Scabies and sharing your room with a stranger: ‘Operation Maximise’ has created hotel hell
‘This is a recipe for disaster, somebody is going to attack someone’
Good afternoon readers — and welcome to this Thursday’s Tribune.
A few weeks ago, a Sheffield campaign group got in touch to express their horror and outrage at a change in government policy, unnoticed by most of the general public. This policy is forcing hundreds of Sheffield’s most vulnerable residents to share their bedroom with a stranger.
The group was South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) and the change was ‘Operation Maximise’: a new policy insisting single male asylum seekers must share bedrooms with one, two or even three other men. The news hit a Sheffield hotel housing asylum seekers “like a bomb”. Campaigners warn it will lead to increased fights, outbreaks of disease and a rapid deterioration in the mental health of an already traumatised group.
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Scabies and sharing your room with a stranger: ‘Operation Maximise’ has created hotel hell
By Victoria Munro
(All asylum seeker’s names have been changed)
News of ‘Operation Maximise’ hit the hotel “like a bomb”, Hiwa tells me. In mid-August, around 150 asylum seekers living in a single building in Sheffield learned from staff that a huge crowd of new residents would arrive in a week’s time, one that would roughly double the hotel’s population. There was one key problem: since there were no more empty rooms, everyone was going to have to share. (The Tribune has agreed not to name the hotel to protect its inhabitants.)
In the two weeks reporting on this story, we have heard that life in the hotel is so unbearable that some residents are resorting to extreme measures to escape it: from staying in abusive relationships to enduring exploitative working conditions. To make matters worse, it’s not even the only recent policy change affecting the city’s asylum seekers and stretching the resources of the charities supporting them to breaking point. In July, the council unanimously reaffirmed that Sheffield is a “city of sanctuary” — but can it really claim that title?
Campaign group South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) argues that effectively doubling the capacity of an already-full hotel within a matter of weeks is a recipe for disaster. The residents of the hotel are not backpackers at a hostel, who might enjoy the company, they are a diverse group of men who have suffered some of the most horrific experiences imaginable. One resident told the Tribune he had attempted suicide more than once while living in the hotel, even before Operation Maximise. Others warned the overcrowding would increase fights and the spread of disease — the hotel has already seen an outbreak of scabies since the change.
When residents learned of the new arrivals, the mood in the hotel quickly became frantic. “Everyday, people were asking if it was right and how it was possible,” Hiwa says. “The rooms were our one private space, how could we share them?” The hotel’s staff weren’t able to provide answers — this wasn’t their decision, but a Home Office order. At 9am, a few days later, Hiwa was woken up by staff coming into his room to remove his double bed, in order to make space for two twins.
While existing residents were given a piece of paper and five days to pick a friend from inside the hotel that they’d willingly share with, most would have their roommate randomly allocated. There was no guarantee that any pair would speak the same language or practise the same religion. Muslim residents, for example, might have to disturb their roommate to carry out their daily prayers. “You are going to share everything with a person you have never met for an indefinite period of time, but you have no knowledge of his situation and his personality,” Hiwa says. “This means a sense of insecurity. This means you will never have privacy. And this is very terrible.”
The need to fill and then overfill the hotel is also a worrying sign that the UK’s asylum process is unable to cope, according to John Grayson, a 78-year-old retired academic and one of SYMAAG’s founders. The hotel, which has been run as asylum seeker housing by contractor Mears since late 2021, was originally intended to be “overspill accommodation” — like an extra car park at a shopping centre only opened at Christmas — but has “become a catch-all now”. Those in the voluntary sector suspect that asking single men to share rooms will only be the first cost-cutting step of many.
‘Completely fair and reasonable’
Operation Maximise is a new Home Office policy, which states single male asylum seekers must share bedrooms with one, two or even three others. It was first announced in June and, that month, immigration minister Robert Jenrick insisted on BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that the shift was a “completely fair and reasonable approach” to the growing cost of housing the UK’s asylum seekers, aimed at getting “good value for money for the taxpayer”. Anyone who was “genuinely destitute,” he insisted, would accept it.
Hiwa, a 31-year-old Kurdish man who had spent a year and a half living in the hotel when the news broke, is “genuinely destitute” but was nonetheless horrified by the policy. Despite a slight language barrier — he only learned English this year and occasionally relies on Google Translate during our interview — it is obvious he is a sensitive and intellectual man, one who compares his experience of asylum to a boat on a stormy sea. Living in the hotel, he tells me, broke his soul, pushing him to attempt suicide more than once.
