Investigation: More than 200 asylum seekers left in Kilburn ‘house of horrors’
'The way we are treated is like animals. Even in jail, you can’t be in the conditions here'
17 August, 2017 — By Tom Foot
ASYLUM seekers who say they have been stuffed like sardines into a Home Office “house of horrors” have told the New Journal they feel like they are being tortured again.
More than 200 people who fled their home country in fear are living in a six-storey hostel in Priory Park Road, Kilburn, waiting to hear whether they will be deported or allowed to start new lives in this country.
There are two mansion blocks – one for men, the other for women and children – housing a voiceless group overwhelmed with feelings of neglect and anger at what they say are unacceptable living conditions. They are sleeping in rows of single beds, often with no space between them, and must share a small-load washing machine and tiny kitchen unit on the top floor.
Unable to work legally, and with just £35 a week for food, many said they were “slowly going mad” after spending days and nights in the highly claustrophobic conditions. Some complained about small “red bugs” that bite them in the night and leave bloodstains on sheets. There are holes in walls and signs of damp.
‘Red bugs’ which Mr Tsohuka said can be found in the house
“I just feel like this journey has been all for nothing as I am still being tortured now, morally” said Ben Cosnova Tsohuka, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “When I came to the UK I found that what we are living in is very different to what we learn about the UK from abroad. The way we are treated, like animals. Even in jail, you can’t be in the conditions here. Even in the detention centre, it was two in a room. You could respect each other there, look at each other from afar. The Home Office know everything about what is happening here.”
The Home Office said asylum seekers are moved into “dispersal accommodation”, such as the Kilburn blocks, from its detention centre. Mr Tsohuka, who contacted the New Journal in the hope of giving a “voice to the voiceless”, added: “We are all sleeping like this in a room together – from Egypt, Bangladesh, Kurdish, Congo. All side by side throughout the night. There is no space between the beds. The red insects (bed bugs), all of us are scratching. You wake up with blood on the sheets.”
He added: “Many people have been here for eight or 10 months – we cannot work, every day in here with nothing to do. I can live and die and rot here and no one would know. But people here are too scared to speak out. They are fearful of speaking out.”
According to Zimbabwe newspaper reports, Mr Tsohuka was abducted while trying to flee the Congo after his land was seized by state officials. The reports say he was travelling to a refugee camp in Harare, Zimbabwe, in January 2015 when he was captured and taken to a house where his “torture ordeal started”.
The newspaper reports suggest that he was wanted for political dissent by Congo President Joseph Kabila, and that the officials had seized his land. Mr Tsohuka said the Home Office had blamed the delay in processing his application on the “complex” nature of his claim, involving two countries. Mr Tsohuka told the New Journal that he was plagued by dark memories of his torture. It included electric shocks and primitive techniques, he said. He said he had not seen or heard from his family since leaving the Congo.
Other asylum seekers, who have signed tenancy agreements with Clearsprings Ready Homes to stay in the Kilburn house, said they were confused and traumatised. Fights often broke out between residents because of the cramped conditions, they said, but police did not come if called. Several – talking to the New Journal on condition of anonymity – said they were disgusted by the poor hygiene in the house, particularly criticising the use of one washing machine by so many people.
Mr Tsohuka with ointment given to residents by doctors to treat bites and rashes
A former nurse from Ethiopia said: “We respect England, and its people. We had learned that Great Britain is a land of justice, equality and democracy. We have seen on television, like Mind Your Language.”
Mind Your Language was a TV comedy series in the 1970s and 1980s about adult education teachers in London working with a “motley crew” of immigrants with English as a foreign language. The 1980s humour now seems dated but the asylum seekers said it had given the impression of Britain as a caring country that sought to integrate foreigners.
The nurse added: “But we find there is nothing great about it here. When I see outside, I like the houses. When you come inside here, the house is very old – very unhygienic. One washing machine for 100 men? People are washing their boots in there, it is so unhygienic. Here, because of the queue for the bathroom, you wash every two or three days.”
The nurse added that after the Home Office made its decision on asylum applicants they would be given 28 days on benefits and in the home before they were asked to leave, find work and a new place to live. “What does that mean, three months living homeless?” he said. In another room, a young Kurdish man said he had been given medication from a GP for extreme anxiety. Many of the asylum seekers have bottles of Cetraben – a lotion to stop skin irritation – from GPs at Kilburn Park Medical Centre.
The block, called St Lawrence Mansions, is run by Clearsprings Ready Homes, which has had several contracts with the UK Border Agency, UKN Visas and Immigration, Ministry of Justice and the Home Office since 2000. The company, which says on its website that it is an “investor in people”, was the subject of a BBC investigation in Wales into poor housing conditions for asylum seekers. The 78-room Kilburn hostel is split into two buildings owned by Topclass Investments Ltd, which is, according to Companies House, based in Meares House, opposite Finchley and Frognal overground station, in Finchley Road.
Beds lined up in one room
The company applied unsuccessfully to demolish the two Kilburn buildings in 2012.
Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq said: “The conditions of this house are shocking. It is especially so as many of these people in the building have faced struggles in the past to get to this country. It is not appropriate.”
Ms Siddiq has raised Mr Tsohuka’s case with the Home Office and also the conditions in the home.
In evidence to a House of Commons select committee on immigration last year, Clearsprings managing director James Vyvyan Robinson said there was a contract for the South-east and Wales worth around £140million and that the chairman of the group was earning £900,000 a year. Former select committee chairman Keith Vaz said the company had “quite a good record” when it came to housing but he was concerned about the “un-British” decision to ask asylum seekers to wear “wristbands” while living in one of its homes.
A Home Office statement said: “It is the responsibility of our contractors to provide accommodation that is safe, habitable, fit for purpose and adequately equipped. “We demand the highest standards from contractors and their accommodation and monitor them closely to ensure this is maintained. We take every effort to inspect asylum accommodation on a regular basis to ensure it meets the required standard and that asylum seekers are treated with respect.”
The spokesman added that any asylum seeker with an issue about accommodation should raise it with the contractor.
Clearsprings Ltd has not responded to emails and phone calls from the New Journal since Monday.