Initial accommodation centres
Reception centres, called initial accommodation, each accommodate around 200 people – fewer in Glasgow and Northern Ireland. These centres are the usual first accommodation for any asylum seeker who asks for support and is not immediately detained, apart from unaccompanied children. If a place cannot be found on the first night after claim, asylum seekers may be accommodated in an interim hostel in Croydon while accommodation is found, or in hotels in any region where the initial accommodation is full. Accommodation in the initial accommodation centres is usually full board with no cash provided.
The short-term use of bed and breakfast accommodation has tended to rise in times of an increase in applications, although in its response to the Home Affairs Select Committee the government stated that the accommodation providers had taken measures to lessen the need for this. The drawback is that people accommodated in a hotel, even if only for one or two nights, have limited or no access to many of the reception-related rights granted to asylum seekers, with reported cases of persons having only restricted access to accommodation. The consequence of such temporary ‘emergency’ accommodation is that it additionally delays their access to the support system and other welfare services to which they are entitled, as it may take a couple of days before they access advice and complete an application for asylum support.
Asylum seekers should not stay in initial accommodation for any longer than 3-4 weeks days but there can be dispersal backlogs and it is common to find asylum seekers stuck in initial accommodation for over 3 weeks due to a lack of dispersal accommodation. There has been a huge increase in the use of hotel and other full-board accommodation during 2020. The Home Office has issued a statement about the use of hotels and other temporary accommodation. A challenge was made by three unaccompanied children who were being accommodated in a hotel by a local authority, which argued that it was appropriate. A judge ordered that the case could be heard and in the meantime ruled that a hotel was not appropriate for unaccompanied children. A UK charity has written a guide to the 2019 contracts and has details about all types of accommodation and services covered.
If the asylum seeker qualifies for Section 95 support he or she is moved into smaller units, mainly flats and shared houses, in the same region, but as regions are large this may not be within travelling distance of their legal representative if they have one. Accommodation is in the North, Midlands and South West of England and in Wales and Scotland, not in the South or in London. Asylum seekers have no choice of location. If asylum seekers are not detained after screening there is no distinction in the initial accommodation based on the claim or its route.
Where a person has family and friends with whom they can live they can claim cash support. There are reports that some asylum seekers take only cash support and continue to ‘sofa-hop’ i.e. move from one person to another, staying on floors and in shelters, because they do not want to leave London. The Home Office may consider a request to be accommodated in London or the South East if the applicant is in receipt of therapeutic services from the Helen Bamber Foundation or the NGO Freedom from Torture.
At the end of 2020, Initial accommodation centres, hotels and former military barracks were accommodating people receiving section 98 support. The numbers were much higher than usual as the pandemic resulted in the Home Office providing accommodation to more people seeking asylum; this was due to an agreement (and subsequently a court order) that people would not be evicted to destitution, and also because of an increasing backlog of asylum decisions. It was not due to a rise in the number of people seeking asylum. The number of people supported under section 98 at the end of 2020 was 12,235 (3 times higher than at the end of 2019).
All accommodation for asylum seekers is managed by three large private companies under contract to the Home Office, much of which is provided though sub-contracts to smaller companies. The assessment process for eligibility for the accommodation remains with the Home Office, which is ultimately responsible in law for the provision of accommodation. The companies remain responsible to the Home Office under the terms of their contracts to provide and manage the accommodation. New contracts were approved in January 2019 for a ten-year period.
The contract between the Home Office and the private companies requires that families shall be housed in self-contained accommodation. In practice there is some use of hostel-type accommodation for families with small children, and some lone parent families are housed with unrelated families, though nuclear families are normally kept together. Accommodation frequently fails to meet the needs of supported persons, particularly those with children or mobility and health needs. Asylum accommodation has been repeatedly criticised for failing to provide security, respect for privacy and basic levels of hygiene and safety, particularly for women; in the media and in the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report published in December 2018. The same committee looked at the government’s Covid-19 preparedness with a focus on Institutional Accommodation in 2020.
The most common form of accommodation after the initial period in the initial accommodation centres is in privately owned flats and houses, managed by the companies contracted to the Home Office, or by their sub-contractors.
Section 4 support can only be provided as a package including accommodation, in a location determined by the Home Office, and ‘facilities for accommodation’ i.e. the ASPEN card with no facility for cash. Consequently, the recipient cannot choose to receive financial support only (as they can with Section 95) and continue to live with family members who are not included in the support application. This means that the family will be split, possibly over some distance, the person on Section 4 having no cash with which to travel to visit.
 Information provided by Refugee Action.
 Home Office, A guide to living in asylum accommodation, available at: https://bit.ly/30qVIHA
 Home Office media blog, available at: https://bit.ly/30rr0OJ
 The order is not publicly available but is discussed in detail, see: https://bit.ly/3cf7mwe
 Asylum Matters; The Asylum Accommodation and Support Contracts – a guide, 2019, https://bit.ly/38vIlYs.
 Home Office, Compass Project: Schedule 2, Accommodation and Transport, Statement of Requirements, B.8.
 Evidence given to the Parliamentary Enquiry on Asylum Support for Children and Young People.