Asylum seeker housing managed by for-profit prison guards? Why not

The UK Border Agency invites the company that killed Jimmy Mubenga to manage housing for vulnerable asylum seekers

The government’s ‘preferred bidders’ for contracts to house vulnerable asylum seekers are Reliance Security and two multinational security companies — G4S and Serco — best known for immigration prisons, forcible deportations and failings in their duty of care to vulnerable people.

Asylum seekers and their advocates fear a further advance in the UK government’s punitive policies towards asylum seekers. From an asylum seeker’s point of view UKBA’s threat to install prison guard companies as their managing landlords feels intimidating. It is further evidence of British governments’ deterrence view of asylum seekers. Treating them really badly will deter others arriving and seeking sanctuary.

Asylum seekers living in housing threatened by a G4S takeover in the Yorkshire region where I live are not criminals who deserve prison guards as their landlords but families and individuals fleeing from persecution, claiming their rights under international treaties signed by the our government.

G4S is not a landlord, but a private security army

G4S are perhaps known to many people as the firm who read gas and electricity meters, empty cash machines, and police local sporting and other events.

In fact they are the world’s largest private security army – they are for instance responsible for ‘security’ at Doncaster airport but also have been responsible for ‘security’ at Baghdad airport, and for guarding diplomats at Kabul airport and throughout Afghanistan.

Here in Britain they have been awarded, alongside 13,500 British regular troops, an aircraft carrier, typhoon jets and missiles, a ‘security’ contract of £100 million for the London Olympics, providing 10,000 guards to patrol venues.

G4S are the second largest private employer in the world and the largest employer quoted on the London Stock Exchange. They have managed prisons in the United States, guarded oil and gas installations in Nigeria, and provided brutal prison guards in South Africa. G4S prison guards have a notorious reputation in Australia.

In January 2008 G4S were responsible for the death of renowned Aboriginal elder Mr Ward, cooked to death while being transported more than 220 miles across searing goldfields in a badly maintained van with faulty air conditioning. G4S lost Australian contracts as a result. Cached

G4S and its unsavoury track record

UKBA maintain that the new asylum housing contracts are going to partners with a proven track record. What is this track record in the UK?

In 2011 G4S managed 675 court and police station cells, they manage four detention centres for asylum seekers and since the summer of 2011 they manage the brand new ‘family friendly’ Cedars detention centre at Pease Pottage near Gatwick, which has already been criticised for its treatment of families. In December last year in a ‘Private Eye’ report UKBA defended the lack of access to independent medical advice at Cedars, saying the centre was not ‘registered under the Detention Centre Rules as it is not a removal centre’. Thus the new centre managed by G4S with the involvement of children’s charity Barnado’s actually gives families fewer rights than they had in the old Yarl’s Wood or Tinsley House detention centres. (Private Eye 1303 December 9 to 22, 2011 p.31)

G4S holds existing contracts to transport and disperse asylum seekers and until 2011 provided the escorts for the forcible deportation of asylum seekers. G4S lost this contract because of its appalling record.

  • The charity Medical Justice in its 2008 report ‘Outsourcing Abuse’, detailed nearly 300 cases of alleged physical assault and racial abuse by private security guards in the deportation process.
  • In March 2010 Baroness O’Loan found that G4S and security contractors involved in deportations had ‘failed to properly manage the use of violent restraint techniques by their staff’.
  • Also in October 2010 Jimmy Mubenga an Angolan asylum seeker died as a result ‘restraint’ by G4S guards during his forced deportation. Two of the guards face criminal charges and G4S are still waiting to hear whether they face corporate manslaughter charges.
  • In July 2011 Amnesty International published a damning report “Out Of Control: The case for a complete overhaul of enforced removals by private contractors”. A “complete and radical overhaul and reform of the current system is now required to enable the UK Government to meet its legal obligations to protect people against human rights abuses,” said Amnesty. “Reforms must drastically improve the training, monitoring, accountability, and techniques employed during enforced removals.”
  • Just the other day on January 25 the Home Affairs Select Committee enquiry set up after Jimmy Mubenga’s death in G4S custody found evidence of: “Inappropriate use of physical restraint, and the possible use of unauthorised and potentially dangerous restraint techniques. Weaknesses in passing on information about detainees’ medical conditions to all the relevant staff. Use of racist language by contractors. Use of excessive numbers of contractors staff.”

 

Can these people be trusted to house vulnerable asylum seekers in safety and dignity?

In 2011 a research project of London, Harvard, Hull and Ulster Universities found that: 

The story of the UK’s immigration detention centres is one of indignity, danger, and misery as catalogued by many authorities among them Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons (numerous times), Al Aynsley Green, former Children’s Commissioner, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Medical Justice, Amnesty International, The Institute for Race Relations, Women for Refugee Women, Asylum Aid and others. In the UK’s detention centres there have been 16 suicides, alarming rates of self-harm, hunger strikes and appalling levels of mental and physical illness. Thousands of innocent men women and children have been put through the detention wringer and despite Coalition pledges to end the detention of children.”

 

When asylum seekers are forced to work or infringe the confusing regulations on immigration they then become ‘foreign criminals’. Between 2007-2010, 43 foreign national prisoners committed suicide in UK jails. Numbers committing suicide have since returned to what the Ministry of Justice FoI officer described as ‘expected levels’. (FOI request from International State Crime Initiative).

