Slavery survivors moved ‘without notice, without reason’ in London lockdown

By Jessie McDonald

Modern slavery survivors with young children were among refugees allegedly forced to move accommodation in London with as little as one day’s notice during coronavirus lockdowns this winter.

Women who are among the UK’s most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers said they were given just 24 hours to pack before being moved from accommodation provided by the Home Office, often having to travel long distances across the capital, in late December and January.

Some said the accommodation they had been moved to had not been cleaned or was substandard – with a slug infestation in one property – and there were reports of “aggressive” behaviour from housing management staff, with one young mother saying she was forced to throw away many of her belongings and a 56-year-old woman in poor health reporting that a housing manager visited her bedside to tell her she must move the next day.

The Home Office advises that if people seeking asylum in the UK need to be moved, a letter will be sent to them “confirming the arrangements”. But of the five women who spoke to the Guardian, all said they had received no letter before being told by phone or in person that they needed to move within days and, in some cases, without being given a reason.

“I checked my post [for a letter]. It was just before Christmas. I asked the manager, ‘why call me to move now?’” said Abeke*, 27, a modern slavery survivor from Nigeria. She said she was told by the housing manager from Clearsprings, the company contracted by the government to house asylum seekers in London, by phone on 18 December that she had to move the next day from the accommodation she had been living in for three years because the landlord “needs the house back”.

She said she had “no choice, no time. Even animals are treated better.”

Her new accommodation had not been cleaned after the previous resident left and had leaking, cracked walls held together with tape, she said. “There were slugs in the bedroom. It was disgusting. Even the [previous resident’s] bin bags were still there. It took me three days to clean it.”

Her experience appears not to be an isolated one. Another trafficking survivor from Nigeria, Marie*, 33, said she was told on 1 January that she would be moved the next day along with her three-year-old son. Her asylum claim had been denied – a decision that is being appealed by her lawyer.

“The first thing I asked the manager was: ‘Are we really moving in this pandemic? I have a little child with me. I don’t even know if the people in the new house are OK. In this period, third lockdown, you can still call someone and say they have to go?’”

Marie said that her new accommodation is unsuitable for her child.
Marie said that her new accommodation is unsuitable for her child.

She said she initially refused to move on the grounds that she had not received written confirmation, but after a “battle” with Clearsprings she was moved earlier this month. She said she had still not received a letter about the move.

Marie said she was told by the people moving her that she could not bring all of her possessions. “He was aggressive and said: ‘Your stuff is too much, as an asylum seeker you have no right to have more than your backpack and your son’s backpack.’”

The new flat is far from shops and her son’s nursery, she said, and unsuitable for a child. “There’s nowhere my baby can play. There’s no space for him. It’s messed up, everything’s broken. They told me we need to keep it clean but there’s no dustpans and no [vacuum cleaner].”

Eniola*, a 57-year-old Nigerian who has sciatica and chronic arthritis, said she was struggling to leave her bed when she was told on 7 December that she had to move out of the National Asylum Support Service accommodation she shares with four families in west London three days later.

“I was in bed very sick, shaking, with double jumpers and duvet cover. I cannot get up to cook and was in chronic pain. I cannot move loads.

“He [the housing manager] was so rude to me. I couldn’t sleep, and was forcing myself to pack, but the pain was getting worse.”

After being sent to hospital and discharged by a doctor who said she should not be moved, she has stayed put and hasn’t heard anything since.

Some of the women take part in two related community music programmes based in east London that support survivors of modern slavery, Bombo Productions and Amies Freedom Choir, part of Pan Intercultural Arts. Bombo’s artistic director, Dr Victoria Jassey, said she noticed that some of the women in the choir she runs were upset during their first meeting in January.

“When we logged into our Zoom choir meeting the first week after Christmas, three of the women were demonstratively upset. They told me that they had been told to move accommodation without notice, without reason, during the Christmas period, during a lockdown, to a place where they knew no one – to a place where the house managers talked down to them, and in two cases, to a place they felt was inappropriate for their young children.

“This was not the first time I had seen women from this group upset from being uprooted suddenly and without explanation. The timing and the lockdown make it even more shocking. Even if this practice is legal, it shouldn’t be. What type of society treats vulnerable women and young mothers like this?”

Tim Naor Hilton, head of asylum at Refugee Action, said: “Moving vulnerable people across the country to new accommodation with sometimes no more than an hour’s notice can have a terrible effect on their wellbeing.

“People seeking asylum can be retraumatised because they often have no idea where they are being taken and they must leave – at the drop of a hat – groups of friends or other support networks they have formed.

“It’s essential that people are given longer notice and told where they are going so they can properly prepare themselves and reduce the impact on their mental health.”

At the beginning of Covid lockdowns in March 20202, the government announced a temporary suspension of evictions of asylum seekers facing homelessness as part of its “everyone in” policy, and limited moves “unless necessary”. The suspension on evictions ended in September and has not been reinstated in the current national lockdown.

There are currently about 5,630 asylum seekers in London, 465 of them from Nigeria, more than half identified as potential victims of modern slavery trafficked into the UK, mainly to be forced into sex work or domestic service.

Clearsprings manages “dispersal” accommodation, where asylum seekers live while their claim is determined, in London on behalf of the Home Office. It was not clear in these individual cases whether the Home Office or Clearsprings were responsible for the lack of notice allegedly given to the women and the alleged failure to confirm arrangements in writing.

Clearsprings referred the Guardian to the Home Office for comment.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have not been provided with sufficient information to look into these specific claims. However, we are required by law to provide asylum seekers with suitable accommodation and during the pandemic we have had to secure additional sites due to pressure on the system.

“We acted quickly and decisively last year to look after asylum seekers’ wellbeing by increasing their level of financial support, temporarily suspending evictions and limiting moves unless necessary and appropriate.

“The safety and security of modern slavery victims is a top priority, and the modern slavery victim care contract provides tailored support to help potential and confirmed victims rebuild their lives.”

* Names have been changed