The government’s round-the-clock helpline for asylum seekers has been rated inadequate after callers faced “unacceptable” delays, official documents have revealed.
Run for the Home Office by the charity Migrant Help, the helpline is the main point of contact for asylum seekers needing support with housing, money and access to healthcare.
It also handles complaints about accommodation and requests for assistance with problems including “domestic violence, sexual harassment or exploitation, antisocial behaviour, destitution or homelessness or suspected radicalisation”, as well as providing eligibility guidance on asylum claims.
But while it is billed as a 24/7 service, an internal audit published last week found it answered just 13% of calls within an “accepted timeframe”, with reports of three-hour hold times and calls going unanswered or being disconnected.
Migrant Help, which was paid £17m by the Home Office last year, has now been placed in a turnaround plan by the government. But the latest audit was the 10th time in just under three years that it had been found to be underperforming on call waiting times, with ministers first warned about its performance in January 2020.
Since then its rating has been allowed to drop from “approaching target” to “requires improvement” to “inadequate”, Observer research shows, raising questions about why action was not taken sooner.
Migrant Help said it was missing its target of answering 90% of calls on time because of “significantly higher” demand than anticipated, adding that it had expanded its team in order to cope. The charity said it had assisted 81,776 asylum seekers over the last year with an average wait of 16 minutes, and had received only 275 complaints.
But charity workers said they had faced excessive waits only last week.
Savvas Panas from the Pilion Trust charity in Islington, north London, said he had called Migrant Help on Thursday seeking support for a young asylum seeker who had presented as suicidal. He said the line had cut off after he had been on hold for two and a half hours, meaning he had to call back and be put on hold again. He said: “They’re very pleasant people when you get through: it’s just getting to that point. I speak English and it’s exhausting to go through it all. It’s not a service; it’s torment.”
Jane Williams, from the Magpie Project charity, which supports women and young children in Newham, east London, said: “Our experience is it just doesn’t get answered. Our mums ring and ring and ring and ring, and then the phone line goes dead. I believe it’s a really serious safeguarding concern: if that’s the only point of contact some people have and the lines are just not being answered, it’s incredibly … worrying.”
Last month, refugees housed at a Holiday Inn hotel who said they had been given mouldy and rotten meals that caused them digestive problems told the Mirror that they had tried to contact the helpline repeatedly but that the phone “rings and rings” with no answer.
Migrant Help’s processing of forms for asylum seekers needing urgent support is also severely delayed, the audit documents show. The average time taken to submit a section 95 form for those facing destitution because they do not have adequate housing or money for living expenses is 15.18 days, three times longer than the five-day target.
The Home Office, which is responsible for assessing its contractors and ensuring they are performing well, said Migrant Help was available 24/7, every day of the year and also offered online contact. “There is a robust complaints process in place where people who the Home Office supports, or their representatives, can raise concerns if they are not satisfied with the response received via their accommodation provider,” a spokesperson said.
The department has previously turned down freedom of information requests for data on Migrant Help’s performance and insisted the contractor was performing well.
In response to a BBC investigation in January, which revealed damp, debris and falling ceilings in accommodation for asylum seekers, it said the phone line had experienced unprecedented demand but that it was satisfied that it was now meeting its targets.
Migrant Help said it was doing everything it could “in complex circumstances” to ensure clients “get the help and support they need” and that it consistently scored above 75% for overall satisfaction with its service.
It said that since the start of its Home Office contract, demand had been “significantly higher than was originally forecast”, compounded by the pandemic and the crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
The charity, which is mostly funded by the Home Office, is contracted to run the helpline until 2029 in a deal that could reach £235m, according to the government’s supplier database.