  • In Leeds in 2007 PAFRAS (Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) interviewed former detainees, five of them encountered racism from staff in the detention centres from name calling to violence. “Some of these people are very bad,” one told author Jon Burnett. “It’s the sort of thing people don’t believe…some of them they enjoy it, they enjoy keeping us behind bars”.

G4S’s record of managing centres adds to this disturbing picture.

Many of the vulnerable asylum seeker families now anxiously awaiting a decision on G4S housing contracts have direct experience of G4S escorts and detention centre staff. It is ironic to say the least to see that G4S is bidding for the contracts arguing that they could actually “increase social cohesion in local communities”.

Although G4S’s slogan is “Securing Your World” its policy and practice is more accurately expressed by a recent description of the US private sector detention and deportation industry.

Every prisoner a profit centre, every immigrant a business opportunity’.

It is estimated that current (2011) G4S earnings from British government contracts are around £600 million — tax payers’ money supporting prison management and security measures which one would expect to be directly provided by the state and accountable to parliament. G4S are simply one of the largest capitalist profit making enterprises in the world.

And of course there are massive personal gains to be made at the top of the mega corporation. According to OurKingdom’s Clare Sambrook, drawing upon G4S's annual report, “G4S chief executive Nick Buckles, gets a base salary of £800,000-a-year. Then, there’s his performance-related bonus of up to 150 per cent of that. Plus payment in shares (assuming targets are met) to the value of twice his annual salary again. Plus there’s his £7 million pension pot, growing by the year. Plus, on top of all that, he has an unspecified interest in £14 million of shares in the G4S Employee Benefit Trust. And his personal stack of shares, at today’s market price, is worth £5.9 million.”

In 2006 five-year contracts were given to a range of private landlord companies and social landlords for housing around 35000 asylum seekers and worth £900 million (an average of £170 million a year) (Corporate Watch FOI request 2009).

Housing weekly ‘Inside Housing’ in 2011 through a FOI request established that the housing contracts were worth £164 million in 2010 / 11 and would be slashed 17% to £135.5 million in 2011/12 mainly through axing contracts with local authority and voluntary sector providers.

Both Labour and now the Coalition have been determined to give the contracts to the private sector, creating what an Institute of Race Relations research report describes as “a housing system which in many instances was poorly regulated, substandard and unsafe.”

In the early years of the dispersal policy (the practice initiated by Labour of scattering asylum seekers throughout the UK) local authorities dominated the provision and private rented landlords were in the minority. Between 2002 and 2004 there were constant scandals: in Liverpool a private company housed asylum seekers in properties “below an acceptable standard. Many had insect infestations, damp and poor electrical installations.” Asylum seekers were frequently attacked resulting in fatalities and suicides and in 2004 six police authorities sought to stop dispersal to their areas to prevent violence.

In 2006 Labour Immigration Minister Tony McNulty still believed the private sector was more ‘flexible’ (and presumably cheaper). Certainly in Sheffield the Council has described the tendering process for managing asylum seekers housing as simply one based on cost. In Sheffield, where the City of Sanctuary movement started, the Council still manages 60 per cent of asylum seeker families’ homes. They are presently negotiating with the UKBA to try and prevent dispersal of families to cheap and poor private housing should a new contractor take over.

The demonisation of asylum seekers by politicians and the media meant other local authorities have simply stopped applying for housing contracts and housing associations started to pull out, as Southampton and Wigan did in 2006. In Yorkshire and the Humber housing associations lost contracts and pointed out the effects this had on the wellbeing of families with disruption of children’s schooling and healthcare. In 2010 Wolverhampton decided not to renew its contracts after Birmingham England’s largest housing authority pulled out. Leeds was to follow.

But there was resistance, in November 2010 when an attempt was made in Glasgow to terminate council contracts by simply sending eviction notices an effective campaign by the Unity Centre and other community organisations forced a total climbdown by the Home Office and an apology from immigration minister Damien Green.

The threat of G4S management comes as part of the third round of asylum housing contracts with security firms Serco, Reliant and of course G4S named as preferred bidders. The potential housing managers are now being given ‘due diligence checks’ before final contracts are signed at the end of February. There is still time for the contracts to be scrapped by effective campaigns at a local and regional level. Campaigners have met UKBA in Sheffield and have been assured that the ‘due diligence’ process is a rigorous one and submissions are welcome as part of the process. (For the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber region the email contact at COMPASS, the UKBA’s procurement arm is neyhcompasstransition@homeoffice.gsi.gov.ukTwenty eight university researchers and teachers in the fields of housing and immigration across Yorkshire universities have signed a letter protesting the notion that G4S should become a landlord for asylum seekers and their families.

In Sheffield, home to Vulcan House, the UKBA regional centre a short march from the Town Hall, local and regional protest rallies and demonstrations are planned on the 15 February and 1 March.

 

About the author

John Grayson is an independent researcher and adult educator. He teaches some of the time at Sheffield Hallam University and with the social enterprise the AdEd Knowledge Company. He lives in Barnsley and is an activist and campaigner with SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group).