Sheffield election candidates on the spot over asylum policies

60 people came to an Asylum and Immigration Election Hustings in Sheffield on May 31st. The meeting was organised by SYMAAG and supported by Sheffield’s many asylum rights groups. We had the chance to question local candidates Natalie Bennett (Green), Paul Blomfield (Labour), Howard Denby (UKIP) and Shaffaq Mohammad (Liberal Democrat) on their party policies on asylum and immigration. We invited a representative from the Conservative Party but they failed to represent themselves.

Amber, Arman and Phillis read out SYMAAG Election Pledges

SYMAAG members began the meeting by reading out our SYMAAG General Election Pledges 2017 on the rights of EU migrants post-Brexit, safe asylum routes, child refugees in Europe, immigration detention, right to work, access to healthcare and G4S asylum housing. These had been sent to 70+ election candidates across South Yorkshire. We received 5 substantive responses (less than in the 2015 and 2010 General Elections) supporting some or all of the Pledges. They were:

Natalie Bennett Green, Sheffield Central Supported all
Paul Blomfield Labour SheffieldCentral            . see statement below
Nick Clegg LibDemSheffieldHallam see statement below
Louise Haigh Labour, Sheffield Heeley Supported all
Declan Walsh Green, Sheffield Heeley Supported all

We also received PaulBlomfieldPledgeResponses and NickCleggPledgeResponse

candidates were quizzed for an hour on asylum/immigration policies

After short introductions from the candidates they faced audience questions on their responses to hate crime and racism in Sheffield; asylum seekers facing enforced destitution; child refugees in Europe; levels of fees for asylum applications/appeals; difficulties for new refugees, especially women; how human rights and asylum rights are related and free movement in post-Brexit Europe.

Apart from the UKIP candidate there was general consensus on all but the final point. Labour’s Paul Blomfield stated “when we leave the EU free movement will end” whereas the Greens’ Natalie Bennett pointed to free movement between the UK and Norway and Switzerland, both outside the EU. Natalie Bennett criticised the record of previous Labour and LibDem/Conservative coalition Governments over making asylum seekers destitute after their asylum claims had been rejected. Paul Blomfield pointed to his record in opposing indefinite immigration detention as an MP and member of Parliamentary Select Committees. Both Labour and Green candidates attacked the levels of fees charged to people making asylum applications/renewed applications which amounted to “having to buy justice” and Shaffaq Mohammad of the Liberal Democrats suggested that fees should be charged at levels which only cover administrative costs.

Our Election Pledges displayed next to the candidates

We thank all those candidates who responded to our Election Pledges and who attended the hustings.

People seeking asylum – and many EU migrants – do not have the right to vote in UK elections. We urge those people who can vote to use it to support asylum and migrant rights on June 8th. Whatever the result of the election we will continue to hold MPs to account on their pledges to asylum and migrant rights.

 

all photos by Manuch

Who Supports Asylum and Migrant Rights?

The General Election on June 8th gives us the chance to support parties and candidates in South Yorkshire who stand for asylum and migrant rights. We’ll be helping you decide who they are by holding a pre-election meeting with candidates on immigration and asylum on May 31st 7pm at Central United Reform Church Sheffield S1 2JB.

In advance of the meeting we’re asking candidates to support some key pledges on asylum and migrants’ rights. We’ll publicise their responses before and at the meeting

 

Asylum and Immigration Election Hustings

SYMAAG has organised an Asylum and Immigration Election Hustings on Wednesday 31st May at 7pm in Sheffield where you get the chance to question representatives from the parties standing in the general election in South Yorkshire.

The event is supported by major asylum/migration organisations and charities in our region: Sheffield City of Sanctuary, Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers; Early Asylum Support, DEWA, Why Refugee Women South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice, ASSIST

The meeting is at 7pm Central United Reform Church S1 2JB in the centre of Sheffield, opposite the Crucible Theatre The meeting starts at 7pm but doors open at 6.30pm for a cup of tea and a chance to look around the information stalls.

After a short introduction on the main issues facing refugees and people seeking asylum from SYMAAG, the politicians will make short speeches about their party policies, leaving plenty of time for your points and questions.

If you want to ask a question but can’t get to the meeting use the Twitter hashtag #asylumrights and we will try to put your point to the politicians

Here’s a  downloadable flyer for the event  SYMAAGElectionhustings leaflet 2017

 

Election Pledges

By the time of the meeting, candidates in South Yorkshire will have been asked to support 6 key migrants’ rights election pledges summarised below.

  • Guarantee the rights of all EU citizens who are at present resident in the UK
  • Support safe routes for people seeking asylum in the UK. Take a fair share of refugees already in the EU and all children who have family or other links with the UK
  • End the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and migrants. End the detention of children. Close down detention centres
  • Support the right to work whilst seeking asylum in the UK. Levels of financial support whilst waiting for asylum decisions should be equivalent to standard UK benefit rates. Give those seeking asylum full access to free NHS healthcare and to English courses
  • Take asylum housing contracts from G4S in 2019 and give back the organisation of asylum housing contracts to local councils and the provision to housing associations and not for profit agencies

For full text see SYMAAG General Election Pledges 2017

 

We also support the Refugee Council’s General Election Refugee Welcome Pledge and Migrants Organise Promote the Migrant Vote project.

Jaber Abdullah: how I set up a refugee football team in Barnsley

Barnsley, like other northern ex-industrial towns, is often stereotyped as racist and hostile to refugees. Refugees, including SYMAAG members, do experience some wariness, hostility and racism from some in a town still struggling to recover from the closure of coal mines and related industry since the 1980s. Austerity has taken its toll –  as boarded up shops on the outskirts show. The town has the lowest average pay in the UK and high unemployment.

The privatised asylum housing system – run for profit by G4S in Barnsley – tends to house a disproportionately large number refugees in areas with the cheapest housing in ex-industrial towns like Barnsley. Without extra resources for public services for all and without a properly funded and planned integration strategy problems can arise. Problems that racist and fascist groups have done their best to exploit. But some of the trade union organisation and pride in community of the coalmining era remains.

Congolese refugee Djoly campaigning against use of conflict minerals at Trade Unions for Migrant Rights conference at Miners Hall Barnsley 2009. Pic SYMAAG

The Barnsley Community Support Centre, run by the Unite trade union, based in the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers, has organised ESOL classes for refugees. It has provided benefits and housing advice for refugees and locals alike with volunteers from around the world working alongside local ex-miners. Refugees have joined ex-miners in the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. And refugees and locals have discovered that football is a shared language.

Eritrean refugees carry the Orgreave Justice banner at Durham Miners Gala 2015

The Barnsley Community Support Centre, with support from Barnsley FC helped set up a very successful refugee 5-a side football tournament in 2016. Jaber (“Jimmy”) Abdullah (interviewed below) has been central to getting refugee football off the ground as well as helping refugees settle in Barnsley and linking them to the support and solidarity that still exists in the town.

 

Refugee Tigers football team Barnsley. Jaber Abdullah bottom right

 

Dave Gibson of Barnsley Trades Council presents a cheque to help fund ESOL classes at the Community Support Centre, after anti-racist football tournament. Pics Ian Parker/Brian Clarke

 

The article below is by Johnny McDevitt and first appeared in The Guardian on May 2nd 2017.

Jaber Abdullah: how I set up a refugee football team in Barnsley

Jaber Abdullah, a Sudanese asylum seeker, says he will never forget the day when Barnsley Football Club gave him tickets to go and watch the team play at their stadium. “It was the first activity any of us had done since we arrived in the UK because we could not afford to go anywhere,” says Abdullah, 40, who set up the Refugee Tigers football team shortly after arriving in the UK and claiming asylum almost two years ago.

Having been sent to live in the south Yorkshire town, he saved £3 from his £30-odd a week benefits, bought a football and started kicking it about in a local park. It wasn’t long before he was joined by another Sudanese asylum seeker. Within a few months, the Tigers’ roster had swelled to more than 50 asylum seekers and refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Iran, aged between 18 and 40.

The Tigers boast some unquestionably talented players, with the most eye-catching an Eritrean goalkeeper nicknamed “Tesco” (on account of his obsession with the variety of goods on offer at his local supermarket) and a Syrian midfielder monikered “Figo”, who shares the sorcerous skills of the Portuguese great, according to his teammates. “In Calais where most of the boys came to England from, there was a lot of violence, a lot of fighting between the different nationalities. They were arguing over things like territory close to the lorries and it was very tribal there, but now we are one family. Nobody cares where someone is from or what religion they are. We have many different types of Muslims and also Christians,” says Abdullah, who manages the team.

