The UK can afford to house everyone, so why don't we?

The UK can afford to house everyone, so why don't we?
The Bibby Stockholm scandal and the rental crisis are two sides of the same coin, with the same solution, argues Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, Communications Director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Sharaan was thrown on the floor and left with a broken finger. It was the third time the 42 year old Sri Lankan was assaulted by one of his housemates. So far, in the 16 years since he arrived in the country, he hasn’t had any luck securing safe and clean housing. Like many searching the housing market, finding a place with a good landlord who takes care of the property and answers when you call is rare at best.

Sharaan is one of many that has been forced by our government to live in private asylum accommodation, he’s been moved from hotels to seven room houses with rooms only big enough for a bed and a bedside table. Having to move into a cramped and dirty house share is an all too familiar feeling for many. But why is this happening in the world’s sixth richest economy?

The answer is privateering - private companies making a fast buck from housing. Whether it’s private landlords charging rocketing rent or multi-million pound corporations winning government contracts to house asylum seekers in squalid accommodation, private companies are profiting from our broken social housing system.

As if things weren’t bad enough already, last week the government began housing people on the Bibby Stockholm, a floating barge off Dorset. The barge has been called a floating prison and the Fire Brigades Union said the lack of fire safety provisions makes it a “potential death trap”. For those who have called it a “palace” and have suggested that we should use it for social housing or to solve street homelessness - it is the furthest thing from a palace and no one should be living in it - not least because those on board were evacuated after just 4 days because of the discovery of Legionella bacteria.

When the barge was last used in the Netherlands, one person died and there were reports of rape and abuse. Aside from being inherently immoral, this new evil scheme is putting more public money in the hands of private firms. Housing asylum seekers in floating barges like the Bibby Stockholm has seen the government hand over £1.6 billion of taxpayer’s money to Australian firm Corporate Travel Management (CTM). It’s an obscene amount of public money to provide cruel and cramped living conditions to some of the most vulnerable people in our country.

Awarding a 1.6 billion pound contract to house asylum seekers on barges and spending 5.6 million pounds a day on hotels is a political choice. It's a choice to put money into the pockets of multinational corporations, ensure that asylum seekers are housed in the most heinous ways and waste taxpayer money. Similarly failing to control the private rental market with rentcaps, failing to build social housing that could help solve rent bubbles, end street homelessness and provide adequate asylum housing is a political choice. This government has failed to hit their housing target for new houses by nearly 100,000 houses per year and social housing continues to decline.

While they fail in building social housing for all, they exceed in signing away public money to private companies. Four years into their 4 billion pound taxpayer funded asylum accommodation contracts both Serco and Clearsprings, have reported rising profits. Serco run the infamous Yarls Wood and Brook House detention centres which have seen multiple abuse allegations and Clearsprings hold the contract for the dreadful Napier Barracks which MPs have demanded “must close with immediate effect” and courts have ruled “unlawful”*. Nonetheless, in the first 6 months of this year alone Serco has seen a 13% growth with an expected revenue of £2.5 billion due to “robust demand for immigration services”. Similarly, Clearsprings, announced £28 million profit, attributing their “growth” in demand for services due to soaring numbers of asylum seekers fleeing “political and economic turmoil”. At one end corporations merrily count their millions, at the other Sharaan battles on with “pain all over” caused by unsafe accommodation.

Both the rental market and asylum accommodation are profit chasing rackets which force social pain on those whom the markets serve. Private landlords and firms force people to live in uninhabitable, unsanitary and cramped housing while charging extortionate amounts and their corporate siblings force asylum seekers into unsafe hotels and cramped floating barges without fire safety.

As Sharaan shared, “when you’re an asylum seeker people see you as a thief”, but it is corporations not asylum seekers who are the thieves. Corporations are making millions off our broken social housing and asylum systems, swallowing up massive government contracts, promising “safety and respect to some of the most vulnerable people in society” while failing across the board and prioritising profits over welfare.

Instead of wasting money on private contracts and retraumatising already vulnerable people, the government could house people in communities where they can adjust to life in our country. The solution to housing asylum seekers is the same as the solution to ending street homelessness and the private rental housing crisis many are facing across the country – build more safe and affordable housing for all.

*Editors note: Following the MPs calls to shut down Napier Barracks a Home Office spokesperson said the use of the site was “vital” in helping to accommodate asylum seekers, adding “significant works have been carried out to improve the conditions, management and oversight. Napier is safe, warm, dry and provides a choice of good hot meals as well as proper laundry, cleaning and multi-faith religious facilities”.

Sharan is a client of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah is Communications Director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrant

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