Who killed Jimmy Mubenga?

In 2013 an inquest found that Jimmy Mubenga was “unlawfully killed” while being “escorted” by G4S guards on a forced deportation flight to Angola in October 2010. On December 16th 2014 these G4S guards were found not guilty of manslaughter.

 

mubenga court protest

Protesting outside Westminster Court during the trial

“I am going to start a campaign to stop this happening again”

Jimmy Mubenga’s widow Adrienne Makenda Kambana said in response “For the last four years I have fought for justice for Jimmy and our five children.  It is hard for me to understand how the jury reached this decision with all the overwhelming evidence that Jimmy said over and over that he could not breathe.” 20 other people on the flight testified that they had heard Jimmy call out “I can’t breathe” and “They’re going to kill me.”

“I am going to start a campaign to stop this happening again,” Adrienne told the Guardian during the trial. “I will ask the Home Office to make sure there is an independent monitor on each deportation so they can observe what is going on. I can’t stand by and watch this happen to another family. I have to do that for Jimmy.”

mubenga protest imd

Protesting outside G4S HQ on International Migrants Day

Racist texts: “Inadmissable Evidence”?

Immediately after the trial it emerged that the judge had ruled as “inadmissible” evidence pointing to endemic racism within G4S. 76 racist texts had been found on the phones of two of the  G4S guards “escorting” Jimmy Mubenga on the deportation flight. Clare Sambrook of Open Democracy (who had been ordered to remove certain website articles critical of G4S during the trial) looks at this issue here.

Around 200 people protested on December 18th International Migrants Day outside the Home Office in London demanding justice for Jimmy. Protesters called. “We can’t breathe”, echoing the last words of both Jimmy and of Eric Garner who was killed by police in New York recently. The protest finished with an impromptu march to the nearby headquarters of G4S.

mubenga i cant breathe

Adrienne Kambana and supporters outside court

Heaven and Earth

Frances Webber writing for the Institute of Race Relations commented: “Should we be surprised at the verdicts? No. In all the dozens of deaths in custody involving undue force researched by the IRR over the last twenty-five years no one has ever been convicted of homicide. And where an inquest jury, after seeing and hearing incontrovertible evidence, has brought in a verdict of unlawful killing (which has happened at least nine times), heaven and earth are moved to reverse the verdict and/or to ensure that the CPS does not bring a prosecution of those involved.”

A G4S spokesman said: “Providing a safe and caring environment for those in our custody or care is a priority for G4S”

 

 

G4S i cant breathe logo

The UK and Syrian Refugees: in the ‘proud tradition’?

The total number of Syrian refugees resettled in the UK could fit on a bus.

So far the UK has resettled 90 refugees from the biggest refugee crisis since World War Two.

To put his figure in context:

  • 9 million Syrian people (43% of the total population) have been displaced ie forced to move away from their homes by the uprising, war and crisis
  • 3 million have fled to the neighbouring countries of Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon (where they are now about 30% of the total population)
  • 150,000 have sought asylum in Europe
  • European Union countries have pledged to resettle (in addition to accepting asylum applications) another 33,000 Syrians
  • 28,500 (85%) of these resettled refugees will be in Germany. The UK has said it will take “hundreds” over “the next three years”. Moldova, Europe’s poorest, country has resettled 50.

It’s difficult to comprehend the scale of this refugee crisis and what it means for those people forced to leave their homes. If a refugee crisis of this scale happened in the UK it would mean 30 million people on the move. As a useful BBC report comparing the UK to Syria pointed out, the numbers of people leaving the UK would be equivalent to the emptying of the entire populations of Greater Manchester, Tyne and Wear, Merseyside, Glasgow and half of Greater London and their exit from the UK. You can hear this report here.

syrian refugees uk percentage

 

What Can We Do?

Syrian community organisations in the UK and Syrian people seeking asylum have protested urging European countries – and the UK in particular – to resettle more Syrians. There have been several protests in Leeds at the Waterside Home Office Immigration Reporting Centre and regional HQ.

SYMAAG organised a meeting with speakers from the Syrian Association of Yorkshire and Refugee Council in Sheffield in August which unanimously backed a resolution to resettle Syrian refugees calling for the resettlement of “several thousand” Syrian refugees and for South Yorkshire councils to play their part.

We also wrote to Nick Clegg and Theresa May urging them to resettle more refugees and deal with existing claims quickly and favourably.  One Syrian woman at a protest in Leeds told SYMAAG that she had been in the UK for 5 months and she had not even had her initial asylum interview. This correspondence between SYMAAG, Nick Clegg and Theresa May is at letter to Clegg and belowMay Syria reply

May Syria reply 2

May Syria latest reply

Note that although Theresa May’s letter refers to “over 3000 Syrian nationals and dependents” having been granted asylum this is simply a consequence of asylum claims being granted in accordance with existing asylum procedure (the 1951 Convention) not additional numbers to be resettled through the UNHCR Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme

Sheffield City of Sanctuary?