Coaching a team of penniless men who live in constant uncertainty comes with exigencies that Jaber’s idol, Jose Mourinho, does not have to face. “Some of my players are sent back to their countries and a lot leave Barnsley [when they are granted refugee status] for the big cities in search of work,” he says. “Of course, I am so happy for them that they can start to live their dreams. That is the most important thing. But also some of my best players leave and we need stability if we are going to be a great team. But every day we have new stars arriving in Barnsley to replace them so we have a good transfer system.”

Barnsley FC heard about the Tigers and donated kits, offered its Oakwell pitch for weekly training and its training ground for matches, and invited the squad to watch a game. The Tigers will be joining an amateur league next session. For now they play exhibition matches across Yorkshire. Sometimes it’s difficult for the players to find the £3 minibus money to travel and they have to borrow from friends, says Abdullah.

He says none of his players have ever been racially abused by the teams they play. But, as we speak, a car drives past and a young man cranes out of the window and shouts “Oi, blackie, fucking go home.” Anti-immigrant sentiment is not unfamiliar to Barnsley. Ukip came second in three of the four constituencies that dissect the town and there has long been a far-right presence, first with the BNP and now with the English Democrats. Members of the South Yorkshire Casuals II have marched through the town to protest against what they anticipated would be an incoming “horde of Syrian refugees”. But Abdullah ardently defends the town he likes to call his “mother in England” and says he has received more compassion than rancour.

A driver in Sudan, he fled the conflict in Darfur three years ago and flew to Russia, rather than crossing by boat to Italy from Libya because he is scared of the sea. He paid the mafia to take him across the border into Ukraine and then on through eastern Europe – to Germany and finally to Calais. He arrived in Britain hidden inside a lorry, with a small bag of possessions but armed with grand ideas about what life here would offer.

“I thought Britain was going to be a paradise, where I could get my wife to join me, become educated and fulfil my father’s dream for me to become a n aeroplane pilot,” he says. “But the [immigration] system has made my life very difficult. I want to work but cannot. I cannot go to school because I cannot afford it. I cannot open a bank account. I just have my team. For me Britain has two arms. One is the system that pushes me away, the other is the British people who hold me.”

After losing his asylum card four months ago he was evicted from his home and his benefits were stopped, but he was saved from homelessness by a local man. “He came and asked me how much I was getting a week from the government and said that I would continue to get that money from him. He drives to my home every week to give it to me. Last week he came with £100 to pay for my English classes. I tell him I will repay his kindness when I can but he says, ‘Jaber, when you have money to spare give to someone else who needs it’. I will never forget what this man has done for me.”

Jaber has taken on the mantle of a refugee envoy to Barnsley and is determined to change the minds of those who resent their presence.“ Although Abdullah has only £30 a week from the government he now gives some of his money to homeless people. “I say to them ‘this is Sudanese hospitality’. Neither of us will be hungry then.” Abdullah has become a de facto community leader to new refugees in the town. “When a new guy comes here, the Red Cross people say: ‘Go and see Jaber at his house.’ They have usually just come from Calais and have not eaten properly for a long time so I feed them, help them with their paperwork and show them where they can get English lessons.

“It is hard for the young ones. They thought it would be like heaven here. When they are stuck with nothing to do, sometimes for years, they become very depressed and some of them begin to go crazy. I tell them they must be patient while the government deals with their cases but I understand their anger. I am in the same position.”

Thoughts rarely stray far from home, with the conflicts that forced the Tigers’ players to leave. “We went to the moon and the depths of the sea and we climbed mountains. We have advanced in medicine and engineering and philosophy and in every science but we forgot how to build humanity,” he says. “We have lighting in our cities and roads but we have forgotten to light our hearts.”

As Abdullah approaches two years in immigration limbo – not knowing whether when or even if he will be granted refugee status – his mind remains resolutely fixed on the future for his blossoming Tigers.

The Premier League one day? “We have all had very difficult journeys and lost many friends to get here. You can see that nothing seems impossible to me,” he replies.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian May 2nd 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/02/jaber-abdullah-refugee-football-asylum-seeker-barnsley

Interview and picture of Jaber Abdullah by Johnny McDevitt

 

Some photos of 2016 5-a side anti-racist football tournament at Barnsley FC. Pics by Ian Parker and Brian Clarke. More photos at Barnsley Community Support Centre site.

Behave or get deported, says G4S

About 900 people who are seeking asylum live in the city of Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. For five years G4S, the world’s largest security company, has held the government contract to accommodate them whilst they await the outcome of their claims for asylum.

A couple of weeks ago, visiting tenants in one of G4S’s asylum houses, I spotted a surprising document. Displayed prominently on the house notice board, and marked “Private and Confidential”, here it is:

It’s a letter from “G4S Immigration and Borders”. Dated 10 November 2016, it begins: “Dear UK Asylum Seeker RESPECT IN ASYLUM ACCOMMODATION”.

G4S thanks “the majority of tenants” who respect G4S staff, and goes on: “There are, however, a few who do not respect the officers allocated to look after them.”

The letter reports “a brutal and cowardly attack” by an asylum tenant on a G4S officer in Birmingham, which resulted in the officer being hospitalised and the asylum seeker being arrested and “forcibly deported back to his country of origin”.

G4S then warns that tenants who “are abusive and aggressive will not be tolerated and will be reported to the Police and may be deported away from the UK”.

And: “Unacceptable behaviour is always reported to the Police and Home Office and kept on their records while your application is being considered.”

And: “Those who threaten or attack (with words or actions) may be detained and deported away from the UK.”

G4S signs off with a list of rules, ending in: “You must not participate in illegal activity, including smoking indoors.”

So, here’s G4S telling vulnerable tenants that words alone, perhaps even a crafty smoke, could result in detention and deportation.

What is the legal basis for that?

Notice in a G4S house in Sheffield, April 2017 (John Grayson)

I showed the letter to Frances Webber, the distinguished immigration barrister. Here’s what she said:

“My response is to ask how far has outsourcing gone? Is a private corporation now mandated to make decisions on asylum and deportation?”

Webber explained: “G4S, like any owner of accommodation, is entitled to tell residents that assaults on staff will be reported to police, and if the accommodation is run on behalf of the Home Office, that Home Office officials will also be notified. But a private company has no business issuing threats of deportation, let alone to people who are likely to be particularly vulnerable because of what they have witnesses and/ or experienced.”

It’s not rocket science. If I assault a G4S officer I might have to go to prison, but that’s a decision for the independent judiciary and (i) should not affect my immigration status and (ii) should not be decided by G4S telling the Home Office to send me down and then deport me.

My response is to ask how far has outsourcing gone? Is a private corporation now mandated to make decisions on asylum and deportation?

 

Publicly, G4S has strongly and repeatedly denied that it has any say over peoples claims for asylum. Here’s G4S boss John Whitwam speaking on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show:

“I have no influence or interest in the application which the asylum seekers have, whether they are granted asylum or not is not anything to do with the providers such as G4S and Serco it is entirely a matter for the Home Office.” (His job title, by the way, is: managing director, immigration and borders.)

John Whitwam, managing director, immigration and borders, G4S

Also on the programme was Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP who chairs the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee. In response to Whitwam’s assurances she said: “I know that, and you know that, but for a lot of them, they don’t know that and they’re fearful and that’s the problem.”

This exchange starts about six minutes into the clip, and the date is Tuesday 31 January. That’s a couple of months after G4S authorised the printing, distribution and display of a frightening notice threatening tenants with deportation.

I have no influence or interest in the application which the asylum seekers have.

I asked G4S and the Home Office to respond on the issues raised in this article. The Home Office did not respond.

G4S emailed a statement: “Our teams have no influence on the course of an asylum seeker’s application and we recognise that the language used in this letter was emotive and imprecise. It came following a serious attack on one of our welfare officers that left them badly injured and fearful of returning to work.

“We will ensure that our future communications are expressed more clearly because we have a responsibility to remind the small number of asylum seekers who are violent or abusive that their conduct will be referred to the Home Office and the police. This fulfils our duty of care to the safety of our colleagues and we also believe that it is what the public would expect.

“On the specific point regarding legislation on verbal abuse, there are multiple sections within the Public Order Act around causing harassment, alarm or distress which could apply in those cases.”

 

We recognise that the language used in this letter was emotive and imprecise.

 

So, was it just a matter of some “emotive and imprecise” language?

