Rear window of Sharon’s G4S asylum home (all images by John Grayson)
One showery September morning I stood outside a large red brick house, just off the town centre in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.
I’d been told that the hostel was being used by the security company G4S as accommodation for pregnant women asylum seekers, and lone mothers with babies. One of the growing number of lone mother and refugee children hostels in the UK’s asylum market.
Old carpets had been dumped in the hostel’s back yard, a blocked drain overflowed. It didn’t seem a safe place for children to play.
Leaky ceilings and filthy carpets
“Come and see, carpet is too dirty for my baby!” Rita shows me to her room, introduces me to her fourteen month old son. Friends had provided a play-mat to cover the filthy carpet.
Safe for toddlers? Back yard, Sharon’s homeRita and her housemate Janet were showing me round the hostel. In the kitchen Janet said: “This kitchen is the only room we can meet and let the children play.” She showed me damp patches on the kitchen ceiling where water had leaked from the bathroom above.
We looked in on the lounge. “We can’t use this room now, they put old beds in there,” Janet said. It was packed with beds and children’s buggies. “We have nowhere else to put them, the stairs are steep.”
A local agency who work with women survivors of trafficking had asked me to take a look at the hostel. They’d protested to G4S on behalf of a client from West Africa, a heavily pregnant woman who had been placed in a room at the top of the house, up three flights of stairs.
An agency worker told me: “Sharon says the place is very dirty and that she is stranded at the top of the house. G4S are simply not doing anything about her.”
I climbed up the stairs to Sharon’s room. She was sitting on her bed. I apologised for visiting on my own. (Usually I visit all-women accommodation alongside a female colleague). “That’s OK, please get me moved from here, I have never unpacked,” Sharon said. “I must move. I am in constant pain, in both my knees. I cannot take painkillers, for the baby.”
Dirty staircase, Rose’s homeI recognised Sharon. She had been in a G4S house in Barnsley. I had been told that earlier in her pregnancy she had been in an attic room there and had fallen down the stairs. “They have said I will maybe have a C-section. I could not carry my baby up all those stairs. I stay in bed most of the time,” she said.
The carpets along the corridors and the stair carpets were filthy. G4S display a management sheet in their houses to record all inspections, cleaning and work. The sheet showed the hostel communal areas had last been cleaned in early July, almost three months previously.
An official resident list named twelve people, six of them apparently small children under three years. There was a baby of fifteen months and a toddler of two and a half. The record was incomplete: Sharon and some others were not listed.
Punished for complaining
The previous week I had been to see Rose, in another G4S house, in Sheffield. Rose, also from West Africa, is a survivor of trafficking. In this house too the corridor and stair carpets were dirty. The last recorded clean had been over three months ago.
Kitchen cupboard in Rose’s home
“I can’t walk in bare feet outside my room, the soles of my slippers are dirty.” Rose said. She showed me her own very clean room, and the women’s clean bathrooms. “There are seven women here, just one dirty kitchen, I have to store pans and food in my room,” she said.
Two women joined us in the kitchen. Tina opened a floor cupboard, exposing mould and dirt. “I never come down here at night, not for months, there are cockroaches when you put the lights on.”
On the notice-board a Pest Control notice, dated February 2017, mentioned cockroaches, but there was no evidence of visits in the eight months since then.
Pest control notice in Rose’s homeOn the same notice board was a threatening warning to the women, a controversial ‘behave or get deported’ notice.
Of course G4S doesn’t have powers to deport tenants. I’d exposed this particular abuse of power here back in April 2017.
G4S claimed then that they were withdrawing the notices from the properties they managed.
Rose told me: “I was forced to move a month ago from a really clean, nice house in Rotherham. I had friends and help there. I complained to G4S because a woman in my house was aggressive and shouted at me. She was really mentally ill, but she reminded me of the woman who trafficked me here. I was very frightened. G4S did not give her a place on her own — they moved me instead.” Rose seemed depressed, and became tearful as I left.
33 weeks pregnant, moved away from medical help
In Barnsley, on the 29th of September, I visited Lucy. She was 33 weeks pregnant, but that day she’d been moved from Barnsley town, near the hospital, to a shared house six miles away in a former mining village, on the outer edge of the borough. Lucy told me she had appointments with her midwife in Barnsley, and at the hospital, over the next few days.
G4S implies it has powers to deport“I cannot stay here, I could walk to the hospital when I was in Barnsley. The G4S driver said this place was six miles from Barnsley, he pleaded with the G4S welfare officer not to put me up here. I rang about a taxi to get to the hospital — he said it would cost £18 there and back.”
On the 4th of October, Lucy asked me to post a letter from her midwife to G4S and the Home Office. The letter confirmed that Lucy was now 34 weeks pregnant and at high risk. It went on:
“She is currently housed in accommodation in the attic 2 flights of very steep stairs. This is impacting greatly on her physical and mental wellbeing and will not be suitable for her baby when she delivers. She has also been moved away from this surgery which means a two bus journey for appointments.”
This is impacting greatly on her physical and mental wellbeing.
Lucy told me: “Take my picture walking up these stairs, there are three flights of stairs.”
Three weeks on, and 36 weeks pregnant Lucy is still waiting for a move.
Midwife: “This is impacting greatly on her physical and mental wellbeing.”
Children’s early years, blighted
G4S, the largest security company in the world, won a slice of the £1.7 billion UK Home Office COMPASS (Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support) contract in June 2012 with two other security companies, Serco and Reliance. None of them had experience of housing. In the first months of the contract an Ethiopian woman whose twelve week old baby had a heart defect, was transported from Bradford, forty miles away, to a tiny flat in Doncaster with no cooker, table or chair, and only a tiny sink to wash dishes and clothes.