“The public image of a hotel is very positive, people are maybe thinking ‘these people live in a hotel, what a luxury’,” he says. But a combination of the hotel’s prison-like atmosphere — with rooms stripped bare and security guards always watching — and the hopelessness of his and other residents’ situations had made it “psychologically very toxic, painful and unbearable”. The only things that eventually stopped him from taking his own life were thoughts of his family back in Iran and the knowledge that no one in Sheffield would be affected by his death. “I would be more alone in death here than in life.”
Hiwa never wanted to leave Iran — why would he, after trying to fix the country’s problems? For a decade, he had fought to improve the treatment of persecuted minorities, including Afghan refugees, never imagining he would one day be in their place. But his activism made him a target; he received death threats and police raided his home, seizing his documents and his laptop. “They were beating my family: my mother and sister. They threatened to rape and kill them.” The government, he realised, “was not kidding,” they really would kill him.
Hiwa starts our interview by offering his thanks to the British people for a new chance at life and tells me he has grown to love Sheffield, especially the regular protests in the town centre, which he says show “the city is alive and breathing”. Nonetheless, his experiences before and even since arriving here have left him traumatised and depressed, to the point that he often struggles to eat and brush his teeth. In the hotel, practically everyone is suffering in a similar way.
‘A pretty terrible development’
To the campaigners supporting Sheffield’s asylum seekers, this is a key reason why Operation Maximise should not be considered, as Jenrick claims, a “fair and reasonable approach”. In fact, SYMAAG knows exactly the kind of problems room-sharing can cause, because it’s happened in Sheffield before. Its co-founder Grayson tells me the group ran a lengthy campaign against the last company awarded the contract to house Sheffield’s asylum seekers, security company G4S, which also forced people to share rooms.
Annoyances that might have been manageable to people under less strain quickly escalated. “It’s much more of an issue than it would seem,” he insists. Mears, which won the contract in 2019 and did not re-introduce room-sharing, initially seemed like an improvement (although its own set of problems quickly emerged). “Now, because of this Operation Maximise, it seems things are going back to those days. It’s a pretty terrible development.”
“In normal times,” he explains, Mears shouldn’t need to use the hotel at all. Asylum seekers register their claims in London and are then displaced to a small number of initial accommodation centres around the country, including South Yorkshire’s centre: Urban House, in Wakefield. From there, people are supposed to be placed in shared housing, also run by Mears, while they wait to hear if they have been granted asylum. “What’s happened since 2020,” he says, requiring the need to commandeer entire hotels, “is that Urban House has become overcrowded.”
But it’s little wonder asylum seeker housing can’t keep up with demand, when many of those who have applied are waiting years to hear if they will be given leave to remain. Axil, a man in his thirties, asks me not to name the country he is from, as he is terrified of the Home Office working out who he is and punitively rejecting his claim. However, he is willing to reveal that he is from one of the five countries — Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen — whose refugees are overwhelmingly granted asylum and who are thus supposed to be subject to a streamlined process. Axil applied for asylum in 2021 and had his screening interview in March last year. “I thought after three months I would be done,” he says, “And here I am.”
Axil speaks English fluently and rapidly and seems to focus on the absurdity of his situation, trapped in a “Kafkaesque” bureaucratic process, as a method to avoid despair. He describes his frustration during Covid, as a former healthcare professional, reading headlines about crippling staffing shortages and knowing he was forbidden to help. Furthermore, part of why he wants to claim asylum is so he can live openly as a gay man, yet Operation Maximise threatened to expose him to homophobia all over again.
Axil is happy to brush people off when they question his sexuality in the hotel’s common areas but says it would be different to have it happen in his room. “I have some leaflets, some books. [Before room-sharing] I could separate parts of my life but now somebody could go into my private business.” He is, he points out, “a blasphemous heathen heretic, who also happens to be gay”. Even if his roommate didn’t take umbrage, he’d struggle to truly feel safe enough to sleep.