Over the past five years, working alongside asylum tenants, I have heard many reports of G4S staff, now called ‘Welfare Officers’, threatening them with consequences for their claims for asylum, if they protested about conditions. G4S has a poor record in Sheffield both for the quality of accommodation and for its disrespectful behaviour towards tenants.

In 2015 in one Sheffield G4S house, with eight young men in shared bedrooms, G4S had been inundated with complaints about the very poor conditions and the way tenants were forced to share bedrooms. G4S staff posted their own version of tenancy rules – the Golden Rules, stating they had no choice in sharing bedrooms, and no choice of roommate. When the young men took down the notice and told other people in Sheffield, they were summoned to a meeting with G4S staff and told any further protests would be reported to the Home Office and it would affect their asylum claims.

G4S Golden Rules posted in an asylum house, Sheffield, July 2015

This past February, a tenant whose home had for months been infested with bedbugs told me: “Ten days ago, I was really desperate. The children, particularly my ten year old son, have flashbacks at night and the bedbugs make it even worse, none of us have slept well for months and months.” He showed me his own medical report. It featured “post-traumatic stress disorder… symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia…suicidal thoughts”.

He said: “G4S have done nothing about the bed bugs in either of the houses, and simply brought mouse trap boxes to keep down the numbers. So I was determined to keep ringing their Help Line every day until they came to clear up the bugs. On 14 February, I rang them and again demanded action. The operator shouted down the phone ‘If you call again and complain we will make sure that this will affect your asylum claim.’”

 

A Matter of Pride

Sheffield people rallied around Pride Mbi Agbor when he was detained and threatened with deportation to Cameroon in March. For many people, including local Labour Party members it was an education in the cruelty of the UK asylum system. SYMAAG Secretary and member of Broomhill Labour Party in Sheffield wrote this piece for the Branch’s newsletter read by its 650 members

 

A Matter of Pride

Pride Mbi Agbor came to speak to our January branch meeting. He’s a gentle, young man from Cameroon who told us how he came to be in Sheffield. Pride left his country due to persecution of people in the English-speaking South Cameroon area by the Francophone Cameroonian Government, a legacy of European colonial rivalry. He left his home and family reluctantly coming to the UK to study but hoping to return. Soon after he began his computer engineering course in Plymouth he got news that his father had been killed as a result of his involvement in the South Cameroons National Council (SCNC). Pride applied for asylum in the UK in 2009 and was then “dispersed”, the official term, to Sheffield where he was allocated a room in a house run by the notorious private security company G4S.

 

Despite grief, loneliness and a disbelieving Home Office he volunteered with ASSIST, a Sheffield charity supporting destitute asylum seekers. He became a trustee with Sheffield City of Sanctuary. He became more active in the banned SCNC and its UK organisation. His complaints about the lack of heating in the winter in his house led to threats from G4S and brought him into contact with campaigners, like myself, from the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG). He spoke at our AGM in 2014 describing his post traumatic stress syndrome and “paranoia”, fearing “each creak of the floorboard” at night was the Home Office coming to arrest and deport him. Like other people seeking asylum Pride has to report regularly to the Home Office at Vulcan House in Sheffield. Each time there is a possibility of detention and deportation:  “I’m always sick the week before I go to sign” he told us.

 

It wasn’t paranoia. Six weeks after he spoke to our branch meeting Pride went to Vulcan House to report but didn’t come out. He was detained and sent to Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), a former prison, hidden in the Lincolnshire countryside. He was threatened with forcible deportation on March 24th to Cameroon where his membership of the banned SCNC amounted to a death sentence. His mother had already received visits from the Cameroonian police resulting in beatings when they couldn’t find him.

In the 2 weeks before March 24th Sheffield showed what being a City of Sanctuary means. Visits to Pride at Morton Hall, lobbying by Paul Blomfield MP and letters and emails to the Home Office in support of his right to stay and be safe. Pride told me to “thank all the people from your Labour Party who wrote to support me”. But just before March 24th he was forcibly transported to Colnbrook IRC next to Gatwick Airport.

 

Days before the deportation flight to Cameroon was due to leave Pride was released from detention on bail. His deportation was deferred allowing time for him and his legal team to submit further evidence that he had a justified fear of persecution in Cameroon due to his support for the SCNC.  Pride was able to celebrate his 33rd birthday at the Broomhall Centre with his many friends and supporters.

Pride and his friends celebrating his release from detention and his 33rd birthday in Sheffield

But the same week another Sheffield asylum seeker was deported to Georgia. Indefinite detention and forcible deportations are a terrifying but normal feature in the life of someone trying to navigate the hostile and disbelieving UK asylum process.

 

Financial and military deals – illegal under the 1951 Refugee Convention – between the UK and dictatorships in Turkey, Sudan and Libya attempt to stop people ever reaching Europe by establishing “external borders”. Drowning in the Mediterranean Sea is explained as “deterrence. Those people who do claim asylum here – to be officially recognized as a refugee with a right to stay at least temporarily – face Theresa May’s government wanting to create a “hostile environment” for what they call “illegal immigrants”. The recent attack on a Kurdish asylum seeker in Croydon is not just the responsibility of the mob which kicked him repeatedly in the head but that of the media and politicians of all parties who demonise those seeking sanctuary.

The results of a policy of “deterrence” in the Mediterranean Sea

 

People seeking asylum in the UK face “internal borders” too. Not just indefinite detention (the UK is the only European country with no time limit) but restrictions on access to healthcare. Hiwa Ahmedy, a destitute Kurdish asylum seeker with a stomach ulcer was denied treatment at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital on the grounds that his condition was “not an emergency”. “Come back when it bursts” he was told. Campaigns like Docs Not Cops call for healthworkers to refuse to demand a passport before treatment. Asylum tenants are “dispersed” to areas with cheapest housing (already suffering from austerity and poverty), away from friends and communities, with no choice. Landlords are now told to check tenants’ immigration status before agreeing tenancies. Schools demand information on nationality and country of origin, implying that education is not a right. The Schools Against Borders for Children campaign is quick to point out how easily such restrictions could be generalized. Some asylum benefits – amounting to £5 a day – are cashless and their use restricted to particular products in designated supermarkets. Asylum seekers are required to carry ID cards. Again, a testing ground before rolling out to the rest of us?

 

The “refugee crisis” is a business opportunity for some. By outsourcing wall and fence building, detention centres, surveillance, asylum housing and even refugee advice services, governments like ours outsource their responsibilities under longstanding international agreements. G4S who are paid public money to provide asylum housing in our region stated their “priority was to make a return for our shareholders in the asylum market”. Labour councils and Cities of Sanctuary need to use existing housing regulation and environmental health powers against abuses of asylum tenants. A Labour Government should strip G4S, Serco, Capita, Mitie, GEO and all those corporations seeking to profit from asylum seekers of their public contracts. It’s been heartening to see Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Kate Osamor, and others take up criticism of these companies’ role in the “asylum market” and to stand against the dehumanisation of asylum seekers and refugees.

Asylum tenants protest in 2012 in Sheffield at the start of the G4S asylum housing contract.

 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of this issue. We need a response that is both global and local. Pride urged me to stress the irony of him being persecuted both by the UK Government and the Cameroonian dictatorship for “trying to uphold British culture” as a member of the SCNC. Cameroon was colonized by the UK, its current dictator Paul Biya rarely criticized. We need an understanding the UK’s role in creating refugees through its colonial history and current policy. It’s no coincidence that some of the most common countries of origin for asylum seekers in the UK – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – have been subject to British military aggression. Selling military hardware to repressive regimes in Sudan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco (sometimes in return for them illegally stopping refugees crossing borders) could be halted by a Labour Government.

 

But there’s plenty we can do locally. The successful campaign to stop Pride’s deportation – involving many of our Branch members – proved that. Members of our Branch protested at Morton Hall IRC (where Pride was detained) in March. Another protest is planned for May 27th. We are lucky to live in a city with so many refugee support groups made up of thousands of volunteers, many of them “experts by experience” like Pride.

Pride Mbi Agbor one of the many “experts by experience” involved in Sheffield’s many refugee-rights groups

 

Those of us who work in the NHS, in education or local authorities can refuse to act as internal border guards to exclude people without passports, or with the wrong skin colour. We can raise money to support refugees in Syria, Greece, Calais or Sheffield. We can offer our skills and enthusiasm: in advice, sport, art, law, languages, teaching, music, medicine or counselling. We can demonstrate and campaign for change. Or just spend some time befriending people who don’t have the support we might take for granted. How would you want people to treat you if you were forced to become a refugee?

