Hotel Limbo

Part One
16 AUGUST 2021
Photo: A resident of The Crowne Plaza Hotel joins a demonstration outside on 31 July 2021.

This is the first in a short series of diary entries. Read Part Two here.

Read our interview with Hannah Marwood of Care4Calais for more on how their volunteers try to support asylum seekers in hotels during the Covid pandemic.

See our main Fortress UK page for more on the basics of asylum law, on how to seek asylum in the UK, how lawyers can help, and on the Home Office’s recent use of military barracks to house asylum seekers.

المقال باللغة العربية — Some of these articles are also available in Arabic.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel, Heathrow. 31 July 2021.

“Maybe you’ve heard the news from two weeks ago, the guy who died here.”

“He was somebody who died here. We were friends.”

The Crowne Plaza Hotel near Heathrow Airport in west London is one of the many hotels now being used during the pandemic as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers. On the evening of Saturday 17 July, two weeks ago this day, Bukhariri Afifi Ahmad, a young asylum seeker, was found dead in his room at the Crowne Plaza.

“We lost our one brother here. He died inside the room. Two days he was inside. We asked them to open. They said wait. From Friday, we hadn’t seen him.”

“They wouldn’t look.”

“On Saturday, everybody was after them to open the room. They said no, you have to wait. You have to go for the police. After two days the police came, and they opened. He had died inside the room. We don’t know the reason he died.”

“We don’t know the cause of death.”

“He was our best friend. In one year, three people have died inside here.”

We are at a demonstration outside the hotel. We stand at the back, talking to some of the residents. It’s the last day of July 2021. There were earlier demonstrations here following the unexplained death. On the day after the body of Bukhariri Afifi Ahmad was found, Care4Calais volunteers who were helping people in the hotel posted images on Facebook of residents holding signs in protest. “He is neglected to death,” one sign said. “Asylum seekers are humans,” said another. “Refugee lives matter.”

A second demonstration was held two days after the body was found. Journalists came, as well as asylum campaigners, union activists, and local MP John McDonnell. And now two weeks later this demonstration has been organised by a campaigning group called Movement for Justice. Several residents have come out to watch, and a few hold signs and stand with the Movement For Justice activists.

We are here because for several months we have been interviewing people about Penally Camp and Napier Barracks, two disused military properties where the Home Office decided to house asylum seekers during the pandemic. In both places, asylum seekers protested the conditions. In Penally Camp in Wales, the asylum seekers formed their own union, Camp Residents of Penally, or CROP. With support from local and national organisations—and from several individuals—they successfully campaigned for the camp’s closure. Napier Barracks in Kent is still open.

So we have come to learn more about these hotels which are part of the same contingency accommodation system as Napier Barracks. We meet Antonia from Movement For Justice. While they have been organising at other hotels, this is their first time coming as a group to the Crowne Plaza. “There had already been other deaths we knew of,” she says. “We had to come down and make a connection with the people here, because we know that there’s people that want to fight. That they came out and demonstrated was really positive.”

Movement For Justice opposes immigration detention and deportations. When the pandemic began, the number of people in detention was brought down, and at one point Yarl’s Wood detention centre was emptied out. “Then they started to use it for cross-channel refugees,” Antonia tells us. “Straight from Dover into Yarl’s Wood with no access really to solicitors, often with their phones taken off them. They used it as short term holding facilities for seven days, which means different criteria, where you don’t have the same rights to legal assistance.”

After seven days, people were moved on to contingency accommodation. “Because we did demonstrate over the fence at Yarl’s Wood and made connections, when people were then moved to hotels, we already knew people,” Antonia explains. Crowne Plaza had a worse reputation than other hotels. “Everyone would say the same thing, they hated this place. Some of the hotels, they still look like hotels. This one just looks like a prison.”

It’s true. What had been a normal airport hotel before the pandemic—listed as four star—now has a high hoarding all around the building, a white-painted wall. Most of the grounds are outside of that wall, as is the car park where the demonstrators are chanting. There is a guarded gate in the wall. The grounds outside have grass and trees, but beyond that is the A408 dual carriageway feeding onto the M4 motorway. The traffic is constant. Seen from the air, the Crowne Plaza building has the same layout as Saydnaya Prison in Syria, three wings radiating from a central hub.

Image: The Crowne Plaza Hotel, Heathrow, as seen from above. See our interview with Hannah Marwood of Care4Calais for more background on how aid volunteers are trying to support asylum seekers housed in hotels during the Covid pandemic.

The whole time we’re talking, a succession of speakers from Movement For Justice are taking the microphone, making speeches and leading chants. They talk about having experienced detention, and about the need to fight. There is energy and anger, and a lot of noise. But the only visible audience is the residents. We can’t see any of the staff from here, but we can see some families looking down from hotel balconies. “You have to fight!” one of the speakers shouts to the residents. “Movement For Justice knows how to fight! We know how to win!” The speeches are aimed at the residents, and the chants at the wall.

Most of the people holding signs and chanting in the middle of the paved area seem to be from Movement For Justice, while most of those residents who have come outside the wall are standing to one side, or are walking around behind the demonstration.

