It’s hard to picture what life is like for an asylum seeker in the UK. Some papers talk about five-star mod cons, while others write about dirt and grime.

So are they living it up in a luxury apartment, while you’ve bagged a rip-off bedsit? And do they jump to the front of the council house queue?

Let’s look at the housing an asylum seeker actually gets – and lift the curtain on those living conditions.

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Why are asylum seekers put in ‘top hotels’?

When an asylum seeker arrives in the UK, they are unlikely to know anyone here or have anywhere to go.

The Home Office will house them in an initial accommodation centre. This is a temporary measure before they’re moved on elsewhere, to something more permanent.

But pressures on the system mean that sometimes these centres are full – and hotels and B&Bs are used as ‘overspill’.

At the end of last year, some papers highlighted a few of these hotel stays: including 130 asylum seekers at the Grand Burstin Hotel in Folkestone.

The asylum seekers had to move there after huge overcrowding in south London. Housing inspectors found hundreds crammed into a 98-bedroom hotel in Crystal Palace. Some people slept nine to a room.

The asylum seekers were sent to a couple of hotels in Bournemouth – plus the Grand Burstin in Kent.

Let’s talk about the swimming pool.

Much was made of the swimming pool and entertainment at this two-star hotel.

Yet the asylum seekers did not choose to stay there. And the “spectacular sea views” and “exquisite dining experience” (taken from the hotel website) were unlikely to compensate for the incredible trauma they’d fled.

Not that they probably had their swimsuits, anyway. An asylum seeker tends to leave suddenly, and make a long and difficult journey – so you probably won’t see one lugging a large suitcase around.

That’s why it helps to remember the legal definition of an asylum seeker. They flee their home when they face persecution and lack protection.

As some papers reported, many of those in the Kent hotel were from war-torn countries like Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a pity more didn’t touch on these experiences.

Most journalists didn’t chat to a range of experts, either. They might have discovered that, while staying in these hotels, asylum seekers could not access even basic support.

Many needed toiletries, nappies, clean clothes or shoes – to name just a few items. Some were sick but couldn’t get vital medication. Doesn’t sound much of a ‘holiday’, does it?

Asylum housing in Sheffield © John Grayson

Asylum housing in Sheffield © John Grayson

Well, what happens next?

Thankfully, an asylum seeker eventually receives a more permanent place to stay.

But they have no choice about where they end up – even if they do know someone in a certain part of the country.

And they definitely won’t end up with a penthouse suite in Mayfair. Due to a housing shortage in London and south-east England, most asylum seekers are sent where accommodation is cheaper. The Home Office calls it ‘dispersal’.

And they won’t get a council house, either. An asylum seeker cannot access this standard welfare – only specific asylum support.

The accommodation they do have is usually a shared house, with lots of people squeezed in. There are reports of overcrowding, missing cots for children and general dirt and grime. Many are far from city centres, too.

But do they get this free housing forever?

No.

When someone gets refugee status, they can no longer stay in asylum accommodation. They can choose where to live, but they have to pay for their rent or ask for government help – like any UK citizen. (But without the family ties or support that many of us take for granted.)

A refugee is assessed against the same criteria as other British nationals. They are not automatically prioritised for any housing they need.

And the ones turned down? Well, it’s not true that “even those whose applications are refused get somewhere to live”.

If the Home Office dismisses their case, they have to return to their home country.

In some situations (for instance, if there’s reason to appeal or no safe route back), an asylum seeker may be eligible for short-term support.

This includes some temporary accommodation. But once again, the person has no choice over where they go or with whom they stay.

They’ll probably have to start all over again in another new and unfamiliar town.

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