 

By Stuart Crosthwaite

 

 

Some useful contacts for Sheffield people wanting to support asylum seekers and refugees

 

Supporting destitute asylum seekers

 

Teaching English

 

General volunteer refugee support

  • Sheffield Volunteer Centre http://www.sheffieldvolunteercentre.org.uk/
  • Directory of South Yorkshire refugee volunteer groups http://www.symaag.org.uk/links/

 

Law, advice and advocacy

 

Medical and therapeutic support

  • Mulberry Practice http://www.nhs.uk/Services/GP/Overview/DefaultView.aspx?id=35543

 

Support in detention

  • Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group http://www.aviddetention.org.uk/visiting/visitors-groups/morton-hall-detainee-visitors-group-mhdvg
  • Music in Detention http://www.musicindetention.org.uk/

 

Campaigning

 

International support for refugees

 

 

Sheffield City of Sanctuary and its affiliates aim to set up a Welcome Centre for people seeking asylum in Sheffield. We need to raise/have pledged £50,000 by the end of April. https://sheffield.cityofsanctuary.org/2017/03/31/appeal-for-welcome-centre/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Tell people what’s happening in here” at Morton Hall migrant prison

10 years ago SYMAAG organised a 3 day/30 mile march from Sheffield to Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) near Doncaster to protest against detaining refugees indefinitely. Lindholme has since been closed. Morton Hall is now the nearest IRC to us, hidden in the Lincolnshire countryside.

After reports of the deaths of two detainees at Morton Hall IRC within 6 weeks we decided to highlight what really goes on inside Morton Hall and show our support for the people detained there by organising a protest on March 11th. It was an experience that won’t be forgotten by those of us at the protest outside the prison fence. Or by people detained inside who were eager to tell us about their treatment by phone or by scaling the fence and shouting out to us. “Tell people what’s happening in here” was their message. One person on the protest, an activist with SYMAAG, wrote this impassioned report of the day. John Grayson has written a detailed report on the protest and what we learned about Morton Hall below.,

Shortly after our protest at Morton Hall a report of an unannounced HM Prisons Inspectorate visit in November was released. Written before the deaths of two people detained there it identifies a “significant decline in the area of safety since the last inspection”. The Detention Forum’s assessment of the report “it looks and feels like a prison” is here and May Bulman writing in the Independent commented that “the devastating impact of indefinite detention can no longer be denied”. She criticised the Home Office’s “out of sight, out of mind approach” to migrant detention.

We hope that our protests at Morton Hall (March 11th was the second – and we’ll be back) let those detained inside know they are not forgotten. And challenge the Home Office’s attempts to hide from the public the stark reality of detention in immigration prisons.

Dignity Not Detention. Protestors gather outside Morton Hall March 11th

‘People come in here normal, but they get ill.’ Protesting against deaths at a UK migrant jail

Intrusive police surveillance deployed against peaceful protestors at Morton Hall. (See also: Child held for 151 days at Morton Hall)

Demonstrators march on Morton Hall immigration removal centre, Lincolnshire, 11 March 2017 (Manuch)

“Thanks for coming, get it out there, tell people what’s happening in here!”

Message shouted through the wire and steel walls of Morton Hall detention centre

Eleven days into 2017 Lukasz Debowski, a 27-year-old Polish man, was found dead at a Morton Hall, a little-known immigration detention centre in rural Lincolnshire.

Fellow inmates said that Lukasz was “young and quiet, never causing any trouble”, that he had not committed any crime in the UK and that he had sought medical help for mental health problems. They said he’d spent his time watching TV, playing games and at the gym.

They said Lukasz had killed himself, and that he’d been refused bail just before Christmas because he could not provide sureties.

His partner, whose advanced pregnancy left her unable to attend the bail hearing, gave birth to the couple’s son on the day that Lukasz died.

The mood at Morton Hall was low.

Just a few weeks earlier, another Morton Hall detainee had died in hospital. A friend reported to the Detained Voices website that Bai Ahmed Kabia fell down in his cell “foaming at the mouth”, that nurses were called at 3pm, and Kabia was taken to hospital four hours later.

“He was really a nice person and was always willing to help people,” said the friend, a fellow detainee: “He would just help people through the goodness of his heart for nothing in return.”

Bai Ahmed Kabia was reportedly 49 years old and stateless, probably from Sierra Leone. The friend said he had lived in the UK for 27 years. Detainees had heard that when Bai Ahmed Kabia was close to death, the Home Office had signed his release papers.

“If he was given bail and left here. People would have been proud and happy,” said the friend. “But the way he left really weighs heavy on your heart. The media needs to know about this. This place is a stressful place. He’s been punished. We don’t have anyone to stand for us.”

Standing up for immigration detainees

Members of SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) decided to organise a demonstration to highlight the deaths, to show support and solidarity for the 392 men locked up at Morton Hall, and to alert local and national attention to this little-known immigration removal centre in the Lincolnshire countryside. We chose the date, Saturday 11 March.

Protestors march on Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre, Lincolnshire, 11 March 2017 (picture by Manuch)

In early February I took a call from Lincolnshire Police Liaison Officer Jimmy Conway 997, a Group B Community Patrol Constable, who is based in Sleaford. He said that he and another liaison officer in pale blue jackets would be the only police presence (with ‘resources’ nearby but out of sight), and asked us to appoint our own security marshalls “to keep everyone safe”. He seemed relaxed.

But then, things changed.

Intrusive surveillance

About 60 people travelled from Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham and Oxford to Morton Hall, near the village of Swinderby, 8 miles south west of Lincoln.

On the morning of the demonstration, just as our coach was leaving Sheffield, PC Conway called me again. He said: “There will be a number of uniformed officers present now John, and a unit who will be filming – you will recognise them by the orange flashes on their jackets.”

Surveillance as deterrence works. Some of my SYMAAG colleagues in Huddersfield and Sheffield had already chosen not to come because they were still in the asylum system. They feared surveillance and its effect on their asylum claims.

PC Conway was true to his word. We were greeted at the gates to Morton Hall by a vanload of uniformed police and a van with members of the filming unit. As you can see from the picture: specialist filming cops were getting close-ups of demonstrators. This is pretty unusual in my experience — I have never seen them openly filming amongst demonstrators at the four Yarl’s Wood detention centre demonstrations I have attended.

Intense police surveillance of a peaceful demonstration, Morton Hall, 11 March 2017 (Manuch)

They didn’t like our photographer filming them. One officer asked him: “How long have you been here in the UK?”

“Twenty two years,” he replied.

Speaking from inside Morton Hall

We had some phone numbers for men locked up inside Morton Hall who had agreed to let us amplify their voices on our sound system.

They told us management had tried to undermine the demonstration.

“They play music and stop us being outside, they also bring ice cream,” one man told us. “When we heard chants and we managed to get outside. We then heard it was people supporting us people.”

Another said: “We heard the protesting and they try to stop us going outside but we manage to. They tell us it’s about a football team.”

And another: “I shut off the music, they will come and grab me today because I stopped the music.”

“Freedom! Freedom!”

About 40 men gathered behind the wire fences. One climbed up the fencing and was able to shout to us. He was Nariman Jalal Karim, an Iranian asylum seeker who said he had been locked up in Morton Hall for six months. He was a physical education teacher who had left his family in the Middle East. For two hours, he chanted “Freedom! Freedom!”

Nariman, at top right of picture, scales the fence and shouts ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ (Manuch)

One man, who spoke for eight minutes, told us: “People come in here normal but they get ill. But they don’t care, they don’t care. There are people in here who shouldn’t be here — old people with grandchildren, some have not seen family for years.”

“People need medical attention, for mental health, for diabetes. They need physical and emotional support.

“They lock us up like prison and it’s bad conditions. They don’t want us to show how we are living here. People taking their lives, we have no release date. You’ve no idea what detention does to your mind and body.

“A hundred of us sent a letter to the Home Office because of how long they are keeping us in here, but they never replied. They treat us like rubbish, leaving us to rot in here”

Among us protestors on the outside of the fence was Kingsley, who had been locked up at Morton Hall. Our sound system carried his voice to the protestors on the other side of the fence.

Kingsley at Morton Hall (Manuch)“They refused me health care,”

Kingsley said. “They treated me like a liar and I had to prove myself. It’s a disgrace. On my first night, I was in lots of pain. They did not believe me. By the third time I asked for help and was refused, I broke everything in the room. They finally called a nurse. They finally called the ambulance.”

About the two recent deaths at Morton Hall, Kingsley said: “One man died because he was not given medical attention. You will be next if you don’t stand up for your freedom against oppression.”

