Matthew's accommodation (John Grayson)
I was talking to Paul, an asylum seeker from the Middle East in a G4S house in a working class suburb of Sheffield. Paul told me that one of his neighbours was a transgender woman whom G4S had placed in the all-male flats, forcing her to share a bedroom with a young Muslim man. The woman had been teased as a ‘man woman’ but not apparently disliked or harassed.
Perhaps the Home Office and G4S were following the example of the Prison Service, which has placed trans-gender women in all-male prisons? One, Vicky Thompson, aged 21, was recently found dead at Armley jail in Leeds, after apparently telling friends she would kill herself if sent there. The Prison Service argues it is ‘legal status’ ,not the assumed gender which determines treatment. G4S had apparently gone one better than the Prison Service by insisting that a transgender woman had to share a bedroom with a man.
Paul showed me the G4S attendance list where there was a male name. He said that this was the woman. She had not signed for a couple of weeks and no one knew where she was now.
G4S disputes Paul’s allegations. A company spokesman said: “We never put transgender asylum seekers in shared bedrooms. On the contrary in cases where an asylum seeker we look after identifies as transgender, we provide additional support including offering alternative accommodation in a separate unit.”
Jacob is nervous and agitated. “I can’t sleep, I hardly ever sleep,” he tells me. His Rasta sweatbands hide scars of past self-harming. His G4S accommodation is some of the best I have seen — a newly converted villa in a Sheffield suburb.
Jacob likes the place and the staff who are there during the day. He hates the CCTV cameras on the corridors and near the door. “They’re just like in the detention centres,” he says. Jacob has been in and out of detention centres, and the asylum system for twelve years. He remembers the cameras in the G4S-managed Brook House IRC (Immigration Removal Centre) where he was held on three separate occasions waiting to be deported.
But what he really hates and fears is being forced to share his bedroom. Ten days before I talk to him Jacob had been discharged from hospital after he had tried to take his life. His room is his own for now but a new resident is due to be moved in. Jacob tells me he is very afraid.
I’ve written here in the past about various indignities suffered by asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation provided by the commercial contractor G4S. Rats, asbestos, cockroaches, have featured in my articles, intimidation too. Is being forced to share a bedroom really so bad? Asylum seekers tell me it is.
An African political refugee, and medical scientist in his fifties, Matthew has spent over a year in the UK asylum housing system. He looks tired and frail. “I think I will be OK, this is the second time the system and G4S have tried to kill me,” he tells me.
Matthew was recovering from his second heart attack since he had entered the UK asylum system. I met him in his G4S flat, on the edge of a suburban council estate in Sheffield, sparsely furnished with second hand chairs and table (pictured above).
He had arrived in 2014 when international security companies G4S and Serco, who manage detention centres and provide asylum housing in the UK, were overwhelmed by the growing numbers of new asylum seekers. The Home Office was telling them to use hotels. Matthew was sent first to the overcrowded and seedy Heathrow Lodge, then to a Birmingham budget hotel because the Birmingham Initial Accommodation Centre (IAC) was full.
“In the Heathrow place it was just packaged sandwiches we were given, with occasional out of date cartons of yogurt,” Matthew told me. “In Birmingham it was the same one hot meal — chicken curry, rice and salad — every single day, for two months, through November and December, young children of three years old had the same meals. We had to eat round the back of the hotel in a freezing room out of sight of any other guests — the owners said we were dirty and ‘not normal’.”
The approach to Matthew's accommodation
Matthew helped to organise protests about the food, and about the failure of the heating and hot water which meant men, women and children going down two floors to the gym for a shower.
“When I rang G4S they told me the Home Office paid for only one hot meal,” Matthew tells me. “When I tackled the hotel owners they said they would report me, and protesting would affect my asylum claim. When I demanded some space for activities for the children they told me the daily one and a half hours’ access to the lounge was all anyone could have. So twice a week I took the young people on a one mile walk to a church hall who gave us space, and I started English classes.”
“The small hotel was often overcrowded with seventy to ninety asylum seekers there, never less than forty-five. We had to share our rooms, two and sometimes three to a room.” Matthew told me he had suffered from a heart condition since 2008 and he carried lots of his medication into the asylum system.
