigration.
Rather, the increased use of hotels is due to a combination of the pandemic and a housing system that was already struggling to cope. While many hotels were hired by local authorities and government housing contractors during lockdown – both for asylum seekers who had nowhere else to live, and rough sleepers, some of whom may also come from migrant backgrounds – their use as temporary asylum accommodation was already on the rise. According to a recent briefing by the House of Commons library, shortly before lockdown, about 1,200 asylum seekers were being housed in “contingency accommodation” such as hotels or short-term lets, because of shortages.
At the same time, delays in processing asylum claims – which mean people spend more time in state-provided housing, putting further pressure on space – have soared: about 40,000 people currently wait more than six months for a decision on their claim, an increase of 75% compared with a year ago. In an attempt to deal with the backlog, the Home Office is now considering outsourcing the asylum interview process to private contractors. Today, about 9,500 asylum-seekers are being housed in 91 hotels across the UK. The government has also modified several disused military barracks to accommodate new arrivals, in conditions exposed in the Observer last week as “squalid”. A Home Office spokesperson said that the use of former military sites “will ease our reliance on hotels and save the taxpayer money”.
Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, is worried that the use of mass accommodation will become the norm. “We are deeply concerned about this shift in asylum housing policy,” he said. “People have come here for protection, and need to be supported to rebuild their lives, not pushed to the margins.”
Alison Phipps, a professor at the University of Glasgow and an expert in refugee integration, shares Zazai’s concerns. “People are arriving from situations where they’ve lived in fear,” she said, “and the question should be, how do you put people as quickly as possible in a situation where they can live in safety and be able to integrate? You can’t do that when you put people in managed facilities that are separate from the population. It’s not far from a prison regime.”
In Glasgow, several hundred people are still being housed in three city hotels, which Mears has said will continue until at least the beginning of next year. Some residents have now been there for more than five months. “Hotels are never a long-term solution,” the company acknowledged, explaining that it is still having difficulty finding alternative accommodation in the city. The hardship asylum seekers face was emphasised once again in August, when Mercy Baguma, 34, from Uganda, was found dead at home next to her severely malnourished child. The circumstances of her death are still unclear – Baguma was reportedly seeking asylum, although she was not being housed in one of the hotels – but on 20 September, Glasgow’s MPs called for a public inquiry into all three deaths.
“We take the wellbeing of everyone in the asylum system extremely seriously,” said the Home Office spokesperson. “These deaths are deeply tragic and our thoughts are with the families of these individuals.”
Currently, Scotland’s police complaints body is conducting an investigation into the use of firearms at the Park Inn. But this will not examine what caused Badreddin Abadlla Adam to attack people, or whether his actions could have been prevented. At the Park Inn, he was quiet and withdrawn until the night before the stabbings, when he threatened his neighbour for playing music too loudly. “He never came to anybody’s attention,” one witness told the Daily Record, explaining that Adam had become so frustrated at his situation that he’d asked to be allowed to return to Sudan. Residents of the Park Inn, several of whom were left traumatised by the attack, were offered counselling by Mears after being moved; a group of them handed a thank-you card to police officers a few days later.
An inquiry, said Phipps, would be “about justice”. “The people of Glasgow, just like the people who were seriously injured in the attacks, and the hotel staff whose lives have changed radically over the last few months, deserve to know why it was that people were hothoused in this way, and why people are still living in accommodation that they have repeatedly said is bad for them.”