“You have to fight. Never work for £1 an hour. If you refuse to cook and clean, the place will not run. Keep fighting!!”

By phone from inside Morton Hall, one man protested about mobile phones with cameras being confiscated. “They don’t want us to show what it’s like in here,” he said. “But we can’t even have pictures of our families and grandchildren to remember. We’re not prisoners, we’re not criminals, but we would be better off in prison, there we could have our phones.”

Bill McKeith from the Close Campsfield detention centre campaign told the demonstration: “This is an important day to expose what’s going on in Morton Hall. There are ten detention centres in the UK, nine are privately run – this one is run by the Prison Service on behalf of the Home Office. It was a prison for men from 1985 then for women from 2009, and since 2011 the prison changed its name and became an Immigration Removal Centre for 392 men. But it’s still run like a prison – a badly run prison. The contract paid the Prison Service £11m of taxpayers’ money in its first year, and presumably a lot more since then.”

A safe place?

Morton Hall, a former women’s prison, was ‘reroled’ as an immigration removal centre in May 2011. Within months —  in September 2011 — eighteen men went on hunger strike to resist their removal to Afghanistan.

In July 2012 two men took to the roof; many detainees were “upset” over the duration of their detention, the BBC reported.

The Prison Officers’ Association told ITV News in November 2012 that 150 detainees had protested and staff had “been forced” to use their batons. The POA blamed rising tensions on the mix of high and low-risk detainees.

On Christmas Day and 30 December 2012, staff and detainees were injured in disturbances involving scores of inmates. The POA told the Guardian that staffing levels were “at the very, very sharp end of what we believe to be safe”. But the UK Border Agency insisted: “Morton Hall is a safe place for detainees and staff.”

Main gate, Morton Hall (HMIP)

In September 2014 Morton Hall again erupted in a protest after a 26 year old Bangladeshi man called Rubel Ahmed was found hanging in his cell.

In March 2015 Morton Hall joined Yarl’s Wood women and people in Harmondsworth in a hunger strike to highlight conditions across detention centres which had been the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, and a Channel 4 documentary exposing conditions in Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth.

Across detention centres in the UK, figures show that there were 185 recorded incidents of self-harm in 2010. By 2015, that number had more than doubled to 409. In 2015 across the detention estate there were 393 suicide attempts recorded. That’s an average of more than one a day. Morton Hall IRC with 51, was the fourth highest, and had 252 inmates listed as ‘at risk’ of suicide during the year.

A team of prisons inspectors visited Morton Hall last November and reported today: “Half the detainees in our survey said they had problems with feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival. There had been a three-fold increase in incidents of self-harm since the previous inspection [in March 2013]. During the previous year, four detainees had narrowly escaped fatal or serious injuries as a result of self-harm.”

Protest and be punished

In a statement to the BBC Look North programme, after the Morton Hall demonstration, the Home Office said it respected “everyone’s right to peaceful protest” but detention centres were “essential elements of an effective immigration system”.

Directly after the demonstration Nariman and one of the people who had spoken on the phone to us, Raffael Ebison, were punished and shipped out of Morton Hall. I spoke to both of them whilst writing this article.

Nariman told me: “I am in Brook House now, it looks like another prison. They sent both of us here yesterday (Thursday 16 March)”.

Raffael said: “At the end of the protest on Saturday I was taken straight to the segregation block. We had to stay there till they sent us here to Brook House.”

Campaigners at the demonstration continue to support and contact Nariman and Raffael in Brook House. Plans are already being made for another action at Morton Hall. We are determined to shut down Morton Hall…and all detention centres in the UK

Postcript: Shortly after this article was written Raffael Ebison, who was moved to Brook House IRC as a punishment for speaking out to protestors at conditions in Morton Hall, was released after pressure. As of 26 March Nariman Jalal Karim, who scaled the prison fence to speak to us, is still detained at Brook House. We ask you to contact Brook House 01293 566 500 to demand his release. Is telling the public how our money is spent inside immigration prisons a crime?


Author note: Thanks to Lizy for notes, and to Manuch for photographs

Fail, fail and have another contract

Security contractors G4S and Serco and housing company Clearsprings have for years supplied UK asylum seekers with shoddy housing. The contracts carry on regardless.

Fail, fail, and have another government contract

G4S asylum housing, Leicester (John Grayson)

 

For five years now I’ve exposed the dangerous consequences of the UK’s ill-conceived, badly planned and poorly executed rush to privatise housing for asylum seekers. I’ve told of children exposed to health risks in rat-infested homes, a cockroach in the baby’s bottle, lone women intimidated by their landlords.

This home is one of the worst. It’s a terraced house in the East Midlands of England, just off Leicester’s city centre. I call in one frosty morning in early January. Paul comes to the door. He is an asylum seeker from the Middle East who speaks fluent English.

Living with bed bugs

“The house is full of bedbugs, in David’s bedroom, another guy’s bedroom and all in here—.” Paul points to the settee in the lounge.

The room is full of bedclothes and personal belongings. “G4S never clears away what they take from rooms when people leave,” says Paul. “We don’t like throwing the things away, people might come back.”

Four men live here. David speaks to me in Arabic, Paul interpreting. “I have been here over a year and the bedbugs have got worse,” says David. “I had to throw my mattress in the yard and I sleep on the floor. I try and stop the bugs coming in through the floor boards by taping up the room.”

David’s room (John Grayson)

 

Outside David shows me piles of rubbish – infested mattresses, bedclothes, broken furniture.

“Ring G4S all the time,” he says in broken English. “Never come.”

Paul fetches some dead bugs he has saved. David shows me the bites on his arms and stomach.

I ask Paul how long he has been in the house. “Four months,” he says. Paul came to England in a refrigerated lorry— “It was very cold, four people on the lorry had to go to hospital.”

He claimed asylum: “They took me to detention centre, Campsfield. I was there two months, then Birmingham. One month in Kensington hotel.”

I had been to the Kensington, a rundown place G4S used alongside Birmingham initial accommodation centre, for people waiting to be housed.

Paul goes on: “Two months in Birmingham centre, then Stoke.”

I ask him about the Stoke house.

“Really bad,” he says.

After a further two months the Home Office claimed that Paul had been fingerprinted in Hungary on his journey and thus had to be deported back there. He was rearrested and sent back to Campsfield where he spent a further two months. Then in October 2016 he was moved again to the Leicester terraced house with the bed bugs.

Bed bugs (John Grayson)

 

David shows me his leg and a badly scarred knee.

“I get this from torture in my own country,” he says. “I cannot walk very far but I have been given a bus pass.”

The heating has failed many times and the radiator in Paul’s bedroom has broken away from the wall. His window doesn’t shut.

“The walls were falling on me,” Paul said, pointing to cracked plasterwork he had repaired with tape.

A G4S maintenance worker had inspected the house on 12 December and passed on an urgent text message to G4S, demanding remedy. One whole month later David told me nothing had happened. I went back to the house a few days ago. Friends had come to help get rid of the sofa and the lounge had been cleared, but not by G4S. The bed bugs were thriving. Paul showed me fresh bites on his arms.

Victoria Derbyshire — a bad day for contractors

Lately the lives of asylum seekers housed in the UK by commercial contractors got rare prime time attention on BBC television. The occasion was publication of a damning report from the Home Affairs Select Committee who’d found “vulnerable people in unsafe accommodation. . . children living with infestations of mice, rats or bed bugs, lack of health care for pregnant women. . . inadequate support for victims of rape and torture.”

The MPs had urged a complete overhaul of the contracting system.

Committee chair Yvette Cooper appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme alongside G4S executive John Whitwam.

BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme 31 January 2017

 

The presenter asked the G4S man: “Would you live in a house infested by rats, mice and bed bugs?”

“No, of course I wouldn’t,” Whitwam said.

He claimed G4S inspections had found defects and addressed them: “The issue is not that things go wrong in a house — they go wrong in my house, they go wrong in every house, but the requirement we have to address them, which we do.”

That was Tuesday 31 January. A bad day for the contractors, but not nearly as bad as it might have been.

The MPs’ report had downplayed evidence of racism and intimidation. Evidence, for example, from the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) who said that “derogatory and racist behaviour” was common among contract staff. Asylum seekers said staff behaviour “made them feel like ‘animals’ and that they were ‘subhuman’.” Others reported that they felt bullied.

The BBC had planned to air testimony from activists and G4S tenants in Yorkshire asserting that tenants who complained had been moved against their will, had been threatened that complaints would damage their claims for asylum.

My colleague, housing rights activist Violet Dickenson, had been invited to take part in the programme as a studio guest. She was looking forward to speaking out about the culture of intimidation.