The first heart attack and then the bed bugs
“The constant pressure and insulting, degrading treatment finally had its effect on me. Early in December I recognised the symptoms of a heart attack and went to the main Initial Accommodation Centre building to get referred to hospital. They offered me paracetamol and sent me away. At the door a G4S driver saw I was in pain and decided to drive me to hospital, when he left me there he said G4S might refuse to pick me up after treatment so I had to ring him. I had treatment and spent three days in hospital and sure enough on the Sunday when I was discharged I rang G4S and they said that I would have to wait till Monday. My friend the driver came for me in his own car.”
After three months in ‘temporary’ holding accommodation Matthew expected to be ‘dispersed’ to asylum housing. Instead he was sent to Urban House (another Initial Accommodation Centre) under the walls of Wakefield high security prison. Again a shared room, this time bunk beds.
“I had no medical check for the first three weeks,” Matthew says. “Things just got worse. I was getting bitten by bed bugs. In my university I am a parasitologist, I have lectured for eighteen years about disease-carrying insects. I knew bed bugs would affect my medication. In Urban House they hadn’t a clue. Over four days they refused to really do anything effective. They sprayed my room with pyrethrum which has no effect on bed bugs. In the end I went out and bought bleach and washed the bedclothes and could find only one dryer working in the whole building. That place should be investigated — bed bugs can easily spread into the community around the centre. The staff in there are authoritarian and insulting. I was mocked because I love to dress neat — you think you work here? they said sarcastically.”
G4S asylum housing in Sheffield was no real improvement. Matthew was put in a three bed roomed terraced house. “I was forced to share a room with a twenty-one-year-old smoker from Chechnya,” he says. By now he was pleading with G4S. His doctors wrote asking for a single room as his blood pressure soared. After three weeks the young man was moved and so was Matthew.
“G4S played another trick on me. They first moved me to a clean single room near to the city centre and my doctors. They then came again after twenty-four hours and said it was a mistake.
“I was moved to these flats miles out of the city centre, again to a shared bedroom. At first I simply refused to move in, they shouted at me and started taking my bags and saying I could sleep on the streets then. I now live a four miles round trip from hospital services and a mile walk to the only post office designated to pay me my support.”
Resisting the asylum system and G4S
I had heard that Matthew was volunteering to speak to groups about being an asylum seeker; I asked him about this. Matthew told me of a meeting with a women’s business forum. “I went there with a Yemeni asylum seeker – she had worked for the IMF and been an adviser in the Yemeni Finance Ministry. Not surprisingly the people there said that they didn’t realise that asylum seekers were people like us!”
Matthew was also keen to volunteer to help in the Sheffield campaign to get Sheffield City Council to stop G4S forcing asylum housing tenants to share bedrooms. The campaign had already sent a petition to the council meeting and the council had agreed to refuse to licence any new G4S HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) where unrelated residents were forced to share bedrooms. In one slum HMO I had investigated G4S and the private landlord who supplied the property were set to receive over £28,000 over the year from the Home Office for housing nine men in shared rooms. G4S therefore was unwilling to stop bedroom sharing in their existing properties. In one house where there had been protests they posted the “G4S Golden Rules” one of which read:
“Room Sharing Everyone has to share a room. You will be given a roommate at some stage and must accept them. They will be selected for you and you have no right to request a different roommate.”
Asylum seekers and activists from SYMAAG asked for a meeting with the chair of housing at Sheffield City Council. We wanted to find a way of ending all bedroom sharing in G4S accommodation. Matthew was part of the delegation, and his testimony proved crucial in finally ending room sharing from 31 October.
I last saw Matthew at a public meeting where he sought me out to say that he had been offered a ‘political’ appointment in a university in his home country. “Don’t worry, John,” he said. “I will get protection there, and I am just very glad to get out of this asylum system. Here the system was so demoralising for me. It made me feel like a criminal, not someone seeking safety.”
And if refugees do manage to get to the UK…
In September in these same flats where Matthew lived, a young Eritrean man had spent a few weeks in one of the shared bedrooms. He had come across the Mediterranean from Libya to Lampedusa across Europe through Calais and then to the flats in Sheffield. The Home Office had discovered he had been fingerprinted at Lampedusa - and deported him to Italy via Morton Hall Detention Centre in Lincolnshire. Apparently as other asylum seekers were helping him to pack his few belongings he cheerily told them: “I’ll be back soon.”
