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Britain’s housing crisis: Refugee family given just one week to find new home

Jayne and her children won their long battle for the right to stay in the UK. Then they faced a fresh fight, with security company G4S.

Two weeks after they were granted leave to stay in the UK, Jayne* and her two children were served with an eviction notice by their landlord, G4S. They had one week to leave their home. 

I sat with Jayne in her small, sparsely furnished living room as she told me what happened. 

The eviction letter had been delivered to Jayne’s ground floor flat by a G4S housing officer on the morning of Wednesday 31 October. “You must leave this address by 12 noon on 07/11/2018. Please ensure that you take all personal belongings with you,” the letter said.

Typed letter with G4S logo

Jayne was crushed at the prospect of the eviction. The brief happiness she felt at finally having some security had been shattered. After a long fight for asylum, the Home Office had granted temporary leave to remain – two and half years – for Jayne, her daughter Marie, 17, and her son Sam, who is six and has Down’s syndrome. On Tuesday 16 October, Jayne had gone to collect her refugee ID card from her solicitor.

Then the eviction notice came. The family had lived in their current flat for two years. Jayne was anxious. How would they move all of their things in one week? Where would they put Sam’s medication, which had to be stored in a large fridge? Where would they go? “I have been through so much and now I have no home,” she said. 

Jayne’s story

Back in Iraqi Kurdistan, where she’d lived with her husband and three children, Jayne had been an accountant. When ISIS threatened them in 2015, the family fled. As they crossed the Aegean Sea, Jayne’s husband and eldest daughter went missing.

Jayne travelled on alone with Marie, then aged 14, and Sam, aged three. They made their way across Europe, hoping to reach Jayne’s brother in Sheffield in the north of England. The family relied on informal networks, never quite sure where they’d end up next.

“I was on my own with my two children,” Jayne told me. I travelled by boat, train and bus through Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. I remember a night in Vienna, and then I woke up in Cologne and saw this huge church – the biggest I have ever seen. I saw Paris for one night and then I went  to Dunkirk. We stayed in a tent. It was very cold, and snow. The mud was very bad. We were there in the cold for a month.”

young man smiling holding a dark haired baby boy Jayne's son Sam, then aged 3, with a volunteer at the refugee camp they lived in for a month in Dunkirk, France.

Then, early in 2016, French government officials moved the family to a refugee hotel. There Jayne met a woman named Deborah, a refugee case worker and volunteer. “I met Deborah at breakfast in the refugee hotel in Dunkirk, she has helped me a lot. She still works with me.” 

Deborah was part of a group of volunteers and immigration lawyers working in and around the camps in Calais and Dunkirk to help people through the family reunion process, which means they have the right to apply for asylum in the UK if they have family already living in the country. The British government had granted several refugee families the right to travel to the UK to make an asylum claim as part of this process. Jayne and her children qualified.

“The Home Office brought me over in July 2016,” Jayne told me. “I didn’t come under lorry.”

The Home Office brought me to the UK, I didn’t come under lorry

A new life, no security 

When the family arrived in England, they stayed with Jayne’s brother in Sheffield. That was overcrowded, so they moved on. “I wanted a home even if it was a G4S house,” Jayne said. She applied for asylum housing. “G4S put me in a very bad house in Tinsley in Sheffield. The house was dirty and a danger to my children with a very dangerous gas cooker. My daughter Marie fell down the stairs and Sam injured himself.”

Then the family were moved into their current flat, where they have lived for two years. Jayne says the house was dirty when they moved in, in need of a paint job. “It is OK,” Jayne says, “but I often have no heating, and now I have no washing machine.” 

Before her pending homelessness, Jayne’s main concerns were her children’s health and wellbeing, and the Home Office. “Sam is a Down’s child and has many medical problems,” she says. “I go to the children’s hospital once, twice a week for Sam and have to give him his medicine in the middle of the night….I do not sleep.”

Marie, Jayne’s teenage daughter, has much milder learning disabilities, but she cannot go out after dark. She tells me of a racist attack near the flat: “At Halloween girls hurt me, kicking me in the street.”

And then there’s the Home Office. 

“They bring me over with my children to claim asylum. Then they say it is safe to go back,” says Jayne. The Home Office denied the family’s claim that they were fleeing a real threat. This is despite reports in 2015 that ISIS was targeting children who have Down’s syndrome.

In July, Jayne’s appeal was dismissed in the Immigration & Asylum Upper Tribunal by Judge Bruce. Part of his judgement said: 

“The Tribunal accepts that it would be in the best interests of the Appellant’s son to remain in the United Kingdom with his mother but directs itself that this is not determinative. The Appellant has “extensive” family in Iraq to whom she would be able to turn to for support, and there is some provision for disabled children in Sulaymaniyyah … 

“Overall the Tribunal is satisfied that the removal of the Appellant and the children would be proportionate, and the appeal is also dismissed on human rights grounds.”

Jayne’s solicitor challenged the results of the Tribunal and won. The family was granted temporary leave to remain for two and half years. After that, Jayne will have to apply again. Jayne is confused by this, and asks me, “Why only two and a half years?” 

Now, eviction by G4S

“After I was told to leave my flat on 31 October, G4S kept ringing me and texting saying I had to go to the Council and they would find somewhere for me. On Tuesday [6 November] I went to the Sanctuary and asked for advice.”

