When 158 asylum seekers were recently sent to hotels in Bournemouth, some reports in the media called it a holiday on the ‘sunshine coast’. Red Cross refugee services coordinator, Mark Forsyth, reflects on the problems he saw at the hotels – and the people behind the headlines.

Enjoying a seaside break in luxury, complete with swimming pools and champagne: these are some of the ways the plight of asylum seekers being housed in hotels on the south coast have been described in recent weeks.

As a British Red Cross worker, I’d like to share with you what I saw.

Too weak to walk

Last week, we arranged for an elderly woman to be taken to A&E because she had not eaten for three days. She was so weak she couldn’t even walk.

She was one of more than 150 asylum seekers staying at two hotels in the seaside town, because of overcrowding at temporary accommodation in London.

This woman is Muslim but her dietary needs were not being catered for, so she had gone without food. She didn’t want to complain in case it affected her asylum claim.

Help from the Red Cross and locals

After the group were dropped off at the hotel, it took four days before anyone, including the local authority and the Red Cross, found out.

The hospital raised the alarm when two asylum seekers presented themselves at A&E. And that’s when we were called in.

We provided basics such as clothes, nappies and female sanitary products, as well as facilitating access to doctors, midwives and health visitors.

Many local people were keen to help, and we acted as a hub for donations of clothes for the women.

We also worked closely with our local Red Cross shops to provide things such as toys for the children.

Sleeping in corridors

Many of those we helped have been repeatedly moved around, from hotel to hotel, in recent weeks. One person I spoke to has been consistently on the move for two months.

One family with two young children spent their first night in the UK sleeping on chairs in a corridor.

This story of being shifted on, sometimes on a daily basis with just five or ten minutes’ notice, is common.

Beyond their first meeting with the Home Office on arrival in the UK, many people haven’t seen any officials since.

They are reliant on drivers turning up with lists of names to inform them of their fate.

They then have minutes to collect their few possessions before being moved to another unknown destination.

Is this any way for a country, with a proud history of offering sanctuary to those who need it, to treat people fleeing persecution and violence?

At the Red Cross, we support refugees and asylum seekers every day – but I’ve never seen so many people treated like this before.

Rebuilding their lives

Reports in the media have centred on the waste of taxpayers’ money in putting asylum seekers up in hotels.

Some commentators have complained their presence will damage tourism. Other reports have even suggested that they are relaxing by the sea.

They are doing anything but.

All those seeking asylum want to do is find somewhere to finally stop, settle and rebuild a life.

Traumatic journeys to safety

These distorted reports paint an inaccurate picture of the experience of people arriving in this country seeking refuge. Worryingly, they can also stir up hostility towards them.

During their stay, the English Defence League staged a protest outside the hotel, which upset many of the residents.

One man, who fled Afghanistan with his two young children, was asked by his son: “Father, is it the Taliban?” He broke down in tears when he was telling me this.

Many have fled their homes facing persecution, followed by traumatic journeys to safety.

One family we were working with spent the final leg of their long journey from Iran in the back of a refrigerated meat lorry.

They survived for ten hours, huddling together for warmth and nudging each other to check they were still alive – because they were afraid to make a noise and be discovered.

‘We want to find jobs and be helpful’ Despite all this, people aren’t complaining. They’re grateful for the accommodation and support they are receiving.

One man told me: “We want to mix with the community and find more friends here. We want to find jobs and be helpful, not lay on the shoulder of government.”

It is not acceptable that these people are vilified by the media and abandoned in the asylum system at a time of personal crisis.

At the Red Cross, we are happy to be able to offer some relief. But it’s important that the British public are aware of the humanitarian crisis happening on their doorstep.

I would urge people to try to put themselves in the position of those who flee their homes before making assumptions.

Want to help vulnerable asylum seekers in desperate situations like these? Take a look at our volunteering opportunities.

If you’d like to know more, take a look at our recent fact-check on asylum seekers.

This piece first appeared on the Red Cross website here and is reproduced with permission.