Racism and the food system: from asylum hotels to overfishing in Senegal

Racism and the food system: from asylum hotels to overfishing in Senegal


Written by: Monish Bhatia and Roxana Cavalcanti

CW: This article also includes examples of sexual violence experienced by women living in poverty. Some readers might find this distressing

The serving of rotten food to people seeking asylum living in London’s refugee accommodation now appears to be endemic. But, Monish Bhatia and Roxana Cavalcanti argue, this is no aberration or accident. It needs to be viewed within today’s global food system in which hunger, malnutrition, and food-related deaths are deeply political and strategic. 

UK asylum hotels and food 

Over the past decade and half, we have been part of migrant solidarity groups (formal and informal), as well as researchers on social inequalities, race and justice. Since the beginning of 2023, we have worked on a new project with migrant women from the Global South living in the UK, uncovering the complex impacts of the ever-hostile immigration regime against the backdrop of the expanding asylum-industrial complex.  

Women’s experience 

Some of the initial themes in our research have flagged the disruption of reproductive justice. For example, women seeking asylum are being housed in Home Office ‘Dispersal Accommodation’, referred to as hotels, for over one year. They experience the hotels as a form of confinement in the sense that they have no choice as to where they live, they have no access to a kitchen and therefore are not able to cook for themselves or their children. All the women in our study found the food provided in the hotel to be seriously lacking in hygiene, safety, and nutrition. Most of the women had experienced significant weight loss and become iron deficient. They were frequently served meat that was not properly or entirely cooked and occasionally received rotten meat. Some were given extremely spicy food to the point that it caused severe pain and other physical reactions. 

 ‘We have only had problems with the hotel food. […] I still can’t get used to it, to be honest, because at first my stomach was sick …  not being able to cook, the fact of not being able to do what we are used to […] they use too many spices. My husband and I were sick several times because of the food.’ (Lisbeth, alias)  

Living at the hotel meant having access to a basic, small, and rather congested room with a bathroom (some communal). The space was chronically insufficient for those with infants and children, and more importantly, it lacked access to equipment to store and prepare fresh meals or heat the food. Lisbeth explained that she ended up having a complicated pregnancy, developing gestational diabetes and gallstones. Also, she did not have facilities to safely store breastmilk and infant formula. Her and her children’s health (born and unborn) were constantly put at risk due to the impossibility of storing and accessing healthy, adequate, safe, and hygienic food while being housed at the hotel awaiting the processing of her asylum claim. She explained:  

‘They don’t want to operate on me yet [for gallstones], because there is a long waiting list, they say. It is very complicated because the pain is very strong. I have gone to the emergency room about six times by ambulance because I can’t stand the pain anymore and all they can do is give me morphine.’ (Lisbeth) 

Photographic evidence 

Recently, a group of activists provided photos of food taken at several hotels, located in various parts of England. The photos were taken by residents of the hotel, shared with activists, who then shared the photos with us. The photos included meals with raw chicken, other foods served with body hairs, out-of-date yogurt with insects all around it, and more generally food that make one’s stomach churn.  

Image 1: Undercooked/raw chicken served at a dispersal accommodation hotel for asylum seekers outside London, photo taken by a resident of the hotel. 

Image 2: Out-of-date yogurt with insects, served at a dispersal accommodation hotel for asylum seekers outside London, photo taken by a resident of the hotel. 


Image 3 and 4: Meals with body hairs served at a dispersal accommodation hotel for asylum seekers outside London, photos taken by a resident of the hotel. 

Corroboration from practitioners 

We have heard the same reports from women during interviews and from practitioners who felt the complaints were not being addressed. We also received a range of medical letters that provided evidence of hospitalisation, food poisoning and explained how children experienced iron deficiency, and had allergic reactions. For instance, one letter stated: 

‘Daniel [alias] has been referred to us from our A&E. He is a refugee child who came here with his family and is currently on iron and vitamin D supplements. Daniel has been complaining of abdominal pain, poor appetite and is losing weight.’ (NHS Children’s Hospital letter addressed to hotel) 

Another letter explained: 

‘Nora [alias] is a patient at the surgery and suffers from gastritis and bloating following eating certain foods causing her pain and vomiting. [lists foods that affect patient] Could you please take this into consideration at meal times.’ (Nurse practitioner) 

The letters also revealed the on-going damage to children from consuming unhygienic, unsafe, and unhealthy foods. One of the letters explicitly raised concerns and urged the Home Office/hotel to consider health needs and implications of food: 

‘Joe [alias] came to the clinic today with symptoms related to his underlying medical condition … He has a metabolic deficiency such that any food containing broad beans can provoke serious symptoms. These need to be completely absent from his food. A child with a metabolic deficiency will also benefit from a good quality diet with fresh food.’ (Dr Smith, alias) 

We noted that some individuals had made repeated requests for safe and clean food or changes to the food to suit their health needs. They were disbelieved, disregarded and ignored, and foods eventually resulted in ill health or triggered reactions in underlying health conditions. These individuals were later assessed by a medical practitioner and given a medical note, which they submitted as evidence, and some were then believed to be ‘genuine’ and given a cleaner and tailored meal.   

The above issues with hotel food are ongoing and should provoke urgent attention. But this appalling injustice should not be divorced from the wider world food systems that are drenched in racism and violence, and can force impoverished unemployed or landless workers from the Global South to make perilous journeys to find work in the harshest of conditions in more ‘developed’ economies and advanced areas of food production.    

