Hotel Limbo

Part Two
17 AUGUST 2021
Image: Organising aid and legal help at the East London Mosque.

This is the second in a short series of diary entries. Read Part One 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 East London Mosque, Whitechapel. 3 August 2021.

The new arrival

He and his brothers left Syria some six years ago. He tells us there was a time when he had still hoped the nations of the world would step in to remove Assad and bring the war to an end. But then, he says, he saw that the US was giving a green light to Assad to kill people, and that the world had decided to keep the dictatorship in place. He believes all Syrians would prefer to go home if it was safe. He stayed close to home for many years, living in Turkey. Now he says Turkey is not safe either. He has been in the UK just two weeks.

We are talking in a basement room in the East London Mosque. The mosque has allowed an NGO called Life Seekers Aid to use this room to distribute clothes and shoes to newly arrived asylum seekers who are staying in a nearby hotel. The man we are chatting to is one of several Syrians amongst the group of asylum seekers who have come today, along with Sudanese and Eritreans. And the activist from Life Seekers Aid who invited us here is also Syrian, but we will return to him in a moment.

Back to our conversation with the new arrival. He comes from southern Syria, and he still has family left behind, his mother and sisters who did not feel able to leave. He comes from a rural area, and he says his mother and many like her would prefer to die in Syria than leave. His father has already suffered that fate. And now the Assad regime is renewing its attacks on neighbourhoods in Daraa, south Syria. If the bombing gets close, his mother might move to Damascus for a few weeks, he says. But she will never leave the country. She holds on to a traditional way of life, he tells us. He doesn’t think she could face living in the UK.

Before his exile from Syria, he had already left village life and gone to university in Damascus. Then the revolution came, and the war. The brothers took different paths in those years, to London, to Lebanon, and he himself went to Turkey. He spent a year learning the language there, and then went back to university as a postgraduate. But he says he was forced out of university in Turkey by anti-Syrian prejudice amongst the university staff.

When he had first arrived in Turkey, Syrians had been welcomed, he remembers, but the years since have brought a steep rise in racism. Eventually, he felt it was too dangerous for him as a Syrian to be out on the street after six in the evening. Syrians risk being attacked, stabbed, or run over. There have been a lot of so-called accidents happening to Syrians in Turkey, he says.

His brother in Lebanon had also experienced increasing prejudice and had left for the UK, and so he too decided to join his brothers in London. He tried applying at the British consulate for a visa, but was refused. The only way to be together with his brothers again was to travel ‘illegally’ he says.

When he arrived two weeks ago and claimed asylum, he wasn’t given an initial asylum interview, nor was he given an asylum application registration number. Others in the same hotel have had the same experience. This means they have no way of accessing any other support that they should be getting. He is luckier than many of the others here, he tells us, as one of his brothers living in London came to see him and gave him money to keep him going.

The lawyer

As well as clothes distribution, today is also importantly about connecting these new arrivals with lawyers. Hilary Brown of Virgo Consultancy Services is here with two of her colleagues. They are a legal firm with offices in London and Cardiff. We have a quick chat in a quiet period after the first few visitors have been and gone. We expect many more to come in soon.

We ask Hilary Brown about the people she is seeing today, and the issue of them not having asylum application registration numbers. She says yes, there seem to be many people here with no documentation from the Home Office except a tenancy agreement to show that they are staying in the hotel. “Many of them should have several different pieces of documentation, including photographic documentation,” she explains. It’s not clear to her why they weren’t given the proper papers, as they’ve all been encountered by the Home Office and some information about them has been recorded in their hotel tenancy documents. This is the first time she’s seen this kind of situation on this scale.

It’s through Life Seekers Aid that Hilary Brown and her colleagues came to be here today. Life Seekers Aid is a very new organisation, run by asylum seekers and refugees. It began life as CROP, short for Camp Residents of Penally. This was the residents’ union organised last year inside Penally Camp, one of the Ministry of Defence sites used by the Home Office as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers during the pandemic. Virgo was one of the first law firms to get access to Penally Camp—Hilary Brown describes conditions there as ‘abysmal’—and they managed to get many of their clients moved out.

