“The refugees simply command respect” – eyewitness report from Calais


After reading about others making solidarity trips to the refugee camp in Calais, my friend and fellow Unite Community member Stuart and I decided to do our own visit, taking over a van load of donations and staying to volunteer for a few days.

We had fantastic support from people, raising sponsorship from Unite and lots of individuals, as well as donations of equipment and practical help making food parcels.  We also get lots of excellent advice when researching the trip through various Facebook groups and L’Auberge des Migrants, a French volunteer organisation.



We have to leave a lot of stuff behind as we are over the weight limit for my camper van, but eventually manage to set off at 6am one November morning with only the most essential donations.  It’s really windy and a dodgy window on the van causes some concern but is resolved by begging gaffer tape off lorry drivers in a lay-by.  We make it onto Eurotunnel only slightly late, the border police search the van when they hear we are volunteering, but only in a cursory way and are not unpleasant.

On arrival we spend an hour or so getting lost in Calais, but finally make it to the warehouse to unload.  It’s getting near knocking off time when we arrive but we get all the donations moved to the relevant part of the warehouse.  A visit to the toilets round the back – Glastonbury long drop style – reveals a few people staying in caravans, so we decide to park up there as well, ready to start work in the morning.


Reproduced by kind permission of the cartoonist Kate Evans from http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Reproduced by kind permission of the cartoonist Kate Evans from http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Part 1 – The Warehouse

Volunteers meet at the warehouse at 9am, and first order of the day is warm-up exercises and an introduction to how things work around the place.  The more long-standing volunteers are identifiable by orange hi-viz jackets, the rest of us are in yellow, but they are at pains to point out that there is no hierarchy, everyone is welcome to suggest improvements.

The majority of volunteers only stay for a short period, and today most of us are here for the first time.  We soon discover that it doesn’t take long to become a veteran – some orange jacketed people have been here for a grand total of one week.  It’s a good, co-operative atmosphere.  Snacks at break times and lunch are provided, everyone is made to feel welcome.

Inside the warehouse it seems pretty chaotic at first.  Most noticeable is the mountain of unsorted donations.


The mountain

Many, many donations arrive like this, not sorted or just split into men’s / women’s or similar – all of them end up in this pile.  Someone then has the tedious job of going through them all and separating into men’s trousers, men’s t-shirts, etc; followed by another round of sorting into small, medium and large sizes.  Same goes for shoes, coats…  All this takes up lots of space and time – it’s immediately obvious that loads of volunteer time would be freed up if this stuff was sorted in the UK by people who want to help but aren’t able to come to Calais.

Stuart and I are put on the “lucky bags” team, getting boxes of pre-sorted clothes and bagging them up to contain a jumper, t-shirts, socks, pants, hat, scarf and gloves, to be distributed to refugees in the camp.  At various points I also work on hygiene packs, made up of toothbrushes / toothpaste, razors and shaving foam, soap, shampoo and the like; and welcome packs including a sleeping bag, torch, clothes etc.  Again, all stuff that could be done in the UK freeing up valuable volunteer time.

lucky bags

Lucky bags

Then there are the items that are not fit to be worn, and the ridiculous stuff – the high heels, the dinner suit complete with protective cover, the improbable hats, the wine glasses, the empty unwashed marmalade jars.  Loads and loads of kids’ stuff is donated, far more than can be used by the number of children and babies in the camp.  I spend an hour or so at one point tipping items that have just arrived straight into “cash for clothes” bags – at least then a bit of money is raised, but it seems such a waste that people have filled vans with this stuff and spent money on petrol to bring it over.

On Thursday afternoon I’m trying to tidy up the area near the front of the warehouse that has got overwhelmed with random arrivals.  With a few of us on the case it gets done, and by the end of the day the place is looking a lot better.  It turns out that the fire in camp the week before had created some turmoil in the warehouse, with an urgent need to get donations distributed in camp to people who’ve lost everything in their shelter.  There can be lots of volunteers at weekends but less during the week, so it’s good to be back on top of things in time for the weekend rush.

By Friday I’m a one day veteran, and am able to be a bit more proactive as more and more people arrive, helping them unload and getting the donations to the right area.  I’m a bit embarrassed when one woman catches me “cash for clothesing” the stuff she’s just brought – but she takes it in her stride and understands she needs to focus on different items next time.

I feel like I’ve learnt loads that can be taken back to the UK through the warehouse work, and am pleased to have tried out a variety of jobs so know how it’s done when I get back.  But we’re keen to get down to the Jungle itself now – with all respect to the warehouse team, the people who supported our trip will want to hear about the refugees themselves rather than the volunteers supporting them. We start to frequently remind the orange jackets that we want to go on a distribution trip, and when the call finally comes early on Friday afternoon we drop what we’re doing in the warehouse and leap into action.


Reproduced with kind permission from Kate Evans. http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Reproduced with kind permission from Kate Evans. http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Part 2 – The Jungle

There are six of us in the distribution team and we’re first given a briefing on how it will work.  The driver will stay in his van, and once the back doors are opened two people stand on each side at the back, flanking the middle person who is giving out the packs to people in the line.  Without people on the flanks the refugees start to all crowd around the back of the van, it can get chaotic and some people start to take more than their fair share, it’s altogether more dignified if everything happens in an orderly way.

We drive quite a way into the camp before selecting a distribution point, so I have a chance to form some first impressions.  There is a main drag strung with lighting; restaurants and shops have been constructed using wooden frames and tarpaulins – some look better stocked than the shops near my home in Sheffield.  Behind and in between these there are a lot of tents but also quite a lot of small shacks, they too have been built using a wooden frame and tarp.  Lots of people are chatting away on mobiles and one guy is polishing his windows.  It’s all far more structured than I’d expected. Maybe it’s the association with those long drop toilets, but I’m actually reminded of Glastonbury – a rain-sodden mudbath of a Glastonbury, as although it’s dry now it’s been periodically lashing it down over the previous 24 hours.

We decide where to distribute and immediately some refugees come up to the van, calling out, “line, line” and getting into a queue.  Hearing this more refugees start to join the queue, we’ve got the back doors open and I’m handing out the lucky bags.  These all look pretty much the same so no-one’s trying to swap or holding out for a different item.  Everyone is good-natured – one boy of maybe 14 keeps trying to come back for another pack but we’ve got his number and turn him away with a smile and a joke.  When the packs run out some people are left disappointed but no-one gets cross.  The line seems to be self-policing and the whole thing takes less than 15 minutes.

Pleased that it’s gone so quickly, the driver suggests we have a look around for half an hour and everyone is up for it.  We go to park the van a little bit away from the Jungle then walk back in.

We visit a building called the information centre, which amongst other things gives out advice on asylum matters in the UK.  This is right up Stuart’s street, and straight away he gets pulled into conversation with the volunteers there about UK asylum law. The others head off to the nearby library, and I pop out shortly after them to make sure I can see where they’re going, the other side of the church.

Just as I’ve spotted them, two teenage boys approach me anxiously; they are trying to call an ambulance for a woman in a nearby shack, but have very little French or English. Her boyfriend has to help her into her trainer so she can hobble out to show me what is wrong, her leg is clearly giving her a lot of pain. I have a long garbled conversation on their phone with the ambulance operator in English, the upshot of which is that we need to get her to one of the entrances and call again with the correct street name.

Stuart has caught up with me by this time and is on the case checking we are doing the right thing, getting the street name and ringing the ambulance again as she makes her way slowly and painfully to the entrance, reluctantly leaning on her boyfriend and me when she needs to. This has all taken some time and we know the others will be worrying so Stuart goes off to explain, they’re coming out later on another distribution and will pick us up in an hour. The ambulance arrives and the Eritrean woman is driven off, her boyfriend having to trudge back into camp.

We go on a bit of a wander, check out the library and chat to the people volunteering there. I consider using the toilets but the couple I look in are as bad as the worst Glasto toilet you ever saw. We are frequently greeted by refugees with smiles and hellos and handshakes, beckoned into restaurants. A young woman asks us if we can get her a suitcase, she wants to leave this place and go to another country but she needs a suitcase. We explain we don’t have one, maybe she could ask when another distribution team comes in and she quickly abandons us, no use to her.

After an hour darkness is edging in so we call the driver. He’s back in camp and explains that they’re in the middle of a jumper distribution, but it’s getting a bit hairy and he wants to call a halt – he’ll pick us up at the entrance. Ten minutes later here’s his van – with several refugees on top of it, a few more clinging to the back and more following behind – “line, line!” He says he’ll pick us up a bit further away from the camp, some of his distribution crew are still in the jungle; Stuart and another volunteer go back to find them while I catch up with the van, now well out of camp, but with 30 or so refugees still around it. Everyone seems good-humoured – they don’t even want jumpers, they want shoes, they want coats, they want a lift to London, to Paris, maybe Italy?  We’re trying to stay jokey and light-hearted but it’s dark now and it all feels a bit intimidating, we’re relieved when the other volunteers finally show up, perform a slightly frantic synchronised leap into the van and scoot off.

Lots of us meet up later in the pub and exchange stories and thoughts, there’s been too much going on today to process it all for now, so it’s good to relax a bit and get to know some other folk. A pint of wine is cheaper than a pint of Stella, this is my kind of place!


Next morning my plan is to join the clean-up crew in the Jungle for the day, but after a bit of confusion (not because of the wine surely) the lift I grab is headed for the warehouse not the camp. I immediately volunteer for a distribution going out, now a two day veteran. It’s the van of jumpers from the night before, but now many people are in bed after being up all night trying to jump the trucks, so we can take a bit more time over it, ensuring people get the right size and a bit of choice. It’s blowing a gale and freezing cold with rain coming in.  Some of the refugees are wearing flimsy sandals but we have no shoes with us – one volunteer whips off his own socks to give to a young guy in just a pair of flipflops.

We hand out most of the jumpers then I search out the clean up crew. They’re working in a section where most tents have collapsed and been abandoned; every piece of rubbish that I pick up reveals another three.  It’s now started to piss it down and after half an hour I’m soaked and have made sod all impact.

Muttering vaguely about catching up later, I head off to see if the Eritrean woman from yesterday is back from hospital. Her boyfriend is worried, she’s not come back, he wants to go to the hospital to see her. I spend the next hour toing and froing, finding a medic who offers to drive him but doesn’t know the way, trying to find a map; her French speaking colleague offers to phone the hospital, so I go back to the boyfriend to get her name, but it’s not recognised by the hospital, back to get a date of birth (she’s 17), still not recognised and, defeated, back to the boyfriend to apologise, I cannot find anything out.  He is downcast but thanks me anyway.

