G4S Villa, Leeds, 2015
One bright February morning Violet Dickenson and I visit Mary, a young refugee mother. Mary lives in a Victorian villa on a leafy street in Leeds. From the outside it looks impressive, a grand three-storey mansion, with stained glass. Inside there are sweeping balustrades and staircases and once grand carpets, but throughout the smell of dust, dirt and neglect.
It was Violet, working with refugee women in South Yorkshire, who alerted me to conditions at the house. We are volunteer activists with SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group).
Mary shows us up to the first floor, to the only bathroom with a bath in the whole house. That’s one bathroom for twelve women, eight babies and three toddlers.
Most of the women have been here for nearly five months, they tell us. Each woman and her children have one room. A Syrian refugee has been given a first floor room with her toddler son.
When the women arrived, some with babies only weeks old, the filthy rambling mansion had been stood empty for many months. Cots were provided for some rooms but not others. For the first three weeks one downstairs room had no curtains at all. The G4S staff who’d been entrusted with the families’ care gave no safety information on arrival — no fire regulations or escape routes were posted in rooms. A heavily pregnant young woman was allotted the smallest, an L-shaped room with dirty curtains hanging loosely from a cord. (left)
Amy (not her real name) a young mother from the Far East who had arrived with her new baby at the house, said: “The G4S escort left me no information, he did not even tell me where the toilets and kitchens were.” Amy said she didn’t mind the old desk left in her room, “I can do my homework there from my English class”, and now she could translate a little for the other two women in the other ground floor rooms.
Friends had given her a play-mat to lay over the carpet left in the room Amy said: “I could not put my baby on that carpet.”
The women had to scrub the dirty carpets the best they could, clean grime-encrusted window frames. They tried to tackle the vast dusty curtains hanging in the high ceilinged rooms near to their babies’ cots. The women who must survive on a paltry allowance granted by the Home Office of between £7 and £5.50 a day for a mother and baby, had to buy all the cleaning materials themselves. Some of the tasks defeated them — the curtains were simply too high, some of the grime resisted their scrubbing.
In the middle of winter the heating went off every night and their friends brought in portable heaters.
In the two kitchens cookers were left in a dangerous unhygienic state. The women had scrubbed the toilets and made them safe for the children. They kept the ogne bath in the house really clean; it was obviously well used. The women rescued one shower on each of the floors, a filthy ground floor shower constantly leaking had to be abandoned.
Complaints were constantly relayed to the G4S helpline and the local workers but there was no response – no cleaning of the expanses of dirty carpets and stairs – nor the shower. There was one ancient vacuum cleaner and a brush and dustpan, a mop and bucket. A record of inspections by G4S posted in the hall showed the last one was on 13 November 2014.
I talked to Mary (not her real name) an African asylum seeker in her crowded high-ceilinged room. Mary had been supported by a women’s refugee group in Sheffield and I had protested to G4S about her accommodation there. Mary had managed briefly to get on a university course, but had been moved from West Yorkshire in the final months of her first pregnancy, forty miles away in Sheffield, to a box-room shared with a stranger, in a house with other women. She went from her box room to have her baby in hospital. G4S had told me that Mary was on ‘Section 4’ as a ‘failed’ asylum seeker and had been given ‘no choice’ housing in a female household.
Section 4 support is given if an asylum seeker is appealing against a negative decision on their asylum claim and sometimes when people (particularly families) cannot immediately be deported to their country of origin. The Home Office makes financial support conditional on accepting whatever accommodation is offered, regardless of its condition.
The Home Office agreed to move Mary back nearer to her support network. This in fact meant taking Mary and her new born baby from the hospital to a filthy tiny room in the Victorian villa twelve miles away from her friends. Mary managed to get into a next door larger room and set about cleaning the place. After a few weeks of waiting, G4S delivered a cot.
There were no lockable cupboards in the kitchen and only a small wardrobe and chest of drawers in Mary’s room — so everything, including food, was stacked in the room or in her small fridge. Mary’s personal belongings were still in Sheffield. She told me “I rang G4S time and time again to get my things. I waited three months for them to be delivered here.” When her belongings did finally arrive she had to store them under beds and cots and in corners of her room.
Mary tells me: “Going to the kitchen and bathroom means a walk through three doors and a corridor and I am too far away to hear any cries from my baby, so my baby goes with me even when I carry hot food back to our room.” Mary showed me the steep winding “back stairs” originally meant for the servants.
Only one staircase has toddler gates. The other is open; toddlers can crawl up to the old (boarded up) servant rooms.