“We did work with other organisations to bring pressure to get the camp closed down,” Hilary Brown tells us. We were absolutely determined that it was something that we were going to do. It was wholly inappropriate to put men fleeing all kinds of oppressive regimes from countries all over the world into a camp that was so obviously a military base. The first thing that you saw as you walked in through the big gates were shooting targets, wholly inappropriate.”

After the closure of Penally Camp, CROP reinvented themselves as Life Seekers Aid, and turned to try and help people in Napier Barracks. The barracks remain open, despite severely critical reports by David Bolt, the previous Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, and by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, as well as a damning judgment by Mr Justice Linden in a case brought against the Home Secretary by six Napier residents.

Hilary Brown is planning her first visit to Napier the next day, and hopes to join with other organisations who are trying to get that closed down as well. Virgo is unlike many other law firms dealing with asylum and immigration, she explains, because they also deal with housing and public law. “So if there are any legal challenges to any authority, that’s something we do,” she says. “And we see that there are a number of public law challenges that come out of asylum work, and so we like to think that we’re able to offer a kind of one stop shop.”

As well as her legal work, Hilary Brown is also chair of Butetown Community Centre, which is a local community centre in Cardiff. As Penally Camp closed, many of the men there were relocated to Cardiff. Together with Life Seekers Aid the Butetown Community Centre has held a couple of aid distribution events for asylum seekers, the first one last April. “We assisted 160 asylum seekers on that day,” she tells us. “We fed everybody, and we made lots of friends. And we repeated the event in May for women and families. So initiatives such as these are so much needed.”

Today, a number of the asylum seekers from the hotel have been helping fold and arrange the clothes on long tables. The clothes and shoes were left over after those Cardiff events at the community centre. The Virgo Consultancy Services lawyers had loaded up their two cars yesterday with as many bags as they could fit, and then drove them up to London. If they had a larger vehicle, there was a lot more they could have brought, they tell us.

We have had several conversations in the past months with people from a range of organisations who were focused on one or another approach towards Penally Camp or Napier Barracks, political action, aid, or providing legal help. At times there have been tensions between different approaches, but also several people have said that it was the combined effect that brought success in closing Penally Camp. So we ask Hilary Brown about how she finds legal action, aid, and activism work together.

“Well, I think they always will work together because the help you give asylum seekers often just doesn’t stop at five o’clock,” she says. “The legal work does finish at five thirty, but then after that I put on a different hat and I go into the community and I continue to support in any way I can, and you get to learn so much more about their needs and some of the difficulties that they’ve faced when you’re in not such a formal space.”

So the aid work enriches the understanding she needs in her legal work. There’s also a suggestion that aid work can lead to the organising needed for political activism. “Look around today,” she says. “You know, some of these men have little or nothing, but they’ve come here to help and work and sort out clothes for their friends.”

Life Seekers Aid

The activist from Life Seekers Aid has been acting as interpreter between the lawyers and the mostly Arabic speaking asylum seekers. He finds that people from other Arabic-speaking countries have little problem understanding his dialect. He says this is because of the international popularity of Syrian TV drama. Following his first encounter with asylum seekers outside the hotel, he has been building a WhatsApp group with them to spread the news about today. Unfortunately this method hasn’t reached non-Arabic speakers in the hotel, nor has he been able to get in contact with any of the women asylum seekers reported to be staying there. He expects about fifty people in all to come.

He explains to us how he found out about this hotel and its population of new arrivals. For some time he has been working together with Maddie Harris of Humans For Rights Network to help residents of Napier Barracks. Then they heard of the death of Bukhariri Afifi Ahmad at The Crowne Plaza Hotel. “We came to know about this case  from one of the Care4Calais volunteers inside the Crowne Plaza two weeks ago,” he explains. “They met him in France before, and then they met him again in the Crowne Plaza. And he was so happy to see the volunteer from Care4Calais. He told them that he knew that now he was saved because of how they helped before. Poor chap, he was 24 years old. He was found dead in his room.