I’m fed up at this failure and need to do something practical to keep going. The Ashram cafe has enough people helping out already, but a woman there hands me a bag full of tent pegs and a hammer.  Tents and tarps are flying about all over the place, many beyond repair and having to be abandoned. For the next few hours I’m roaming the camp helping people to fix what’s salvageable.

The weather is still filthy, even the more solidly built structures are affected, the roof is coming off the library, but many people are out working, rescuing tents, getting on with their building projects. I help out various people, too much wind and rain and not enough language in common to get into proper conversations, but plenty of handshakes and smiles and good to feel useful again. A group of Iraqi men are delighted to see a claw hammer, they use it to get the nails out of a pallet to re-use on the shack extension they are building. One of them who has better English turns out to be from Middlesbrough, here visiting family members.

If there is one big thing I take from this visit it is the determination and resourcefulness of the refugees throughout camp, who carry on working despite the weather, making use of whatever resources are to hand, creating order out of mayhem. Before the visit what kept me awake at night was worrying about facing up to the misery and desperation of the refugee crisis, but on the ground I can only admire the grit and ingenuity on display – if I were faced with their circumstances I think I’d be curled up in a ball whining, but they just get on with it, usually with a grin. The pep talks at the warehouse about how to respond to people in the Jungle are by the by once in camp – it’s not about volunteers bestowing dignity, the refugees simply command respect. If Cameron and his ilk only want people entering the UK who will bring skills and work their arses off, you really couldn’t get better than these guys.

Photo by A Gerrard

Photo by A Gerrard

In pub conversations with other volunteers, we reflect that the Jungle may actually be a step up for many  people there – in their home country they may well have been living in shacks or slums and in poverty – at least here they’re not being shot at or bombed. Others have come from better off circumstances, driven by war out of their professional roles and apartments, and of course I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s going on in camp, but just getting this far requires immense perseverance.

One encounter in particular makes my pre-visit white privilege angst seem a tad ridiculous. An Eritrean guy stops me for some pegs, I offer him the hammer but he says he lives too far away, that’s ok so we set off and on the way he explains his wife is pregnant, in between apologising for the distance.

We arrive at one of the little wooden-framed shacks and he sets to work with hammer and pegs to an adjoining tent, insisting I go inside to meet his wife. As he said she is pregnant, so has been afforded an actual mattress and decent blankets. She’s pinned more blankets to the walls and at one end of the narrow strip of floor space has set up a little table, on which are laid out her toiletries and comb (and a candle in a jar – eek). The carpet covering the rest of the floor is a most attractive Bradford City AFC sleeping bag.  I’m afraid my boots will besmirch it but she has a cardboard mat to protect it.  It’s proper cosy. We make some limited small talk, how many months pregnant, how many months in the camp, and she gives me a custard cream. She couldn’t be more gracious and hospitable.

The afternoon wears on, I haven’t planned a lift back anywhere and am a bit wary of it getting dark after the previous evening, so around 4 I decide that’s it for the day, return the hammer and head off. As I’m walking out the best thing happens – the Eritrean boyfriend comes running up, his girlfriend is home, and here she is, she’s had a night at the hospital and been dosed up with antibiotics, she looks loads better and we share a hug. As I leave I’m elated that I got to find out the ending to that little story.

While this high remains throughout the walk back to my van, which I’ve considerably under-estimated and takes an hour, I also get a reminder that the situation isn’t going to go away – 15 minutes out of camp a group of new arrivals stop me to ask for directions to the jungle. New people are arriving all the time, the camp has doubled in size over the last few months.

In the evening we meet volunteers who’ve been out to Dunkirk, where another camp is building up, composed mainly of Kurdish people. There is much less structure there, the stories really are of desperation and misery, of women and children drenched by the rain and not even a tent to shelter in. As in the Jungle there are no aid agencies on the ground, just the likes of us doing our amateur best to help out*.

I can’t pretend to represent the views of any refugees as the conversations I had were short and limited by the language barrier, but I have to make a couple of very obvious political points. Despite my earlier comparisons, the camp is nowhere near the size of Glastonbury. It’s a few thousand people, less than one for each town in the UK. And yes, of course more will come, especially as the bombs keep dropping; so there is absolutely no point playing the numbers game, the boundaries are constantly shifting . Open the borders across Europe and start working together to enable everyone to contribute to our society. I really can’t see any alternative – the current situation means refugees have no choices open to them, so for god’s sake let’s get on with the job of getting people settled and stop with the “not enough room” nonsense and anti-refugee rhetoric.

* Doctors of the World UK provide a clinic in the Calais camp and are amongst the refugee charities being supported by the Guardian’s 2015 Charity Appeal.

Reproduced by kind permission from Kate Evans http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Reproduced by kind permission from Kate Evans http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/


Part 3 – An explosive ending

So yes, then the van exploded. We didn’t see it, others did, we’re told it was loud, there was a fireball when the petrol tank blew, the firefighters were heroic; one woman was cowering in a stairwell expecting the shooting to start.

I later realise that the explosion must have taken place at the time we were chatting away in the pub with a guy I’d met earlier at the warehouse, where he’d taken an interest in the van, tightening up a loose light fitting, chastising me for not cleaning it, recommending a website for a replacement window. A guy called Boomer, as it happens.

We just arrive back to the charred remnants.

van 1

Most likely the fire was set by thieves breaking in and burning it down for the fun of it, though we can’t rule out more sinister motives.  But pointless to speculate, as the French police couldn’t be less interested.



We’re somewhat shell-shocked the morning after the van getting torched, and upset to find out that there has been a fire at the camp also, destroying 50 shelters. As usual this was probably caused by a candle. We get lots of support from other volunteers and a lift to the ferry; after some delay and form-filling because our passports have been burnt or stolen we’re on the ferry, and my partner has thankfully driven all the way to Dover to collect us on the other side.

Back in Sheffield I’m still processing everything and am distressed to read that the camp fire was in the Eritrean section; someone has posted on Facebook about a pregnant lady who has been made homeless, and I’m not sure if it’s the same lady who welcomed me into her home (have since found out it was a different pregnant lady, but no means of knowing whether the Eritrean people I met were affected by the fire). In this context the loss of the van feels like small beer, although the loss of our passports means we can’t go back to Calais as quickly as we’d like.

And we will definitely be going back. My circumstances won’t allow me to go for as long on each visit, but we can certainly do shorter trips and have the knowledge to make them as useful as possible.

Spreading the word here in the UK is also vital, building solidarity amongst our communities, getting practical advice out to those who visit Calais, and campaigning for political change.



Have you been inspired to go to Calais by this? We hope so. If so the information below will be useful. We plan to make regular trips from Sheffield  to Calais, sometimes with one vehicle, perhaps a small convoy. If you want to find out when we plan to go next email dignitynotdetention@yahoo.co.uk, leave a message via this website, follow @SYMAAG on Twitter or have a look at our Facebook page.


I’m not going to name all the brilliant volunteers we came across in Calais because I will inevitably forget someone, but what a great group of people, so pleased to have met you all.  Since we came home many are already busy raising more funds and planning to go back, so I hope we will meet again.

This page is really aimed at those who are thinking of going over to volunteer for the first time, with some thoughts on where your time is best placed and some practical tips.

Firstly, do research your trip properly.  There is loads of great advice available on the various Facebook groups dedicated to UK-Calais solidarity (all links on next page) – people there will answer any questions you have.  If you’re taking donations over please please please make sure it’s the right kind of stuff and is properly sorted.

If like me you are a novice at such things, I really recommend working with l’Auberge des Migrants who manage the warehouse.  The warehouse work isn’t particularly glamorous and it can be frustrating to be doing stuff that could be done in the UK, but it’s great for getting an understanding of how donations are used, meeting other people and for getting experienced people alongside you when you visit the Jungle itself.  They know how things work in camp and how to get donations to the people who need them most, as well as the general distributions.

If you have construction skills to offer, l’Auberge also focuses on construction work, building shelters and getting materials into the Jungle so that the refugees can work on their own projects.

If you have other skills, there are other groups doing specific work, e.g. medics, that you should be able to find details of by asking in the Facebook groups .  As a volunteer librarian, one of the things I am going to focus on is getting more books to the library, Jungle Books, especially bilingual dictionaries and ESOL learning materials, and books in the relevant languages (Arabic, Pashto, Amharic, Tigrinya, Farsi, Urdu).

If you don’t have much time and/or feel confident enough to go straight to the Jungle, make sure you are taking the right donations – there is already a huge waste management problem out there so don’t make it worse – and seek advice / think carefully about how you will distribute them.

Other general tips:

  • The youth hostel offers a reduced rate for volunteers after the first night, you need to quote the relevant name which you can get from l’Auberge des Migrants if you volunteer with them.
  • The hostel, warehouse and camp are not particularly close to each other, a few miles between each, so think about how you will get around.
  • I’m usually not bad at finding my way around when driving, but didn’t get my bearings in Calais at all!  Take a satnav if you can!
  • The Family Pub.  It’s a terrible name for a pub, but very welcoming to volunteers, decent mid-priced food and great for meeting other volunteers and sharing experiences at the end of day.
  • Try not to get your van burned down.


by Fran Belbin, first published on her blog





Calaid http://www.calaid.co.uk/

Calaidipedia http://www.calaidipedia.co.uk/

Calais Migrant Solidarity https://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/

l’Auberge des Migrants http://www.laubergedesmigrants.fr/ (French)

Facebook groups:

l’Auberge des Migrants https://www.facebook.com/laubergedesmigrantsinternational (mainly English)

UK – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromUK

There are also lots of specialist groups linked to this group – e.g. for waste management, construction, firewood, food distribution

For Sheffield people:

Sheffield – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromSheffield

Sheffield drivers and passengers group https://www.facebook.com/groups/497004920476240



Thanks to Kate Evans (Twitter @cartoonkate) for her kind permission to reproduce some of her cartoon “Threads – the Calais cartoon”. You can see the whole thing in its full beauty here.