While he doesn’t “want to be too harsh” on the people working at the hotel, he says it’s obvious to him that they’re underpaid and overworked; he suspects some are even students trying to make extra money on the side. This means many have no idea how to de-escalate conflict, likely to arise more and more now the hotel is full to bursting. “The second I saw all the people pulling up, I thought ‘this is a recipe for disaster, somebody is going to attack someone’,” he says. “There’s been fights here and there but nobody has got stabbed — yet.”
‘People are disappearing’
Axil suspects that life in the hotel has become so miserable, that residents are taking extreme measures to escape. “I think people are disappearing and getting a cash in hand job in a warehouse somewhere,” he says, which then puts them in danger of being exploited. He knows of one case where a man tried to leave his illegal warehouse job, only for the foreman to threaten to report him to the Home Office unless he stayed. A friend of his has ended up in an abusive relationship with a Sheffield resident, but says living with him is still preferable to staying in the hotel.
Rachel Mullan-Feroze, the 58-year-old interim head of operations at Snowdrop Project, is more than familiar with the many ways asylum seekers can end up being exploited. Snowdrop Project is a charity for victims of modern slavery, a group that often overlaps with asylum seekers, although she is keen to make clear that modern slavery victims are only ever given temporary leave to remain in the UK, meaning it is not a route someone would take to bypass the asylum process.
It’s no surprise to her that room-sharing has been introduced among single men first, as they seem to attract the least sympathy. She points out that the majority of people identified as potential victims of modern slavery in the UK are men, but the majority of people offered longer-term support — and thus the majority of Snowdrop Project’s clients — are women. “You’ve got to kind of question whether it’s based on assumptions about how men require less support,” she argues. There may be “a whole swathe of vulnerable people” falling through the cracks in the system; many of them may be living in asylum seeker accommodation like the hotel.
Mullan-Feroze also suspects and fears that single men will not be the only ones expected to share rooms for long. Female asylum seekers sharing rooms “used to be not uncommon” in Sheffield and she feels it could easily return if the Home Office feels the need to cut costs again.
In a statement given to The Tribune, SYMAAG also pointed out that overcrowding hotels can lead to an increase in physical health problems, with disease and infections spreading more easily than ever. It's a prediction that already seems to have come true: a spokesperson for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed they were aware of a small outbreak of scabies, a highly infectious skin infestation, at the hotel. The UKHSA was unwilling to confirm how many cases had been reported at the hotel, stating only that it was a small number, and told The Tribune today that they have all now received treatment.
‘We always see dead bodies in our dreams’
In the end, Hiwa and Axil are in a far better position than the vast majority of Sheffield’s single male asylum seekers; both of them have found a way to avoid sharing a room. Axil is sofa-surfing with the friends he has made through volunteering in Sheffield’s LGBT community, returning to the hotel every few days to confirm he has not absconded. Hiwa was able to provide a doctor’s note detailing his severe mental health problems and was thus granted an exemption from room-sharing — Mears quickly moved him into a shared home, freeing up his room for two new residents.
One problem, however, is that Axil is relatively unique — he speaks fluent English and therefore has found it easy to make friends in Sheffield who will help him out. The other problem is that Hiwa is not unique: he says everyone he spoke to while living in the hotel “suffered severe depression and mental health problems” like him. Very few, however, had been able to provide enough evidence to get an exemption.
Hiwa’s friend, Sarwar, is one of the hundreds of men who now has another man sharing his private space. Sarwar is a 32-year-old Baloch man, whose people hail from a war-torn region split between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Despite taking medication for anxiety and depression, he was not granted an exemption from room-sharing and is already finding the change difficult to bear.
“My roommate can't speak English and many times we have problems,” he told the Tribune, communicating via Whatsapp messenger. “We cannot always use the translation application.” Sarwar likes to go to bed early but his roommate is a night owl, who has accidentally woken him up several times. “Every night, he makes video calls with his friends and listens to loud music.” He is also unhappy that the other man “does not observe hygiene in the bathroom,” as he “cares a lot about the order and cleanliness of the room”.
Sarwar has seen the rhetoric from some British politicians and people, suggesting asylum seekers should be grateful no matter how bad conditions get. “I just want people to know that it is so hard to be away from your home, no matter what facilities you get. We always see dead bodies in our dreams.”
