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Refugee wellbeing and precarious placemaking in hotels

Dr. Amy Clarke

Research Fellow, Centre for Hate Studies, University of Leicester

23 March 2023

For the last six months I have led an interdisciplinary team of academics from the University of Leicester working with Afghan refugees living in a hotel in central Leicester, and the staff and volunteers involved in the Bright Path Futures (BPF) programme.

Following the arrival of Afghan refugees to Leicester in 2021, BPF began work with under-supported and isolated refugees, typically living with their families in cramped and unfamiliar environments [1]. This novel refugee-led language and wellbeing support programme is currently being facilitated within hotels in and around the city of Leicester.

Here, I reflect on why co-produced programmes like BPF are so important and have the potential to make a significant difference to new arrivals’ cultural adjustment. I will also highlight the complex and ongoing challenges of facilitating these programmes, especially within hotel environments.

BPF focused on involving Afghan women who were especially isolated, rarely left their hotel rooms, and typically lacked the confidence or social capital to access other forms of support. One important aspect of BPF is that it provides training for women from within the communities to run the language and wellbeing classes. These spaces provide a social outlet that they otherwise would not have. They are able to establish social bonds within the hotel that will hopefully serve them in the wider community.

However, despite the overwhelming need for programmes like BPF, we have observed a series of pressing challenges. First, programmes like BPF are rarely sustainable without long-term funding. The refugee teachers are paid on an ad hoc basis and their positions are highly precarious. Due to the unstable nature of funding for many small charities and community interest groups, these programmes often rely on the goodwill of individuals to run classes voluntarily while the programme essentially remains unfunded. This business model is exhausting for staff but also confusing and distressing for refugees who benefit from the support that they receive and worry that it will suddenly disappear.

Secondly, social tensions both inside and outside of the hotel have had an impact on the refugee residents, hotel staff, and the local community. These tensions have sometimes escalated into verbal and physical fights. Many families have been staying in the hotel for nearly 18 months, in cramped conditions, with inadequate access to legal and healthcare services and other basic necessities [2]. Unsurprisingly, therefore, interpersonal relationships between some residents and hotel staff have become fraught. The women have regularly informed us that the lack of nutritious and culturally familiar food in the hotel has become an issue, resulting in some families attempting to cook on hot plates in their rooms – an obvious health and safety violation. Additionally, there are concerns about growing tensions between the refugees and local residents, resulting in extra security being placed in and around the hotel for the refugees’ protection. These conditions have exacerbated existing issues and, for some, has limited the progress and ongoing benefits of the BPF programme.

Thirdly, we have found that any sense of progress that BPF has made in building a sense of community for the refugee families in the hotel, and aiding their adjustment to their new environment, is undermined when the refugees are suddenly relocated out of the city. Recently, the Home Office informed the refugee families whom we work with that they would be moved. They were not given a destination, only told that they would receive 48 hours’ notice, and are unlikely to remain in Leicester. The families have expressed their desire to stay in the area as they have begun to settle in the city with a highly diverse population. Their children, they tell us, are happy and doing well in school. Some have only just begun treatment for ongoing health problems that will discontinue once they move. This latest stage of destabilisation has negatively affected the mental and physical health of many of the women whom we work with, who now find it impossible and somewhat futile to continue with the BPF programme.

There have been multiple pledges by the Government over the past year to discontinue using hotels to accommodate refugees, particularly following the revelation in January 2023 that over 200 unaccompanied children have gone missing from hotels [3]. However, thousands of refugees continue to live in hotels nationwide with very little support or information about their future. With social housing scarce, and limited job opportunities for many newly arrived refugees, private hotels continue to house refugees, often in rural and predominantly White areas [4]. As such, it is essential to reflect on how well prepared (or not) hotel management teams are to support the marginalised and vulnerable groups that they are accommodating, often for prolonged periods of time. It is also vital to consider the long-term implications of such instability on refugee families and to reduce harm wherever possible.

[1] https://www.brightpathfutures.com/about

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/jul/21/use-of-uk-hotels-for-asylum-seekers-trebles-despite-home-office-promise

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/jan/21/revealed-scores-of-child-asylum-seekers-kidnapped-from-home-office-hotel

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/nov/16/immigration-minister-fears-rural-areas-will-be-asked-to-house-more-asylum-seekers

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