‘Staying here is intolerable’: the truth about asylum seeker hotels | Immigration and asylum

Life in room 221 of the Berkshire hotel Ali has called home for the past 487 days is a drab affair, with an in-built guarantee that every day will be the same as the one before.

The food is repetitive, his fellow guests never leave, the streets of Reading rarely change. “There is nothing to do. Nothing happens. All I want is an actual book to read but there are none here and there is no way I can afford them.”

Ali is one of the 37,000 asylum seekers currently stranded in hotels and lives on £1 a day, a sum he says is earmarked for clothing and other essentials.

For the 34-year-old, who fled religious persecution in Iran and survived a treacherous Channel crossing on a small boat carrying double its safe capacity, life in England has proved somewhat antilimactic.

His overloaded boat arrived in Kent on 2 July 2021, and Home Office officials put his details into the asylum system. After a brief stay in Kent, he was taken by bus to the capital, only to find that accommodation in London had run out.

The Kurdish Iranian was transferred 40 miles west to Reading, and since 7 July 2021, Ali has lived in room 221, praying for something to happen.

“One, two, three months is reasonable in a hotel, but not 17 months,” he said. “Expecting us to stay with nothing to do is intolerable.”

For a man who was a successful scientific academic in Iran – he has two university degrees, including a master’s in astrophysics, and can speak six languages, including English – not being able to work or study has evolved into a type of psychological torture.

Ali, like the other 100 or so hotel residents, has received no update on his asylum claim and no word on his application registration card (ARC), which offers a crucial platform for creating a fresh start.

Ali asylum seeker
Ali: ‘We need to be brave enough to consider that all of us are human.’ Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/Andy Aitchison

“Asylum seekers need an ARC for a bank account, a driving licence, sitting exams. When I checked the government website, it said asylum seekers will receive the card in three working days but I still don’t have it. The government tries to make everything more complicated.The situation is obstructing Ali’s hopes of studying international politics at Reading University – that and finding the £160 required for an entrance exam. “How can I afford that?”

Ali and his fellow hotel residents routinely question why they cannot work and pay tax, noting the massive number of job vacancies and huge labor shortages in the UK.

Free to leave the hotel and explore local neighbors, Ali and all his friends have no interest in disappearing into the black economy, preferring to wait for a decision that will, they hope, allow them to work legally and contribute to society.

One of the worst parts of Ali’s Groundhog Day existence is what he eats – bland canteen fodder that he feels relies too heavily on eggs.

“Food is the most terrible part, so repetitive. I can’t tolerate it any more.”

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said life in limbo for individuals such as Ali has an deleterious mental health effect on the asylum seekers.

“Long delays leave people like Ali trapped in unsuitable accommodation for months or even years on end, unable to work, put down roots in their community, or move on with their lives. This is incredibly damaging to their mental health, causing unnecessary suffering and a real waste of human potential.”

Life in England, limited as it is, has, though, given Ali a sense of how some of its citizens perceive him.

“People don’t seem to have a good opinion of asylum seekers from the Middle East. They read the press about the wars, about the poor. They seem to think people with our hair colour, our skin colour, are stupid.”If you are white European, with blonde hair and blue eyes, like Ukrainians, then you are considered intelligent. We need to be brave enough to consider that all of us are human.”

Ali is determined to change such attitudes. “The problem is that nobody can understand that asylum seekers can change something. In 2018 an Iranian asylum seeker in the UK won the Fields medal [for outstanding achievement] in mathematics.”

For the time being, Ali says it is difficult not to compare his contemporary reality with what he was forced to leave behind in Iran.

“I had the best lifestyle. The best work, my own office. I had my job, my house and a luxury car, but sometimes, in life, everything changes suddenly and there is no option except leaving everything behind and just going.”Other memories haunt him, particularly the Channel crossing that claimed his life.

“Someone dropped into the water and you only have two or three seconds to think: you want to help, but helping is very dangerous – choosing between your life and his.

“But when I tried to pull him, he tried to pull me down. I got him on the boat but I have that same dream every night, him pulling and me trying to save him, that exact moment in my dreams.”

The one big positive aspect of his experience has been the welcome he has been given from many of the people of Reading.

“English people are the kindest people I have seen in my life, very kind and very polite, sharing what they have with people who have nothing,” he said.

It is the government, he feels, that is letting everyone down. “Their policies are not like the English people. They are trying to help; their government is not.”