Mary said “I leave the buggy at the bottom of the main stairs in the house and bring shopping, and my baby up many times to unload”. Lately a neighbour on the street has been doing some shopping for Mary and bringing it to the house. I calculated that frequent journey upstairs as about 100 metres each way. Mary said the whole house was “impossible” for babies and small children.
The last inspection
I was hearing stories familiar to me since 2012 when the Coalition government privatised asylum housing. G4S, who won the Yorkshire and North East contracts, immediately started treating any children under school age as not existing for accommodation purposes; and wherever possible one, or even two small children, had to share one bedroom with their mother. As the contract started G4S’s first-choice contractor UPM (United Property Management) had to be withdrawn for sending a sick baby and his mother to an overheated slum bedsit in Doncaster. The Home Office authorised the move and made them stay in the slum flat for two months. The family was rescued only when Doncaster Council threatened to rehouse mother and baby as homeless.
Mothers and babies and toddlers have been moved into houses infested with cockroaches, forced to live for six months with rats, and dumped in what mothers described as ‘cells’ in a Stockton mother and baby hostel. Women asylum seekers have over three years had the courage to stand up against a G4S regime which degrades and disrespects them and blights the first months of their children’s lives. The women I met in the squalid mansion were eager to tell me about how they had been treated by G4S and the Home Office. They had come together when they heard we were coming. They had obviously worked together to support each other over the five months they had been there. We had active interpreters speaking and translating in Arabic, Chinese and English.
A Parliamentary inquiry into asylum support, public hearings and reports from the Home Affairs and Public Accounts select committees have heavily criticised G4S for this shabby treatment of asylum housing tenants, and they (with Serco) have been fined for their failures on the contracts.
Regardless of all that, G4S and Serco have been allowed to continue through to 2017 and probably to 2019 to ensure that a very hostile environment applies in asylum housing to deter new asylum seekers considering coming to the U.K.
In November 2013 the Coram Children’s’ Legal Centre in its Report “Growing up in a hostile environment” (PDF here) estimated that there were around 10,000 children living on asylum support. Coram quotes the Children’s Society Parliamentary Inquiry:
“The current levels of support provided to families are too low to meet children’s essential living needs, let alone their wider needs to learn, grow and develop.” (p.3).
Despite a campaign by Refugee Action and others Theresa May the Home Secretary again in 2014 refused to raise these support rates, frozen since 2011.
That’s because creating a hostile environment for asylum seeker children is deliberate government policy to deter future asylum seekers and their children.
The Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather in 2013 disclosed that the Coalition government had set up an inter-department ministerial group: “On the explicit instructions of the prime minister, it was called the hostile environment working group,” Teather said, “its job being to make Britain a hostile environment to unwanted immigrants.”
But the number of asylum seekers is rising, propelled by permanent wars and violence in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Eritrea and Yemen. G4S and the other contractors have responded by packing asylum seekers in overcrowded houses or resorting to hotels where the health and security of children is put at risk. The G4S hostel in Stockton, on Teesside, with its ‘cells’ has doubled in capacity to 64 mothers with babies and toddlers. G4S has decided that overcrowded ‘female HMOs’ (houses in multiple occupation) is the future for pregnant women asylum seekers and their babies and toddlers. G4S have been buying homes and community buildings in Derby to convert to profitable asylum hostels. Local opposition in Derby to one of the hostels is aimed at G4S – not the asylum seekers.
The Derby Telegraph quotes local resident Barry Seward, 47, who lives in Stepping Lane:
“Bringing more people into the area will bring the associated problems with it. I don’t care one iota which country these people could come from and have every sympathy with whatever reason they may choose to flee from their own country. But housing them all together in one, let’s be frank here, quite cramped building, isn’t the best thing for them either. I don’t agree with it.”
Other vulnerable asylum seekers are getting the same treatment as women and their babies – traumatised and disabled asylum seekers of the same sex are being forced to share bedrooms in Sheffield flats and HMOs (houses in multiple occupation).
The regional Initial Accommodation Centre (IAC) for Yorkshire and the North East, Urban House, formerly known as Angel Lodge, stands in the grounds of high security Wakefield prison. It’s being expanded to hold 300 people and has exactly two rooms adapted for disabled asylum seekers.
As Violet and I were leaving through the back door of the house (the front door was permanently locked) we noticed a badly maintained security light: all through the winter months, we were told, the yard was dark and threatening.
There was an abandoned fire escape and at its top a permanently open door, leading to the second floor an invitation to intruders. Violet shouted to me and pointed to the base of the fire escape. She had seen two big rats shoot out from the weeds, and run under the windows and then disappear under the house.
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Author's note: Thanks to Violet Dickenson.