He hasn’t yet been to the Crowne Plaza himself, but together with Maddie Harris he went to Bukhariri Afifi Ahmad’s funeral, which was held here at the East London Mosque. Care4Calais and another organisation had arranged a bus to bring Crowne Plaza residents.

Talking to friends of Bukhariri Afifi Ahmad, he was struck by the degree of hostility there seems to be between staff and residents. Many of the asylum seekers felt unsafe and needed help. The cause of death is still unclear, he tells us. “The police considered his room a crime scene, and they were investigating, and then they said it’s a natural death.”

After the funeral, Maddie and he were walking to fetch his bike when they saw a group of men standing outside a nearby hotel smoking. From their clothes, and from the fact that they were wearing flip-flop sandals despite the rain, they realised they were asylum seekers and stopped to talk to them.

Some of the men had just arrived that day at the hotel, others the day before. The security guard on the door said that the first asylum seekers to arrive in the hotel had come Monday. This was Saturday, so five days ago. There were already over two hundred, some sharing rooms. So Maddie Harris set up the WhatsApp group, they both started adding people, and they started reaching out to other organisations.

Here we have to cut short our conversation. Several people are arriving in the basement room now. All are directed to talk to one of the lawyers. One already has legal representation, but he is the exception.

Most of the men do not speak English. The activist from Life Seekers Aid is having to interpret for as many as three people at once. At the same time he is explaining to others waiting about the lawyers, and about legal aid. And then his phone rings as well. Form-filling pauses while he takes the call.

When people sign up with the law firm, they are asked if they have any documents from the Home Office. Sometimes names are mis-spelled or birth dates recorded wrongly. Where are you from? There are several men from Sudan in this group, there are Kurds from Iran or Iraq, and there are also more Syrians.

They are asked if they are married. If so, the lawyers will possibly have to help apply for family reunion at a later stage. They are asked if they have children? Yes, says an older man. Others interpret for him. This youth standing next to him is his son, they tell the lawyers.

One Syrian man has a very visible eye infection. Because he has not been given an asylum application registration number, he hasn’t been able to get medical care. After she has taking his details, Hilary Brown gets on the phone and calls someone to help get him a doctor.

Postscript: Anti-Syrian violence in Turkey

The new arrival we spoke to in Whitechapel had talked about the hostility he experienced as a Syrian refugee in Turkey. The danger to refugees in Turkey was made clear just over a week later, when on the 11th of August a mob of hundreds of people converged on the suburb of Altindag in the Turkish capital Ankara and attacked the homes of Syrians, stoning houses, destroying shops, smashing cars, and lighting bonfires in the streets.

Turkish opposition politicians have for a number of years encouraged anti-refugee sentiment as a means to gain popular support. The majority of Syrian refugees in the region are in Turkey, 3.69 million out of a total of 5.63 million according to UN figures.

Turkey hosts more than three times the number of Syrian refugees as all European countries combined—there are 1.07 million Syrian refugees who have been granted protection in European states, and over half of those are in Germany. The number of Syrian refugees in the UK is a small fraction of the number in Europe, with only 27,000 granted asylum up to 2019, of whom 19,000 came to the UK via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

An added factor in Turkey is a rising number of Afghans fleeing the worsening situation in their home country and travelling to Turkey via Iran. The Turkish government is responding by building a wall along Turkey’s border with Iran, similar to the wall already built along the Turkish-Syrian border which serves to trap millions of displaced people within Syria’s borders. Turkey’s wall along the Syrian border was built as a result of a six billion euro deal with the European Union in 2016, where the EU paid Turkey to stop refugees fleeing to Greece and the wider EU.

Today, people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and other dangerous countries, continue to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, but in much smaller numbers than five or six years ago. There is mounting evidence of Greek authorities conducting illegal pushbacks of refugees, where people who arrive in Greece are forced back to Turkish territory and abandoned.

In light of this, refugee rights advocates raised objections when the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel visited Greece to see what the UK could learn from their response to refugees. That trip, with a photo opportunity of the Home Secretary looking at plans for a new closed camp for refugees in Greece, came the day after our visit to Whitechapel.

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

Illustration by Peggy Jacobs Strom.