Thanks to all those people who made our trip possible.  Unite the Union NE/GEO/1(Sheffield East branch) which donated £1000, Unite Community South Yorkshire and many people who gave money. And time: someone had to fill 300 bags with portions of coriander, salt and turmeric.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are by Fran. And special thanks to her for doing most of the planning, loading and all of the driving to Calais. At least you didn’t have to drive back. RIP Bimble the camper van.

“That place should be investigated” – Asylum tenants hit back at G4S

Neglect, contempt and hostility — how the UK government and G4S really “welcome refugees” by John Grayson

Matthew’s accommodation (John Grayson)

This article was first published by Open Democracy on November 26th 2015 https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/shinealight/john-grayson/neglect-contempt-and-hostility-how-uk-government-really-welcomes-refugee


I was talking to Paul, an asylum seeker from the Middle East in a G4S house in a working class suburb of Sheffield. One of Paul’s neighbours was a transgender woman whom G4S had placed in the all-male flats, forcing her to share a bedroom with a young Muslim man. The woman had been teased as a ‘man woman’ but not apparently disliked or harassed.

Perhaps the Home Office and G4S were following the policy of the Prison Service, displayed in  recent cases where they have placed  trans-gender women in all-male prisons. One, Vicky Thompson, aged 21, was recently found dead at Armley jail in Leeds, after apparently telling friends she would kill herself if sent there. The Prison Service argues it is ‘legal status’ not the assumed gender which determines treatment. G4S had gone one better than the Prison Service by insisting that a trans gender woman had to share a bedroom with a man.

Paul showed me the G4S attendance list where there was a male name, and confirmed that this was the woman. She had not signed for a couple of weeks and no one knew where she was now.

Jacob’s story

Jacob is nervous and agitated. “I can’t sleep, I hardly ever sleep,” he tells me. His Rasta sweatbands hide scars of past self-harming. His G4S accommodation is some of the best I have seen — a newly converted villa in a Sheffield suburb.

Jacob likes the place and the staff who are there during the day. He hates the CCTV cameras on the corridors and near the door. “They’re just like in the detention centres,” he says. Jacob has been in and out of detention centres, and the asylum system for twelve years. He remembers the cameras in the G4S-managed Brook House IRC (Immigration Removal Centre) where he was held on three separate occasions waiting to be deported.

But what he really hates and fears is being forced to share his bedroom. Ten days before I talk to him Jacob had been discharged from hospital after he had tried to take his life. His room is his own for now but a new resident is due to be moved in. Jacob tells me he is very afraid.

I’ve written here in the past about various indignities suffered by asylum seekers living in Home Office accommodation provided by the commercial contractor G4S. Rats, asbestos, cockroaches, have featured in my articles, intimidation too. Is being forced to share a bedroom really so bad? Asylum seekers tell me it is.

Matthew’s story

An African political refugee, and medical scientist in his fifties, Matthew has spent over a year in the UK asylum housing system. He looks tired and frail. “I think I will be OK, this is the second time the system and G4S have tried to kill me,” he tells me.

Matthew was recovering from his second heart attack since he had entered the UK asylum system. I met him in his G4S flat, on the edge of a suburban council estate in Sheffield, sparsely furnished with second hand chairs and table (pictured above).

He had arrived in 2014 when international security companies G4S and Serco, who manage detention centres and provide asylum housing in the UK, were overwhelmed by the growing numbers of new asylum seekers. The Home Office was telling them to use hotels. Matthew was sent first to the overcrowded and seedy Heathrow Lodge, then to a Birmingham budget hotel because the Birmingham Initial Accommodation Centre (IAC) was full.

“In the Heathrow place it was just packaged sandwiches we were given, with occasional out of date cartons of yogurt,” Matthew told me. “In Birmingham it was the same one hot meal — chicken curry, rice and salad — every single day, for two months, through November and December, young children of three years old had the same meals. We had to eat round the back of the hotel in a freezing room out of sight of any other guests — the owners said we were dirty and ‘not normal’.”

The approach to Matthew’s accommodation

Matthew helped to organise protests about the food, and about the failure of the heating and hot water which meant men, women and children going down two floors to the gym for a shower.

“When I rang G4S they told me the Home Office paid for only one hot meal,” Matthew tells me. “When I tackled the hotel owners they said they would report me, and protesting would affect my asylum claim. When I demanded some space for activities for the children they told me the daily one and a half hours’ access to the lounge was all anyone could have. So twice a week I took the young people on a one mile walk to a church hall who gave us space, and I started English classes.”

“The small hotel was often overcrowded with seventy to ninety asylum seekers there, never less than forty-five. We had to share our rooms, two and sometimes three to a room.” Matthew told me he had suffered from a heart condition since 2008 and he carried lots of his medication into the asylum system.

The first heart attack and then the bed bugs

“The constant pressure and insulting, degrading treatment finally had its effect on me. Early in December I recognised the symptoms of a heart attack and went to the main Initial Accommodation Centre building to get referred to hospital. They offered me paracetamol and sent me away. At the door a G4S driver saw I was in pain and decided to drive me to hospital, when he left me there he said G4S might refuse to pick me up after treatment so I had to ring him. I had treatment and spent three days in hospital and sure enough on the Sunday when I was discharged I rang G4S and they said that I would have to wait till Monday. My friend the driver came for me in his own car.”

After three months in ‘temporary’ holding accommodation Matthew expected to be ‘dispersed’ to asylum housing. Instead he was sent to Urban House (another Initial Accommodation Centre) under the walls of Wakefield high security prison. Again a shared room, this time bunk beds.

“I had no medical check for the first three weeks,” Matthew says. “Things just got worse. I was getting bitten by bed bugs. In my university I am a parasitologist, I have lectured for eighteen years about disease-carrying insects. I knew bed bugs would affect my medication. In Urban House they hadn’t a clue. Over four days they refused to really do anything effective. They sprayed my room with pyrethrum which has no effect on bed bugs. In the end I went out and bought bleach and washed the bedclothes and could find only one dryer working in the whole building. That place should be investigated — bed bugs can easily spread into the community around the centre. The staff in there are authoritarian and insulting. I was mocked because I love to dress neat — you think you work here? they said sarcastically.”

G4S asylum housing in Sheffield was no real improvement. Matthew was put in a three bed roomed terraced house. “I was forced to share a room with a twenty-one-year-old smoker from Chechnya,” he says.  By now he was pleading with G4S. His doctors wrote asking for a single room as his blood pressure soared. After three weeks the young man was moved and so was Matthew.

“G4S played another trick on me. They first moved me to a clean single room near to the city centre and my doctors. They then came again after twenty-four hours and said it was a mistake.

“I was moved to these flats miles out of the city centre, again to a shared bedroom. At first I simply refused to move in, they shouted at me and started taking my bags and saying I could sleep on the streets then. I now live a four miles round trip from hospital services and a mile walk to the only post office designated to pay me my support.”

Resisting the asylum system and G4S

I had heard that Matthew was volunteering to speak to groups about being an asylum seeker; I asked him about this. Matthew told me of a meeting with a women’s business forum. “I went there with a Yemeni asylum seeker – she had worked for the IMF and been an adviser in the Yemeni Finance Ministry. Not surprisingly the people there said that they didn’t realise that asylum seekers were people like us!”

Matthew was also keen to volunteer to help in the Sheffield campaign to get Sheffield City Council to stop G4S forcing asylum housing tenants to share bedrooms. The campaign had already sent a petition to the council meeting and the council had agreed to refuse to licence any new G4S HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) where unrelated residents were forced to share bedrooms. In one slum HMO I had investigated G4S and the private landlord who supplied the property were set to receive over £28,000 over the year from the Home Office for housing nine men in shared rooms. G4S therefore was unwilling to stop bedroom sharing in their existing properties. In one house where there had been protests they posted the “G4S Golden Rules” one of which read:

Room Sharing Everyone has to share a room. You will be given a roommate at some stage and must accept them. They will be selected for you and you have no right to request a different roommate.”

Asylum seekers and activists from SYMAAG asked for a meeting with the chair of housing at Sheffield City Council. We wanted to find a way of ending all bedroom sharing in G4S accommodation. Matthew was part of the delegation, and his testimony proved crucial in finally ending room sharing from 31 October.

I last saw Matthew at a public meeting where he sought me out to say that he had been offered a ‘political’ appointment in a university in his home country. “Don’t worry, John,” he said.  “I will get protection there, and I am just very glad to get out of this asylum system. Here the system was so demoralising for me. It made me feel like a criminal, not someone seeking safety.”

And if refugees do manage to get to the UK…

In September in these same flats where Matthew lived, a young Eritrean man had spent a few weeks in one of the shared bedrooms. He had come across the Mediterranean from Libya to Lampedusa across Europe through Calais and then to the flats in Sheffield. The Home Office had discovered he had been fingerprinted at Lampedusa – and deported him to Italy via Morton Hall Detention Centre in Lincolnshire. Apparently as other asylum seekers were helping him to pack his few belongings he cheerily told them: “I’ll be back soon.”

Dozens of young Eritreans like him find themselves in Urban House in Wakefield, still in their dirty and torn clothes from Calais. Urban House provides no replacement clothing; local charities in Wakefield have to appeal for donations of clothing, shoes and packs of new underwear. One charity worker I spoke to said. “What we really need are packs of new underwear for the men, Urban House refuse to supply them, G4S say the Home Office did not specify this in their contract”

Of the 3,239 Eritrean migrants who made the perilous journey to the UK in 2014 to apply for asylum, 87 per cent were granted asylum. In March this year the Home Office decided bizarrely that Eritrea was a ‘safe’ country. Approval rates for Eritreans then plummeted from 73% in the first quarter of 2015 to 34% in the second quarter. Last year in 2014, the Home Office refused 70% of Iraqis, 70% of Libyans, and 65% of Afghans who claimed asylum.

2012 protest against G4S in Sheffield. G4S still get public money for forcing adults to share rooms in asylum housing

2012 protest against G4S in Sheffield. G4S still get public money for forcing adults to share rooms in asylum housing

Around England

Again the UK asylum system is responding badly to the very modest increase in those managing to get into the country. The Birmingham IAC is full and hotels are again being used. Serco is transporting people by stretch limousine across the country to budget hotels in Lancashire. Families are still being forced to live in appalling asylum housing. Natasha Walter recently reported on  ‘Jane’ an asylum seeker from the Congo (DRC) in London where

“The housing provided by the Home Office is one room where she and her two children sleep in the same bed, infested with cockroaches and freezing cold.”

The Conservatives and UKIP majority on Portsmouth city council have recently not only rejected the idea of taking Syrian refugees, but have decided to  opt out of taking asylum seekers at all. At present Home Office contractor Clearel houses 124 asylum seekers in the city of 210,000 people. The Council argues that they put too much pressure on local schools in fact only eighteen of the asylum seekers are children, and none of them go to schools in the city.

The asylum rules are being tightened and the process becomes more brutalised. The Immigration Bill before parliament has a proposal that everyone who claims asylum will immediately be considered as ‘on bail’ just as if they were criminals who have been charged with the offence of claiming asylum. For many years migrants and refugees have been labelled as ‘illegals’, and criminalised, now the label is to be confirmed in parliamentary statute.

The Home Office has for months signalled these changes, in April their hard line Dial strategy was presented as a warning to asylum seekers and voluntary groups in Sheffield. After the elections in May the Home Office and its contractor Capita started tagging women asylum seekers released from Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

The other week I met with Barbara in Barnsley G4S asylum housing. She had been wearing her degrading tag since June. Barbara had been moved yet again to another asylum house with seven other women — and yet again forced to share a room. The Home Office refuses to disclose to me, through FOI questions, when they started tagging asylum seekers and how many are wearing their electronic shackles. Their response:

“to extract the information that you have requested would only be possible at a disproportionate cost.”

Perhaps the Home Office faced with repeated protests and mass demonstrations at Yarl’s Wood, and escalating cuts to its budget, is following recent developments in the USA where federal courts have freed undocumented women from detention on condition that they wear tags as part of the ‘Intensive Supervision Appearance Program’. Estimates suggest that an ‘ankle monitor’ costs the authorities $4.50 a day compared with $260 a day for detention.

The UK government’s real view of refugees was surely betrayed by David Cameron’s comment about the “swarm” of them at Calais. The British government had fences, barbed wire, and riot police guarding its border on French soil at Calais many years before the Hungarians ‘shocked’ Europe with theirs.

There have been degrading camps around Calais now for the past ten years. They are the ‘deterrent’, just like the discredited ‘fast track’ treatment of new asylum seekers, just like the abuse and ill treatment of women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, just like the fatal treatment meted out to an elderly Canadian man at Harmondsworth detention centre – and just like the disgusting and disrespectful conditions in asylum housing and accommodation throughout the UK.

After the Paris killings, media reporting, linking the attacks to refugees seeking safety in Europe, threatens the UK peoples present welcoming mood towards Syrian refugees and asylum seekers in general. The government-led ‘hostile environment’ might just be getting even more hostile.


For their protection, asylum seekers’ names have been changed.

Making a Killing Out of a Catastrophe

The current refugee crisis is a mouthwatering business opportunity for security, arms, surveillance and border technology corporations. The “immigration industry” is booming. The walls of Fortress Europe – invisible or spiked with razor wire – do not build themselves. Hein de Haas, for example, has written perceptively on “The Real Migration Industry”.

A new book “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of a Catastrophe” by Antony Loewenstein was published in September 2015. In July 2014 Antony came to meet members of SYMAAG and South Yorkshire Stop G4S in Sheffield. We had lots to talk about: amongst many other things Antony has been looking at the role of corporations like G4S and Serco in profiting from the increasingly harsh anti-migrant regimes in Australia, the UK and around the world. We also enjoyed the irony of activists from the UK and Australia and refugees from around the world being brought together by our opposition to global corporations like G4S and Serco.

We showed Antony some of the slum G4S housing in north east Sheffield and spoke to him about the brave resistance of G4S tenants to the ignorance, neglect and abuse they experienced. Then he wrote about it.

With kind permission we reproduce an edited excerpt from the book below. This piece, originally published by Open Democracy looks at how G4S, Serco and Capita have made a killing in the “asylum market” and beyond.

“Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of a Catastrophe” is published by Verso books. Listen here to a 12 minute interview by Novara Media with Antony Loewenstein about these issues and more.




Disaster capitalism, and the outsourcing of violence in the UK

Corporations bleed what profits they can from disaster. Democracy is replaced by a business plan. An excerpt from Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe.


“I am very passionate about our values and building this company not to make a profit. If profit is an immediate by product, then that’s wonderful. If you can make it have an impact on society, people’s lives and make it fun, crumbs, then we don’t have to worry about making this profit or that. It happens naturally.”  Former Serco chief executive Christopher Hyman, 2006



I was driven to a poor suburb to the north of Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. Children and parents played in the street. The houses looked shabby, some painted various shades of red, with boarded-up windows. I arrived with local activists at a nondescript property. Michael, who was from Cameroon, opened the door and welcomed us warmly in fluent English.

The house was managed by British multinational G4S. It was a damp-smelling, three-storey building with steep stairs. Though the tenants received little money from the state and were not legally allowed to work, they had to buy cleaning products and other essentials for themselves. Clearly, this was not a priority. In the kitchen I saw the effect of leaking water, grimy around the sink. A mop stood in the corner. I was told the floor remained stained even after washing.

The back garden was overgrown, with rubbish in the tall grass, and old cushions, a washing machine, and boxes were piled up in a small shed. The shower was covered with mold—there was usually hot water, but there had been a period in the winter when it ran cold for three months.

In the living room, a form bearing a G4S logo noted the times when a G4S Housing Officer had visited, together with the list of asylum-seeker tenants, who had originated from many nations. The Housing Officers visited once a month, and although Michael said they were often friendly, they rarely took action to remedy the property’s many problems.

Since he had been in the place for nine months, I asked Michael why he had not cleaned it up. He would have to buy gloves to do it, he said—another expense—and it was easier to ignore it. The carpet on the stairs was peeling, posing a danger to residents and visitors.

Most bedrooms were occupied by two people, each with a single bed. Every room had a lock on the door. Michael said he got along with his housemates—a small mercy in the cramped space available—and he was lucky to have the attic on his own, which afforded a view over the drab city. The room contained a Bible, a laptop—though no chair—coins, shoes, suitcases, soap, and shampoo. Water had leaked from the ceiling for months, and G4S had not fixed it. It was cold and depressing, though I was visiting in July, at the height of summer.

Back yard of a G4S house in Sheffield (John Grayson)

Michael was on a cocktail of drugs for anxiety and depression, awaiting a decision on his asylum claim after a re-application. He said he could not return to Cameroon as a result of political repression against his family. He did not want to speak on the record, and I understood why: he felt vulnerable. Nonetheless, Michael was articulate, bright, and despairing. The state of his housing and the limbo in which his asylum claim languished made him deeply unhappy—though he was one of the lucky ones, receiving state-provided weekly counseling.  Many others were left to fend for themselves, often ending up on the streets.

A cool breeze ran through the property. The heaters worked in the winter, but with leaking water, living with other migrants in a similar state of inertia and with no paid work, the situation was guaranteed to generate fluctuating moods—which was surely the point. Michael sometimes volunteered with a local NGO to talk to schoolchildren about asylum seekers, in order to occupy his mind.

This G4S house was a disgrace, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Little money or care had been expended on it, or many others like it, because that would require funds whose use would damage the bottom line of a company whose sole aim was profit.

A 2013 Home Office committee, convened to investigate why G4S and Serco had not fulfilled their contract to provide decent housing, while allowing subcontractors to bully tenants, heard from James Thorburn, Serco’s managing director of home affairs, who explained: “We care for a lot of vulnerable people and we run two immigration centers, so we understand the immigration market.”

Making money from misery

Thorburn gave an almost identical statement in late 2014, when Serco won another contract to continue running the Yarl’s Wood detention center. Although the 2013 Home Office committee had elicited admissions from officials that it was not sensible to grant housing contracts to organizations with no experience running them, the contracts had already been signed, and G4S had no fear of losing them. As elsewhere, unaccountability functioned as a core value of disaster capitalism. It’s an ideology that thrives of making money from misery, in the West and the rest, from immigration to war and aid to mining.

G4S houses, Sheffield

We drove a short distance to another G4S property. It was a three-storey building with nine tenants, in better condition and tidier than the first. An Iranian man, Bozorg, said his housemate had cleaned the place for Ramadan. There was a G4S sign in the entrance hall that read: “This house has now been professionally cleaned: Please keep it clean and tidy at all times.” The G4S “House Rules” read like a prison manual for good behavior.

The company barely provided anything of use, and Bozorg said that nothing had been done about an infestation of mice. He had clashed with an African housemate, and did not feel secure. The back garden was overgrown and dirty, and G4S had not sent anybody to clear it up.

Bozorg had been in Britain for six years, and had not seen his wife and two children during that time. He broke down when recounting a conversation with his wife in which she had told him that his sons, twelve and eight, had been teased at school in Iran because he was in Britain and not around to support them. “What can I do?” he begged, seeking answers from me that I was unable to provide. I turned away, embarrassed. He was on heavy medication to manage the depression and anxiety. Because of a bad back, he was unable to sleep on a bed, so he lay on a mattress on the floor.

A local NGO requested that Bozorg be moved to another G4S property, because his physical condition meant that he could not climb the stairs in the middle of the night to relieve himself. He showed me the plastic bottle into which he urinated. He showered every three days, when he found the strength to pull himself up the stairs.

He had been waiting for years for a final resolution of his asylum claim, but his previous solicitor had not represented him properly. Bozorg was now filing a complaint against him. It was common for lawyers, paid badly by the state, simply to give up on cases, leaving their clients without representation. Successive governments have progressively cut legal aid, leaving thousands of asylum seekers with no real chance of success. The system is guaranteed to leave asylum seekers in limbo, while enriching the countless corporations that leech off it.

Bozorg was keen to tell me his story. He was a Christian and this caused him political problems in Iran. There was no way to verify his story or that of Michael before him. Robert, the local campaigner, knew both men and said it was likely that they would eventually both be granted asylum, though it might take some years. But there was no excuse to house people indefinitely in inadequate accommodation while they awaited resolution of their cases. This property was in far better shape than the one I had visited earlier; but with nine people living in a relatively small place, only two working burners on the stove, and not enough refrigerator space for everyone’s food, Bozorg was desperate to move.

Asylum Help was a service that advertised itself as helping refugees to understand the asylum process. I saw an A4 sheet of paper advertising it in the hallway. Anyone who called the number was put on hold for at least thirty minutes, and the services then offered were barely satisfactory. This situation was repeated across the country, with few of the asylum seekers having a chance to be heard. The media was largely uninterested, and the Home Office and charity bureaucracy resented having to talk to journalists and migrants at all. Activists and immigrants all told me that the system was close to useless.

Thriving profiteers

This reality of privatised housing for refugees was linked to the country’s housing crisis, both for asylum seekers and for the general population, but not for the reasons its defenders claimed. It had not brought greater freedom in the market; it had simply allowed profiteers to thrive, because the mantra of “self-reliance” for the poor — another term for hanging the underclass out to dry— had become official government policy. A select few companies — G4S, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Bellway, Redrow, Bovis, Crest Nicholson — had captured the market.

John Grayson was a friendly and passionate sixty-nine-year-old activist. Over the years he had worked in adult education, as an independent researcher, teaching and researching on housing and social movements, and as a solidarity campaigner. He was now a member of Symaag, the South Yorkshire Migration Asylum Action Group. “Councils used to provide housing through public funds,” he told me. “Then this all went through privatization by Labour and the Tories, and Labour often pushed for more privatisation of asylum-seeker services. Now private contractors do the dirty work for the state, but it’s the outsourcing of violence. The state should have a monopoly on these tasks.”

The rot deepened from 2012 onwards. Britain started privatising asylum housing, the Home Office giving most of the contracts to G4S and Serco. There was a plan to “nationalize providers,” and the country was divided into separate territories for the purpose—and Yorkshire was allocated to G4S. Asylum housing was only for those waiting for an outcome of their asylum claim, but many others were homeless. Grayson recalled a 2012 public meeting about the proposed plan at which a Zimbabwean man said: “I don’t want a prison guard as my landlord. I’ve seen G4S in South Africa.”

The G4S-run Angel Lodge in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, situated in the grounds of Wakefield prison, was dirty because the company would not pay for better services. The rooms were home to rats and cockroaches. Pregnant women were placed in poor housing with steep stairs. Food poisoning was common. Some private contractors did not pay council fees, and tenants quickly discovered that heating and electricity had been disconnected.

The British press rarely reported these conditions, instead high- lighting the “four-star” treatment given to migrants. The Daily Mail claimed in May 2014 that asylum seekers were being treated by G4S to luxury accommodation because the Angel Lodge “specialist hostel” was full. In truth, Angel Lodge was a grim facility that generated constant complaints from its residents.

Bungling, overcharging. . .

G4S is a behemoth, operating in 125 countries with over 657,000 employees, whose work has included guarding prisoners in Israeli-run prisons in Palestine. In 2014 the company predicted huge growth in the Middle East, especially in Egypt and the Gulf states. In Britain alone, G4S controlled countless police tasks from 2012 onwards, in a partially privatized system whereby police officers continued to make arrests, but G4S staff processed suspects in their own “custody suites”.

In 2014, G4S won a $118 million contract to deliver “base operating services” at the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba (though reportedly sold its share in a subsidiary company soon after). G4S ran countless private prisons across Britain, despite being routinely fined for failing to meet its agreed targets. Occasionally, mainstream politicians criticised Serco, G4S, and other providers, but they did little to enforce greater accountability.

Founded in 1929, Serco has been ubiquitous in British life, running ferries, London’s Docklands Light Railway, the National Physical Laboratory, prisons, defense contracts, education authorities, waste management, and a host of other operations. It has over 100,000 employees globally and controls prisons in Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. It operated with a $1.25 billion contract from the Obama administration to implement Obamacare, despite a Serco whistle-blower having alleged that its staff had “hardly any work to do” during a botched programme.

Both Serco and G4S were complicit in overcharging by tens of millions of pounds for the electronic tagging of prisoners — some of whom were found to have been dead at the time — from the 2000s onwards. The Serious Fraud Office was tasked in 2013 with investigating, and in late 2014 Serco was forced to reimburse the Ministry of Justice to the tune of £68.5 million.

The government’s solution to this fraud was not to address the reasons that privateers had been able to deceive them — loosely written contracts and little appetite for enforcement — but to hand over the contract to a Serco and G4S rival, Capita. This corporation, formed in 1994 with 64,000 staff, has become the largest beneficiary of outsourcing in Britain. By 2015, it ran all Cabinet Office civil-service training, as well as contracting with the Criminals Record Bureau to manage and maintain criminal records, plus many others. A “clean skin,” relatively speaking, Capita operated without the recent controversies surrounding Serco and G4S, and it appealed to governments craving commercial secrecy for services traditionally run by the state.

The Home Office dispensed with the services of the UK Border Agency in 2013 for failing to manage properly a huge backlog of asylum cases. It then appointed Capita, with a £40 million contract. The company bungled its delivery, sending hundreds of text messages to individuals who were in the country legally, reading: “Message from the UK Border Agency: You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have the right to remain.” Others who had chosen to leave Britain were sent messages by Capita wishing them a “pleasant journey”.

This callousness was highlighted again during a 2015 inquiry that showed Tascor’s medical staff, operated by Capita, ignoring health warnings about a Pakistani man, Tahir Mehmood, before he died at Manchester airport in 2013. Corporate delays and incompetence caused Mehmood’s death, because contracted employees did not see information about his ongoing chest pains.

War, who is it good for?

Never miss a good opportunity to make money from disaster — this was the unofficial mantra of Capita boss Paul Pindar, when he told the Public Accounts Committee in 2013 that the reason army recruitment was down was the “disadvantage that we actually have no wars on.”

These words were spoken before the battle against Islamic State militants had commenced. Capita was given the Ministry of Defence contract to manage advertising, marketing, and the processing of application forms for the army. Pindar’s brutally honest admission — that war was good for business — was refreshing. The fact that all of the conflicts Britain had engaged in since 9/11—including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya — had been catastrophic failures was not mentioned as a factor in Pindar’s skewed reasoning.

Paul Pindar, former chief executive, Capita

Britain’s immigration policy had played a key role in generating profits for privateers. Britain had had an Immigration Act since 1971 that allowed the incarceration of asylum seekers in detention facilities or jails, and by the 1990s there was public pressure to manage the growing number of arriving migrants more stringently.

The Murdoch press and Daily Mail convinced many citizens that a nation with a harmonious past was being swamped with criminals. Activists argued that it was wholly inappropriate for individuals fleeing repression to be held in prison-like conditions; punishment as a deterrent had been the default setting for years, and yet it had not stemmed the flow of people. Refugees continued to arrive because the global crises that were the cause of the influx persisted.

In October 2014, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee detailed the 11,000 asylum seekers waiting in Britain for at least seven years to hear if they would be allowed to stay; the further 29,000 migrants still awaiting official assessment of their applications; and the 50,000 immigrants who had had their claims rejected, then disappeared.

The mad rush to privatise seemingly everything had few limits in the minds of its advocates. Since 2000, there had been lucrative investments in residential homes for the needy and mentally disturbed. Utilities were routinely outsourced, and prices increased. “Welfare to Work” contractors were lining their pockets, with little evidence of success.

Despite public opposition, there were growing moves to privatize public libraries, schools, child protection services, and forests. University courses, the fight against climate change, and foreign aid were all endeavors that were routinely framed as having to serve commercial interests, rather than the common good.

Prime Minister David Cameron has outsourced hundreds of medical services during his time in power, including non-emergency ambulance services and community care. Robots were increasingly replacing nursing staff—a development welcomed by companies looking to cut costs. Reductions in government funding for public hospitals led to the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Rob Webster, warning in 2014 that the NHS would have to start charging patients £75 per night for a bed—an unthinkable measure in a supposedly public system.

In 2015, Britain’s only privately run NHS hospital, Hinchingbrooke, dropped its contractor, Circle Holdings. This was unsurprising, because a 2014 report found that there had been little oversight of the facility, as well as “poor hygiene levels.” and major problems in the emergency department. Taxpayers were forced to shell out for yet another tendering process.

The prioritization of market competition over quality healthcare had become the default setting of forces pushing for the privatisation of the NHS itself, against the strong opposition of medical experts and the public. Even the US defense company Lockheed Martin was keen to bid on a £1 billion GP support service contract.

According to journalist John Pilger, what the country had witnessed was “the replacement of democracy by a business plan for every human activity, every dream, every decency, every hope, every child born.”



This is an edited extract from Antony Loewenstein’s book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe, published by Verso. Full references appear in the book.

The book has received the following endorsements:

  • Noam Chomsky: “Chilling study, based on careful and courageous reporting, and illuminated with perceptive analysis, helps us understand all too well the saying that man is a wolf to man.”
  • John Pilger: “A journey into a world of mutated economics and corrupt politics that we ignore at our peril.”
  • Naomi Klein: “The forces of disaster capitalism are increasingly on the defensive, but their attacks on the global commons have expanded in the years since I wrote The Shock Doctrine. I am very grateful that Antony Loewenstein has brought his meticulous reporting to this subject, and the result is a keenly observed and timely investigation into rampant resource plunder, privatized detention centers, and an array of other forms of corporate rapacity on four continents. This book will serve as a potent weapon for shock resistors around the world.”
  • Jeremy Scahill: “A devastating, incisive follow-up to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.”

“Break fences, build bridges” Sheffield welcomes refugees

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” was the call from 250 people on a march and rally in Sheffield on October 10th.

"Refugees are human beings. Fences are for animals". Activists and artists from Hope and Dignity. pic by Tim Dennell

“Refugees are human beings. Fences are for animals”. Activists and artists from Hope and Dignity.
pic by Tim Dennell

Not only was there a good turnout for the march – called by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group – but it was supported by many organisations:  Sheffield University Amnesty International, Sheffield Unite Community Union, Nether Edge and Heeley Labour Party, Sheffield Green Party, Sheffield Trade Union Council, ASSIST, People’s Assembly, Sheffield City of Sanctuary, Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, Hope and Dignity and many refugee organisations. The march was led by refugees and university students carrying a replica border fence!

rwhbreakfencesTesfam, a refugee from Eritrea stressed the need to address the underlying causes of migration from his country. “To say ‘Don’t Let Them Drown’ is only the start, we need to look at the colonial roots of this refugee crisis. My country was wealthy”. Tesfam explained that his grandfather had been killed by the British colonial forces in Eritrea in 1941: by a soldier from Rotherham in the Yorkshire Regiment. Tamara had just returned from a support visit to the Calais refugee camp and explained how conditions there undermined people’s humanity.

We marched up The Moor shopping precinct to a mixed reception: some applause and curiosity, some hostility. It certainly wasn’t possible to ignore 250 of us chanting loudly, many dressed in red to symbolise the blood spilt trying to reach safety. Perhaps the sight of real asylum seekers in person will make people think when they next hear refugees described like animals.

We ended at Sheffield Town Hall for a rally addressed first by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty. Shami congratulated the marchers for “shaming politicians” and explained that “human rights abuses are so often used as a justification for war ‘over there’ but never for human rights’ protection ‘over here'”.

You can watch video of the protest and an interview with Shami Chakrabarti by Sheffield Live here. Unite trade union also made a great short video of the march followed by interviews here 


John Dunn an ex-coalminer on strike for a year in 1984-5 told us about his holiday on the French Riviera involving a chance encounter with the Ventimiglia migrant border camp. He compared the violence of the British state against striking miners to that of French and Italian police against the Eritrean and Sudanese inhabitants of the border camp. “Governments always want an external enemy, it was us (striking miners) in 1984 now it’s migrants escaping persecution and war”. He called for solidarity from trade unions and announced his intention to establish a “Miners For Migrants” group.


There was time for everyone who wanted to speak to have their say, including Pride from Cameroon;  Abdi Suleiman from University of Sheffield, Gogo from Hope and Dignity; John Grayson and Phillis Andrew from SYMAAG; Councillor Nasima Akhtar; Kaltun Elmi, a local Somali community activist; Phil Turner from Rotherham Unite against Fascism and Graham Wroe, Sheffield Green Party


Only a month after the picture of Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Greek beach, Theresa May signalled the end of any show of compassion, blaming migrants for destroying ‘cohesion’ in the UK. But for many people around Europe ‘migrants’ became seen as human beings, efforts were made to welcome refugees, mountains of goods for refugee camps were collected. We want Sheffield City Council to match this solidarity by resettling many more refugees in our ‘City of Sanctuary’. We want the UK Government to grant asylum to people currently living in desperation in camps around Europe. Our movement isn’t going away. Neither are people escaping war, poverty and persecution.


Do you want to volunteer to support refugees?

  • Collect material for the Calais border camp and help sort stuff already collected
  • Support one of the Sheffield to Calais aid trips, like this one
  • Teach English to refugees
  • Help recruit and train refugee football teams
  • Donate to refugee charities
  • Help feed and house destitute asylum seekers
  • Support people seeking asylum with advice and legal support
  • Campaign for policy change

If so visit the Sheffield Volunteer Centre website, contact us at dignitynotdetention@yahoo.co.uk or download the volunteering fact sheet below. Many organisations in South Yorkshire and beyond can offer you training and support to work with people seeking asylum. You can download a summary at How Can I Help Make Refugees Welcome in SheffieldUpDATED


Thanks to Tim Dennell, Jonathan Christian, Kaltun Elmi and Sheffield Live for photos

All photos below by Tim Dennell

Shami Chakrabarti: "We are shaming the politicians who cry crocodile tears for refugees"

Shami Chakrabarti: “We are shaming the politicians who cry crocodile tears for refugees”

Phillis, vice-chair of SYMAAG closes the rally with a call to keep fighting

Phillis, vice-chair of SYMAAG closes the rally with a call to keep fighting

Welcoming refugees in Arabic and English

Welcoming refugees in Arabic and English

Kaltun speaks. Red was the colour today

Kaltun speaks about Sheffield being a welcoming place for refugees

Let them in

Let them in



“We could not just walk by”: eyewitness report from migrant border camp

by John Dunn, ex-coal miner and striker during the 1984/85 miners strike and member of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign
“Just back from a week in the South of France, staying in Menton, a Riviera Town a few kilometres from the Italian border. On our first afternoon there Beverley and I decided to see if we could walk into Italy.
We could. Actually it’s dead easy, although it seemed a bit intimidating walking past armed gendarmes standing a few feet away from equally tooled up Carabanieri, but we strolled by unsolicited, neither side asking to see our passports, which we didn’t have.
A hundred yards or so in we saw a few banners and a collection of tents and realised we had stumbled across a migrant camp. Thus was explained the tooled up border guards.
“We could not just walk by”
We could not just walk by, or take photos as if it was just another tourist attraction, so we entered the camp and made ourselves known. A young Italian lad who spoke good English was brought to us and explained the situation, the migrants, I use that term, on his insistence as he refused to call them refugees simply because they were being denied that status, had arrived in July, mainly Sudanese and Eritrean with some Syrians. They had landed on the rocks that line the coast and been left there with nothing, simply sleeping in the clothes they wore. The young man and others from an anarchist group had gone to support them and had stayed there since, being joined by other volunteers of differing political persuasions.
Our first thought was on how well the camp was run and organised. This was nothing like the scenes of Calais assaulting our senses daily, courtesy of our wonderful media. It was as clean as it could possibly be and well laid out and structured. A couple of young migrants kicked a ball about, obviously glad to just be alive. Our interpreter explained that the camp was run as a collective with all decisions being made by meetings of both volunteers and migrants. No sense of a threatening atmosphere at all.
We explained that we were socialists and trade unionists from Britain and told him about the 100,000 demonstrating in London in support of refugees, something about which he knew nothing but promised to share the news with the camp. During all this I was almost overwhelmed with the sense of humanity within the camp and the fact that people were gladly giving up their time to help those less fortunate. I have wasted far too much political energy on organisations that want to ‘talk about it’ but do little else, here were people, mainly young, actually doing something about it!
Not wanting to take up any more of their time we made our farewell. We had not gone out with much cash but gave them 20 Euros which was so gratefully received it was unbelievable. Our interpreter gave us a clenched fist sign of solidarity and left with the words “hasta la victoria siempre” (“until victory, always”)
I have to admit I walked out of that camp emotionally shaken and glad my eyes were covered by sunglasses.
On our last day we visited again, we had some holiday euros left so made another donation. This time we spent more time, talking and listening. One of our young interpreters knew about our strike and had seen the film Pride, she told us that at its peak the camp had housed almost 2000 desperate people and had originally started purely as a protest against the refusal of the French government, that had exploited countries around the globe, to allow these people access.
I shudder to think what would have happened had the camp not been formed.
Most impressive was to see 40 or so migrants in a lesson, learning French, all paying strict attention to a young woman whose only technical aid was a flip chart. We were allowed to take photos but strictly no faces as these people face repression if identified, both in their country of origin and any country they might reach.
Show Support
Determined that our last visit would not be the end of it, this time we took contact details in order to raise their plight upon return. This is their Facebook page, please ‘like’ it and show support – Presidio-Permanente-No-Border-Ventimiglia.
We intend to raise support for them here, details will follow. I cannot help but remember the tremendous solidarity shown to my union, the National Union of Mineworkers, which sustained us through that fateful year. In the name of humanity if we can do just a little of that to aid people who literally have nothing then we can show some of that solidarity. One of the banners said simply that they could not go back because they have lost everything!
Please take note of that anyone who thinks we should not help!
I would never have imagined, when planning the holiday that my belief in humankind would be reinforced by being humbled, and seeing, even in the most desperate circumstances, humanity and compassion expressed so vividly.
The irony is that whilst we could stroll between borders without challenge, human beings fleeing war, torture and starvation are left to rot in a no man’s land.
A better world has to be possible.”

Postscript from John:


“The migrant camp I previously posted about was attacked by police last night during a peaceful demonstration. Where have we seen that before?”
Eritrean refugees carry the Orgreave Justice banner at Durham Miners Gala. ESOL classes are now hosted in the Miners Union HQ in Barnsley

Eritrean refugees carry the Orgreave Justice banner at Durham Miners Gala July 2015.  English as a Secondary Language classes are now hosted in the Miners Union HQ in Barnsley

South Yorkshire says “Refugees are Welcome Here”

How can you help make refugees welcome here? Have a look at How Can I Help Make Refugees Welcome in SheffieldUpDATED


South Yorkshire people are showing that we are part of the growing Europe-wide movement to welcome refugees. A demonstration organised at short notice drew over 100 people from different communities together to say “Refugees are Welcome Here”. The weekend after 150 people gathered outside Sheffield Town Hall at the same time as a massive protest in London and local events in Doncaster and Barnsley (pictured above).


The demonstration outside Sheffield Town Hall heard from refugees themselves and from people who had organised support for Syrian refugees. A video and short report from the Sheffield Star  is here. More pictures of the Sheffield protest are below (thanks to Manuch).



For the last 8 weeks there have been collections of clothes, food, health and hygiene products by Sheffield people who have taken them to refugees at Calais. Those people volunteering to collect, sort and transport donations have been overwhelmed in the last week by the generosity, humanity and solidarity shown by Sheffield people. They need your help! The Calais People to People Solidarity Fund Sheffield is the central body organising support for refugees in the Calais camps. You can donate here


Something Has Changed

We know that, particularly in South Yorkshire, there has always been humanity and solidarity shown to people migrating here. But in the last week or so something has changed. It wasn’t just the picture of Aylan Kurdi drowned on the Turkish beach: there has been an unstoppable movement of desperate and determined refugees demanding safety all over Europe. It has become impossible to ignore. Riot police and sniffer dogs in Calais, razor fences in Hungary and the UK Government’s “Let Them Drown” policy have not stopped refugees moving to safety.

Refugee children watch a showing of Tom and Jerry in Hungary

Recently-arrived refugee children watch a showing of Tom and Jerry in Hungary

And, it seems, this repression is now being questioned by more and more Europeans. Examples of solidarity are everywhere: German football fans with Refugees are Welcome banners; Austrian churches displaying “You Are Safe Here” signs; people in Hungary organising a Tom and Jerry film show for exhausted refugee children; Greek people sharing what little they have with refugees landing on Kos or Lesvos. This has forced European governments, including here in the UK to take some responsibility to support refugees fleeing from war and poverty often caused by European policy. As a refugee at the recent Right to Remain conference said “You do not set a man’s house on fire and then tell him not to run.”


Sheffield says “Refugees Welcome Here” protest on 6/9/15. Pics from Manuch




Pressure grows for review of Serco, G4S Asylum Housing

We want Sheffield Council to join Glasgow Council’s call for a review of the privatised COMPASS asylum housing contact. We’ll be handing in a petition – see below – to this effect at the next Sheffield City Council meeting on Wednesday 2nd September. Join us then at 1.45pm at Sheffield Town Hall to back our call.


