Covid, contingency accommodation, and Care4Calais

Hannah Marwood of Care4Calais talks to Syria Notes
13 AUGUST 2021
Image: The Crowne Plaza Hotel, Heathrow, one of the hotels used as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers during the Covid pandemic.

Back in February 2021, we spoke to Hannah Marwood, manager of the Access to Legal Aid Team at the UK charity Care4Calais, about how the charity’s work of supporting asylum seekers had adapted during the Covid pandemic.

The big change was that Care4Calais started to work much more in the UK, supporting large numbers of asylum seekers whom the Home Office were putting in contingency accommodation during the pandemic, as the usual flow of people through the dispersal accommodation system ground to a halt. Asylum seekers were being placed in hotels and hostels with minimal support, and notoriously were also housed in disused military camps.

Since this interview was conducted, one of those Ministry of Defence sites, Penally Camp in Wales, has been closed. But Napier Barracks in Kent is still in use, despite highly critical reports from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration as well as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, and a damning court judgment in a case brought by six asylum seekers against the Home Secretary.

This interview was conducted by Clara Connolly as part of an ongoing Syria Notes project looking at recent changes in UK asylum law and policy.

Clara Connolly: Let’s start by asking you to describe the origins of Care4Calais. When did it start, and why and by whom?

Hannah Marwood: It was started by our founder Clare Moseley in 2015. Up until last year we worked primarily in Northern France and Belgium. We provide direct aid in the form of clothes, food, hot drinks, mobile phones. Anything and everything they need to make their lives a little bit easier there. And then last year, we grew a lot in the UK.

Can you describe some of the earlier work from 2015 onward in Calais?

Calais is a point where hundreds of refugees stay on their way to the UK. They often end up sleeping rough in tents and camps across northern France and into Belgium as well. The environment in France is incredibly hostile to refugees. We’ve noted that the pace of evictions in the last year or so is ramping up. The police force there will remove them from their tents, and on some occasions they will cut their tents open so that they’re not able to be used the following night. There are reports of violence by the police as well.

So, the work that our volunteers do there is providing them with essential items in terms of tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes, shoes—any necessities that they might need. Some people that I’ve spoken to have stayed in northern France for a year before travelling across to the UK. Some people for a lot less than that.

Has your work changed since the Calais Jungle camp was abolished? It was at one time a very big and well organised camp.

You’re right. It had shops and faith rooms and a community there. However, that was abolished and now you end up with the refugees a lot more spread out, so they’re harder to access. The French government have been cutting down a lot of the wooded areas where they would set up their camps to make it much more difficult for them. There are evictions almost every day, where people are forced out of their tents. It’s very distressing for the people that live there.

A lot of the refugees staying there have a huge distrust in the French system. They quite often don’t want to have their fingerprints taken, because the UK is where they want to come and claim asylum.

Why is that, do you think?

For many reasons. Some people have family here that they want to join, others have English as a second language, and a lot of people who have reached the UK believe that the UK is a fairer system and their asylum claim will be heard here and they will be treated better. So, they do hold the UK on a pedestal of fairness.

We see a lot of nationalities, predominantly from countries such as Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iraq and Iran. More and more, we’re seeing Eritreans.

War-torn countries

Exactly, countries that have faced conflict for a number of years now.

Were you able to provide access to lawyers who could use the EU rules on family reunion?

There was a time where we put unaccompanied minors staying in and around the Calais region in touch with Duncan Lewis solicitors, and they were able to help them to travel to the UK in a safe manner.

You mentioned Belgium?

We do distributions in Belgium as well. Not as frequently as in Calais and Dunkirk, but our teams on the ground in Calais—we’ve got the warehouse there—would drive north to Belgium to do distributions. There are some really wonderful organisations in Belgium, so the distributions that we do in Belgium are less frequent than we would do in Calais and Dunkirk.

Care4Calais is predominantly a volunteer-based organisation. Volunteers go out to Calais and work in the warehouse sorting distributions that we’ve received from all across the UK. They decide what they’re going to distribute that day and get it out in teams. It has been tricky with COVID, and we had to ask that volunteers stay for longer than they would have before.

With Brexit and Covid, it became more and more difficult to get the goods across to Calais. It’s a tough environment to be sleeping in in tents, so getting warm clothes to people is important—coats, shoes. We have some amazing suppliers that we would purchase new items from such as underwear—it’s always nice to have fresh underwear!

A lot of the people who stay in Calais and Dunkirk are single men, so we do specify that when we’re doing a call out for general donations. There are, however, quite a few families with children, so occasionally we’re in need of children’s and women’s clothes as well.

