Profiteering from suffering: Outsourced asylum accommodation

Private companies are making massive profits while asylum seekers in their accommodation suffer.

Asylum seekers in accommodation at Napier Barracks

Outsourced asylum accommodation in the UK has been a catastrophic failure. Time and time again, asylum seekers are placed in housing unfit for human habitation, compounding their misery and leaving them unable to rebuild their lives.

In recent weeks, this issue has been put under the spotlight after it emerged that asylum seekers are housed in deplorable conditions in the Prime Minister’s own constituency. The block of eighteen flats in Uxbridge and South Ruislip is riddled with issues, from electrical faults to bathrooms left filthy due to lack of maintenance.

But this particular situation has also shed light on an even greater injustice. Clearsprings, the Home Office contractor responsible for providing the accommodation, has been making a substantial profit at the expense of asylum seekers’ suffering.

On this evidence, the squalid nature of accommodation is merely a by-product of a broken system that allows private contractors to prioritise financial gain over residents’ wellbeing. To address the former, the latter must first be tackled.

Dire living conditions

Living conditions inside the Uxbridge flats are truly deplorable. Damp and mould are rife, water leaks through ceilings and pest infestations are common. The flats have been used to house asylum seekers for several years without any improvements being made – despite numerous complaints.

This complete disregard for wellbeing has been a defining feature of Clearsprings’ tenure as an asylum accommodation provider. The Guardian recently reported that a Clearsprings member of staff was asked if their accommodation was kept to an adequate standard, to which they replied “lol”.

The plethora of problems within the flats causes untold suffering. One teenage asylum seeker from Sudan has to sleep underneath his bed when it rains to avoid the water that pours through a hole in his ceiling. Another resident developed breathing difficulties due to smoke from a nearby restaurant’s grill extractor entering his flat window.

These situations take a heavy toll on mental health. Some residents are victims of torture, others are trafficking victims, and living in these conditions only serves to compound the trauma they face. One resident had his kidney stolen while en route to the UK by an organ smuggling ring. Since being housed in the flats, he has made a number of suicide attempts.

Hannah Marwood of Care4Calais said, “I regularly see dreadful accommodation which is run-down and often squalid but even I was shocked when I saw the state of these flats. They really are in another league – not only are they tiny but they are in a shocking condition, they are filthy, damp and just shouldn’t be used to house anyone.

“We have been supporting one of the men who has been forced to live there for over a year now and it has had a dreadful impact on his mental health. He’s already vulnerable and is a survivor of organ theft and people trafficking. He made it to the UK seeking safety and has ended up in accommodation that has made him suicidal. It’s horrifying to see people living conditions like this in the UK – particularly in our Prime Minister’s constituency and where a private company is clearly making a lot of money from government contracts.”

The Uxbridge flats are far from the only instance where Clearsprings has failed to provide adequate living standards. In fact, its track record as Home Office contractor is characterised by controversy. It was responsible for the notorious Napier Barracks, the repurposed MOD site that saw multiple COVID-19 outbreaks after Clearsprings ignored warnings from public health bodies regarding the use of the facility.

It also presided over St Lawrence Mansions in Kilburn, London, a site known as the “house of horrors”, where around 200 refugees were made to sleep in rows of single beds in an insect-infested building. How such accommodation could ever be deemed appropriate is impossible to comprehend.

Profiteering through suffering

But the ultimate injustice is that while asylum seekers are languishing in these inhumane surroundings, those responsible are accruing millions of pounds in profit. Accounts filed at Companies House show that between January 2020 and January 2021, Clearsprings’ operating profit leapt from £796,304 to £4.4 million.

Substantial profits have been a recurring feature of Clearsprings’ tenure. In the five-year period spanning 2015-2019, the company made a total profit of £5.8 million from the £242 million received from its two current contracts – one with Kent County Council and the other the Home Office contract. With Clearsprings’ abysmal track record in mind, these numbers equate to nothing other than profiteering.

Clearsprings was approached for comment regarding the situation inside the Uxbridge flats and the quite staggering figures displayed in their official accounts. They had this to say:

“Clearsprings Ready Homes works closely with its delivery partners to ensure that safe, habitable and correctly equipped accommodation is provided. Whenever issues are raised, or defects are identified Ready Homes will undertake a full investigation and ensure that those issues are addressed.”

They are not the first contractor to profit at the expense of asylum seekers’ suffering, and unless the system itself is fundamentally altered so that the welfare of asylum seekers comes before all else, they certainly won’t be the last.

Mears, one of the five companies to have been handed lucrative Home Office contracts since 2010, hailed “strong” 2020 financial results in March last year, despite its abysmal track record of plunging asylum seekers into deeper misery. 

Some of Mears’ most notable incidents include asylum seekers being placed in filthy homes described as “not fit for dogs”, and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 350 asylum seekers being moved into hotels across Glasgow that reduced their independence and made social distancing impossible.

Yet while contractors display a startling lack of empathy and are directly responsible for the dire conditions inside the accommodation, the ultimate responsibility lies with the Home Office. It is they who have created a system that allows private companies to accumulate vast sums of wealth while asylum seekers suffer.

By outsourcing the provision of something so important, the Home Office has paved the way for contractors to cut costs in order to maximise their profits. Instead, the sole focus should be providing asylum seekers with a safe, humane environment conducive to a stable existence.

This cannot happen when the system itself allows for profit to come before people, and wealth to come before welfare. Building a new system with humanity at its core is the only way forward.

Cameron Boyle is a Migrant Destitution Fund volunteer and a media officer for a leading charity.

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