A man with significant long-term health conditions is in the fourth week of a hunger strike over “inhuman” conditions at a former Essex care home that is being used to house more than 50 disabled people seeking asylum.
The Home Office has so far refused to take any action over the case of Basam Huzyene, originally from Jordan, who has diabetes and a serious heart condition.
He is pleading with the government to intervene to provide humane conditions for himself and the other disabled people at the home, in the Tendring district of Essex.
But the Home Office failed to turn up to a safeguarding meeting last week, which was attended by local social services and NHS representatives, his solicitor (from lawyers Deighton Pierce Glynn), and the voluntary organisation Refugee, Asylum Seeker and Migrant Action (RAMA), as well as Clearsprings Ready Homes, which is contracted to run the facility.
Huzyene (pictured) has been in the home for eight months and says the conditions, and the lack of nutritious food, are putting his life at risk.
He is in such poor health he believes he could easily catch an infection from the cramped, shared facilities, which would be fatal.
He told Disability News Service last Friday: “The food you can’t even eat, even your dog will not eat it, but you eat it because you have no choice, no money to buy your own food.
“Every day my condition is going down. I feel weak.
“This is the third week. The first week it was very hard. The second week I don’t feel hungry no more, this week my body is struggling.
“I am training my brain to keep myself up and strong. It is very, very difficult, but I try.
“They have to change. If they don’t, I have no choice. I have to finish what I started.”
He added: “My health is weak, I can catch anything from anyone, from a shower, from the toilet. If I catch anything that’s the end of it.
“They should know I have all my reports, all the surgeries I have had, my history, I just want to be like a human, I don’t want anything else.
“I am not asking for something special, I am just normal. I just need normal things.”
Campaigners say that 53 disabled people seeking asylum are currently being housed in the facility in “cramped, unsafe conditions, without adequate food or care”.
One resident, Behnam Murufi, who was Iranian, died in June after being denied the wheelchair that doctors said he needed after a number of strokes. RAMA said he was not offered any support and had “struggled hugely with mobility”.
Among the current residents, there are six who are paraplegic, 13 with prosthetic limbs, a number with significant mental distress, and others with life-limiting conditions.
The lack of proper care resulted in one disabled woman being left on the floor for 14 hours because the security staff that work there are not trained in manual handling.
Although the facility is step-free and accessible to wheelchairs, there are no hoists or other vital equipment to assist those with physical impairments.
Another disabled woman, aged 74, is so desperate for nutritious food that she has taken to knocking on the doors of local families to ask permission to use their cooker to boil cheap vegetables she has bought with her £9-a-week allowance.
Clearsprings Ready Homes has 10-year Home Office contracts to manage accommodation for people seeking asylum in England and Wales and last year made £28 million profit on those contracts, with its three directors sharing almost £28 million between them in dividends.
The Home Office refused to comment this week on the case of Basam Huzyene and his hunger strike.
But it said in a statement: “We are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those on asylum support, with extra provisions in place for people with disabilities.
“Asylum accommodation providers are contractually obliged to ensure accommodation is accessible for disabled people and where concerns are raised, we work with providers to ensure they are addressed.
“The food provided meets NHS Eatwell standards and caters for all cultural and dietary requirements.”
But Maria Wilby, operational lead of RAMA, which has been supporting those in the Essex facility, said: “We are aware of three individuals, all elderly and disabled, who appear to have become diabetic while staying at the site.
“The lack of training provided for staff around working with disabled people and the lack of essential equipment is putting lives at risk.
“There has already been one death. We will do everything we can to ensure there is not another.”
And Rebecca Yeo, a disabled activist and academic and member of Disabled People Against Cuts, who has researched issues of disability and forced migration, said: “The disabled people’s movement and anyone who cares about justice must not turn away from what is happening to Basam and everyone housed in this place.
“People are being deliberately deprived of the most basic needs and isolated from the wider population.
“We need a social model approach to focus resistance on the disabling impact of restrictions imposed on people in the asylum system.
“We have seen time and again that these restrictions are gradually extended to the wider population of disabled people.
“We need a stronger collective movement of solidarity to benefit us all.
“The Disability and Migration Network of people involved in either or both sectors are collecting signatures on an open letter which will be delivered to Clearsprings Ready Homes, the company providing this accommodation.”
Campaigners believe the government, Clearsprings and local authorities are breaching the rights of the disabled people in the former care home under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
But Cllr Mark Stephenson, an independent councillor and leader of Tendring District Council, said the council had a “long and proud history of supporting people fleeing persecution”, and “understand the government’s reasoning for dispersing asylum seekers throughout the country”.
He said the council had “robustly expressed concerns about the suitability of this specific location which we feel is unsuitable both for those placed there and the existing community, given other pressures on services and levels of deprivation – and have repeatedly asked for information and assurances around our concerns.
“People placed here are vulnerable due to additional care needs, and we have been doing what we can within our remit, and the bounds of propriety, to help them.”
He said it was the duty of Clearsprings to fund the relevant services.
The council has asked the Home Office for written clarification of whether it can use some of the Asylum Dispersal Grant of more than £100,000 it receives to support those placed at the facility, but Stephenson said “this has not been forthcoming”.
The council said it was aware of Huzyene’s hunger strike and was trying to influence the Home Office to take action to improve conditions and release the funding it could use to support that goal.
Stephenson said the council had regularly visited the former care home and raised concerns “where appropriate”, even though it was not responsible for safeguarding, health care or commissioning the services.
He said the council had also installed a free Careline service so the council can support and lift anyone who falls, had organised exercise classes, provided clothing through partner organisations, and co-ordinated fortnightly meetings with partners, such as the NHS and social care, “in order to ensure there is appropriate support in place”.
Asked what action it was taking to address the concerns, including the hunger strike, a Clearsprings Ready Homes spokesperson said: “We would not comment thereon but refer you to the Home Office press office for any comment they may have.”
A spokesperson for Conservative-led Essex County Council said it was aware of the hunger strike.
He said in a statement: “While we don’t comment on individual cases, we continue to be in close contact with our partners, including the Home Office, health partners, the local council and voluntary sector organisations, to support all those living at this site.
“Work that has taken place in partnership has included site visits in advance of their arrival to ensure that the former care home was fully accessible and appropriate for people with a range of care needs, and advice and guidance has been provided to residents, many of whom are fully independent.
“In all cases where a referral has been made, Essex County Council staff have undertaken assessments and care packages have been put in place to meet eligible needs, as well as providing advice, support and signposting where needed.”
He said he could not reveal how many care packages had been put in place “as it would risk personal identification of those involved”.
He added: “Any urgent referral is dealt with quickly in the same way as it would be for any Essex resident.
“Whilst we are not resourced to undertake this additional activity, we are fully committed to safeguarding all vulnerable adults living in Essex.”
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…