Exclusivo: Internal email exchange about press enquiry regarding asylum seeker hostel shows staff chose to use term ‘experience room’ instead of ‘prison cell’
Civil servants in the Escritório em casa have tried to avert criticism by “avoiding saying prisão” when commenting on a hostel housing asylum seekers that offers “authentic prison cells”, internal emails reveal.
A number of men seeking refuge in the UK have been placed in a former courthouse-turned-hostel in overcrowded conditions. The facility is currently closed to the public but, when open, it invites guests to sleep in an “authentic prison cell” or spend time in the “original courtrooms”.
Some of the asylum seekers in the hostel, que O Independente is not naming due to concern that it could prompt far-right attacks, are said to have been imprisoned in the countries they fled from or passed through, such as Libya, and have been re-traumatised by being in the facility.
Internal Home Office emails seen by O Independente reveal that an exchange took place between staff members on Thursday afternoon in which they attempted to downplay the gravity of the situation in response to a press enquiry about it fromO guardião.
The emails also reveal that the conditions in the hostel, which is run by a private firm contracted by the Home Office, did not meet contractual obligations – an admission that was not included in the final press statement.
One civil servant states that they had visited the facility on 25 October and “discovered overcrowding and a court room fully set”.
They state that the private company managing the site was subsequently told to reduce the number of people per room to “comply with the contract and local planning rules” and “cover court signs not use the court room for service users”.
Later in the email chain, which was sent to O Independente, one of the civil servants sends a suggested press statement and remarks: “I’ve called them experience rooms to avoid saying prison”.
Another staff member then replies with an edited version of the statement which has removed a line stating that “only asylum seekers assessed to be non-vulnerable have been temporarily housed at the hotel”.
In response to this, the first civil servant states: “Is there any way we can keep that non-vulnerable line? I think that is a good defence against the claims the journalist is being made if its true?”
The line was ultimately not included in the Home Office’s press statement.
Admission to the hostel is currently paused and the Home Office said it had been clear that all court signs were covered and that the court room could not be used.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Due to unprecedented demand we have had to use temporary accommodation such as hotels to meet our statutory duties.
“The health and wellbeing of those in our care is our priority which is why all accommodation must meet relevant health and safety legislation with a strict adherence to Public Health England guidelines.
“Asylum seekers are staying in regular hostel accommodation and the part of the building with experience rooms is not accessible.”
The department is yet to respond to the content of the emails.