Background to the Asylum Accommodation System in the UK

Contingency hotels are costing the taxpayer around £6 million a day, with approximately 47,500 people noted to be accommodated in hotels across the country (M. Gower, 2023). The Government has a duty to provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation but after many years of reforms, the UK asylum system is described as ‘one of increasing restrictions, controls and experimentation with various means of detention, dispersal and, above all, deterrence’ (J.  Darling, 2011).

Duty To Accommodate:

The Government has a statutory duty under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to provide support, including accommodation, for those awaiting a decision on their asylum claim if they would otherwise be destitute. It is important to note that people in the asylum system are prohibited from working and cannot access mainstream support, thereby increasing their reliance upon the Home Office for support. Asylum accommodation is offered on a no-choice basis as per dispersal policy, and via private sector providers.

Dispersal as a policy was introduced by the government in a structural overhaul of asylum accommodation, which saw the introduction of the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) to disperse asylum seekers to towns and cities across the UK. In 2022, this was extended and all local authorities became asylum dispersal areas, with the aim of allowing those accommodated in hotels to be moved to appropriate accommodation[1].      

Privatisation of Asylum Accommodation: Asylum accommodation was initially under the remit of the local authority but since the early 2000s has seen a move to privatisation with the introduction of private contractors and sub-contractors, such as Serco, Mears Group and Clearsprings Ready Homes. In assigning these service contracts, the government promised better communication and liaison between providers, local authorities, local communities and the voluntary sector but that has not been the case, with many expressing concern at the lack of accountability for contractors and overall service fragmentation as the result of a complex network of contractors, sub-contractors and private providers’[2], which has inevitably led to the voluntary sector extending their services and programmes to support those who should otherwise be supported by the contracted service providers.

Communities Not Camps

The lack of housing across the UK, coupled with contractor issues and an increase in asylum applications impacted the availability of initial/dispersal accommodation, subsequently resulting in the use of contingency accommodation such as hotels, hostels and B&Bs for a prolonged period. Local communities, alongside the voluntary sector, have expressed concern over such accommodation, citing the isolation and poor conditions as well the impact on the mental and physical well-being of asylum seekers. In addressing these concerns and in an attempt to end the reliance on contingency accommodation, the government procured a barge and repurposed a number of disused military sites, but these too have been met with criticism from local groups and charities due to their prison-like conditions and inadequate support available, as well as the risk of re-traumatisation for individuals[3].

The use of barges and disused military sites is arguably intentionally hostile given the Government’s consistent rhetoric around ‘illegal migrants’, small boats and their plans to crackdown on asylum seekers, as is evident via their Rwanda Plan. Further, the use of such sites was noted as part of the New Plan for Immigration, whereby the Government will increase use of large-scale accommodation sites, but they are only to provide a ‘basic’ level of accommodation[4], thereby ignoring the needs of vulnerable individuals and the expertise of frontline providers who have advocated for the accommodation needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

In particular, the negative impact on the mental health of people accommodated in such sites, is well-documented – in 2021, written evidence was submitted by multiple organisations, including the Helen Bamber Foundation and Doctors of the World, on the clinical harm caused by the use of barracks as housing[1]. Following assessments of individuals house din the Napier and Penally sites, it was concluded that the sites were harmful to health and wellbeing, with many individuals suffering from lack of sleep, lack of appetite and also lack of nutritious food, and many being identified as having PTSD, depression and anxiety as well as suicidal ideation. In 2023, JRS UK released a report highlighting the experiences of men held in quasi-detention at Napier barracks[2], which included similar findings to those provided in the written evidence submitted in 2021. Additionally, the JRS report highlighted the impact of remote location which contributed to the sense of being confined, forcing them to re-live past trauma and thereby exacerbating existing depression, anxiety and/or PTSD symptoms, with some attempting suicide.

In response to government policies on asylum accommodation, civil society groups and communities have launched a campaign titled ‘Communities Not Camps’, calling for the accommodation of people seeking asylum within communities where they are able to access necessary support, build community and integrate.

Voluntary sector expertise

The voluntary sector, comprising of charities, church groups and community movements, has a specialist understanding of its communities and in tailoring support accordingly, something which is required when supporting newcomers who are particularly vulnerable and mostly without the necessary language skills, such as asylum seekers and refugees. Its support and expertise are vital to communities it serves.

Equally, the statutory services are reliant upon the voluntary sector for providing outreach and wraparound services, where they are unable to meet demand and lack the resources to do so.  Voluntary organisations are rightly wary of duplicating or displacing services which should be provided by statutory authorities but have experienced public sector staff expecting them to do just that. In contracting the voluntary sector, statutory services are in effect recognising its specialism and skills for working with vulnerable populations, providing vital services and assisting with integration support, but at too late a stage.

With specific regard to the asylum accommodation system, the statutory services have consistently failed to include the voluntary sector in planning, coordination and communications, when placing groups of vulnerable people in their communities. This was proven to be the case at the start of the asylum dispersal programme and continues to be the case in the present day with the use of hotel accommodation and overnight arrivals without any warning or word to the voluntary sector which thus creates a chaotic situation. Further, in some contexts, the Government has actively sought to restrict voluntary sector access and involvement, such as in Wethersfield, which the Helen Bamber Foundation has noted needs to be shut immediately[7].

This lack of preparation and inclusion of the voluntary sector by the statutory services places the voluntary sector in a working situation to be considered an emergency, in which services are then required to be ‘delivered on an ad hoc and reactive basis, in response to immediate and urgent need, rather than through carefully considered strategic planning’[8]. The voluntary sector is relied upon to support individuals and families accommodated in hotels and to fill the gaps in services, regardless of any appropriate training and provision of funding and resources. As such the voluntary sector finds itself becoming the main provider of support as opposed to the supportive role it originally envisaged.


J. Darling, 2011:

M. Gower, 2023:;


[2]  Fée, D. (2021) ‘The Privatisation of Asylum Accommodation in the UK: Winners and Losers’, Revue française de civilisation britannique, XXVI(2), p.10.






[8] Wren, K. (2007) ‘Supporting Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Glasgow: The Role of Multi-agency Networks’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 20(3), p.400. Available at: