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Destitution, intimidation . . . How Britain shirks its obligations to asylum-seekers

Filthy showers, uncleared rubbish, mice infestation. The quality of housing provided to asylum seekers by commercial contractors is poor indeed, but good enough for the Home Office.

Back yard of a G4S house in Sheffield (Grayson)

Ibrahim is a Syrian refugee living in asylum housing in South Yorkshire. His accommodation is run for the government by the security company, G4S. Ibrahim told his story at one of a series of campaign meetings held by asylum rights organisations in Sheffield and Doncaster this past summer to persuade local councils to help and resettle Syrians. Ibrahim had been waiting six months already — not for a decision on his asylum claim, but for his initial interview to set out his case.

In the North of England there are dozens, probably hundreds of Syrians, some with children, who over the past year have waited and waited for their first interview, dumped in overcrowded slum housing on a meagre income.

Ibrahim was trafficked into the UK. There are more than a hundred Syrians at present in Calais trying to reach families in the UK. Ibrahim’s wife and children are trapped in Egypt without documents, unable even to receive money from banks or money services. They have been told to leave Egypt and their only exit route will be by sea. Ibrahim is distraught. Seven hundred migrants died in the Mediterranean in September, amongst them Syrians fleeing from the Libyan and Egyptian coasts.

Francois

Francois is African, now in G4S asylum housing in South Yorkshire. He has recently emerged from two months in a UK detention centre. On arriving by air he was advised by French speaking African groups in a northern city to claim asylum. He borrowed money and travelled by coach to Lunar House in Croydon, the UK visas and immigration headquarters, to register his claim for asylum. Without warning he was handcuffed and told that he would be detained.

He described the detention centre, Harmondsworth, near London’s Heathrow airport, as being like a prison. He says he was locked in a shared cell for twelve hours a day. For one two-week period he was confined to the cell block, unable to get out into the open air.

Francois was placed on the ‘fast track’, a means by which the Home Office can rapidly deport people new arrivals seeking asylum. (This ‘fast track’ was recently declared unlawful; the Home Office is appealing.)

Although Francois is French-speaking, the official documents were given to him in English. Despite suffering from clinical depression he received no medical support in detention from staff, and no interpreter. Fortunately for Francois, the charity Medical Justice obtained medical help for him and a volunteer support worker. They and his solicitor persuaded the Home Office that Francois had grounds for a new asylum claim.

Mohammed

I spoke by phone to Mohammed. He is housed at the initial accommodation centre in Birmingham that’s run by G4S, the world’s biggest security company (which continues to win UK government contracts, despite repeated failures and being the subject of a criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office). After a maximum of 21 days at the centre Mohammed is supposed to be moved on to asylum housing. But for four months now he has been bounced between the accommodation centre and an expensive city hotel.

Mouse droppings, G4S house, Sheffield (Grayson)

Shafiq

Shafiq spoke to me in a night shelter on the edge of Coventry city centre, at an afternoon meeting of asylum seekers sharing food and support. He told me how he led a boycott of meals at the G4S-run Birmingham accommodation centre: “Around twenty of us had had enough. A slice of toast and tea for breakfast, a little rice with tasteless stuff for other meals …the meals were disgusting.” Shafiq said that the catering people blamed the tiny amount of money they were given to spend.

Juliet

In a terraced house in Sheffield Juliet told me about her time in  Angel Lodge, the G4S-run initial accommodation centre in the grounds of Wakefield prison. Placed there with her new born baby, she was appalled at the quality of food – and frightened too. One day in March, she said, all the children went down with food poisoning. “We did not complain, we were worried what would happen to us if we did.”

Juliet had been trafficked from West Africa into sex work in the UK. She escaped and claimed asylum. She was then sent to Angel Lodge and on to G4S asylum housing in Sheffield. When she was still recovering from her Caesarean G4S dumped Juliet and her baby in a tiny attic room with two flights of steep winding stairs (see picture, left). There was no safety gate nor a secure door to the attic.

When she arrived at the property Juliet asked not to be left there. G4S said she was on a waiting list for more suitable accommodation and told her sleeping downstairs in the shared lounge was against the rules. Juliet, with her fear of authority, complied and descended into major depression.

She had escaped her traffickers and claimed asylum but still all her asylum claim documents were sent to her with the name the traffickers had given her on the false passport they had used. The Home Office knew her real name which she had put on her claim; she had protested, but still her trafficked name kept appearing at her letter box. She was left in these conditions for four months until campaigners alerted Sheffield council who served a notice on the property. Only then did G4S move her.