‘If we can’t help them, there’s no help for them’
To make matters worse, Operation Maximise is not the only recent policy change affecting Sheffield’s asylum seekers. As reported by the Guardian in August, the amount of time successful applicants, those finally granted asylum, are given between receiving a “notice to quit” their accommodation and actually moving out has now been reduced from 28 days to just 7. Charities had already warned that the 28-day notice was too short; many feel a week-long notice period all but guarantees these people will become homeless.
The CEO of Sheffield homeless charity Nomad only found out about the change “by accident” during a chat with a Home Office employee, Nomad’s 54-year-old senior manager Karen Awdhali tells me. Awdhali feels this demonstrates that the new policy has been “swept under the carpet” but, even without this tip-off, it wouldn’t have taken the charity long to notice something had shifted. “Around the same time,” she says, “we started getting inundated with referrals from refugees,” referrals that didn’t look like the ones they were used to receiving.
“We were getting emails from the council, like one I had just now, saying someone needs to find accommodation today,” she says. “And I’m not blaming the council, that’s when people were presenting.” Nomad used to get five referrals a week — already a high workload for a small charity — but now that number has tripled. “Frankly, we can’t keep up with demand. Right now, we’ve got two beds available.” She has no idea how they’ll be able to help anyone after next week and Nomad is already something of a last chance saloon — the only charity that helps “non-priority homeless people,” who are most often single men. “If we can’t help them, there’s no help for them.”
For Awdhali, the most heartbreaking result of the change was a phone call she received recently from a council officer, asking if there was anything Nomad could do for a 19-year-old boy who was about to end up on the streets. Awdhali’s son is the same age and she knows full well he wouldn’t be able to cope in that situation. “The fact that I couldn’t help someone else’s child — because they are still children at that age, especially boys — I thought ‘people have got to know about this’.”
She sent a flurry of emails to local MPs but says only one — Tory MP Miriam Cates — has bothered to reply so far. Cates said she would pass Awdhali’s concerns on to the Home Office but, given Immigration Minister Jenrick’s bullish insistence that he would “never put the interests of migrants above the interests of the British public,” it seems unlikely the intervention will do much good.
When contacted for comment, a Home Office spokesperson told the Tribune room-sharing was introduced because “the pressure on the asylum system has continued to grow, with hotel accommodation costing millions of pounds a day.” Sharing rooms between at least two individuals would “minimise the impact on communities while we stand up alternative sites”. As for the 7-day notice to leave accommodation, they added that asylum seekers are encouraged “to make their onward plans as soon as possible after receiving their decision” and successful applicants are offered support “to access jobs, benefits and housing”.
Is Sheffield really a ‘city of sanctuary’?
Awdhali tells me she also emailed a flurry of local councillors, who were somewhat more responsive, although she’s keen to make clear that she’s not criticising Sheffield Council for policies introduced by the Home Office. “They are trying to do their best,” she argues, “but they are as limited as we are.”
On this last point, SYMAAG is not so convinced. While the campaign group recognises the policy change came from the Conservative government, they argue the council could be doing more to protect its most vulnerable residents. After all, in July, the council unanimously reaffirmed Sheffield’s status as a “city of sanctuary” for refugees, passing a motion that noted its responsibility to regulate all housing in the city, “including Home Office accommodation”.
Sheffield Council failed to respond to a request for comment, but it seems unlikely that it will be seeking to intervene anytime soon. The Tribune was told that a Labour councillor was due to become Sheffield’s official “migrant champion” earlier this month, but the appointment was reportedly delayed by internal squabbling. Even the Green Party, whose councillor Alexi Dimond raised a question about room-sharing among asylum seekers at the last full council meeting, seems to feel its hands are tied.
Green party spokesman Douglas Johnson told the Tribune he recognises that every asylum seeker “is vulnerable in some context” and that “forcing people to be cooped up is going to put people at risk” but adds that asylum seeker accommodation in Sheffield is “completely outside the council’s remit”. The central government has a contract with Mears and “the council has fairly limited powers to supervise and intervene in that”.
But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to the dark days of G4S, the organisation responsible for housing asylum seekers in Sheffield was none other than the council itself. According to many campaigners, it did a far better job than the private sector. In early 2020, the Morning Star reported that the council wanted to return to this model, due to its serious concerns with Mears’ performance. For whatever reason — perhaps the pandemic, perhaps the cost-of-living crisis, perhaps the total overhaul of the council’s leadership — this idea appears to have been abandoned. Now, it seems, Sheffield’s asylum seekers are paying the price.