Disabled refugees and allies have protested outside the Home Office at the “inhuman” treatment that disabled people seeking asylum receive from private sector companies paid to provide their accommodation.
The protest called for an end to the “obscene profits” made by the companies, and for the contracts to be handed to local authorities, so the services can be run on a non-profit basis.
Disabled allies who helped organise the protest warned that one of the companies – the outsourcing giant Serco – will soon be carrying out disability benefit assessments in the south-west of England on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Aida (pictured), a member of the Manchester-based human rights organisation RAPAR, told the protest that her Serco housing is “miserable” and plagued by rats and insects.
She said: “[Serco] are being paid a lot of money and get to ride around in their fancy cars, while we are being treated terribly.”
She said the way she had been treated by the Home Office since arriving in the UK had caused her impairment, and she added: “The way Serco treats us lacks so much respect. It’s inhuman.”
One Serco staff member barged into a female friend’s room without knocking when she had just come out of the shower, she said.
Another protester, Mariatu, who also lives in Serco housing, said: “Asylum-seekers have no dignity, they have no choice because we are not [seen as] human.
“They treat us like we are inhuman, especially when you are disabled.”
Sami, who has lived in Home Office accommodation provided and managed by another Home Office contractor, Clearsprings Ready Homes, spoke of how residents have to plead for toilet paper and toothbrushes, and how staff sometimes do not arrive to help when an emergency button is pressed.
He said disabled people living in Clearsprings properties stay silent about their treatment because they are “afraid” that speaking out will harm their asylum cases.
DNS has previously reported how more than 50 disabled people seeking asylum have been living in “cramped, unsafe conditions, without adequate food or care” in Clearsprings accommodation in Essex.
Nanou Thassinda, a volunteer at Migrants Organise, said: “Clearsprings has been profiting from our misery, providing unsafe, undignified and inadequate accommodation for people seeking asylum.
“These places aren’t a home or a hotel. These places are detention hotels and an open-door prison.
“It’s time for the government to return the contract to the local authorities to provide asylum accommodation on a non-profit basis.”
The protesters attempted to deliver a letter about the “cramped, unsafe conditions” at the accommodation provided by Clearsprings in Essex, but Home Office staff refused to accept it.
The letter says that disabled people are experiencing “horrific and unnecessary suffering”, and it pleads with the Home Office “to intervene to provide decent conditions”.
It points out that Clearsprings made £62.5 million profit on its Home Office contracts last year, an increase on the £28 million it made the previous year.
Friday’s protest was organised by disabled people’s and migrant justice organisations including the Disability and Migration Network.
Rebecca Yeo, from Disabled People Against Cuts, an activist and academic on disability and migration, and one of the organisers, told the protest: “The restrictions put on people in the asylum system are actively designed to prevent people from meeting physical and emotional needs.
“The asylum system is deliberately disabling.
“Some people arrive in the UK as disabled people, other people become disabled as a result of the deprivation in the asylum system.”
Bethany Bale, from Disability Rights UK, said the protest had highlighted the “horrific” standards of accommodation and the “disregard for life” and “abhorrent disrespect” faced by disabled people seeking asylum who were staying in Serco and Clearsprings accommodation.
She said this treatment was “completely immoral and unacceptable”.
Rensa Gaunt, from Inclusion London, compared the provision of asylum accommodation to the benefits assessment system.
She told the protest: “It’s the same system that keeps all of us down. We need to keep it out of the hands of private companies.
“Your fight is our fight.”
She told DNS later that both systems were profit-making schemes, and that handing Serco the benefits assessment contract was a “huge safeguarding risk”, because of its track record in delivering Home Office contracts.
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice at Inclusion London, had said earlier: “Disabled asylum-seekers must be treated with dignity. This not only includes a safe and accessible place to live, but also appropriate care and support, so people can do basic everyday things.
“We are calling on the Home Office to respect the basic human rights of disabled asylum-seekers.”
A Serco spokesperson said the company did not accept accusations that it was providing inadequate housing and support to disabled people seeking asylum; or that the accommodation was miserable and run down; or that its accommodation was overcrowded, with people treated in an inhuman way.
He said: “Serco provides accommodation for asylum seekers on behalf of the Home Office in two of the six regions of the UK and all the accommodation we provide is regularly inspected and complies with the terms of our contract with the Home Office and with all appropriate housing standards.
“Our teams are committed to supporting the asylum seekers accommodated by Serco with compassion, dignity and respect. Their safety and wellbeing is always our top priority.”
He said he could not comment on the claims that some accommodation was overrun with insects and rats, that people had acquired impairments because of the conditions they experience in the UK, or that a Serco staff member had entered a woman’s room without knocking, because DNS was unable to provide further details.
But he added: “Our housing officers are highly professional individuals.
“An appointment will always be made, and our processes and procedures do not permit entry to a resident’s room without knocking.”
Clearsprings declined to comment on the protest and referred DNS to the Home Office.
The Home Office said that asylum accommodation providers are contractually obliged to ensure that accommodation is accessible and complies with the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act, while asylum-seekers who have problems with their accommodation can contact the charity Migrant Help.
It does not accept hand-delivered letters.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those in receipt of asylum support and have 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.”