There’s a few hundred people in the Calais area—it’s difficult to know because the camps are moved every couple of days. There are more in and around the Calais area than there are in Dunkirk. It’s quite tricky to know because of the scattered effect that happened since the Jungle was dismantled.

Links to Care4Calais

Facebook: @care4calais
Instagram: @care4calais
Twitter: @Care4Calais

You said that your work has changed, has moved more to the UK. Could you say something about that?

The biggest thing that has happened in the last year or so is that we’ve now got a much bigger operation in the UK. It was in response to the use of contingency accommodation by the Home Office, and their response to Covid.

Now we’ve got two branches of work in the UK: we’ve got the direct aid which is similar to what we do in Calais, and we have an Access to Legal Aid Team that we have set up, to link asylum seekers in the UK with legal representation.

We have now over 500 direct aid volunteers in the UK. Quite a lot of them have volunteered in Calais as well, so they know what we do, and how we do it.

Direct aid is visiting the people who are currently housed in hotels and barracks across the country in the contingency accommodation used by the Home Office and they help with distributions—so providing warm clothes. Befriending—that’s the main part of what we do—giving them a friendly face to talk to and feel like they’re not so alone. The people that we meet become very isolated in these accommodation options and their mental health declines. So, having somewhere that they can go to, and talk and feel like they’re not so alone is important. We would also do signposting: helping people get their kids to local schools, or to sign up for GPs, or dentists, anything they need to feel welcome in the UK.

What do you mean by contingency accommodation?

“Contingency accommodation” as the Home office calls it is initial accommodation: hotels and ministry of defence sites that are being used across the country to house asylum seekers. There is a big backlog in the processing of asylum claims, and because of Covid there is a need for accommodation quickly. So, asylum seekers were to be housed temporarily in hotels and ministry of defence sites. As time has gone on, it’s not looking so temporary, anymore. They are still in the hotel sites and the ministry of defence sites.

The hotels are predominantly in and around the London area. But they also range up to Leeds and Manchester, as well.

So, are you able to visit the hotels?

Initially we were able to visit people in the hotels. The mental health of people declines rapidly because in hotels they’re alone, they’re bewildered—they’ve just arrived. They’re very isolated. From what we have seen they have very little support, and really struggle in these accommodation options.

We like to do distributions off site, as well, because it gives them some reason to go out of the hotel and get out and have some fresh air. A lot of people we speak to are nervous about leaving the hotel. We spoke to one person in a hotel who hadn’t left it because he was worried about getting stopped by the police. And no-one had explained to him that that wouldn’t happen in the UK, and that he could go out and get some fresh air and go for a walk and that was fine. So, a lot of it is helping them understand where they are and what they are entitled to.

They have food included. There have been quite a few issues with the food. A lot of the time it lacks basic nutrition, it is the same thing quite regularly, and we’ve had reports that the food in some of the hotels has been making people quite ill.

What kind of hotels are they being put in?

Definitely not the Hilton. They are hotels across the country that are not being used because of Covid, a lot of them in various states of disrepair. We have had reports of mice infestations in some of the hotels, of cockroaches and bed bugs and other nasty situations. So not the five-star establishments, that is for sure.

And does anybody beside yourselves communicating with tell them what’s going to happen?

Migrant Help has a twenty-four-hour hotline that people can call. However, we have heard reports that they don’t explain things that well. There’s a lack of communication with the people in these hotels which is what really forces their mental health into decline. They feel left in these hotels for months now, and they haven’t had any communication as to what is happening with their asylum claim, or where they are going to go next. They have always been told that these options were temporary, but now, here we are, eight months down the line.

But do they support each other?

You get fifty to three hundred people in these hotels. It’s a lot of potentially vulnerable people to put in one place who have varying mental health issues, or previous trauma, so it can be quite tricky, but they are amazing and they do form these mini communities and look out for each other as best they can. However, you do often have a few people who haven’t been able to do that, they feel overwhelmed and scared and will stay in their rooms a lot of the time and they’re quite hard to access.

We will go to the hotels and set up distribution spaces or off site, using churches and community centres. We have volunteers there and people can come down and pick up what they need, but also have a conversation which is really important.

We have some volunteers who have second language skills. Google Translate—as silly as that sounds—it’s incredibly helpful when talking to people. And you’d be surprised how much of a conversation you can have with someone using very few words and hand gestures. It’s about showing them that someone cares.

You don’t have to have any particular language skills to volunteer with us. You just have to want to meet people, have conversations, and help. And then you get added to a local group to be informed of the local hotels—you have regular Zoom calls with the volunteer group and plan distributions. There’s a good network of volunteers. Some are more experienced than others and they are supportive of each other.

I saw a report of a distribution centre in Kings Cross, for example. Could you describe what goes on there?

