The vast private sector security company, G4S, feared and distrusted by asylum seekers, is about to be awarded contracts to run asylum seeker housing throughout the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside. Last Friday a group of asylum seekers’ advocates and academics met with government and company representatives to explain why this is a thoroughly bad idea.
That the meeting happened at all was some kind of victory for the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), of which I am a member, for local people who protested outside the UK Border Agency’s Sheffield offices on 15 February, and for 28 outraged academics from Yorkshire universities whose protest letter was published in the Yorkshire Post. The academics — researchers and university teachers in the fields of housing and immigration in the Yorkshire region — cited the death of Jimmy Mubenga in G4S’s care, and the 773 complaints lodged against G4S in 2010 by detainees including 48 claims of assault, and said:
“Asylum seeker tenants already feel intimidated and threatened by the prospect of prison guard companies being installed as their managing landlords.”
Soon after the 15 February protest, the UK Border Agency declined to speak with us, saying the contracts were as good as done. Then they appeared to change tack, agreeing to meet with us at a Sheffield refugee centre on Friday afternoon (24 February). The people they sent were not procurement or due diligence experts but serving members of UKBA Local Immigration Teams (one in full uniform) who had been working closely with G4S apparently in the period since last December when preferred bidders were announced.
It emerged during the meeting that since December 2011 a project called COMPASS TRANSITION UKBA, scheduled to begin after contracts were signed, had been actively cooperating with G4S to ‘minimise’ the effects of evicting potentially 900 asylum seeker occupants of local authority housing in Yorkshire. They had not been scrutinising the costings or human rights risks or, as UKBA claimed, working to “ensure that there are no material risks” with the contracts. They had not, it emerged, bothered to check on the impacts on asylum seeker families and children’s human rights, on education and health by referring the contract to Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) who have statutory responsibility for impact assessments of public sector of contracts this kind.
In the meeting G4S switched from its denials of being a “prison guard company” (as we had described them in the Yorkshire Post), to now claiming that G4S was developing a specialist and very separate housing division to take on asylum seeker housing as part of its interest in “asylum markets”.
This reinforces the view already held by some analysts that it is G4S’s intention to continue expanding its management of the prisons, criminal justice and immigration ‘estates’, while managing a housing contract (with effectively no legal rights for tenants), and to use this dubious base to expand into the wider privatised housing market. Housing academics and voluntary sector organisations amongst the campaigners have made clear to G4S their distaste for this enterprise, rooted as they are in traditions of public and charitable housing provision with statutory rights for tenants as both customers and citizens.
The meeting clearly demonstrated that a G4S takeover meant the end of sixty years of government and council funded humanitarian housing in South and West Yorkshire boroughs for vulnerable individuals fleeing torture and persecution and applying for asylum in the UK under international treaties.
Sheffield City Council was the first ‘City of Sanctuary’ and still embraces the label. The Council certainly did not want to get rid of asylum housing which at present serves 60 per cent of local asylum seekers – they were simply outbid on ‘cost’. When local Sheffield asylum rights organisations presented a petition opposing the G4S takeover at the city Council meeting on 1st of February the whole council applauded.
Councillors and campaigners understand that the G4S contract not only privatises this humanitarian function but destroys it and replaces it with the clear message adopted by both Labour and the Coalition that asylum seekers are not welcome here, indeed they should be treated like criminals with prison guards as their landlords, as part of deliberate policy of deterrence. As one Zimbabwean asylum seeker in Sheffield declared, “I do not want a prison guard as my landlord.”
Besides the Yorkshire Post we’ve had positive coverage on Sheffield local radio, Big Issue in the North and the Barnsley Chronicle. There’s been little interest from the mainstream national media, although the Independent reported on our public letter, which also featured in Socialist Worker. OurKingdom and the Institute of Race Relations have published our journalism, we have a growing social media presence, and a newly established website.
But for all our awareness-raising, some people you might expect to care don’t seem too bothered. In Sheffield, after Liberal Democrat local councillors helped to get a petition before the city council supporting the campaign, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a local MP, wrote to immigration minister Damien Green on 3 February and is apparently still waiting for a reply.
Labour politicians in South Yorkshire have not even responded to e-mails from their own constituents about the matter. In Barnsley, where shadow culture minister and ex-SAS hero Dan Jarvis has his seat alongside shadow Cabinet minister Michael Dugher, there has been absolutely no response.
As the campaign has spread the picture is little different. Across in Hull, campaigners lobbying Labour MP Diana Johnson to intervene before contracts were signed at the end of February, were advised by Ms Johnson to go away and get an e-petition with 100,000 signatures so that there could be a debate in Parliament.
Two Labour politicians have responded with positive action. John McDonnell promised to raise the matter in Parliament. Crucially, perhaps, the Rt Hon David Winnick MP has asked for a detailed research report from the campaign to be sent to members of the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee on Friday 24th of February which only two weeks ago published a report strongly critical of G4S.
Whilst campaigners are astonished at how far we have come in very little time, we’re disappointed about the apparent lack of advocacy for asylum seekers that we’ve encountered in some surprising places. Refugee Action’s sole contribution was referring us to its chief executive’s statement about his ‘concerns’ on its otherwise campaign-free website.
Refugee Action receives funding under UKBA’s voluntary returns programme, with volunteers at Vulcan House, UKBA’s regional headquarters in Sheffield, handing out leaflets to asylum seekers fleeing persecution, suggesting that they return ‘home’. The Refugee Council website search facility cannot locate a reference to G4S and the campaign, the Council of course eschews ‘politics’ and receives (much reduced) government funding.
Other asylum charities, funded through subcontracting for companies like international security company Serco, avoided the campaign. Some voluntary organisations and local authorities have been negotiating for work with G4S before contracts have been signed. Others have negotiated to reduce the impacts of the takeover — but they have still failed to voice support for the campaign.
The Yorkshire grass roots charities, refugee and asylum seeker groups, church groups, political networks and campaigners are much more vocal in their opposition to G4S and possible threats to the human rights of asylum families. In Sheffield the Children’s Society in South Yorkshire’s Embrace Project (supported by the national Society) is backing a submission to the Sheffield Safeguarding Children Board (SSCB) to demand that UKBA does a thorough children’s rights assessment of the contract.
In Barnsley local council officers are publicly backing a similar approach. In Kirklees the Local Safeguarding Children Board approach is spearheaded by Huddersfield University’s Applied Childhood Studies Department. In Bradford and Kirklees campaigners are now active and the human rights organisation Just West Yorkshire is reporting the issues.
The next few days, culminating in a second regional demonstration and march on March 1st in Sheffield, may be crucial in stopping G4S. If the contract is signed the campaign will switch to Parliament and to the courts through actions for judicial review of the whole tawdry process. It is time for everyone who claims to speak for the vulnerable, and especially asylum seekers’ advocates, to speak out against the privatisation of humanitarian housing.