Another woman from the group is talking to some of the residents standing back behind the demonstration. She encourages them to join Movement For Justice and asks for their phone numbers. One, an Eritrean, tells her he can’t speak English. “But you’re answering me in English?” she says. As she moves on to try some others, he and his two friends decide to join the protesters and pick up one of their signs. We hear the recruiting activist say to the next resident, “You have to fight!” But he and most of the other residents are still standing back from the chanting visitors.

To Antonia, we say that we have been talking to people who were inside Penally and Napier, hearing about how they organised inside Penally, and how residents found it harder to organise inside Napier where there was a major Covid outbreak. We ask whether Movement For Justice are succeeding in helping people organise inside hotels and hostels?

“Yeah, we’re also trying to tell people the truth, that this is a racist system that you’re dealing with,” Antonia replies. “You may not know it straightaway. It may not be obvious. And you’re certainly told a lot of misleading things.”

Antonia points to what’s happening now in Napier. Following the Covid outbreak there, Napier Barracks was emptied completely. Then in April, the Home Office started moving people in again. They gave the new intake an impression that by staying in Napier, they would get an asylum interview more quickly. “People don’t want to be in limbo, so they take doing the interview. The problem is a fast interview is not a fair interview just because it’s fast. If you’ve only half told your story, if you haven’t known what you needed to talk about because you never talked to anyone about it, and you don’t fully understand it, then you’re screwed.”

“Anyone dealing in this fight needs to be telling the truth about the Home Office system,” Antonia says. “No gloss on it. Because this is a fight. Some people will get asylum from very specific places. But lots of people are in a holding pattern until Priti Patel is in a position to deport them. They’ve reopened charter flights this month, to Zimbabwe for the first time ever, to Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and to Jamaica. And they’re already filling the detention centres to take mass deportations, including people who came here as children, who have been here for decades. Why does anyone imagine that they’re nicer just because you’re from a different country? Those illusions have to be ditched because they stop you realising that you’re in a fight.”

Movement For Justice are clearly focused on political campaigning more than aid. “Yes,” Antonia says, “if it was aid alone, that would be like a sticking plaster on an ever growing wound, where the government is still sticking the knife in.” Without a political fight, the aid is endless, she says. “Because politically you’re set up to fail.”

We talk about a risk some aid volunteers have expressed to us, that aid can end up facilitating places like Napier staying open, even though that’s not what they want to see. “Exactly,” Antonia says, “make it manageable, like being the velvet glove over the iron fist—it’s still punching you.” Working through this can be difficult when faced with an individual who needs help, we suggest. “But that person is also someone who has just navigated their way halfway across the world,” Antonia responds.

“That is a resourceful person who’s already in a fight. They’ve been in a fight all across Europe. If you’ve had to deal with the racism in Italy, in France, in Calais, how you’re treated, and you’ve decided to keep going, that’s not a weak person. That is a strong person. So what is needed? Health care is needed, those practical things, of course. But what is needed is to know how to fight, how to take control of your situation in a British context. If you know how to do that, I don’t doubt that there are plenty of strong people here who will put into action what they need to do, because they’ve already been doing that.”

Not another Europe

The Crowne Plaza residents we talk to say that yes, they have experienced racism in Europe, in France and in Germany, and despite all they are going through here now, a number of them still say the UK is preferable because of the level of racism elsewhere in Europe. “You know your rights,” one man tells us. “And you know the rule. It’s not like another Europe if you know your rights and your responsibility. It’s nice you can walk freely—not feel that maybe the police will catch me because I have no document. In Europe, I could not walk outside. The UK is better.”

Another man agrees with him. “You have a lot of freedom here,” he says. “But this place is no good,” he continues, indicating the Crowne Plaza. He has visited friends of his in other hotels in London where they are living in better conditions.

“Here, they don’t treat us like a human being,” one man tells us. “It’s very dirty food. If you ask them anything, they say ask the Home Office, but you can’t contact the Home Office. You can’t. You can’t. It’s very difficult to contact them. Some people, they don’t know the language, but they don’t do anything for us.

He says that, “Even if you are sick, they just tell you to call one-one-one,” the phone number for the National Health Service’s advice line.

Another tells us, “Some people, they have a GP but they don’t have an Oyster to take a bus,” meaning an Oyster card for London Transport.

“If you have an appointment, you tell them, they say we don’t do anything, you have to call Migrant Help. When you call Migrant Help, they say we will ask the Home Office. You know, the bureaucracy is very, very—you damage your head.”

Migrant Help is a charity that in 2019 was given an exclusive contract by the Home Office for the provision of asylum support services, known as Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility Assistance services (AIRE), making the charity a single point of contact to report issues relating to asylum housing.

The remoteness of the hotel is a big problem. One man says that his friends live more centrally where there are more organisations meeting them. “Here they don’t come,” he says. “I don’t know why.”

“I’m here two months. I have a family here. I have a wife and kid in London. They came before me.”

“A lot of people inside have been here eight months, or one year.”