There is one near to Kings Cross, yes. They’re all across the London area as well as other areas across the country. The general process is that you would find a space, set it up, do a call out for donations—the response that we have is amazing.

What kind of goods?

Similar to what we would ask for in Calais. So, warm winter clothes. A lot of the people that we meet have just the one set of clothes that they arrived in. Because they are provided three meals a day and accommodation, over the summer they had no funds at all on top of that, so they were unable to buy essentials such as clothes, a new pair of shoes. You’d meet people who had literally one change of clothes and flip flops on their feet. Now, they are entitled to eight pounds a week, but there are still people who are not receiving what they are entitled to, so they do need help getting essential items.

Phones are very important, first of all for telling their family back home that they are safe. It also gives them access to Google Translate, so that they can communicate, it gives them access to websites and apps where they can learn English or better their English. It also helps them to stay in touch with each other and with legal representation.

Is it difficult to get hold of asylum lawyers?

Our Access to Legal Aid Team works to link asylum seekers in the UK with legal representation who hold a legal aid contract with the government. There have been significant cuts to legal aid over the last few years, so there have been capacity issues with the immigration solicitors that we work with. That has been a struggle.

We’ve been operating our Access to Legal Aid Team for seven to eight months now, and we just hit over a thousand clients that we managed to find representation for.

That is impressive. I have noticed how much demand for each asylum lawyer there is, because the pool of free lawyers has shrunk.

We only refer to lawyers that have a legal aid contract. The people that we work with aren’t able to afford private solicitors, so they would need a lawyer with a legal aid contract.

The other form of contingency accommodation that you mentioned was army barracks.

The Home Office is using Ministry of Defence sites in the form of barracks across the country, in Napier, in Penally, and in Coltishall in Norfolk as well, although that the numbers there have dwindled so much that I don’t think it’s being used any more.

And then the Home Office had plans to house up to 200 asylum seekers in, essentially, a wasteland next to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removals Centre—a completely unacceptable accommodation option. They were planning on building Portakabins. I believe they did actually build some Portakabins, which now will no longer be used.

We were quite integral to a campaign against the use of Yarl’s Wood for housing asylum seekers. The campaign was joined by over 50 refugee organisations and charities across the UK, and there was also legal action taken by a local resident of Bedfordshire who is also a Care4Calais volunteer and a Stand Up to Racism volunteer, and that challenged the Home Office use of this site. And the Home Office pulled its plans to use Yarl’s Wood to house asylum seekers, so we are happy and proud that happened.

Have you figured out who get sent to Barracks and who gets sent to hotels?

I know the people that are sent to the barracks are men. They will not put women and children in the barracks, and the line is that they are people whose case files suggest that they have no history of vulnerability. However, from what we have seen, this is not true. They have been trafficking victims, torture victims—horrific. And these camps have had a re-traumatising effect on them. So these people should not be in the camps.

Have they all come by boat?

Many of them have, yes. I know a couple that haven’t, but predominantly they are people that have crossed the channel over the summer in 2020.

So, would you say that it is meant to deter?

Yes. I believe that the Equality Impact Assessment document that was released last week suggests that the camps are an accommodation option so as not to look like the government are treating asylum seekers as they would a British person. It’s disappointing.

We have had a significant presence in Napier. Direct aid volunteers have been providing support since it opened in September, and our Access to Legal Aid Team have managed to sign people up with solicitors. The use of the barracks is completely unacceptable. We speak to clients who are trafficking victims, victims of modern slavery. They have past experience of imprisonment, torture, they have many vulnerabilities caused by the reason they were forced to flee their countries, so housing them in a military setting with 24 hour security and barbed wire round the fences is extremely re-traumatising for them. They have been unable to sleep because of nightmares and flashbacks and being housed in rooms with up to 14 people with varying mental health concerns which are spiralling because of their recent environment. It’s become a disaster.

There was a massive Covid outbreak in January there, like everybody said there would be. That sort of site was never going to be appropriate to be able to prevent and manage a Covid outbreak. They have one nurse on site, who apparently is able to refer people to a local GP, but we’re not sure how often this has been happening. There’s no mental health provision. And they also end up with physical health issues in the form of Covid symptoms and haven’t had any support. They’re incredibly frightened.

We have been working with some amazing public law solicitors to move people out. We’ve done about seventy five transfer requests for people to be moved out for varying reasons, including the fact they were victims of trafficking torture, imprisonment, physical health issues, mental health issues.

So, you say, if any of the inmates can access to a lawyer that means that they are likely to be able to be moved out. Is that right?

Yes we have been quite successful with the transfer requests that we have made.

We heard in an interview with Kent Refugee Action Network that lawyers were turning up at the camp and were being turned away.