On June 25th 2015 Glasgow City Council unamimously passed this resolution:

“Council notes the Home Office’s commercial contract known as COMPASS, which is for the accommodation of dispersed asylum seekers throughout the UK.

Council acknowledges that asylum dispersal is a well-established UK Government policy, stemming from the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

Council notes the ongoing concerns with the approach and implementation of the contract in Scotland by Serco and its sub-contractor, Orchard and Shipman as detailed in the Scottish Refugee Council’s report published in September 2014, “The Extent and Impact of Asylum Accommodation Problems in Scotland”.

“Council therefore instructs the Chief Executive to write to James Brokenshire MP, the Minister of State for Immigration, to express Council’s strong concerns at the reported treatment of asylum seekers covered by the COMPASS contract, and call for a review of COMPASS with the well-being and fair treatment of those claiming asylum being its clear priority.”



In August 2014 the Scottish Refugee Council published a damning report on asylum housing in Scotland concluding with “The breadth and severity of the examples of accommodation problems detailed in our research are shocking. We are sure that they mirror wider, endemic problems with asylum accommodation across the UK as a whole.”



Serco run the COMPASS asylum housing contract in Scotland, whereas G4S have the  contract here in Yorkshire and Humberside. Both companies’ performance in operating the COMPASS contract was described by the Public Account Committee as “unacceptably poor”


Take Action

Join us on September 2nd in urging Sheffield City Council to join Glasgow in calling for a review of the entire COMPASS asylum housing contract. We particularly welcome asylum tenants telling the councillors their views.

Download the petition to Sheffield City Council and return to us by 24th August at dignitynotdetention@yahoo.co.uk

COMPASS contract petition 2 Sept 15


Toddlers, rats, asbestos. G4S, asylum seekers’ landlord

SYMAAG’s John Grayson asks why would the UK government let its commercial contractor get away with housing vulnerable asylum seekers in dangerous slums?


Toddlers, rats, asbestos. G4S, asylum seekers’ landlord

Inside Jane’s flat

I went to see Jane in her upstairs flat in Sheffield. She was anxious and panicky. “I put anything I can under the doors,” she said. “The rats run up the stairs, and out of the store cupboard into the living room. I am frightened for the children.”

This one-bedroom slum flat is what the UK government considers good enough for a lone parent asylum seeker from Africa, her three year old child and her baby, aged seven months. Jane’s landlord is the government contractor, G4S, the world’s largest security company.

Jane’s flat wasn’t easy to find. I was directed by a neighbour through a damaged door only a few feet away from the Sheffield Supertram rails and down a dingy passage.

Jane answered her mobile and warned me about the double buggy blocking the steep stairs and her only entrance door. She told me later: “I have to leave it there, I cannot struggle up and down the stairs with it and my two children.”

There were child safety gates on the living room and kitchen sides of the stairs, but none at the head of the stairs. Jane said: “I turned my back one day and I found him [her three year old] swinging on a gate over the drop in the stairs. I can’t let him run around and play properly. There’s a hole in the corner of the living room floor. And it’s dangerous outside.”

Jane showed me exposed pipework and plugs and wires near the hole in the living room. I had already seen the back yard and the abandoned toilet area where the rats were coming from.

Tramlines outside the front door


“It’s dangerous outside.”Jane said: “The G4S worker thought the flat was OK and just told me to store the heavy buggy upstairs, he said it’s dangerous to block the stairs if there is a fire.”

Jane had been in the flat for three weeks. Over the previous two weeks she had been ringing G4S about the flat and the rats.

“Twice they said they were sending pest control – nobody arrived. My neighbour rang for me and still no-one has been.”

After I left Jane’s flat I rang the City Council pest control team. They arrived the next day. The council instructed G4S to send their pest control contractor. They finally turned up almost three weeks after Jane’s first calls.

The Home Office is obliged to provide accommodation for asylum seekers and their families while their cases are being processed.

In March 2012, the government contracted out these services to three companies, G4S, Serco and Reliance. (There’s a useful summary here: PDF)

G4S, Serco and Reliance were known among asylum seekers as the companies that drove them to detention centres and locked them up. Only Reliance (which formed a joint venture with a housing company) could claim any experience of the asylum housing sector.

G4S may be best known for its shambolic work on security at the London Olympics. Among asylum seekers G4S is the company that killed asylum seeker, Jimmy Mubenga.

The new housing arrangements have been a shambles from day one. Over the past three years, here on openDemocracy, I have told of children exposed to health risks in rat-infested homes, lone women intimidated by their landlords, acockroach in the baby’s bottle.

Jane’s flat is just one of the G4S slum properties in Sheffield that asylum seekers have shown me around over the past weeks.

Tony’s bathroom

In a dingy terrace house in a working class suburb of Sheffield I meet Tony, a Palestinian asylum seeker who wearily tells me of his nine years being bounced in and out of immigration detention and around the asylum housing system. Since making his original asylum claim in Bristol in 2006, he has been housed in Cardiff, Plymouth, Birmingham, Peterborough, Ipswich, Nottingham, Rochdale, and a few times in Bristol.

Tony has lost the sight in one eye and is losing the sight in the other one. He was living in Bristol and undergoing treatment for kidney trouble at Bristol Royal Infirmary when he got the Home Office order: “I got the letter that I was moving again. They didn’t tell me where I was going.”

G4S staff brought him 180 miles north to Sheffield to a filthy back street terrace house. “This house is the worst they have given me in all those years,” Tony said.

G4S is obliged to help Tony to travel for essential medical treatment and registration with a local GP, but that hasn’t happened.

It’s a ten mile round trip from his new home to the Sheffield eye clinic. I took him there after he showed me the house. Tony told me that in the week he had been in Sheffield, “I was given a map to find advice places and I walked into the city – I had no cash for the bus”. He had to walk four miles into the city centre to a drop-in advice centre and then another four miles back to his house.

Tony had no cash, only his government-issued Azure card allowing him a little over £5 a day and only useable at specified supermarkets.

How was his new home? “The carpets were dirty, there was rubbish dumped outside at the back, the bathroom was filthy and I was given a room with the furniture broken. They said they wouldn’t take me back to Bristol, I had to stay in the house.”

When I contacted Tony a few days later, G4S had brought a vacuum cleaner for Tony to clean the living room he shared with three other tenants. The day after that G4S called back and took the vacuum cleaner away.

Earlier this year, at a meeting with a Home Office official, local Sheffield voluntary sector workers were given a copy of The Dial, a visual representation of the government’s strategy that treats undocumented migrants as criminals. Part of this strategy is to “Create an environment that makes it harder to enter and live illegally in the UK”.

Tony is a Section 4 ‘failed asylum seeker’ in Home Office terms, living ‘illegally’ in the UK. Tony is also a very vulnerable human being whose failing health after nine years in the UK’s asylum ‘support’ system makes a mockery of claims that the UK has “a long tradition of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution”

The Dial, part of the Home Office’s armoury in the fight against “immigration crime”. 

Balbir is an Asian asylum seeker I met in another G4S asylum property. Balbir told me that he’s been locked up in various immigration detention centres – Dover, Dungavel in Scotland, Campsfield near Oxford, and Morton Hall in Lincolnshire. “I was detained in Harmondsworth; that’s a torture centre not a detention centre,” he said.

Balbir constantly protested about his treatment over nine long months and was constantly moved, he says, as a punishment. “I was finally released because I proved that I had been trafficked, and the High Court said that trafficked asylum seekers could not be kept in detention centres.”

Balbir was sent to asylum housing in Sheffield – to a slum property with a history of rats and disrepair. By this time Balbir could only get out of bed with crutches and was suicidal. (He showed me scars from his self-harming).

“My doctors wrote to the Home Office, I had carers visiting three times a day and they officially complained. G4S then moved me to a clean house near to the hospital and my doctors.”

Balbir became distressed and angry as he described how G4S had then moved him again to this shared slum house. “They moved me here from a clean house to this filthy place with real risks to my health.”

I had seen in the entrance hall an asbestos warning notice posted after an inspection by the council. There was a large hole in the ceiling in the kitchen where an asbestos risk had been detected. Balbir said: “My carers immediately wrote in their log that the kitchen was dangerous and I have had only cold food here for two weeks.”

A warning at Balbir’s house

The asylum housing contract demands that when asbestos risks are discovered the Home Office and G4S immediately move people out of the property. That didn’t happen.

A G4S repair man who came to the house called it the “worst house G4S has in Sheffield”, and said that G4S had sent letters notifying residents that they were to be moved out. Meanwhile, G4S moved Balbir in and kept him there despite medical evidence of harm. He told me: “In the last month my doctors have sent five letters to the Home Office about my worsening health and the housing I have been forced into.”

I added my protest to G4S. The company is well aware that I write about these matters here on openDemocracy and that I help local reporters and the housing press.

Balbir has since been moved to staffed accommodation suitable for his conditions, provided by a G4S specialist housing contractor. In a phone call he confirmed to me that at last he felt safe and cared for in his new accommodation.

Every move of asylum seekers around detention centres and from asylum housing addresses has to be pre-authorised by the Home Office. Public servants and corporate executives are complicit in exposing people to shoddy treatment around the slums of Sheffield.

Alan’s ceiling

Alan, a young man from the Middle East, lives in another G4S slum in Sheffield. He and six other asylum seekers – from Ivory Coast, Sudan, Palestine, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan — each have a single room. Alan claimed asylum three years ago. He’d been detained for three months, then stayed with friends, and finally he was given asylum housing in the Greater Manchester area. “It was really good quality one of the flats I stayed in was new,” he told me. “At home I had a background in the arts so I enrolled on a college course.”

For personal reasons Alan asked for a move to the Sheffield area. “I was shocked when I arrived at this house. There were rats there. I discovered them on the first floor in my room and other rooms. We killed a few and got G4S to put poison down.”

It wasn’t just the rats. “For the past two months there has been a hole in the kitchen ceiling,” Alan told me. “It collapsed after a major leak from a shower above. For the past two weeks the other shower has been out of action and we have all had to get showers at friends, or at the gym at college.”

Outside Alan’s back yard, near the back door, Alan showed me a filthy stagnant pool.

It’s not as if G4S and its subcontractor didn’t know things were this bad. Balbir had lived here. His carers had complained about the conditions, so G4S had moved him on. Alan said the men’s complaints to G4S and the subcontractor were ignored.