A toxic debate

Ibrahim, Francois, Juliet, Mohammed and Shafiq have joined the expanding G4S asylum housing population at a time when the debate around immigration is especially toxic and the provision of housing to asylum seekers is being degraded through privatisation.

UK governments have been “dispersing” asylum seekers from London and the South East to the old industrial areas of the North, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales since 2000. In 2012 the Home Office packaged up asylum housing as a market and awarded contracts to G4S, Serco and Reliance. Through 2013 and 2014 flows of refugees have been increasing in particular from war torn Syria, Eritrea and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In June 2014 national figures for asylum housing were up 36 per cent from the start of the privatisation contracts in 2012 (from 20,594 to 27,963), South Yorkshire saw an increase of 56 per cent (from 1085 to 1688).There were around 400 people in asylum housing in Barnsley in June and around 700 in Sheffield by October. Of course not all those claiming asylum seek support and accommodation, so numbers of refugees claiming asylum will be significantly higher.

This rise in numbers comes at a time when politicians and the media have constructed a toxic discourse around immigration. For the first time for many years the term “asylum seekers” is again being demonised alongside “illegals”, ”migrants”, “foreigners”, or “immigrants”.  

G4S houses, SheffieldG4S has repeatedly refused to invest in new capacity in its centres in Wakefield and Birmingham, simply saying at meetings that they are looking for sites and buildings. The National Audit Office Report of January 2014 reminded G4S of its obligations:

“Under the contract providers are required to maintain a flexible portfolio of properties to meet changing demand.”

Instead G4S has waited for numbers to rise and then tried to find the cheapest and most available private rented properties, regardless of longstanding Home Office agreements with local authorities on numbers and housing standards. The company’s policy of packing in single men into cheap slum housing in Rotherham drew public rebukes from Rotherham Council and the National Audit Office in 2013. The NAO Report said of Rotherham:

“The town currently has the highest number of asylum seekers in the region, including higher numbers than in Leeds, the biggest city in the area. The Department has asked G4S to reduce the numbers accommodated in Rotherham to a more sustainable level.”

From June 2014 G4S had to stop allocations in Rotherham for four months.

There are now not enough places for the asylum seekers coming through. 

Meltdown

The Home Office and Clearel, its contractor in London and the South East, have been placing newly arrived asylum seekers in budget hotels in Croydon and Folkestone. Rayah Feldman of the Hackney Migrant Centre reports that in London:

“The system seems to be in meltdown. All the people have now been moved from the hotel which got the publicity but we don't know where to.”

Croydon Council’s housing enforcement officers found 600 asylum seekers packed into a 98 bed hotel in Crystal Palace, some people sleeping nine to a room. 130 of the group were than sent to a hotel in Folkestone, 155 to two hotels in Bournemouth

G4S back yard, SheffieldThe mess that the Home Office and their commercial contractors have made serves to fuel the anti-asylum seeker rhetoric.

In the North West of England Serco’s initial accommodation centre in Liverpool was already overwhelmed in December 2013 when 100 asylum seekers and their families were sent for nine weeks to a hotel in Manchester at a cost of £400,000, according to the Daily Telegraph

One week before the European and local elections in Barnsley on 16 May 2014 the local weekly Barnsley Chronicle decided to run what was a quite an old story with banner headlines “Asylum seekers put up in plush hotels”. Next day the Daily Mail and the Daily Express picked up the story.

“While millions of Britons are living on and below the bread line, asylum seekers are living a life of four-star luxury courtesy of the taxpayer,” a UKIP spokesman told the Express, whose editorial claimed that a “surge in arrivals” of asylum seekers had caused the resort to hotels. The Express asserted, predictably, that “More must be done to prevent asylum seekers getting into the country including more stringent border controls.”

Placing asylum seekers and their children in hotels and constantly moving them means real difficulties in accessing GP’s and voluntary health checks. One former senior local council asylum worker told me: “There is no way that the Home Office is safeguarding children, in these hotels”.

An NHS specialist nurse said: “We don’t think we have missed anyone for their health check in the hotels…but who knows?” Claims for asylum are being slowed because of difficulties in contacting interpreters and solicitors. Maurice Wren of the Refugee Council has protested that asylum seekers are “being shuttled around and pushed from pillar to post” after fleeing horrifying experiences in their homelands and that the focus should be on the plight of the refugees.

