Asylum seekers are forced to live in “squalid, unsafe, slum housing conditions” of which wider public is largely unaware, charities have said.
The £600m government contract to provide shelter for those seeking sanctuary in the UK goes up for tender next month as calls mount for an urgent overhaul.
Testimonies from asylum seekers and frontline workers detail accommodation that is infested with vermin, insecure, dangerous, damp and dirty.
Maurice Wren, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “All too often, people seeking asylum in the UK are forced to live in squalid, unsafe, slum housing conditions, at exorbitant cost to the public purse.
“Though the general public is largely unaware of the appalling conditions into which traumatised people are routinely dumped, ministers and officials are not, yet this scandal continues unchecked.
“The time has come to end this shameful practice and allow people seeking asylum to live in dignity.”
Responsibility for housing people seeking asylum in the UK was taken away from councils in 2012 and given to the companies Serco, G4S and Clearsprings, through contracts known as Compass.
The vast majority of asylum seekers are housed by G4S and Serco in the poorest parts of the country where housing is comparatively cheap.
G4S holds Compass contracts for the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, the Midlands and the east of England, where 45% of the UK’s asylum seekers live.
Serco holds contracts for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north-west, where just over a third of the asylum seekers live.
Clearsprings had contracts for Wales, the south-west, and London and the south-east.
David Simmonds, the chair of the LGA asylum, refugee and migration taskforce, said councils regularly complained that they had little power to tackle the “generally unacceptable” standard of accommodation for asylum seekers in their areas, because the private contractors’ contracts are with the Home Office.
“The accommodation will always be at the lowest end of the market, because to win the contract the providers bid at the lowest possible price,” he said.
“But vermin infestations and damp are things that would stop a local authority from considering that accommodation for placing UK homeless families. That same minimum standard should apply consistently.”
Asylum seekers cannot legally work while awaiting a decision on their claim.
Under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 they are able to apply for accommodation and financial help from the Home Office if they have no other means of supporting themselves.
The number of people housed under the act has jumped sharply over the life of the Compass contracts – from about 25,000 to 40,000 at the end of last year.
MPs on the home affairs select committee heard evidence last year that G4S and Serco were losing money on the Compass contracts, in part because of the increase in the number of asylum seekers and the rising cost of rents.
Serco’s average monthly income per service user was about £300 in February 2016, compared with an average cost of around £450.
The committee published a report in January urging the government to “act immediately” to improve conditions.
Ten months later, charities say there has been little improvement with government yet to respond.
Indications are that the current Compass contracts will be extended for two years until August 2019, with contracts to provide asylum seeker accommodation from September 2019 until 2024 due out to tender in November.
The Home Office said it worked closely with contractors to ensure accommodation that was “safe, habitable, fit for purpose and adequately equipped”, and that it investigated all complaints relating to sub-standard accommodation.
John Whitwam, G4S’s head of immigration and borders, said the standard of accommodation provided to asylum seekers was “subject to prescriptive criteria”, and that any failure to meet those criteria would result in a contract penalty.
“Since November 2013, we have not been subject to any performance penalties on the basis that we rectify many tens of thousands of defects each year to meet the required standard,” he said.
“We continue to invest in our provision, despite heavy commercial losses.”
Scott Ross, Serco’s operations director, said the company was committed to ensuring they provided “decent and safe accommodation” for the 16,000 asylum seekers in its care, and that they met all of their contractual obligations.
“We are absolutely confident that the asylum seekers we look after are in housing of a decent standard, and where repairs are required to the 5,000 properties that we manage, these are completed in accordance with the strict timescales of our contract with the Home Office,” he said.