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York Accommodation for Asylum Seekers
The Mercure Hotel on the outskirts of York was the accommodation for 85 young male asylum seekers who arrived in June 2020. Initially, the contract to stay there was for 3 months. That has over time has extended to exactly one year. During the final week of June 2021, the last of the asylum seekers have been moved to other locations in the North of England. The Mercure now reverts to its usual business of providing for tourists to the city.
The destination of the asylum seekers is yet more asylum support accommodation, provided by Mears, who have the contract to provide their housing. Some of the locations for their new homes are Bradford, Leeds, and Newcastle. Information about their exact whereabouts is somewhat limited. No doubt, it has been a huge logistical issue to move 85 people from York into affordable shared housing across the North of England. Other hotels across the North will also be going through the same process, and it involves over 1000 people.
During the past year, a weekly zoom meeting has been held, hosted and enabled by the City of York Council, bringing together the main statutory and voluntary groups, including York City of Sanctuary. The task has been to look after the welfare, well- being, safety and security of the asylum seekers. It is not the first time that York has been host to a group of people fleeing war zones. Back in the days of the Balkan conflict, the city provided sanctuary to a group of Kosovan refugees. However, on this occasion the need to respond quickly to the arrival of 85 people from many different countries, cultures and languages presented considerable challenges. The Covid 19 pandemic rules also created major difficulties to working face to face with those who arrived at the hotel.
The first priority was to test the arrivals for Covid 19. This was not part of the contract for Mears, and the Home Office had not issued any guidelines. However, local GP surgeries came to the meeting and set up co-ordinated testing, and other medical checks at the hotel. Later, they arranged a full vaccination programme for everyone in the hotel. That means, although people have been transferred to other parts of the country where Covid levels are still high, all have had the full vaccination as a protection. The GPs and nursing teams have done a great job, and gone well beyond the call of duty.
For the staff working in Mercure, this was a whole new experience, and the guests were not here today and gone tomorrow in a coach to Stratford or Edinburgh. The catering team had to meet the dietary requirements of people from many culinary backgrounds. The guests were present in and around the hotel for most of the day, since York was in lockdown for much of the year, and there was nowhere to go. The guests had little or no money to spend in York. For the most part, the staff has done an excellent job of meeting the needs of the guests. It was a learning time for them too, and many came to understand some of the difficulties faced by those who apply for refugee status in the UK.
In terms of safety and security, in addition to the hotel security, North Yorkshire Police attended the weekly briefings. They visited the hotel and spoke to the refugees about the need to obey the laws, and assured them that they were there to protect them from any acts of hostility or racism. Those threats did emerge from time to time, as elements of the far right came to the hotel, and sought to gain entrance to the building, filming residents and using threatening language. Most of those who engaged in such activity travelled some distance in order to make their hostile gestures. The Police were on hand or responded to calls for assistance.
The City of York Council has co-ordinated a number of activities and followed up the need of the working group to seek information from Mears, Mercure, or the Home Office. They have helped to arrange some of the English language lessons, and have justified the status of York as nationally recognised City of Sanctuary.
Refugee Action York put in a great deal of work to visit the hotel when possible under Covid rules. They conveyed to York City of Sanctuary the specific needs of the asylum seekers, such as clothing, rucksacks, and replacement phones. They also looked to address some of the issues presented to them by those staying at the hotel, which were often complex and needing a listening ear. Thanks to Carrie, John, and their support team for the sterling job they have done to welcome and support all those who came to the hotel. Over the year, I estimate around 140 asylum seekers passed through the Mercure entrance hall.
Thanks also to the supporters of York City of Sanctuary for the practical support given when needs have been made known. As the final group were leaving, some had no bags to carry away their worldly possessions. Thanks to a timely donation, we were able to supply the RAY team with items needed.
Finally, I want to speak of the people who came to stay at the hotel. Those who engaged with them on a daily basis as staff or volunteers spoke of their courteous behaviour, and their gratitude for the help and support they received. Of course, there were a few incidents which had to be dealt with. Bearing in mind the limits placed on their movements due to Covid, the wide range of countries they came from, the fact that they were a group of strangers thrown together for months on end, they behaved remarkably well, and should be applauded for coping with a very stressful situation.
As to the part played by the Home Office in all this, there are some extra-ordinary elements at play. At the very time when hotels were closed down because they were not considered safe environments to ensure social distancing as part of the Covid restrictions, the Home Office were moving thousands of asylum seekers into exactly such environments. It seems as if there is one law for the Home Office, and another one for the rest of us.
In the post- Christmas lockdown, when only essential travel was allowed, the Home Office moved a number of men from Southampton up to the York hotel. They had been in Southampton for some time, and many had made connections with support groups, and were being assisted with English lessons. At very short notice, they were moved from asylum accommodation in one city, to asylum housing more than 250 miles away, without any explanation being given to them. York City of Sanctuary was called by support networks in Southampton, to see if we could confirm the arrival of the group in York. They had not had time to say farewell. It seems as if there is one law for the Home office, and…..you know the rest.
The use of hotels has been justified on the grounds of unprecedented demand for asylum housing, caused by the flood of ‘illegal migrants’ crossing the Channel during 2020. In fact, the numbers entering the UK and seeking asylum during 2020 was at the lowest level since 2010. Around 7000 came via the Channel, but other legal border entry points had been closed to refugees since March 2020. There is another reason, much closer to the Home Office.
In 2010 there were 3,500 people waiting for their asylum application to be processed. Cases were expected to be dealt with during a 6-month period. In 2020, there were 33,500 cases and waiting times were in excess of one year. The Home office does not offer any timescale for new cases. The process is not fit for purpose. It is unfair, unwieldly, unjust, lacking in compassion, wasteful of Government resources, and has been accused of institutional racism, by a number of enquiries and reports.
The Home Secretary is right to say that the UK asylum system is broken. However, not one of the proposals of the Nationality and Borders Bill addresses any of the real issues. Is housing refugees, not in a York hotel, but on Ascension Island, a disused ferry, or abandoned oil rig, (as have all been discussed in Whitehall) the answer which fixes things? Is that the UK response to people fleeing war, famine, and persecution? It is clearly where the Government is heading.
Commending Yorkshire Aid
Now that the demand for clothing and other useful items for those living at the hotel are at an end, York City of Sanctuary would like to commend the work of Yorkshire Aid as the suitable receiver of clothing and other needed items. This is a charity with a warehouse for sorting items in Leeds, and with a local York collecting point.
As well as distributing donations in the region, it also supports aid workers going across to Calais, and has even been able to assist deliveries to Greece, to support the refugee camps there.
If you have something you think may be useful, do contact them directly. Their email address is; [email protected]
You can also visit their website; www.yorkshireaid.org
And they are on www.facebook.com/Yorkshireaid/