Out goes activist witness Violet Dickenson. In comes corporate voice Sharon Holmes.

 

But during the weekend before transmission G4S had lobbied the BBC, invitations were withdrawn, interviews pulled. The film clips of asylum seekers and activists (from the film, The Asylum Market, by Brass Moustache, that you can see in full here) were binned. Instead of Violet Dickenson’s live testimony about intimidation, the programme ran a pre-recorded interview with Sharon Holmes, G4S head of business, who dismissed some of the evidence in the MPs’ report as “anecdotal”.

Missing the boat

As for the MPs’ call for a complete overhaul of the contracting system, it was weaker than it appeared. For that ship had already sailed.

Since 2012 Home Office accommodation has been provided to asylum seekers by companies — G4S, Serco and Clearsprings — their subcontractors, and hundreds of small private landlords, through what’s known as COMPASS contracts (an acronym for Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services). The contracts, worth a reported £1.7 billion over five years, had been due to expire in 2017 — unless the government exercised its option for a two year extension.

“Before the Home Secretary signs the next contract, the committee will have things to say,” the then committee chair Keith Vaz MP had told BBC Scotland back in March 2016. “So, we will conclude our inquiry in plenty of time for the Home Secretary to be able to reflect on it before she signs the new contracts.”

That didn’t happen. Instead, the report’s publication was delayed. And delayed.

By 8 December 2016, and still no sign of the report, the government quietly issued a written ministerial statement confirming that the Home Office had extended the existing contracts, and that it was going to pay more — though not how much. “I have increased the amount of money that the Home Office pays for the provision of welfare officers and staff property management,” wrote immigration minister Robert Goodwill.

As for five years’ compelling evidence of rats, cockroaches, racism and intimidation, Goodwill wrote mildly: “There has been considerable interest in the accommodation and support that is provided to asylum seekers,” and he had “listened carefully” to concerns.

“Considerable interest”

What does “considerable interest” look like?

It looks like this:

Asylum seekers “are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.”

That was Sarah Teather MP in the foreword to her Parliamentary inquiry report in January 2013: “Racial abuse and victimisation at the hands of members of the public were striking enough, but more shocking for us were the examples of abject disregard for basic human dignity demonstrated by housing providers.”

A Home Affairs committee report later that year noted: “We were very concerned by the description of the substandard level of housing provided to asylum seekers.”

In January 2014 the National Audit Office reported: “Both G4S and Serco took on housing stock without inspecting it . . . many of the properties they had taken on did not meet the contractual quality standards.”

 

 

The Asylum Market from Brass Moustache Films on Vimeo.

The Public Accounts Committee followed up in April 2014: “The standard of the accommodation provided was often unacceptably poor and the providers failed to improve quality in a timely manner.” And: “Contractors have remained slow in providing decent accommodation for a very vulnerable group of people.”

Red doors and a Taliban room-mate

In February 2016 Stephen Doughty, Labour MP for Cardiff South & Penarth, secured a debate in Westminster Hall: “We appear to have a situation in which the Home Office is contracting a small number of companies to place highly vulnerable people — often, it seems, in crowded or unsuitable accommodation — in a very small number of areas in a small group of dispersal centres and cities, and frequently in areas of low rents and deprivation,” he said.

Andy McDonald, Labour MP for Middlesbrough, reported: “A young man in my community who is gay and who has come to this country is having to share a bedroom with somebody who was once a member of the Taliban.”

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East, SNP) said: “We have had refugee houses easily identifiable by the colour of the door; stories of humiliation and harassment caused by the requirement for refugees in Cardiff to wear coloured wristbands; and a level of overcrowding that would be more appropriate in the slums of the 1900s, not the 21st century. It is clear to me that the system is broken, not just in one location and not just with one provider. That is why the Scottish National Party is calling for an urgent inquiry.”

But that didn’t happen.

Labour’s Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, said: “There is now a short period until most of the contracts come up for renewal, so now is the time for a review to be carried out so that whatever mistakes were made in the past can be avoided in the future. I think some contracts will expire in 2017, with a possible two-year extension clause, so time is of the essence.”

He said that lately: “I spent the whole day in Oldham, and in the end I came away with the conclusion that the only reason why more than 600 asylum seekers were there was because the unit price per head of accommodating them was lower there than anywhere else.”

Starmer went on: “I lend my support to the call for a review. There is now a window of opportunity.”

As we’ve seen, that window slammed shut in December 2016 when the Home Office extended the contracts.

MPs in the dark

During the Westminster Hall debate, Alex Cunningham, the Labour MP for Stockton North, highlighted the matter of secrecy, how MPs are kept in the dark about how the companies carve up all that public money.

“We must make the companies involved more accountable to the taxpayer,” Cunningham said. “Private companies that deliver public services, such as G4S and Jomast, are exempt from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner has no power to investigate private contractors.” He went on: “It is nigh on impossible to get our hands on the details of much of what private companies are up to with public money. Accountability must not stop where private sector involvement starts.”

Criminal investigation into G4S and Serco

Lack of transparency isn’t the only problem. Both G4S and Serco were caught out “overbilling” the taxpayer under contracts for monitoring offenders — the tagging scandal. Both had charged the Ministry of Justice for applying electronic tags to ex-offenders who were not being tagged. Some were in prison. Others were dead. Serco agreed to pay £68.5m back. G4S tried to get away with paying back £24.1 million but eventually agreed on nearly £110 million. The Serious Fraud Office has had both companies under criminal investigation since November 2013. Information supplied by the SFO prompted the Financial Reporting Council in June last year to open another investigation — into Deloitte’s handling of Serco’s accounts.

During “emergency talks” with the Home Office in December 2015, G4S and Serco used the financial press to air their concerns about the losses they claimed to be making on the Compass contracts. That summer Serco boss Rupert Soames had used an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s business programme The Bottom Line to almost boast that over five years Serco would lose  £115 million on the Compass contracts. “The taxpayer presumably is smiling,” he said.

Financial Times features ‘struggling’ outsourcers, 23 December 2015

 

At the Home Affairs Committee hearing on 13 September 2016, Soames told MPs: “The reasons why the contracts are losing money for us are varied. One is that we under-bid. The price was too low. I have to say that a system of reverse Dutch auction conducted over the internet may not be the best way to establish pricing for a contract to provide care to tens of thousands of people.”

He said the other reason was an increase in the numbers of asylum seekers.

David Winnick MP asked Soames for a copy of Serco’s contract with its subcontractor Orchard & Shipman. Soames replied: “No, sir, I do not think that would be appropriate.”

The National Audit Office in November 2013 issued a warning about the “crisis of confidence in contracting out of public services: “There is currently a lack of transparency over the role that contractors play, the business that they do, the rewards that they make and the way that they perform.”

The NAO explained: “It is difficult to isolate the profit relating solely to their public-sector work. They (the contractors) rarely separate out their public-sector work as part of their segmental reporting. The government only has access to information on the profits contractors make where ‘open book arrangements’ are written into contracts.” Such open book arrangements do not apply to the Compass contracts.

Turning the tide

At a public meeting in Sheffield in 2012, when people learned that G4S had been given the asylum housing contracts, an asylum tenant from Zimbabwe stood up and said: “I don’t want a prison guard as my landlord.”

Remember the executive sent to defend G4S’s reputation on the Victoria Derbyshire show? John Whitwam’s expertise is not in housing, nor human rights, nor the asylum system.

G4S executive John Whitwam on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme

 

He’s a military man. As Lt Col John Whitwam he served as commanding officer, Royal Fusiliers. Then, after a brief go at investment banking — at Barclays, according to his LinkedIn profile, he moved into soldiering-for-profit, as commercial director at Pilgrims Group, before joining G4S, the world’s biggest security company, and becoming “managing director immigration and borders”.

Asylum housing doesn’t belong in the private security industry and its Asylum Market.

Tenants and rights campaigners did find some things to welcome in the Home Affairs Committee report. We in Yorkshire had already pushed our local councils to ban the forced sharing of bedrooms. The MPs recommended: “That forced bedroom sharing be phased out across the asylum estate as a whole and that the use of large scale HMO’s (Houses in Multiple Occupation) be reduced.”

And . . . The MPs recommended that future contracts should involve local councils and the devolved nations, and voluntary organisations in deciding on and scrutinising local, and regional contracts for the provision of asylum housing.

Asylum rights campaigners will seize on these recommendations to turn the tide against privatisation and intimidation, take asylum housing out of the market and put it back where it belongs, in public hands.
Asylum-seekers’ names have been changed.

