When State Racism and Austerity Meet the Pandemic: The Death of a Syrian Refugee in Hotel Detention

When State Racism and Austerity Meet the Pandemic: The Death of a Syrian Refugee in Hotel Detention

Smina Akhtar

Several newspapers including the National reported that on Tuesday 5 May 2020 Adnan Olbeh, a 30 year old refugee from Syria, died in a Glasgow hotel, emergency services were called but were unable to revive him. Adnan was one of almost 400 people seeking asylum who were moved from their own flats to hotels during the Covid-19 pandemic, by Mears Group, the government’s provider of asylum accommodation in Glasgow.

Adnan’s friend, Farid (not his real name), who had known him for 5 months, told me that he had reported to Mears staff that he was having suicidal thoughts and needed help — his mental health had got so bad after being moved to the hotel that he was having flashbacks about the torture he had been subjected to in Libya after he left Syria. Mears staff repeatedly said ‘can you wait till tomorrow; can you wait for a few hours but he didn’t get help’. Just a week before Adnan died, Farid told me that he had accompanied Adnan to hospital desperate for medication, he received none. The police are treating Adnan’s death as unexplained, but I argue below it can be explained by reference to neoliberal state racism.

Farid told me that Adnan left Syria in 2012 to flee the devastation caused by the war, which has created over 800,000 refugees. He travelled through Libya where he was tortured, to get to Europe to build a better life for himself, he funded his trip by working in Libya for a year and like thousands of others took a dangerous boat journey to Italy, he travelled to Denmark where he was granted temporary residence and lived there for 4 years. He headed to the UK following the election of a right-wing government in Denmark determined to deport refugees.

According to Farid, Adnan stayed at the Glasgow Night Shelter for a month while his lawyers prepared his asylum claim, after which time Mears Group granted him initial accommodation in a flat on his own where he stayed for 4 months. Positive Action in Housing report that Adnan was one of hundreds of other asylum seekers forcibly evicted from their flats and transported in vans (without any observance of physical distancing) to hotels. According to evidence which Mears gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the whole operation of eviction and relocation was the implementation of a Home Office directive in response to the pandemic. This operation was by no means exceptional to Glasgow. During a recent No Evictions Network meeting, representatives of refugee support groups from Birmingham and Sheffield reported that people seeking asylum in other parts of the UK had also been forcibly moved to hotel accommodation.

NGO’s supporting refugees report that those moved to hotels have reported extreme anxiety and mental health issues as a result. Adnan was one of them, he had lived alone, so staying safe and physically distanced from others wouldn’t have been difficult. Though he received a mere £37 a week he was nevertheless able to cook his own meals. The money was stopped when he was moved into the hotel, where everyone was given three meals a day but their weekly allowance has been stopped, so they remained with no money to buy basic essentials — and with their basic human rights eroded. The No Evictions Network describes this form of accommodation as “hotel detention”.

Farid, Adnan’s friend, told me ‘we’re all complaining about the food, pasta and rice all the time’, and when they offered to do the cooking staff told them ‘that is not possible, the Home Office makes the menu’. He also told me that currently there are 75 people living in the hotel, and that he shares a bathroom with 4 other people. They eat in shifts but as we know the virus can spread even from door handles and in narrow passages; the residents were much safer in their previous accommodations.

It is probably still too early to fully contextualize Adnan’s death in its complex political and economic framework. The pandemic is certainly a very important element to consider because it resulted in the scaling down of social work support as well as reduced levels of treatment of non-pandemic health conditions in order to leave health care staff to deal with Covid 19 cases. Another crucial contextual element is the neoliberal state.

Whilst the circumstances of Adnan’s death show the real-life consequences of Home Office policies it is important to situate them within a broader political context. Mears Group took over the Home Office contract for asylum accommodation from Serco in 2019. The value of the Home Office contract is so low that the flats they acquire are sub-standard and hard to rent. Landlords grant long term leases to Mears for a guaranteed rent. The privatisation of asylum accommodation in 2012 was part of the government’s austerity programme, its aim was to reduce costs by moving away from local authority provision which had included a wrap-around service of additional support. It was estimated that there would be savings of £140 million over a period of 7 years by only providing basic accommodation. Adnan would probably not have died if such a wrap around service was available.

Neoliberalism produced austerity, in the case of asylum accommodation savings were made by privatising housing provision for people seeking asylum. The war on terror enabled Muslim migrants coming in through the asylum route to be labelled as potential terrorists, catch all labels such as ‘scroungers’ and ‘bogus’ were developed and applied to everyone seeking asylum until they are formally granted refugee status. Racial capitalism, as Gargi Bhattacharyya (2018) argues, constructs external as well as internal borders which de-humanise refugees and define them as the undeserving and racialised other. At the same time, those who are considered more deserving, because their labour is in demand are encouraged to take the highly skilled migrant route into Britain, even those racialised as black and brown or Muslim. While the state has produced a discourse which suggests that we are in a ‘era of migration’, Bhattacharyya suggests that it would be more accurate to say that we are in a ‘era of bordering’.

The Covid 19 pandemic has in some ways forced the state to abruptly, possibly temporarily halt austerity in an attempt to save the economy. The end to austerity however hasn’t extended to people who are in the asylum process. This is due to two connected reasons, first, they are excluded from the job market and not considered to be key players in the economy and second, that people seeking asylum are bordered and ordered into the undeserving group of migrants by a system of state racism.

Activists in Glasgow are determined to expose the injustice experienced by Adnan and others like him and are calling for an independent inquiry into Adnan’s tragic death, an end to hotel detention, reinstatement the weekly asylum support payments and clarification of the reasons why the Home Office and Mears have moved people seeking asylum from their flats to hotels where physical distancing is virtually impossible.

Bhattacharyya, G, 2018, Rethinking Racial Capitalism; Questions of Reproduction and Survival, Rowman and Littlefield.


Smina Akhtar is a PhD researcher in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, she is researching state racism in Scotland. Thanks to Giovanni Picker for commenting on an early draft. @SminaAkhtar