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Refugees in the Heart of Town
21 Jan 2023

Around 60 asylum-seekers are currently being looked after in an historic hotel in Shrewsbury town centre, under an agreement with the Home Office. Katy Rink met some of the men at a community hub set up by Shropshire Supports Refugees

When an historic, Grade I listed hotel in Shrewsbury closed overnight to give full board and lodging to asylum seekers, there was a sense of déjà vu.

Just along the half-timbered streets of our prosperous market town, the five star Prince Rupert Hotel had recently had a similar arrangement with local authorities that propelled it into the national spotlight. In that case, the historic hotel housed Shrewsbury’s homeless population during the pandemic. The Lion Hotel, however, a 16th century former coaching inn where Dickens and Paganini once stayed, is now home to around 60 Middle Eastern migrants, most of whom have come from Manston reception centre in Kent. 

When The Prince Rupert opened its doors to the homeless, aside from a few problems with anti-social behaviour in the immediate environment, the dominant sentiment here in Shrewsbury was gratitude towards the hoteliers, who were celebrated as heroes of the pandemic and offers of help flooded in. Award-winning journalist Christina Lamb wrote a book about it, and there are talks of a movie. 

The LIon and The Prince Rupert pictured together

Since The Lion Hotel closed to paying guests in November, there has been verbal abuse directed at the asylum seekers, a bomb threat, which police took seriously enough to evacuate the town centre, active violence against the guests on the streets of Shrewsbury and even an attempt to break into the hotel to attack the men.

There have also been powerful demonstrations of support for the men. Over £3,000 has already been donated to Shropshire Supports Refugees and there have been countless offers of clothes, shoes, invitations to events and tickets to concerts. But nasty comments on social media leave a bad taste and seem worryingly radicalising in their intent. They say things like: ‘This is a disaster for the town’, ‘Invasion of groomers’ and ‘Watch your daughters’. 

Others complain that the men have arrived in the UK ‘illegally’ (it is impossible for someone claiming asylum to be ‘illegal’), they have been thrust upon the town and contribute nothing (asylum-seekers are not allowed to work and subsist on an £8 per week government handout), they are ‘economic migrants’ who are ‘jumping the queue’ ‘getting all the luxuries here all paid for’ and it’s ‘time for English people to speak up’. Those who dare to disagree are shouted down as ‘bleeding heart snowflakes’. 

There’s a perception the migrants are living it up in luxury whilst the hard-working locals have to sit back and take it. It doesn’t help that the migrants are all men. The Lion Hotel is a dedicated men’s hostel, managed by the Home Office contractor Serco - families and women are sent elsewhere. 

The Home Office has said that the number of people arriving in the UK has reached record levels. There are currently 45,500 asylum seekers in hotels currently, costing the UK taxpayer £5.6m a day (this compares with the figure of 37,000 given by the Home Office just before Christmas, at a cost of £5m per day). Shropshire Council has no involvement in the decision and receives no funding for those staying at the hotel - nor does it have any say over how long they will remain, although it has certain responsibilities including ensuring healthcare needs are met. The men are likely to be moved on to other temporary ‘dispersed accommodation’ provided by central government whilst their claims are considered. 

The government is looking at all manner of solutions: holiday parks, former student halls and the so-called ‘offshoring’ deportation deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Whatever our personal views on immigration policy, the reality is pure chaos, stoked by sophisticated criminal networks of ruthless smugglers.  

Amiri in black and white
Amiri in black and white facing forwards

In the middle of it all, of course, are human beings. Like the Afghan men I met, in an upstairs room in the Community Hub set up to support refugees in Shrewsbury. We squatted on bean bags as they told me their stories, whilst waiting to have free haircuts offered by one of the Ukrainian refugees who volunteers at the hub.

I wanted to know what motivated them to leave their home countries and travel nearly 5,000 miles facing untold danger, indignities and suffering along the way (plenty have walked much of the journey on foot; one man I spoke to had taken a year and a half to get to the UK). They were young, nervous of being judged and terrified of being targeted.

The date of the Taliban takeover - August 15th, 2021 - comes up time and again in all of the men’s stories. Most say they have worked for the previous government or supported the previous regime - or are related to family members who have. They claim they were forced into hiding, for fear of being tortured or killed.

They say schemes to relocate Afghans to the UK, such as the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) for civilians previously employed by the British government, or (ACRS), which aims to resettle up to 20,000 people in the UK over the next few years, are too slow, leaving them with no choice but to attempt illegal dangerous migration. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS) was launched in January 2022 and around 6,300 places have been used so far for people who arrived in the UK under the summer 2021 evacuation exercise. But more than 9,000 Afghan refugees in the UK are still living in hotels. 

‘Amiri’ tells me his story. He was an army officer under the now toppled internationally backed government in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. He came across The Channel in a dinghy from Dunkirk after many failed attempts via Calais and Cherbourg and five months living rough in France. He shows me pictures of men clustered on inflatable dinghies, bouncing on waves against a beautiful sunset. It almost looks enjoyable, had their life jackets not been fake, the boat overladen, and the engine totally inadequate for the crossing. 

“We might die on the journey but in our country we will definitely die,” Amiri said. “It’s the only choice I have. “I’m not an economic refugee. I had everything before the Taliban - a good life, a family. I liked my life, we were happy. Why would I leave? I spent 20 years fighting against the Taliban and now they are in power. It’s not safe for me.”

