Under the grey sky of an Essex seaside town sits a broken wheelchair, its blue front wheel shattered. Inside an office, a frame for a hoist languishes. A sign on a lift reads “Out of order”. Scraps of cardboard have been stuck on to the glass of broken windows and doors, blocking outside light from entering darkened rooms.
Welcome to a Home Office centre for disabled asylum seekers – otherwise known as Britain’s hidden shame.
Shipped in from Manston – the overcrowded Kent asylum centre – last November, the 55 residents housed in this processing centre run by a private company have severe or life-limiting disabilities. Some have lost limbs, others are deaf or blind. Half a dozen are paraplegic. Some have been disabled since birth; others were maimed in the war zones they’re now fleeing from.
Ask an official, and they’ll likely describe the site as a “former care home”, but you’d be hard-pressed to find much care. There are no grab rails in the property. No changing beds for incontinent residents or commodes for those who can’t make it to the toilet. Bathrooms don’t have shower chairs to enable people to wash.
The centre has security guards but no trained care workers. Instead, disabled residents are left to fend for themselves. One young man from Pakistan with cerebral palsy is paralysed and unable to speak, but has not been given a carer. His mum is with him in the centre and does all she can, but she needs knee surgery herself. Buckled by the strain, she’s started to use her son’s walking frame. “His mum sobs and cries all the time,” says Maria Wilby, from the local charity, Refugee, Asylum Seeker and Migrant Action. “A few weeks back, she begged for help on the floor.”
The charity typically provides advocacy but has become a kind of NHS cum Boots, sourcing anything from white canes to incontinence pads. Like many in the centre, the young man only has a wheelchair because he’s using a donated one – but it doesn’t fit. He must be suffering but can’t communicate it, says Maria.
Only a few months ago an Iranian man living in the centre died. Doctors had repeatedly said he needed a wheelchair, but he never received one. It’s thought he suffered a fatal stroke. “We’re essentially waiting for the next [death],” Maria says. “And it will be because of a lack of care.”
This is Britain’s so-called soft touch asylum seeker system, where disabled people cross the sea to ask for aid and we leave them without support to eat, wash or move.
As Rishi Sunak boasts he’ll “stop the boats”, recent months have seen asylum seekers placed in increasingly dire conditions: from a barge and cruise ships to camps on former military sites. Last week, the first public inquiry into abuses at an immigration centre found “credible evidence” of breaches of human rights law relating to torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
It would be natural to be shocked by this, to lament how such a thing could happen on our soil. And yet it is, right now – and not by accident. The revelation that the home secretary, Suella Braverman, stopped some safety checks for vulnerable people in asylum centres is a stark sign of what has become a deliberate and far-reaching culture of harm.
Housing asylum seekers in unsafe and undignified accommodation is less a policy and more performative brutality: a live-action party political broadcast that says, under this government, “the invasion” won’t be permitted to get comfy. In this context, disabled asylum seekers being left to rot in an old care home is not some horrible aberration – it is the system working exactly as intended. The cruelty, as they say, is the point.
Try the food in the Essex accommodation and it’s tellingly prison-like: a falafel squashed in a slice of white bread, or a pile of beans in a polystyrene box. I’m told, three residents have become diabetic since arriving at the centre– one has lost two toes.
One woman in her 70s has lost 4kg since she arrived. She’s been boiling instant food in a kettle but with only £8.24 a week for expenses, she can only afford out of date produce. “She’s now knocking on doors [in nearby houses] begging them to cook for her,” Maria says.
When I asked the Home Office about conditions, it said “the food provided meets NHS Eatwell standards” and it was “committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those on asylum support.” It added: “Accommodation providers are contractually obliged to ensure accommodation is accessible for disabled people and where concerns are raised, we work with providers to ensure they are addressed.”
Essex county council says it’s in “ongoing dialogue with the Home Office, local council and voluntary organisations regarding those living at this site”, and “care packages have been put in place to meet eligible needs”.
Ask Maria, and it’s a different picture: only a handful of residents have been offered social care. There’s no way of knowing exact numbers – some people don’t even know they’ve had an assessment. “The majority don’t have a copy of the result, let alone a translated one,” she says. The reports that are available are often plagued with errors. One man was a Paralympian back in Iran, but his assessment reported he was in prison. “He’s terrified,” she tells me. “He thinks the Home Office will think he’s lying now.”
After almost a year here, the residents are in effect trapped. Some have been given dispersal rights to leave the centre while they wait for their claim to be processed, but can’t – because there is no accessible accommodation.
As we finish talking, Maria asks me not to publish the location of the centre. She says that an elderly resident has recently been attacked in the street, and there are fears of further hate crimes. “He was speaking in a foreign language on his phone … That was enough.”
This hate has not come from the ether; it has been stoked by every baiting front page and minister. It is not as if Labour has challenged this. When Keir Starmer rightly committed this month to consider all asylum claims, he found time to lambast “wasteful spending on hotels” and “people who have no right to be here”.
At some point, we may consider thinking of the “small boats problem” as simply fellow human beings in need. In the meantime, asylum seekers will continue to suffer ill treatment at the hands of British authorities – and much of the political and media class will at best, justify it, or, at worst, applaud. In Essex, disabled people will remain hungry and in pain as they wait to know their fate. Out of sight, out of mind.
Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist
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