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400 asylum seekers forced into shared accommodation despite lockdown

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Charity demands answers from Home Office and Mears Group after death of Syrian refugee.

Campaigners are demanding answers after the death of a Syrian asylum seeker in a Scottish hotel.

Adnan Olbeh, who was 30, was found dead in his room at the 81-room McLays Guest House in Glasgow on Tuesday 5 May.

Mr Olbeh was one of around 400 refugees and asylum seekers who were relocated into vacant hotels from self-contained flats around the city by housing and social care provider Mears Group in the early weeks of the coronavirus lockdown.

Mears is said to have given asylum seekers just minutes notice of the move before taking them in groups of four or five to the hotels in vans, ignoring rules around social distancing.

Those in the hotels have told charities they now fear for their safety, with many staying in their rooms to avoid coming into close contact with others.

Meanwhile, their regular weekly allowance of £35.50 has been cut to zero, meaning they can no longer buy sanitary products, top up phones for essential calls, or use public transport to travel to food banks.

Refugee housing charity Positive Action in Housing (PAIH) says Mears Group’s actions have significantly increased the risk of coronavirus and mental health problems among some of the country’s most vulnerable people and are calling on the Home Office to explain why the relocations were allowed to take place.

In a letter to home secretary Priti Patel, PAIH director Robina Qureshi writes: “Since March 2020, the country has been in the midst of a global pandemic and lockdown. Millions of us went into self-isolation and non-essential travel was forbidden.

“Last month, the Mears Group and/or its subcontractors moved around 400 vulnerable men, women and children from self-contained Glasgow flats into empty rundown hotels. It is beyond comprehension that Mears should act with complete disregard for public health by moving hundreds of vulnerable people - many of whom are survivors of trauma or torture, from the stability of their self-contained flats into empty and presumably dirt cheap hotels (where it’s impossible to socially distance or self-isolate) and removing their financial support.

“Reports from asylum seekers describe how they were given only minutes to pack before being hurried into vans, four or five at a time, with no social distancing in place. Some asylum seekers said they were told they were being moved into long term accommodation – not empty hotels vacated because of the lockdown.”

Ms Qureshi goes on to explain the realities of life for those people in the hotels. “Bedding and towels are changed only once a week,” she writes. “People cannot open windows to their rooms, they want to clean their own space, cook their own food and have some control over their environment. Crucially, levels of depression are increasing, and people are being left completely isolated. Many asylum seekers are survivors of trauma and torture and suffering mental health problems because of the length of time they have been in the asylum system.

“The hotel asylum seekers are isolated in their rooms, unable to cook or wash laundry. Many are too terrified to come out even for exercise because of the virus.”

PAIH is now demanding that the Home Office explains why lockdown restrictions were seemingly ignored during the relocations and to immediately reinstate asylum seekers’ personal allowances. The charity is also calling for an urgent investigation into the circumstances around Mr Olbeh’s death and the allegations that Mears Group flouted lockdown regulations during the relocation process.

“Our greatest fear is that there are many people like Adnan currently residing in the hotels without money or proper support,” said Ms Qureshi. “There are many other ‘Adnans’ living in these hotels. This would go some way to ease the hardship they are currently suffering.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are aware of an incident resulting in an individual sadly losing his life, but it would be inappropriate to comment before all of the facts have been established.

“We are only moving asylum seekers where it is necessary, strictly following guidance from public health authorities, and into accommodation that allows for social distancing. There has been no changes to when cash allowances are provided to asylum seekers.”

A Mears spokesperson said: “Once Covid-19 restrictions were announced by the UK and Scottish Government, Mears considered how best to house asylum-seekers in Glasgow who were at initial accommodation stage. Our goal has always been to ensure the safety of asylum-seekers in our care and our staff as well as helping to prevent further spread of the disease.

“By placing asylum seekers in Glasgow in good quality hotel accommodation we believe we can ensure a safer environment and provide people with food and other essential items directly. By providing all meals directly this avoids the needs for foodbanks or trips to buy food, greatly reducing the risk of exposure.

“It is Home Office policy that where a fully catered and supported service is provided, including all toiletries and personal requirements, this replaces the personal cash allowance. Handling coins and bank notes is thought to spread Covid-19 and Mears believe that by switching to a fully catered service this will further reduce the likelihood of asylum-seekers becoming infected in this way.”



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