He says he fled Afghanistan after his father and brother were killed by the Taliban in a wave of reprisal killings during the 2021 takeover. His other brother has been missing for eight months. He has a daughter he’s never seen as his wife was pregnant when he left. 

“I tried to get out from the airport in Kabul, but there were two bomb blasts, so I came by road through Iran and Turkey,” he says. Amiri paid $14,000 to smugglers to carry him to England. He says he has been fired at by military juntas crossing into Iran, stripped to his underwear at a Greek border crossing, sent back to a temporary Turkish refugee camp for five days where he slept on the floor with 30 men (‘they were itchy - sick with scabies’ Amiri says), deprived of all personal possessions, jammed in stifling pickup trucks with 40-50 other people and abandoned, blindfolded in a forest with no mobile phone: “After four or five hours walking, I found a road. My smuggler in Istanbul gave me a number to call and he paid for my taxi.”

Often, gangsters running the routes change the goalposts and demand more money from families back home to keep the men on the journey: “They smash our fingers and send videos to our families,” Amiri says. “I told them I have no family, no-one to pay money.”

At night, the men sleep in ditches, or by the side of the road out of sight, in bin bags. They eat biscuits, tinned sardines and yoghurt, when they can get it. Then there is the boat crossing: “The first time I tried we had 64 persons on the boat. After 10 minutes the engine stopped. We tried for an hour to start the engine. There were other big boats nearby. No-one helped. The waves brought us back in.”

When Amiri did finally manage to cross, in October, he spent seven hours in a small inflatable boat, all too aware of how many migrants have drowned attempting the same: “There were big waves. We’re thinking we’re dying,” he said. 

It is why the men leave their wives and children behind, hoping to eventually secure the right to bring them to the UK. As Amiri puts it: “I take this risk for my family, but not with my family”.

Ahmad, from Kabul is the son of a businessman who refused to help secure guns for the Taliban: “My father didn’t want to use his money to kill innocent people so we had to leave.”

Ahmad also has a wife and a daughter he’s never seen. 

Sameer had a shop which used to supply government checkpoints: “When you’re working in a small area, everyone knows you. We were warned about informants, then we received warning letters from the Taliban.” He is hoping to bring his wife and mother to the UK: “We are also people, we also want a peaceful life,” he says.

Sahil, a clean-shaven, young-looking man, talks nervously behind his hand as he tells me his story. He is from Panjshir in northern Afghanistan, where resistance groups continued to fight the Taliban following the takeover. Sahil says his father was a former army officer under the previous government: “When the Taliban came, they searched our house and found some guns. My family were worried they might take me to prison thinking I would join the fight against them, so I had to leave. Everyone who knows about freedom, everyone who is educated, we’re not allowed to ask questions. I didn’t want to leave for myself. I left for the future of my family.”

He hopes to be allowed to study in the UK. 

Umir, 21, says two Taliban came to his house searching for his father and he was so frightened, he ran away. All the men were disturbed by the recent news that the Taliban have banned women from university education. They are all desperately worried about their families back home.

“If anyone challenges them or asks why they are closing colleges, they will put you in prison,” Amiri says. “One Facebook post can put you in prison. We don’t have the right to share our opinions or have the jobs that we want.”

Amiri chose England because he likes the culture and the language (he speaks passable English), healthcare, the better facilities afforded to migrants and because we have a large population of Afghan refugees here: “England is safe for me. I want to start my future better life here. They are such helpful people the British. Yesterday you saw it, how they welcomed us singing. I will never forget this moment.”

He’s talking about a massed choir of singers from different choirs across Shropshire who gathered to sing for refugees outside the community hub in Shrewsbury. The lyrics aimed to dispel some of the bad feeling: “We wish you well, we wish you love”.

It was a show of solidarity which, predictably, attracted negative attention from some shoppers who shook their heads as they passed, and more disgruntled comments on social media. 

The men are all eager to contribute and to work, to ‘pay back’ as Amiri puts it, as soon as they are allowed. He wants to join the army or the police force: “This country has given me safety. I want to work hard and give back everything. Obviously, we hear the stories about Rwanda and don’t feel good. We are getting depressed. We have no control. 

“I hear the singing and I feel proud and thankful to the people of Shrewsbury that they have given up their time for us. We aren’t economic migrants, we come here peacefully and we want to respect one another. We promise we won’t create a problem.”

The men watching the singing at the hub

Having spent a few hours in their company, it was obvious all these men want is the same shot at freedom that UK residents enjoy by accident of birth. They have the same desires, ambitions, hopes and personal attachments as all of us. They don’t want to take anything from us. They want to contribute.

As soon as they improve their English, the boundaries that separate them and us will vanish without trace. They will be shopkeepers, students, plumbers - like the Syrian refugee Hasan who helped translate during our interview, who has lived in Shrewsbury for six years and is so grateful for the help he has received from Shropshire Supports Refugees he wants to give back. 

It is for our government to deal with the practicalities, the legalities and the costs - but it is for us to decide how we are going to greet asylum seekers on our streets and in our towns. We won’t solve the bigger problem by being actively hostile. They come because they have no choice.

Our reactions will speak volumes about the kind of people we are. Let's not have history judge us for our small minds, but rather for our big hearts.

Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim. It is a legal process.

To date, the Home Office is using one hotel in Shropshire as temporary accommodation. This is due to the number of boats that cross the English Channel continuing to rise, and the use of hotels is happening across the country and not just in Shropshire.For more information visit Shropshire Council's detailed FAQs on asylum seekers in Shropshire.