We’ve heard that as well. Solicitors who turned up at the camp to take clients on and help them with their asylum claim were being turned away. Denying them access to legal representation is awful.

We have also seen that direct aid volunteers initially were allowed access to the site, but in recent months have been turned away as well. There seems to be gatekeeping of the site which is quite concerning.

There’s an obvious reason why people wouldn’t be allowed in if there’s a Covid pandemic raging inside.

Yes, of course, but prior to that, we were being turned away. There was a period as well when our volunteers were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement to get access to the sites, which was underpinned by the Official Secrets Act. We obviously weren’t able to sign this document. It would stop us from alerting anyone to any adverse conditions inside the camp, which is what our role is.

The direct aid team provide clothing and mobile phones where someone has not had a phone, or they’ve had their phone confiscated on arrival in Dover.

I believe the reason is that they’re looking for evidence of smuggling, and how they got to the UK. However, we found that there was a long delay in the Home Office returning people’s belongings, so we had a couple of clients from around the April, May, June time who have only just started getting their phones back, since we have started working with a couple of law firms.

The solicitors that help with the return of people’s phones are public law solicitors, so separate from their asylum solicitor. We work with public law solicitors to challenge things like the phone confiscations and the appropriateness of individuals being housed in the barracks.

The individuals that we were working with were at immediate risk. They were in poor mental health, had suicidal thoughts, and were really struggling. We decided to work in the best interests of the individual and to do a transfer request for them as quickly as possible.

Our team would make a referral for an individual to a solicitor and then book an appointment for them. During lockdown, this is quite often done remotely, or over Zoom, so we would help the asylum seeker download Zoom and get the hang of it, ensure that the first appointment went well, and then most of it is done over the phone.

For referrals we have a WhatsApp number that people can contact. We have one number that comes through to our team, so it is all done directly.

The volunteers on our Access to Legal Aid Team are not legally trained—they act as a referral mechanism. We help to manage expectations potentially of both sides, and make sure that all of their documents are there. It all gets sent through to the lawyer in a good amount of time, and the appointment happens. We’ve got just over thirty volunteers at the moment—they are amazing and have become very knowledgeable.

Sometimes you might get a panicked message from a client. They’ve received some paperwork from the Home Office and it’s all in English, and they don’t have a clue what it says. And you are able to help with the translation. If it is something worrying, then send it through to the lawyer, so they can check it out.

And so, what would you like to see happen, throughout 2021?

I would like to see our government form a more welcoming stance towards asylum seekers. The current situation is not good for anybody, especially not for people who have fled conflict and war and persecution. I would like them to address the backlog in asylum claims, so that the use of such accommodation is not necessary. I would like to see them permit asylum seekers to work and contribute to our communities. The people that I meet are intelligent people, and they are motivated to contribute to the country that is offering refuge. Currently, the way our government policies are, they are not permitted to do that. If they were able to work, then they would be able to contribute to taxes and integrate much better.

Do you think Brexit has made a difference in that the Home Office is aware it can’t send people back through the European rules since they cut themselves off from European regulations?

I think that Brexit and the removal of the Dublin regulations had a massive effect on government policy towards refugees. There was a massive rush at the back end of 2020 to remove a lot of asylum seekers under the Dublin regulations. We had 120 clients who were in immigration removal centres. We were able to find them legal representation, and I would say 90 to 95% of those people have now been released because the lawyers that we linked them with were able to make valid legal reasons why they should not have been removed at that time.

We now have these new regulations where the Home Office has the ability to deem claims inadmissible in the UK if there is evidence that they have travelled through other countries.

Have you seen any examples of that yet?

We have seen some clients at the early stages of that process, yes. It’s incredibly concerning that the UK is not offering refuge to people and will attempt to deem their claim inadmissible.

I think that there is a good argument that they are breaking international law, and I am sure that there are a lot of immigration solicitors out there who will be challenging this.

Well it sounds like you have been a very flexible organisation. You’ve been able to change the kind of support you offer depending on the circumstances.

It’s all snowballed quite rapidly. Ideally, we wouldn’t have to do the work that we do, but it’s exciting how quickly we’ve been able to grow and help a lot of people.

We’ve got over 500 volunteers doing the direct aid work, over 30 doing the Access to Legal Aid Team. We would not be able to operate at all without them. And our previous experience in Calais and Dunkirk has meant that we understand distributions and direct aid, so its been really good to have a template to work off in terms of supporting the hotels and the barracks.

The legal aid team is new. That’s definitely been a learning curve, but one that I think we’ve managed well. We’ve developed really good relationships with solicitors across the country so they will come to us, and we will go to them and it means that we’re able to also assist on this larger litigation project, as well.

Transcription by Zoë Ranson. Illustration by Peggy Jacobs Strom.