A dangerous brew

Last time the numbers of asylum seekers rose, the then Labour government’s panic dispersal policies led to racist attacks on asylum seekers. An official Home Office report of 2005 covering 77 local authorities stated bluntly:

“The government’s policy of dispersing asylum seekers is creating long term ‘ghettos’ in deprived areas where they are more likely to suffer racial assaults and harassment…The procurement of housing in the poorest areas polarises entrenched views held by the host community against the incomers.”

Tom Vickers of Northumbria University quotes a national survey in 2005 in which 83 per cent of female asylum seekers and refugees who participated said that they did not go out at night because they feared abuse and harassment.

In towns such as Middlesbrough and Rotherham where G4S has concentrated its largest numbers of asylum seekers, councillors have expressed concerns that G4S is placing asylum seekers in areas where the Far Right is strong. Middlesbrough Councillors have complained off the record to researchers that G4S is simply not telling them where asylum seekers are being placed. Rotherham is a particularly volatile area to house asylum seekers, with regular EDL demonstrations, a major UKIP stronghold now and with constant high profile racialised issues around child sexual abuse; and also anti-Gypsyism aimed at local Roma communities.

Stirring the pot

Sheffield MP, and former Home Secretary, David Blunkett has made matters worse. Writing under the Daily Mail’s “Right Minds” banner, Blunkett supported Tory minister Michael Fallon in his assertion that immigrants are ‘swamping’ communities. Blunkett wrote:

“This storm [over Fallon’s outburst] echoed the experience I went through 12 years ago when I, too, used the word ‘swamped’ to describe the anxious feelings of people who were facing the dispersal of large numbers of asylum seekers into their own hard-pressed Northern communities.”

Blunkett should know better. In Rotherham hate crimes have sharply increased over the summer. In Barnsley hate crimes, the majority of them racist, are up by 100 per cent; there have been around 150 reported in the first eight months of the year. A large former mining area bordering Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster — the Dearne Valley — has been declared a no go area for asylum housing by the local councils and the Home Office for many years. The area was a stronghold of the BNP (British National Party) during the period from 2005 -2011 when the far right party was standing candidates in all Barnsley local government wards.

Democratic accountability?

In the early summer there was an unprecedented protest about G4S from local councils in Yorkshire citing, “a number of difficulties in the management of the COMPASS contract”, and “tensions between the main contractor, some of the sub-contractors, and local partners”.

All ten local Council leaders in Yorkshire where G4S had housing signed a letter to the Minister of State for Immigration asking him for a meeting to discuss these issues. The Minister agreed to meet representatives of the local authorities.

Regardless of local councils’ wishes, wherever you look in the G4S asylum housing scene you find the now familiar pattern of overcrowded, often slum property with little privacy or respect offered to tenants. In Coventry asylum tenants and refugees have formed CARAG (Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group) to challenge G4S and its degrading housing. On the 30th of July tenants and supporters held a meeting with a representative of G4s; the Carag website reports:

“People discussed problems involving repairs taking forever, inaccessible housing for people with medical conditions. Male staff intruding upon female service users. Also the complaints procedure was found to be insufficient and not fit for purpose…[the Birmingham accommodation centre] which is a hostel meant to be  initial accommodation in the short term for 21 days had people being left for more than four months.”

Bath/shower in a G4S house in Sheffield (Grayson)

An open prison for migrants?

Asylum housing is seen by many tenants as a form of house arrest – a ‘soft detention’ after often brutal experience of detention centres. Antony Loewenstein, an Australian journalist researching immigration detention in the UK was taken in August to G4S asylum HMO’s (Houses in Multiple Occupation) in Sheffield where tenants were recovering from traumatic experiences in detention centres. He wrote about his visit: 

“When detainees are released, they still often face indefinite insecurity. In Sheffield, I visited G4S housing in one of the poorest areas of the city. On a windy summer day, with Roma children playing in the streets, I saw squalid houses with up to nine men packed into small rooms. I heard stories about the Home Office taking years to reach a decision on immigration claims, which precludes many migrants from building a decent life, given their lack of work rights.”

 Sheffield campaigners know these asylum housing conditions only too well — tiny attic rooms, uncleared rubbish inside and outside, mice infestations and filthy showers. All in breach of G4S’s contract obligations and some in clear breach of housing law.

These are the degrading housing conditions offered by the UK to deter new asylum seekers. To create a ‘hostile environment’ so that refugees will simply ‘Go Home’.

 

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