Hundreds of asylum seekers have been placed in a hostel where they are forced to share bedrooms crammed with multiple triple bunk beds despite the risk of coronavirus spreading, The Independent has learned.
Around 500 men are currently staying at a hostel in Southwark, south London, despite the local council having deemed the facility unsafe to house rough sleepers last year due to the inability to maintain social distancing.
A Covid outbreak at the site in recent weeks has led to a number of people being infected. The Home Office would not disclose how many. Residents have reported incidents where their roommates have tested positive, but have not been able to isolate until several days later.
Residents said more than 15 people were sleeping in some of the rooms, though the Home Office said the maximum permitted to stay in each dormitory was 10.
Southwark Council was not consulted about the plan to move asylum seekers into the hostel, and has written to home secretary Priti Patel warning that the arrangement poses “immediate risks” to both asylum seekers and local residents.
Health experts have meanwhile warned that placing so many people in close quarters is a “recipe for disaster”.
Asylum seekers staying in the hostel, which The Independent is not naming to protect the safety of residents, said they felt unsafe due to the room-sharing. Many also said that despite having been there for over a month, they had been given no financial support.
In a letter to Ms Patel last Thursday, seen by The Independent, Southwark Council demanded “urgent intervention” to ensure the safety of residents, warning that the situation posed “immediate risks to both the safety of those residing [there] and the wider community”.
It said the Covid outbreak was “entirely predictable” given the “overcrowding”, and pointed out that the hostel was closed during the height of the pandemic and deemed “not safe” for use to house rough sleepers. The Home Office is yet to respond to the letter.
It comes following a major Covid outbreak at Napier Barracks, a military site used to house asylum seekers, where residents were sleeping 14 people to a dorm, in January. It later emerged that Public Health England had warned the Home Office that this arrangement was “not suitable”.
The hostel, which is managed by Home Office contractor Clearsprings Ready Homes, has roughly 100 rooms, only around 70 of which are self-contained. According to recent figures provided to Southwark Council’s housing team, there are between 400 and 500 men living in the building.
One resident, an Ethiopian national, who has been in the hostel for around seven weeks, told The Independent: “We are worried. I don’t feel safe. It’s lots of people in a small space.
“Everyone has complained, but they don’t do anything about it. The staff say they can’t do anything and that we must talk to the Home Office, but the Home Office doesn’t respond to our calls.”
Another resident, from Eritrea, said that two weeks ago one of his roommates tested positive for Covid, but remained in the shared room.
“I immediately advised the hostel staff that he should isolate, but they didn’t tell him to. The guy was sick for three days. We had no masks at that time. He got very sick and one night I had to call an ambulance. It wasn’t until five days later that he got moved to another room,” he said.
The young man, who said he fled civil war in Eritrea in 2014 and lived in Ethiopia for several years, before having to flee again due to the Tigray war, said he had not been given any financial support since arriving.
“I have no money. I have one pair of trousers, one pair of shoes, one jumper. There’s no one to assist us. The staff say we need to contact Migrant Help, but the line is always busy.”
A spokesperson for Migrant Help, which is contracted by the Home Office to support asylum seekers, said it worked “hard to support as many asylum seekers as possible” and that its average call waiting time in August was 13 minutes.
In its letter to the home secretary, Southwark Council also raised concern that the mental and physical health of the residents “would be deteriorating given the conditions in which they are being kept”.
A third resident, from Iraq, who arrived in the UK in early August and was placed in the hostel several days later, said: “I just have the clothes I’m wearing. I don’t have a coat, and it’s getting colder now.
“There’s no wifi there. I’m going crazy. There’s nothing to do. It’s a psychological war. There are 30 rooms on a floor and six showers – 120 people to six showers. This isn’t even good for animals.”
Durga Sivasathiaseelan, of Doctors of the World, said: “It is cruel and undignified to force those seeking asylum and refuge to sleep so many to a room at the very best of times, but during a global pandemic it is a recipe for disaster.
“We need to see a stop to this inhumane treatment of those who are seeking support, and to ensure they are safe from the very real risk of this virus.”
Cllr Kieron Williams, leader of Southwark Council, said: "This accommodation has been booked by Clearsprings without any consultation with us, and currently falls short of the minimum standards any reasonable person would expect.”
A Home Office spokesperson said all of its accommodation “must meet relevant health and safety legislation and provide their latest health and safety risk assessment”.
“Due to unprecedented demand we have had to use temporary accommodation to manage demands on the asylum estate and we encourage all local authorities to volunteer their support and work with us,” they added.
“We take the welfare of asylum seekers very seriously and work closely with our providers, Public Health England and other relevant authorities to ensure all medical advice is closely followed and people self-isolate where needed.”
Clearsprings Ready Homes declined to comment.