Why not provide decent housing?

My years of research and reporting, the conditions I have witnessed and the tenants I have listened to convince me that these degrading and dangerous conditions are not just a matter of incompetence and failed compassion.

It’s worse than that. On paper — the G4S Home Office contract — the company is obliged to provide accommodation that meets the “Decent Homes Standard” that applies to all council and housing association homes.

It’s not a hard standard to reach. A home must meet minimum safety standards. Among the obvious no-nos are broken glass, damaged asbestos, blocked drains, dampness, mould growth, rats, cockroaches. The home must be in a reasonable state of repair, have reasonably modern facilities and services, efficient heating, effective insulation. Any home that does not meet all four criteria fails the standard.

So why does the Home Office allow G4S to house asylum seekers in rat-infested slums?

Here are some clues. In October 2014 Lord Hylton asked the government: “what naval or air-sea rescue contribution they will make to prevent refugees and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean?”

The Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay gave this written reply: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”

Let’s reflect on that. If rescuing fellow human beings is a “pull factor”, is letting them drown a useful deterrent?

In September 2009, Dave Wood, who bore the title “Director of Criminality and Detention” at the UK Border Agency, was called before the Home Affairs Committee. They 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”.

Letting people drown, locking up innocent children, forcing people to live in slum dwellings with cockroaches and rats, it’s all part of the same shameful game: deterrence.

All photography by John Grayson. Asylum seekers’ names have been changed

This article first appeared on Open Democracy at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/john-grayson/rats-asbestos-toddlers-when-security-company-g4s-is-asylum-seeker-landlord

Walking in Pursuit of Justice: Eritrean refugees challenge Home Office lies

At the start of Refugee Week 500 Eritrean refugees marched from the International Slavery Museum to the Home Office in Liverpool . “We are asking the Home Office to be truthful about the regime in Eritrea and not just issue some report about how it is safe there. We are people who have been ruled by fear” said one of the organisers.

A Home Office spokesperson, who met the protesters said: “We are dealing with fluid situations all the time. Circumstances change and that effects people around the world including the United Kingdom.

“We need these type of events to enable us to review our policies” he said.

We hope this protest will enable the Home Office to understand that Eritreans – who risk everything to find safety –  do so for good reasons: they fear persecution and indefinite forced labour in Eritrea.

At the Liverpool protest

At the Liverpool protest 16th June.                     Photo from Right To Remain

More pictures and information from @Right_to_Remain on Twitter

Full report of Liverpool demonstration in the Liverpool Echo

updated on 16/6/15



On Tuesday 16th June Eritrean refugees will march to the Home Office in Liverpool to call for justice. This march is one of a series of events planned by Eritrean refugees in the UK to combat Theresa May’s recent claim that they are in fact “economic migrants”. As part of Refugee Week there is an “Insight into Eritrea” meeting on Wednesday 17th June in Sheffield at 4pm at Theatre Delicatessen.

SYMAAG has supported both events, following our Annual General Meeting where we discussed Eritrea and the Don’t Let Them Drown demonstration which involved many Eritreans in South Yorkshire.

The march in Liverpool on Tuesday 16th is the first major national demonstration ever called by Eritreans in the UK. This is the press release in support of the protest :


1pm Tuesday 16th June 2015, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool

Eritrean refugees call on the Home Office to improve the country guidance reports used to assess asylum claims and ensure that people seeking safety from persecution in Eritrea are given the protection they need.
In March 2015, the UK government introduced new country guidance on Eritrea which relied on a Danish Immigration Service report as the most ‘up-to-date’ information on human rights abuses in Eritrea. A key author of the Danish report, Dr Gaim Kibreab, has since distanced himself from the report. Moreover, the guidance report has relied on information obtained from the top politicians of the government inside Eritrea. These politicians, nevertheless, are the very architects of the regime a June, 2015, UN investigation report accuses of ruling the people but fear rather than law and also crimes against humanity including a shoot-to-kill policy on its borders
Eritrean refugees from across the UK will be presenting the Home Office in Liverpool with a letter written in collaboration with Dr Gaim Kibreab calling for this discredited guidance to be taken out of the UK Government’s country guidance reports.
Please join us at Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool at 1.00pm marching to the Home Office, Union Street.
Contact Kate Jennings (07784194431) or Kidane Kiflezgi (07950820997) for further information.”

Leaflet for Liverpool "Walking in Pursuit of Justice" protest 16th June

Leaflet for Liverpool “Walking in Pursuit of Justice” protest 16th June


“A political effort to stem migration”

The discredited report on Eritrea from the Danish Immigration Service (rejected by pretty much everyone except Theresa May and the Eritrean dictatorship) can be read here. According to Human Rights Watch “The Danish report seems more like a political effort to stem migration than an honest assessment of Eritrea’s human rights situation,”  Key author Dr Gaim Kibreab has since disassociated himself from the published version. Since then, an exhaustive 484-page UN Commission of Inquiry report on systematic human rights abuses in Eritrea has been published which finds “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” in Eritrea. It also states that “a large proportion of the population is subject to forced labour and imprisonment” and helps to explain why one in ten of the entire population of Eritrea has left the country. A summary and link to the full report is here.

But the UK Home Office have, since March 2015, been using a Country Guidance report on Eritrea based on already discredited information.

For Eritrean refugees such reports can be a matter of life or death, influencing European governments’ policy regarding accepting them as refugees or deporting them to the country they have risked their lives escaping.

Eritrean speaker at Don't Let Them Drown protest in Sheffield, March 2015

Eritrean speaker at Don’t Let Them Drown protest in Sheffield, March 2015


Are Eritrean Refugees really “economic migrants”?

It could have been ignorance which led to Theresa May recently describing people fleeing Eritrea as “economic migrants”. Or it could have been the fact that Eritreans made up about 10% of those crossing the Mediterranean to find refuge in Europe this year, according to UNHCR reports. Desperate to evade responsibility for accepting migrants crossing the Mediterranean – and make it possible to deport those already in the UK –  Theresa May seeks to discover evidence that little threat of persecution exists in Eritrea.


Gold, Copper, Zinc

In addition to showing hostility to Eritrean asylum seekers, the UK – and other western states – have important mining interests in Eritrea. The UK’s colonial adventures and exploitation in Eritrea are not just in the past (it was, incidentally, the Yorkshire regiment of the British army that fought against the Italian colonialists for control of Eritrea’s resources in 1941). The discovery of gold, copper and zinc in Eritrea have sparked renewed contacts with the Eritrean dictatorship, along with public relations exercises by the mining companies, for example Nevsun mining PR push. Indeed ex-Conservative Party chairman (Lord) Michael Howard recently led a business delegation to Eritrea. Howard appears to be closely linked with one UK mining company Andiamo Exploration. In December 2014 41 British MPs stated their opposition to the use of forced labour by mining companies in Eritrea.

Michela Wrong's book: Essential reading to understand Eritrea's legacy of colonisation

Michela Wrong’s book: Essential reading to understand Eritrea’s legacy of colonisation


“National Service” / “Abject Slavery”

As well as minerals Eritrea has near endless supplies of forced labour for western mining companies as part of the country’s infamous “national service”, described as “abject slavery” by Human Rights Watch. On the pretext of imminent war with Ethiopia all Eritreans are conscripted into “national service” for an indefinite period, despite Eritrean Government claims that it is only for 18 months. The UK Government appears satisfied with a statement from an Eritrean minister to that effect as opposed to United Nations, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch reports and the testimonies of hundreds of Eritreans fleeing indefinite slavery in their country. According to the UN report on Eritrea published in June 2015: “on the pretext of defending the integrity of the State and ensuring its self-sufficiency Eritreans are subject to systems of national service and forced labour that effectively abuse, exploit and enslave them for indefinite periods of time”.

That is why Eritrean people in the UK are organising a national protest in Liverpool on Tuesday 16th June against a cynical Home Office policy. This new policy – if implemented – would abandon the UK’s commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention which commits states to providing refuge for those with a “well-founded fear of persecution”. It would be replaced by a policy which shows more respect to racist anti-immigration sentiments and corporate mining interests than it does to the lives of Eritrean people.



******   Insight into the Eritrean Situation meeting Wednesday 17th June   ******

Come to a Refugee Week meeting in Sheffield on Wednesday 17th 4-6pm at Theatre Delicatessen, find out more and have your say. The Theatre is at 17 The Moor, Sheffield in the old Woolworths’ building.
Come to hear Tesfamhret Tsegazghi from Eritrea talk about the history of the country, colonisation by the British and Italians, war and Eritrea’s fight for independence and why 1 in every 10 Eritrean people have left their country in search of safety and human rights.
And find out what historical event links Rotherham and Eritrea…




SYMAAG AGM 20th May: Life in the “hostile environment”

“Illegal” ex-Immigration Minister Mark Harper has been appointed Conservative Chief Whip. Harper resigned from his post after he was found to have illegally employed Isabella Acevedo last year. Harper was given another ministerial job days later.

Isabella Acevedo (who Harper employed to clean his flat for £22 per week) was seized by immigration police at her daughter’s wedding, sent to Yarls Wood and deported to Colombia.

Third Parties

Though protests did not stop Isabella’s deportation it became clear, after an unprecedented Home Office admission, that Isabella’s original deportation flight was changed because of “potential disruption by third parties”.

The Dial: Home Office resources to fight "immigration crime"

The Dial: Home Office resources to fight “immigration crime” and resistance from “third parties”.

During the next 5 years the protests and organisation of “third parties” will play a big role in combating the “hostile environment” for “illegal” migrants which Theresa May and the Government aim to construct. May continues as Home Secretary convening meetings of the aptly-named Hostile Environment Working Group    

Come to the SYMAAG Annual General Meeting on Wednesday 20th May 7pm to discuss how we can organise support for migrants’ rights over the next 5 years.

In particular we will look at how to take forward the Don’t Let Them Drown campaign for Mediterranean migrants. The situation is urgent: The UK Government along with other European Union countries is seeking UN backing to send warships to “neutralise” ships to carry migrants across the Mediterranean. Our guest speaker at the AGM is Tesfamhret Tsegazghi from Eritrea who will speak about why people leave countries like Eritrea looking for safety and security in Europe and how we can support them.

The meeting starts at 7pm at Central United Reform Church on Norfolk Street, opposite Crucible Theatre (doors open at 6.30 for a cup of tea).