Dozens of young Eritreans like him find themselves in Urban House in Wakefield, still in their dirty and torn clothes from Calais. Urban House provides no replacement clothing; local charities in Wakefield have to appeal for donations of clothing, shoes and packs of new underwear. One charity worker I spoke to said. “What we really need are packs of new underwear for the men, Urban House refuse to supply them, G4S say the Home Office did not specify this in their contract"
Of the 3,239 Eritrean migrants who made the perilous journey to the UK in 2014 to apply for asylum, 87 per cent were granted asylum. In March this year the Home Office decided bizarrely that Eritrea was a ‘safe’ country. Approval rates for Eritreans then plummeted from 73% in the first quarter of 2015 to 34% in the second quarter. Last year in 2014, the Home Office refused 70% of Iraqis, 70% of Libyans, and 65% of Afghans who claimed asylum.
Again the UK asylum system is responding badly to the very modest increase in those managing to get into the country. The Birmingham IAC is full and hotels are again being used. Serco is transporting people by stretch limousine across the country to budget hotels in Lancashire. Families are still being forced to live in appalling asylum housing. Natasha Walter recently reported on 'Jane' an asylum seeker from the Congo (DRC) in London where
“The housing provided by the Home Office is one room where she and her two children sleep in the same bed, infested with cockroaches and freezing cold.”
The Conservatives and UKIP majority on Portsmouth city council have recently not only rejected the idea of taking Syrian refugees, but have decided to opt out of taking asylum seekers at all. At present Home Office contractor Clearel houses 124 asylum seekers in the city of 210,000 people. The Council argues that they put too much pressure on local schools in fact only eighteen of the asylum seekers are children, and none of them go to schools in the city.
The asylum rules are being tightened and the process becomes more brutalised. The Immigration Bill before parliament has a proposal that everyone who claims asylum will immediately be considered as ‘on bail’ just as if they were criminals who have been charged with the offence of claiming asylum. For many years migrants and refugees have been labelled as ‘illegals’, and criminalised, now the label is to be confirmed in parliamentary statute.
The Home Office has for months signalled these changes, in April their hard line Dial strategy was presented as a warning to asylum seekers and voluntary groups in Sheffield. After the elections in May the Home Office and its contractor Capita started tagging women asylum seekers released from Yarl's Wood detention centre.
The other week I met with Barbara in Barnsley G4S asylum housing. She had been wearing her degrading tag since June. Barbara had been moved yet again to another asylum house with seven other women — and yet again forced to share a room. The Home Office refuses to disclose to me, through FOI questions, when they started tagging asylum seekers and how many are wearing their electronic shackles. Their response:
“to extract the information that you have requested would only be possible at a disproportionate cost.”
Perhaps the Home Office faced with repeated protests and mass demonstrations at Yarl’s Wood, and escalating cuts to its budget, is following recent developments in the USA where federal courts have freed undocumented women from detention on condition that they wear tags as part of the ‘Intensive Supervision Appearance Program’. Estimates suggest that an ‘ankle monitor’ costs the authorities $4.50 a day compared with $260 a day for detention.
The UK government’s real view of refugees was surely betrayed by David Cameron's comment about the “swarm” of them at Calais. The British government had fences, barbed wire, and riot police guarding its border on French soil at Calais many years before the Hungarians ‘shocked’ Europe with theirs.
There have been degrading camps around Calais now for the past ten years. They are the ‘deterrent’, just like the discredited ‘fast track’ treatment of new asylum seekers, just like the abuse and ill treatment of women in Yarl's Wood detention centre, just like the fatal treatment meted out to an elderly Canadian man at Harmondsworth detention centre - and just like the disgusting and disrespectful conditions in asylum housing and accommodation throughout the UK.
After the Paris killings, media reporting, linking the attacks to refugees seeking safety in Europe, threatens the UK peoples present welcoming mood towards Syrian refugees and asylum seekers in general. The government-led ‘hostile environment’ might just be getting even more hostile.
For their protection, asylum seekers’ names have been changed.
26 November 2015. This article has been amended since publication to make clear that G4S disputes the allegation regarding an asylum-seeker who identified as transgender, and to include the company’s response.