 

This article was originally published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/shinealight/john-grayson/fail-fail-and-have-another-government-contract

 

See also Kate Smith at The Conversation: “Despite repeated failings, private firms continue to run asylum housing”.

The story of how G4S lobbied BBC to get The Asylum Market documentary pulled is here and you can watch the doc by Brass Moustache Films in full here

 

Asylum Market: the film G4S don’t want you to see

“Asylum accommodation is a disgrace” was the conclusion of the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report on privatised asylum housing on 30th January. The same day the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show was also due to hear evidence of a culture of intimidation in G4S asylum housing in Yorkshire. They had invited Violet, a leading asylum housing rights activist and member of SYMAAG to take part in the discussion. And to show the newly-released film The Asylum Market about G4S asylum housing in Yorkshire. After pressure from G4S the BBC caved in. Violet’s invitation was withdrawn, the film was not shown and there was no discussion of the evidence of intimidation in G4S asylum houses.

You can see The Asylum Market here

<iframe src=”https://player.vimeo.com/video/201062637” width=”640″ height=”360″ frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Merry Christmas from G4S, you’re evicted

After constant failures and abuse of asylum housing tenants over nearly five years, and serious jail riots at a G4S managed Birmingham prison it is still business as usual as G4S (and Serco, and Clearsprings) are given lots more taxpayers money to continue their disastrous asylum housing contracts for another two years to 2019.  John Grayson reports

 

 

This week just before Xmas two G4S asylum tenants went to the weekly Drop In session in a Sheffield city centre chapel and told the workers for ASSIST, a charity working for destitute asylum seekers, that one of them had been told that because he had lost an appeal on his asylum claim he would lose all support from the Home Office and G4S would evict him on 21 December. Another man told ASSIST he had a similar letter for his eviction on 28 December.

Catherine a volunteer with ASSIST told me “We have some temporary shelters and emergency housing for destitute asylum seekers but we would never dream of asking people to leave over Xmas.G4S have some discretion – they could postpone the evictions – but of course they would lose money then, not getting their contract payment from the Home Office for a few days.”

Just before Xmas in 2011 the UK Home Office announced, amongst the festive news trivia, a bombshell – that G4S the largest security company in the world was its ‘preferred bidder’ for a chunk of the £620 m contracts for asylum housing for the 23,000 asylum seekers waiting for the outcomes of their claims across the UK.

G4S had no experience of housing but it did have a dubious record in managing prisons and detention centres in the UK and worldwide, and at that time was being held responsible for the death in October 2010 ofJimmy Mubenga on a deportation flight restrained by G4S guards.

Andy McDonaldMP when G4S subcontractor painted asylum tenants' doors red, marking them out for racist attacks

Andy McDonaldMP when G4S subcontractor Jomast painted asylum tenants’ doors red, marking them out for racist attacks

Last week again amongst the welter of news from Aleppo and Brexit trivia Robert Goodwill Theresa May’s Immigration Minister offered the lowest possible profile in lodging a written statement in the Commons announcing extension of the asylum housing contracts and promising more taxpayers money or“more investment”, for the companies, and their managers and owners.

He dealt with the fact that over the past three years there had been four major damning parliamentary inquiries into the management of asylum housing contracts by two international security companies, G4S, Serco and the housing company Clearsprings; constant media criticism; and protests from local councils, in one short sentence

“There has been considerable interest in the accommodation and support that is provided to asylum seekers.”

He publicly contradicted the findings of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in 2014 when he claimed that “improvements…. have been made to the standard of accommodation when compared to those achieved under previous arrangements.”

Asylum tenants protest in 2012 in Sheffield at the start of the G4S asylum housing contract.

Asylum tenants protest in 2012 in Sheffield at the start of the G4S asylum housing contract.

Margaret Hodge the chair of PAC in 2014 drew attention to “the loss of the knowledge of experienced specialist providers”, pointing to the important role previously held by local councils and the specialist knowledge necessary to deliver such contracts. “Far from provision of housing for asylum seekers improving under privatisation, this evidence suggests that things are getting much worse.

Goodwill then gave the details of his largesse:

  • “Firstly, I have increased the amount of money that the Home Office pays for the provision of welfare officers and staff property management.”

Perhaps Stuart Monk head of Jomast, G4S contractor in the North East with a family income of £175m from property development and asylum housing, could have used some of the £8m his company received last year for asylum housing for better staffing. Local M.P. Alex Cunningham has described Jomast taxpayer funded asylum housing as“hovels”. Mr Monk describes them as “a product suitable for an asylum seeker” and seems unrepentant in painting many of the doors with red paint attracting hate crimes and far right attacks.

 

  • Secondly the Home Office has decided to “further reduce the need to use contingency arrangements, such as hotels, in the future.” A blow perhaps to Alex Langsam, founder of Britannia Hotels, twice voted the worst hotel chain in Which? Polls. Langsam has an estimated personal fortune of £220m and has been dubbed ‘The Asylum King’ after securing contracts in 2014 to house refugees in 17 of his budget hotels and making a profit of £14m for the company.

 

  • Thirdly “There will be a new higher price band for any increases in the number of asylum seekers requiring accommodation, this will allow the providers to further increase their property portfolios if required and widen the areas in which they operate.”

This will be good news to Clearsprings managers whose CEO James Vyvyan Robinson formerly of G4S, has an annual salary of more than £200,000. Graham King, the founder and chairman of Clearsprings, trousered £960,000 from the company in 2014.

It is also good news for Serco and their CEO Rupert Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill. They have extended another contract in their asylum market businesses, they have recently extended another controversial contract – to continue to run Yarl’s Wood detention centre for women in 2014,worth £70m over eight years, and more over a possible eleven years.

 

Serco bizarrely described another £20 million of taxpayers’ money for its asylum housing contracts as a reduction in losses. The Telegraph said Serco  ”plans to recalculate future losses in the coming weeks and it expects the figure to be slightly reduced, potentially by as much as £20m”. Serco shares were up 2.8 per cent after the announcement

Goodwill also formally announced a consultation on new contracts from 2019

“My officials have started work on putting in place new arrangements for when these contracts expire in 2019. This work is at an early stage and we are engaging with a range of stakeholders to consider options for the future arrangements.”

Grayling offering "Shedloads of (public) money" for G4S

Grayling offering “Shedloads of (public) money” for G4S

I attended such a consultation in Leeds on Friday 18 November where a senior Home Office civil servant Kirstie Greenwood signalled very strongly that G4S and Serco would be the contractors beyond 2019 – and then for a very long time .Without mentioning anyone she spelt out that the Home Office was ‘mindful’ to have only national asylum housing contracts,to have longer contracts beyond the five years under present arrangements, and remarkably in Austerity Britain “We are clear that we shall have to spend substantially more money on future contracts” Ms Greenwood did not rule out that contracts would reflect current Home Office policies on creating a “hostile environment” for asylum seekers –‘policy’ apparently was not part of the consultation.

In the statements of Robert Goodwill and Kirstie Greenwood we can surely hear the voice of Chris Grayling in 2011, then Employment Minister:

“What we have tried to do is to create a situation where our interests and the interests of providers are really aligned.They can make shedloads of money by doing the things we would absolutely love them to do”

On Friday 9 December after the worst U.K. jail riot since 1990 G4S had to transfer its management of HMP Birmingham back to the state prison service. Demonstrating once again that G4S fails miserably to deliver on its outsourced public services contracts.

A campaign has already begun by SYMAAG to reverse the decision to extend the asylum housing contracts to G4S,Serco and Clearsprings.

 

Welcome to my asylum home. I’d offer you a seat — if I had one

No chairs or table. Dangerous gas appliances. A blood-stained mattress. Rats. Squalor. Asylum housing today

Local authorities, charities and asylum tenants from all over the UK have given evidence that indicates the failure of the COMPASS asylum housing contract

John Grayson looks at G4S asylum housing in Sheffield ahead of Home Office negotiations to give more public money to G4S, Serco, Clearel to operate the “unacceptably poor” COMPASS asylum housing contract

 

This article was first published on Open Democracy on November 18th

 

Meanwhile a parliamentary inquiry into asylum housing lumbers on over ten months . . . and today in Leeds the Home Office holds yet another ‘consultation’ on a sorry business.

Jayne chops vegetables on a tray on her kitchen mat (John Grayson)

 

Jayne is on her knees, chopping vegetables on a tray on her kitchen mat. Jayne has no table or chairs. She and her two young children have lived in this squalid house in Sheffield for two weeks. Their landlord is the international security company G4S which holds part of a £620m government contract to house asylum seekers.