In November 2012, Angela, from West Africa, a survivor of trafficking, was transferred with her five month old baby son from her Leeds council flat to a slum property — by Cascade Housing, then a G4S subcontractor. The back yard was piled with rubbish. The place was infested with cockroaches and slugs. She did not dare put her baby on the floor. Angela found a cockroach in her baby’s bottle.
Refugee and asylum seeking women make up 12% of maternal deaths, and 0.3% of the UK population.
In 2013 in evidence to a Children’s Society parliamentary investigation Dr Jenny Phillimore of Birmingham University pointed to “growing evidence of high maternal and infant mortality rates amongst asylum seekers and in asylum seeker dispersal areas …Refugee and asylum seeking women make up 12% of all maternal deaths, and 0.3% of the population in the UK. The perinatal mortality rates in the City Hospital Trust area of Birmingham which at the time of data collection contained the highest concentration of asylum seeker housing in the city, is 12 per 1000 and rising compared with a national average of 7.6.” Dr Phillimore told the inquiry. “The City Hospital area of Birmingham has the highest infant mortality rate in Europe, not just in the UK.”
Communal lounge in Sharon’s home
In 2013 the Refugee Council and the Maternity Alliance issued their report “When Maternity Doesn’t Matter: dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum”, based on interviews with twenty women. The researchers found:
“Accommodation for pregnant women or those who had recently given birth was often inappropriate. There was rudimentary equipment for the baby but little effort was made to ensure adequate hygiene and sanitary facilities for new-borns. Women often had to climb several flights of stairs to their rooms.”
In 2016, in Glasgow, in Serco’s COMPASS contract area, Red Cross researchers spoke to pregnant asylum seekers, and new mothers in their report “A Healthy Start?”:
“The state of carpets preoccupied several of the women with young babies who were about to crawl and spending quite a lot of time on the floor. Living in a dirty, cramped house meant that many of them were not feeling able to relax and feel at home. Several lived on upper floors, which caused difficulties when trying to carry a baby, a buggy and bags of shopping up several flights of stairs.”
Accommodation for pregnant women or those who had recently given birth was often inappropriate.
On 31 January 2017, the record of the private companies in asylum housing was laid bare in the latest UK Home Affairs Select Committee report on Asylum Accommodation, which found “vulnerable people in unsafe accommodation … children living with infestations of mice, rats or bed bugs, lack of health care for pregnant women … inadequate support for victims of rape and torture.”
Making money from refugee babies and toddlers
I and my SYMAAG colleague Violet Dickenson and fellow campaigners have worked alongside brave whistleblower tenants over five years to expose conditions in the G4S mother and baby market in asylum housing hostels. We exposed the G4S/Jomast Stockton hostel in 2012 where mothers described their rooms as “cells”, and a G4S Leeds hostel in 2015 in a grubby Victorian villa with one bath for twelve women and eleven babies.
In June this year support workers told me about a G4S/ Cascade “fire trap hostel” in Halifax with seventeen people, parents, a pregnant mother, new born babies and toddlers.
G4S gets £8.42 per family member, per night, for these hostels (according to contract details revealed in a High Court judgement here). At that price, packing 17 people into the Halifax hostel brings the monthly take to around £4,300 of taxpayer’s money. The Doncaster hostel’s take would be around £3,000, every month.
Jomast Accommodation Ltd., the G4S contractor in the North East of England, has extended the Stockton hostel, and developed similar hostels in Hartlepool and Newcastle. Smaller G4S hostels for lone mothers and babies have appeared in HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) in Doncaster, Derby, Barnsley and recently in Huddersfield.
The Hostile Environment
The UK Labour government by 2009 was locking up 2000 children a year in detention centres, around half of them in the Serco managed Yarl’s Wood centre, near Bedford. In April 2009 after an inspection of Yarl’s Wood the Independent reported that the Children’s Commissioner for England “found that seriously ill children were denied hospital treatment.... ….Children suffering from serious medical conditions and the mentally ill were routinely kept in detention despite guidelines stating clearly they should not be. …. An eight-month-old baby with asthma was neither released nor given an inhaler.”
Under the play-mat
In September 2009, Home Office Director of Criminality and Detention at the UK Border Agency and former Assistant Commissioner at the Met, Dave Wood, was called before the Home Affairs Committee. He described Yarl’s Wood as a “family friendly detention centre”. MPs asked him: “Why are children detained under the immigration system, because they have not done anything wrong, have they?” Wood explained that the lack of detention “would act as a significant magnet and pull to families from abroad”.
In May 2017, the government handed G4S a new contract to lock up families at the Tinsley House detention centre at Gatwick airport. BBC TV Panorama in early September 2017 exposed the violence and mistreatment of people detained in G4S’s other Gatwick centre, Brook House.
G4S, exposed for its abuse of children in children’s prisons, like Medway in Kent, which it managed, decided to sell (yes it can sell!), these youth prison contracts together with its children’s homes. G4S Children’s services as a whole had annual revenues of £40m from government and local authority contracts. In June 2017, G4S sold eighteen of its children’s homes to the Prospect Group for over £11m.
In December 2016, the government handed G4S, Serco and Clearsprings a two year extension to their asylum housing contracts, stretching them to September 2019. In August 2017, the Home Office started to advertise for new contracts from 2019. The contracts are worth £600m of public money.
Consider the companies’ record. Consider the very notion of international security companies being handed control over housing for pregnant women, for refugee babies and children. For years now we’ve listened to asylum tenants. We’ve witnessed conditions that blight children’s lives. Campaigners are working hard to stop international security companies like G4S and Serco getting contracts to house refugee babies and children.
Note: For the refugee women’s protection, names have been changed in this article.
All images by John Grayson. Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.