Pregnant women and new mothers have been forced to live in damp, cockroach-infested asylum accommodation in what lawyers say is a breach of the law, The Independent has learned.
The Home Office is facing legal action over its provision of accommodation to asylum-seeking women who have been placed in hotel rooms with shared bathroom facilities that are “manifestly inadequate” and present a risk to the women and their unborn and newborn babies.
One asylum seeker, DK, who is bringing the case, was forced to live in a hotel room that she claims was “damp, dirty” and “infested with cockroaches” while she was heavily pregnant and for weeks following the birth of her baby.
Thousands of people seeking protection have been placed in emergency hotel accommodation over the past year, often for months on end, as the pandemic has led to mounting delays in the asylum system.
The Independent understands there are around 8,000 asylum seekers in hotels, of which about 1,000 are pregnant women, single mothers or families with small children.
Lawyers argue that the Home Office’s decision to place pregnant women and new mothers in hotel rooms with shared facilities for months at a time is unlawful as the conditions fail to meet their needs.
DK, who cannot be named, and who was initially refused asylum but has a fresh claim pending, was granted asylum housing in September and placed in a hotel in London, managed by Home Office contractor Clearsprings, where she shared a bathroom and kitchen with nine others.
She says: “I often had to wait to use the toilet which was hard because as a pregnant woman you need to go to the toilet a lot. In the kitchen there was only a microwave. I was really worried for the health of my baby because I didn’t eat properly during my pregnancy.”
After the Ivory Coast national gave birth in December, she was moved to a larger room in the same hotel which had an ensuite and kitchenette but it was infested with cockroaches.
Photos and video footage shows the insects crawling around the floor, walls and ceiling of her room, as well as among fruit in the kitchenette. One video shows a cockroach crawling by the bed where her baby slept.
She says: “I didn’t want to sleep. I was worried the cockroaches would get on my baby. They were everywhere. Sometimes I would be feeding my baby in the bed and see cockroaches on the wall right next to us.”
Another new mother, from Sierra Leone, who was living in a cockroach-infested hotel room in London when her baby was born last August, said: “It was really stressful. If I put my baby’s bottle down for a few minutes, I would see cockroaches on top of it.
“When she started to crawl at around five or six months and there was a cockroach near her, she would pick it up and put it in her mouth. It happened twice. As soon as I saw it I would rush and take it out and wash her mouth.”
The woman, who was in the hotel for seven months after the baby was born, and was moved out only when a lawyer intervened, added: “There were so many [cockroaches] in the room. They would get in the food. I couldn’t even cook something without cockroaches getting on it.”
Debbie Heath, of Instalaw Solicitors, issued legal proceedings on behalf of both women which led to them both being moved out of the hotel rooms and into shared houses last month. She is representing a further eight, six of whom have so far been moved.
But Ms Heath told The Independent there would be “many” women in a similar situation who may not be aware that they are able to bring a challenge against the Home Office in the way DK and the others have.
“This is a serious concern for us and the charities we work with as it is anticipated that a number of women are falling under the radar and are simply not receiving any support and are suffering in the substandard accommodation provided by the Home Office,” she said.
“It is hoped that the claim will be successful in order to bring about effective change in living conditions for all pregnant women and new mother asylum seekers.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said these cases were “not isolated” and that the charity was “very concerned” about the impact on vulnerable women and children being left in “appalling” circumstances in hotels.
“Nobody should be housed in disgusting, cockroach and rodent-infested rooms while waiting for their asylum claim,” he added.
“We continue to urge the Home Office and accommodation providers to carry out thorough inspections and vulnerability assessments before moving people seeking asylum into hotel accommodation.”
A Home Office spokesperson said it did not routinely comment on individual cases, adding: “We work closely with our service providers to ensure the highest possible standards in our accommodation and we expect that where issues and defects occur, we have tight timescales in which the provider must rectify this.
“The government has a contract with Migrant Help to provide advice and guidance for asylum seekers. Anyone with an issue should report it to Migrant Help so it can be investigated fully."
A spokesperson for Clearsprings said: “We are not able to comment on individual cases, however all asylum seekers in our accommodation have access to medical assistance and can raise issues with staff or Migrant Help 24/7. We routinely attend to all defects including any infestations in line with the contractual timescales.”
Migrant Help, a charity contracted by the Home Office to provide asylum support, said: “While asylum seekers report accommodation maintenance issues and submit complaints via Migrant Help, our role is to pass these on to the relevant providers for resolution. We are not responsible for addressing the issues raised, unless they concern [our] services.”