At a local level a war of words between Sheffield City Council and Sheffield MP/Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has gone on since April this year, each accusing the other of refusing to resettle Syrian refugees. Meanwhile – and despite Sheffield’s status as a City of Sanctuary – the City Council has not resettled one Syrian refugee as of December 2014. Many refugees and campaigners suspect that the prospect of this changing becomes more unlikely as the General Election in May 2015 approaches and the parties compete to look “tough on immigration”. We hope we are wrong and continue to urge South Yorkshire councils to accept Syrian refugees as other councils, like Glasgow, have.

“A Proud Tradition”?

At a parliamentary debate on resettlement of Syrian refugees called by Labour on Wednesday 10th December there was much talk – from Government and opposition –  of Britain’s “proud tradition” of welcoming refugees but no commitment to resettling Syrian refugees. Commenting on the debate the Refugee Council remarked “We are not proud; we are ashamed at the scale of Britain’s woefully inadequate resettlement scheme”. Where is this “proud tradition”? Where are these “Cities of Sanctuary”?

syrian refugees at calais

The Slippery, Cynical Politics of Asylum

With just months to go before the UK general election, John Grayson examines party politics on asylum and what the response of migrants and campaigners might be.

 

Main picture of is migrants and golfers at Melilla, Spanish enclave in Morocco.

 

This article is an extended version of one first published by the Institute for Race Relations on November 13th

 

The Slippery, Cynical Politics of Asylum

 

by John Grayson

 

 

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The UK has a proud history of offering sanctuary to those who need it” (Channel 4 News 16 October after they disclosed the Home Office had deported over a hundred asylum seekers from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in the past three months back to their ‘safe’ countries).

”I feel for those who were with me. They got asylum in the sea”’ survivor from the Mediterranean (quoted in Guardian 20 October 2014)

‘We have the right to claim asylum in England but how do we get there? There is not a legal way to cross.’ Part of a statement from a group of Syrian refugees blockading the Calais port administration October 2013

Is there a politics of asylum in Britain? Do any of the mainstream parties actually have a policy?

 

The New Statesman has described August 2014 as ‘the summer of blood’, with wars across the world. 2014 was also the year when 3000 refugees died in boats in the Mediterranean fleeing from those wars and carnage.On 2 October Ban Ki-Moon UN secretary general himself a child refugee of the Korean War told the annual meeting of the UNHCR that: “Never before in United Nations history have we had so many refugees, displaced people and asylum-seekers.” Campaigners in Yorkshire have found that in the midst of a xenophobic and racist political debate on ‘immigration’ the politics of asylum are in retreat.

This summer asylum rights campaigners in South Yorkshire have been organising and lobbying with Syrian organisations, and the Refugee Council, to resettle Syrian refugees in the region, and to resettle thousands in the UK now rather than the ‘few hundreds’ over three years agreed by the Coalition government. The campaign coincided with a general increase in numbers of ‘dispersed’ asylum seekers in asylum housing (a few of them from Syria) coming to South Yorkshire towns and cities.

 

UKIP billboard artDefaced UKIP election billboard in Swansea

 

The campaign also coincided with the rapid escalation of toxic political discourses unleashed by the emergence of UKIP as a political force in the area. The growing numbers of asylum seekers was used as an issue by media and UKIP in their successful campaigns in the European and local elections in Yorkshire. The party held its annual conference at Doncaster racecourse, next door to Ed Miliband’s constituency. UKIP is at present contesting the now vacant Police Commissioner post in South Yorkshire. All this has had its effects. In Rotherham hate crimes have dramatically increased over the summer, and in Barnsley hate crimes, the majority of them racist, are up by 100%; there have been around 150 reported in the first eight months of the year. For the first time for many years in Yorkshire the term ‘asylum seekers’ is again being demonised alongside ‘illegals’ ‘migrants’, ‘foreigners’, and ‘immigrants’.

 

Only the mantra is left

Also over the summer SYMAAG like many other asylum rights and asylum support organisations was starting to develop our lobbying strategy for candidates in the 2015 General Election. It became obvious in the campaign for Syrian refugees that British politicians and mainstream parties policies on asylum rights had been reduced to the vacuous repetition of a mantra about a “proud history of offering sanctuary to those who need it”:

David Cameron said at the beginning of Refugee Week in June 2014:

The UK has a long tradition of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. I am proud that the UK offers genuine refugees and their children an opportunity to build a new life.