“I cannot stay here, it is not safe for my children.” Jayne is crying. She points to her storage ‘cupboard’. There’s shelving around steep, filthy and unguarded stairs that lead to cellar. The cellar is full of rubbish.

Jayne’s cellar steps (John Grayson)

 

Sam is Jayne’s lively four-year old son. “Sam is ill all the time,” Jayne tells me. “It is because of the dirty house.” Sam has already fallen down the steep bedroom stairs — when the handrail came away from the wall.

Debbie, a volunteer social worker, tells me: “I first came across Jayne and her family in a refugee hotel in Dunquerque. We spent months persuading the British authorities that the family had relatives in the UK and was entitled to claim asylum here.”

Through an interpreter Jayne, in tears, says: “Travelling from Turkey my husband and my other daughter went missing, I don’t know where they are.

“When I arrived I was given £90 for each of us, that was in August. I have received nothing for nearly three months. Friends and my relatives around Sheffield give me food, and support us. G4S promise to get me a payment and I am waiting for the post every day.”

A typical G4S house

In late October I inspect the house — typical of dozens of G4S houses I have seen in Yorkshire over the past few years — rundown, dirty and neglected. Debbie has already protested about Jayne’s dangerous cooker and the National Grid man has capped off the gas pipe.

“He told me G4S should be ashamed to put the family in with that cooker, he said that there had been a serious house gas explosion in the recent past in the area.”

Jayne gave me a letter confirming that a dangerous gas appliance notice had been served on G4S.

 

I walk around to the back of the house, where Sam might play. There’s a blocked drain, a broken-down fence and a passage leading directly on to the street with the door missing.

Debbie had told me that Jayne was desperate about Sam’s safety. “Her fifteen-year-old, Marie, cannot understand why she has to keep security gates shut for Sam.” Both children have learning difficulties. Jayne tells me she must carry Sam around on her back up and down stairs.

Jayne carries Sam down the stairs (John Grayson)

 

As I am leaving Jayne answers to a knock on the door — it is a G4S delivery of table, chairs and a new cooker — Debbie’s protests have worked.

The house is still dangerous for Sam and I have written to G4S warning them that they must provide safe accommodation now or risk a legal challenge to safeguard the human rights of Sam and Marie.

Legal action may be the only way to make Sam safe. On 7 November the Red Cross wrote to Paul Bilbao, head of Asylum Support Contracts and Compliance at the Home Office in Leeds giving details of my inspection of Jayne’s house and a further Red Cross visit detailing dangers to Sam and his sister, and the urgent need for the family to be moved. On 10 November a reply came from Lee-Anne Prince, the Home Office specialist for ‘safeguarding children’ in asylum housing in Yorkshire.

She wrote: “I have spoken to G4S and we are intending to visit the property in the next few weeks after which I will come back to you.”

Breaches of contract

According to its Home Office contract G4S must supply accommodation that is safe, habitable, fit for purpose, and correctly equipped and furnished, and G4S must “provide accommodation for disabled persons that is fit for purpose…in compliance with relevant law.”

Jayne’s furniture and a safe cooker should have been in the house before G4S moved the family in — one more breach of the COMPASS asylum housing contract requirements.

Working alongside asylum seekers over the past five years I have uncovered hundreds of such breaches.

This past year other campaigners, local councils and groups of asylum tenants and refugees have sent written evidence about asylum housing, just like Jayne’s, to the Home Affairs Committee’s (HAC) Inquiry into asylum housing.

Jayne’s cellar-head ‘larder’ (John Grayson)

 

The Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) interviewed 76 asylum-housing tenants, and told the committee that asylum seekers reported unsanitary conditions, dampness and cold, electrical and heating faults. One person told the researchers that the heating timer was set to turn off from Friday to Monday, and therefore there would be no heating in the house over the weekend. Another said they were left without heating for weeks on end.

The Welsh Refugee Coalition evidence states: “Housing is a major problem for many asylum seekers …the housing provided was often inadequate, degrading, shameful and unhygienic.”

Bradford City of Sanctuary investigated twenty-five cases and reported that:

“fifteen directly referred to the cleanliness of the housing, which includes dusty carpets, mice infested kitchens, water leaking from walls, poor odours and mite damage. A number…did not have fully functioning central heating and boilers”.

Bradford City Council had responded to complaints from asylum housing tenants.

“The Council’s housing standards team inspected a number of HMO (House in Multiple Occupation) properties…and found that within each property similar deficiencies were repeatedly present such as; rodent infestations, damp, failure to meet…standards in terms of fire safety, external yards/gardens were overgrown.”

Jessica: blood and mice

Reading the evidence, I’m reminded of a G4S house in Leicester I visited recently. There I listen to Jessica, who arrived from the Middle East in July.

She was allocated a room in a filthy G4S house. The mattress of her bed was stained with blood.

After protests from the Red Cross she was moved to another house in Leicester…this time infested with mice.

“I am terrified of the mice in my bedroom,” she tells me. “I cannot sleep.” Jessica shows me the mouse-traps and poison she has bought for her room.

Jessica attempts rodent control (John Grayson)

 

Two other women in the house, young asylum seekers from Africa, tell me of other problems. Dawn said:

“This house was without heating and hot water for nearly a month, we were boiling kettles to have a bath. The G4S man said that we should not switch the boiler off because it will not come back on…we live with a noisy boiler in this overheated kitchen now.”

Buckets for hand-washing clothes (John Grayson)

 

Dawn had been in the house for two years. “Our washing machine kept leaking and was never repaired properly — then G4S left us without a washing machine for six months — they told us to wash our clothes by hand.” Dawn pointed to the buckets they had bought to do the washing.

Ken – two years with rats

Rodents are a common feature in G4S housing. In Sheffield I talked with Ken, who showed me a window in his kitchen. “My wife had nightmares when she saw the rats out there so we put tape on the window,” he said. Ken arrived from the Middle East two years ago with his wife and twenty-year-old daughter.

Ken’s kitchen window (John Grayson)

 

“We saw the house and said we would not live there, the G4S man said that there were plenty of English people living under bridges and that we could join them if we refused the house.”

Ken and his family have complained about the rats on at least six occasions over the past two years. The G4S notice in the house says the pest control staff came in mid-September but Ken tells me the rats are still about.

And that’s not all.

Ken told me: “Young people came every night throwing stones at the house and calling racist names.” The police were called, but still G4S would not move the family to safe accommodation.

Asylum seekers in Northern Ireland reported racist treatment from their landlords — the property company Orchard & Shipman, subcontractors to Serco. The Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers expressed alarm that “derogatory and racist behaviour” was common among Orchard & Shipman staff.

The Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) reported to the Home Affairs Committee that a majority of asylum seekers said staff behaviour “made them feel like ‘animals’ and that they were ‘subhuman’. Others reported that they felt ‘bullied’.”

What next for asylum housing?

Campaigners for better conditions for asylum seekers in accommodation provided by the Home Office contractors G4S, Serco and Clearel (Clearsprings) have had some success. Scottish Refugee Council’s work  alongside asylum housing tenants in Glasgow has resulted in Serco dropping Orchard & Shipman from the contracts in Scotland. In the North East rumours circulate that G4S is planning to drop its sole contractor there, Jomast Developments, the company that achieved front page coverage in The Times for painting asylum seekers’ doors red.

While the Home Affairs Committee prepares its report on these matters, the Home Office continues to negotiate with G4S, Serco and Clearel (Clearsprings) to extend the contract for two more years until 2019.

Since the contractors came on board in June 2012, there have been four significant inquiries, featuring asylum housing in Parliament, the Children’s’ Society Parliamentary panel in 2013, a Home Affairs Committee inquiry in 2013, a Public Accounts Committee inquiry in 2014 and the current Home Affairs Committee inquiry.

In 2016 G4S was fined £5.6m for the standard of the housing it provided in 2013/14. Despite all that, regardless of persistently negative media coverage and asylum tenants’ tenacious resistance and solidarity campaigning, still, G4S, Serco and Clearel hold the contract. Indeed, the Home Office is currently negotiating a contract extension with its ‘commercial partners’.

In any normal commercial setting a contractor producing such shoddy work might quickly find themselves off the job.

Why does the government tolerate this? Is it because substandard accommodation is exactly what the government wants for asylum seekers? This is one of the questions I’ll put to the Home Office today in Leeds at their ‘consultation’ on future asylum housing contracts.

 


 

Note: Jayne, Sam, Marie, Jessica, Dawn and Ken are pseudonyms.