Food systems, racism and violence 

Twenty years ago, around twenty undocumented migrant workers from China drowned in Morecambe Bay in the North of England picking cockles. The cockles were sold to Spanish restaurants. On the other side of the world, there are widespread abuses and killings taking place in the Thai fishing industry. Reports highlight that forced/trafficked migrant workers are made to work in dire conditions to catch fish for fishmeal that is fed to prawns destined for western supermarkets (in Britain and US in particular). Similarly, recent reports indicate that migrants coming to Britain on the farmworker visa scheme face serious exploitation and abuse. These farm products later end up on the shelves of major retailers. In Senegal, the fishing crisis (overfishing, dwindling fish stocks, and consequent rise in unemployment) has led to migrants making perilous and life-threatening journeys to Europe in search of work. NGOs have blamed the fisheries agreement between the EU and Senegal for the destruction of the environment and livelihoods. A similar pattern has been noted across the world, for which the wealthier nations, corporations, and neo-colonial arrangements are to be blamed.   

Hardly a week goes by without a news report of migrants working in the food industry subjected to immigration enforcement measures (and their wages likely seized under the Proceeds of the Crime Act). For instance, in 2023, food delivery workers were arrested for ‘illegal working’ and some were deported from the country. Similarly, while gentrified neighbourhoods have developed a particular taste for (white-washed) immigrant cuisines – on the other hand, migrants who work in these restaurants are routinely subjected to immigration raids and harassment.  

These are not disparate issues; for what connects them are food systems that exploit, dispossess, oppress, confine, and kill migrants systems that link back to slavery and colonialism. What is particularly striking is how every last drop of value is squeezed out of the racialised poor and migrants by the food system at every stage of production, consumption, and even management of waste (which links back to the rotten and insect-infested food at asylum hotels).  

Understanding the globalised food system 

The food system affects and is affected by the economy, politics, health, society and the environment. A whole host of financial arrangements locally, nationally, and globally facilitate the food supply. Corporations exploit resources and extract value from food and sell it at a significant profit. They feed an unethical, unhealthy, and unfair system in which vulnerable groups are further disadvantaged. Food politics dictates the laws and policies around food its production, regulation, control, inspection, and consumption. These, in turn, have an enormous influence on the diet, food safety, and overall sense of well-being, and can result in poor health through both infectious diseases (e.g. E. coli, listeria, salmonella, etc.) and non-infectious life-threatening diseases (e.g. diabetes, cancers, heart issues, etc.).   

If we look closely enough, access to food can reveal patterns of institutionalised relationships to poverty, dispossession, colonialism, racism, ableism, and heteropatriarchy – and unmask those who benefit from them. Food is survival, but it is also used for an agenda hostile to survival by those in power. Hunger, malnutrition, and food-related deaths are deeply political and strategic.  

The food system keeps certain groups impoverished, denies them access to adequate, healthy, and safe food, and subjects them to an agenda hostile to survival driven by racism and capitalist greed. It is well known that private companies are given lucrative government contracts to manage asylum accommodation and provide food. But neither contractors nor subcontractors have ever received a criminal or civil punishment or fine for providing unsafe and unhealthy food and for causing widespread suffering (although, some were fined under the Housing Act 2004 for the poor state of the property and operating a house with multiple occupants without a licence).   

Reproductive and racial injustices  

Food insecurity and material deprivation can be the reason for undocumented migrant women entering into intimate relationships. As one medical practitioner explained:  

‘By getting into such relationships women open up to several sexually transmitted diseases. I attend to women who have been raped back in their home countries and they have been put in such situations in the UK where they repeatedly trade sex for shelter. For them, it is an ongoing trauma. Sometimes they openly say that “I am with this guy because he has put a roof over my head – I can eat, and my child can eat”.’  

The lack of immigration status, limited/no access to the labour market, and low/no income create barriers to accessing food, which have a knock-on impact on sexual and reproductive health, pregnancy and childbirth, and the ability to bring up children in safe, healthy and risk-free environments. Food inequality is one of the strategies of racial control.  

Hunger is indeed used as a deterrent and punishment, or rather as one of the weapons in the war on racialised poor, asylum-seeking and migrant groups. In a recent House of Commons Report (2023), it was noted that 4.7 million people, including 12 per cent of children, live in food poverty and do not receive adequate quality or quantity of food. Food poverty disproportionately affects black African, Caribbean, black British, Arab, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi households – who also experience higher rates of non-communicable diseases.  

Hunger and malnutrition can leave trauma imprints. As highlighted in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, there is a reciprocal relationship between food insecurity and depressive symptoms, and parents who reported depressive symptoms experienced employment difficulties and financial hardship. Also, food insecurity and adversity during childhood result in poor mental health in later life – indicating an intergenerational transmission of trauma.  

Hunger and malnutrition are not apolitical. Yet more attention is needed to make sense of how racialisation and food security intersect, a key issue that deserves further analysis. And anti-racist and migrant justice activism needs to consider food systems, as they are key ways in which racist-capitalist states continue to impoverish and oppress. More importantly, the struggle for justice needs to be transnational and make connections e.g. with Black Lives Matter and other movements for climate justice, housing justice, reproductive justice, and decolonisation. By focusing on the food systems and connecting the local with the global, we can come one step closer to addressing reproductive and racial injustices and the abolishing of borders.  

Feature image: Canteen. Credit: Wikipedia commons 

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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