A young man talks about his frustration with the passing days. “I have friends in Luton, in every place in England,” he says. “But now my friends are all starting school. I’m staying here, sleeping every day. It’s no good. I want to be learning something.”

Unlike Napier Barracks, it isn’t just single men in Crowne Plaza. “There’s a lot of family people inside, a lot of children inside, but they are afraid to go out,” one of the men tells us. “Look, every window is open—they are afraid.” He points at the people looking down from the hotel windows.

“They say if you go outside for a demonstration, your claim will fail,” another man tells us. His friend confirms that staff have been telling residents not to join the demonstration, threatening that they will be reported to the Home Office. He says that staff are lying to intimidate residents against speaking out because they are afraid of losing their jobs, and that staff at the gate have been filming people who join the demonstration.

Strength and vulnerability

Despite the truth in what Antonia said about the strength of many of the residents here, they are in a much more vulnerable position than the visiting demonstrators. Even as they show defiance by coming outside, they will remain in a position of dependency after the visitors leave, and tomorrow and the day after, and for how long they don’t know.

Aspects of life at the Crowne Plaza are similar to what has been reported from Penally Camp and Napier Barracks, even though the building itself is better than dilapidated army huts. What the situations have in common can be described as a culture of hostile neglect.

The limbo situation of people on contingency accommodation is different to that of people in detention who face an immediate crisis of deportation, even though some actions of the Home Office blur the distinction. So can the residents here be pressed into the same mold of activism used with people facing detention? Are the activists who are here telling them to fight also listening to their particular needs and concerns?

Antonia mentioned healthcare as a practical need. From our few conversations with residents, healthcare is a challenge made much harder by the location of the hotel. There is also a massive need for psychosocial support, and for education. Altogether, it seems too big a challenge for a small political activist group to handle alone. But if people are being called on to fight, care needs to be taken that vulnerable and traumatised people are not put at even greater risk.

In our many conversations this year with people invoved in Penally Camp and Napier Barracks, including asylum seekers, activists, aid volunteers, and lawyers, we have heard again and again of the importance of different organisations bringing in varied and complementary approaches, even if they sometimes clashed. Movement For Justice tried to involve other organisations in today’s demonstration, but again the location is a challenge. Antonia mentions particularly that they had some contact with Sudanese organisations, but as she points out, everyone’s been having a hard time over the pandemic.

The language of the fight used by Movement For Justice will strike different audiences in different ways. For some used to a certain political rhetoric, these are straightforward words of resistance. But in calling on survivors of war to fight, there may also be heard an uncomfortable echo of those anti-refugee voices who describe people fleeing war as cowards for not staying home and fighting. The language can also be heard as an extension of—or a response to—the government’s own militarisation of the refugee issue, where both politicians and civil servants portray what should be an issue of human care as if it was a threat of military invasion.

The Movement For Justice activists promise to return to the Crowne Plaza, and we hope to see how their campaign develops.

We still don’t know why Bukhariri Afifi Ahmad died.

The men we have been talking to at the Crowne Plaza are from Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea. Bukhariri Afifi Ahmad was from Sudan.

“He was our best friend,” one of them says again. “We knew him very well. You know, here we don’t say you’re Sudanese, you’re Ethiopian. We are together.”

“We hold each other.”

“We go play together—football. No one’s separate, you know. We love each other more than anything.”

Postscript: Colnbrook detention centre and the #Jamaica50 flight

After the Crowne Plaza demonstration, the Movement For Justice activists went on to demonstrate outside the Colnbrook detention centre, a bus ride away. Some of the Crowne Plaza residents agreed to join them. But to include them in the action, their material needs had to be addressed—they didn’t have Oyster cards for the bus. And so the group had to set off walking along one of the noisy roads to find a shop selling Oyster cards. They later tweeted a series of photos from the day.

Colnbrook is one of the places where people are detained in preparation for Home Office deportation flights. Publicity by campaigners has made it harder for the UK Government to use regular commercial flights for deportations, so instead they charter planes and try to assemble enough people qualifying under the rules for deportation to fill them.

Movement For Justice have been one of several groups campaigning against a deportation flight to Jamaica this summer. Total planned capacity for the Jamaica flight was fifty deportees. The Home Office had drawn up a long list of ninety names, according to May Bulman of the Independent.

Lawyers rather than campaigners emptied the Jamaica flight. Most of the final fifty had their tickets cancelled following legal interventions in the days before departure. Lawyers said the last-minute legal claims were the result of poor access to legal advice for deportees, the Independent reported. When the flight left in the early hours of 11 August, only seven people were deported on it, at an estimated cost of £43,000 a person according to Diane Taylor of the Guardian.

After the flight, Movement For Justice focused on supporting one deportee in particular, a 66 year old man who was described as physically disabled with early stages of dementia. Now as the Home Office proceeds with preparations for further flights to Zimbabwe and Nigeria, Movement For Justice is reporting a rapid rise in Covid cases inside Colnbrook detention centre.

This is the first in a short series of diary entries on hotels used as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers. Read Part Two here.