Large shop front with the Sanctuary written in bold letters along a glass window Sheffield's City of Sanctuary network opened a new social centre for asylum seekers and refugees last year. Image by John Grayson

I was with Jayne at the Sanctuary, a drop-in and advice centre in the centre of Sheffield, when an advisor rang the council’s housing department on her behalf. I heard a voice answer the phone. Here’s some of what I overheard: 

“[Jayne] … must leave the G4S property and come here, to go to bed and breakfast. We will send a taxi for her things.”

The Sanctuary worker was clearly shocked:“Have you actually seen this family?”

“No, but that is the rule. I have talked to the bed and breakfast and they are happy to support the family.”

“Which bed and breakfast?”

“The Earl Marshall, and they will have a room there for a few weeks.”

Here, Jayne interrupted the conversation. “I am not going to one room with my two disabled children in that bed and breakfast.”  

The Sanctuary worker continued talking on the phone to the housing officer: “There are major safeguarding issues, the children would not be safe in that bed and breakfast. The family at least are safe staying in their G4S house.”

“Alright then I will talk to my manager.”

The manager refused to budge. One hour later, the housing officer phoned back. If Jayne refused to leave the property, G4S staff and a council worker would be sent to the flat that Thursday to persuade her to leave, along with a taxi to transport the family and their belongings.

Jayne joins the campaign, speaks at council meeting

The South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, known as SYMAAG, has campaigned against the housing of children at the Earl Marshall B&B since April. We’ve collected evidence of the squalid and unsuitable conditions at the hostel. We’ve held protests and petitioned the council to stop them housing children there. 

We discovered that two families were held at the Earl Marshall for two years, one for a year and another for six months. Before the council tried to place Jayne and her children at the Earl Marshall in November, we thought we had secured promises from senior councillors at a council meeting in July that children would not be placed in the B&B.  

Front of a red brick terrace house The Earl Marshall guest house. Sheffield City Council has been criticised for housing refugee women and vulnerable homeless men at the B&B. Image by John Grayson.

On Monday 17 September a SYMAAG delegation met with senior council staff at the Town Hall. In attendance were: Jayne Ludlam, the executive director of children’s services; Janet Sharpe, director of housing and neighborhoods; Laraine Manley, deputy chief executive of the City Council, and senior councillors Jim Steinke and Jackie Drayton. 

Jayne Ludlam promised us that no families would be housed in the Earl Marshall “for long periods” again. There were other vague promises made about “exploring suitable bed and breakfast accommodation for families with children”, but little else.

After that meeting, SYMAAG decided to put forward questions for councillors to answer at the next council meeting on Wednesday 7 November.

By now, Jayne had joined our campaign. She attended the meeting and stood up in the public gallery and made a short speech to the whole council, explaining her situation. She said: “When will the Council be able to house my two children and myself in Sheffield? The Home Office brought us here from France on 7 July 2016 and I now have Leave to Remain.”

Sheffield council housed two families at the Earl Marshall B&B for two years

City of sanctuary? Jayne is told to move on

On the following day, on Thursday 9 November, two G4S staff appeared at Jayne’s flat. They had been sent to “persuade” Jayne to leave and to ‘Move On’. This is a term used by G4S management to describe an eviction.

I was present to speak officially for Jayne. I appealed to the G4S officers to show some humanity, and to allow Sam to stay with his family at the flat. One of the officers, the area manager for Sheffield, constantly tried to pressure Jayne. He told her: “I can get you a Sorani Kurdish interpreter on line. We can talk about you moving.” Jayne simply repeated, “John will speak for me.” 

“Perhaps you have children?” I said to the G4S officers, “Would you want to place them in the Earl Marshall? I brought up a daughter with autism, and at Sam’s age she would have screamed for days if she had been moved out of her familiar surroundings – particularly if she had to share one room with all the family.”

This had little effect. I asked the officers to leave, pointing out that they could not change locks or effect an eviction without a Court Order – one of the few rights left to asylum tenants. They left. 

For now, Jayne and her two children are safe in their G4S flat. The law on eviction in England means that it is unlawful for G4S as the landlord to harass a tenant to force them to leave.

They will have to “seek possession” of Jayne’s flat by going through due process – an application to the County Court. Then there will be a hearing where the Court gives Jayne legal assistance. Where children are involved the judge usually allows further time in the property.

This process could take three months, causing the family further worry and distress, and costing G4S in time, legal fees, bad publicity and reputational damage. The City Council has agreed that the family can start ‘bidding’ for permanent council or housing association properties and will stay in the G4S property till they find one. A little common sense and humanity could save a lot of trouble.

 

*All names of the family have been changed  


Shine A Light contacted G4S and Sheffield City Council press office for comment. Sheffield City Council was unable to comment. 

John Whitwam, managing director of COMPASS, G4S, said:


“G4S supplies accommodation to asylum seekers on behalf of the Home Office. As per the terms of our contract, once the asylum seeker’s status is confirmed by the Home Office, we give families seven days’ notice to move out of our temporary accommodation and into another property provided by the council. 

Our teams are committed to looking after the 20,000 service users in our care, to at least the standards mandated by the Home Office. The 4,000 plus inspections we conduct every month inevitably reveal some defects that require repair or replacement and we have strict rules which dictate the timeframe in which defects must be resolved, ranging from 28 days to two hours in the most urgent circumstances.

We always take complaints about the accommodation we provide very seriously and asylum seekers access our free 24/7 service centre by telephone to report problems, sometimes in excess of over 4,500 calls per month. This demonstrates a service which is working well and that asylum seekers are comfortable and willing to engage and report issues.”

 


 

Edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi for Shine A Light, images by John Grayson. 

 

 


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