 

Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said:

. The UK has a long and proud tradition of providing refuge to people at a time of crisis. I am proud that this legacy continues,

 

In April 2014 Yvette Cooper Labour’s shadow Home Secretary setting out the party’s Immigration policy claimed the party

“Believe it is right to offer safe haven to those escaping rape, torture, genocide or the midnight knock on the door from the secret police. That’s always been the British way.”

 

In fact the mantra, if it ever had substance, is now long out of date. Now the soundbites of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘evil traffickers’ have replaced it in the narratives politicians use to define asylum policy. The current narrative has its origins in earlier electoral moral panics about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ before the June 2001 election. Here is Tony Blair from February 2001 in an Observe’ article entitled ‘Closing Europe’s back door’ (in the previous June fifty eight Chinese migrants were found dead in the back of a lorry at Tilbury docks).

 

“We Will Honour Our Obligation”

“Every day we hear of the horrors illegal immigrants endure at the hands of the people-traffickers. The catalogue of death in recent times speaks for itself……. hundreds drowned annually crossing the Mediterranean to Spain, Italy, and Greece. There is evidence that traffickers have thrown women and children, many of whom cannot swim, into the Adriatic to avoid detection by police patrol boats. In all that we do, we will honour our obligation to provide protection to those fleeing persecution. But we must not allow such tragic loss of life to continue”

 

Blair’s pledge to ‘honour our obligation’ was soon discarded. In February 2003, he went on Newsnight and dramatically announced his abandonment of policies under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, and an immediate cut in asylum claimants by 50 per cent over the next eight months ‘by making it extremely difficult for people fleeing from persecution to reach the shores of the UK’. The UK abandoned its international obligations, its only gesture being acceptance in 2004 of a ‘Gateway’ programme of ‘resettlement’ of ‘very vulnerable’ refugees from UNHCR camps. At first only Sheffield and Bolton local councils were willing to cooperate. The programme continues with an annual average now of around 750 refugees per year.

 

The Blair governments also supported the establishment in 2004 of FRONTEX,the EU agency funded to keep the borders of Fortress Europe secure from ‘illegal’ migrants. Labour governments also used the agency for controversial mass deportation flights to Iraq, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Blair and the UK never fully signed up to all the EU asylum policy and the UK is only on the advisory body directing FRONTEX but has actively contributed to its deportation flights and has contributed personnel to secure borders initiatives in the Mediterranean area. . Tony Blair famously characterised the UK’s selective participation as giving it ‘the best of both worlds’ as the UK was not obliged to take on EU commitments in the asylum and immigration context but could opt in to measures in order to “make sure that there are proper restrictions on some of the European borders that end up affecting our country.”

frontexit mapMap from anti-FRONTEX group Frontexit showing deaths of migrants around Fortress Europe 1993-2012. See http://www.gisti.org/spip.php?article3261

 

And that is where we stand today; the political mantra about ‘our obligation’ is trotted out by Home Secretary after Shadow Home Secretary – but it is a lie. Our obligation has gone, scuppered by a secure borders policy with steel fences and riot police at Calais; and a lethal sea and land border in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. The familiar sound bites and the media and political discourses have been repeated over the last ten years to cover for this vacuum in asylum policy. For instance, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on 5 August used the crude stereotype of migrants and refugees as burglars slipping inside Blair’s ‘back door’. Calling for further clampdowns on illegal immigration he claimed that

“Illegal immigration isn’t just about people sneaking in in the back of a lorry”.

Later in August The Daily Mail headlined a story by Sue Reid on the cross Europe routes of migrants as ‘Back Door Britain’.

 

So what passes for ‘asylum policy’ these days?

Essentially, apart from the gesture of the UNHCR Gateway programme, there are two aspects to asylum ‘policy’:

  1. ‘Strong borders’ – in recent years a fortified UK border at Calais and a FRONTEX land and sea border around Fortress Europe
  2. Asylum procedures and institutions designed as a deterrent to future asylum seekers

 

Strong Borders: Calais

The Red Cross set up a centre at Sangatte near Calais in 1999 to accommodate refugees from Kosovo and the Balkans who were attempting to gain asylum in the UK. On Christmas Day 2001 500 refugees stormed the Channel Tunnel entrance. Eurotunnel spent more than £6m on security measures to protect the 1,700-acre terminal site, including 20 miles of outer fencing, six miles of razor wire and 300 video cameras. This pattern of protest and organising by refugees and migrants followed by evictions, police brutality and increased security has characterised the last fifteen years. David Cameron recently offered the French authorities £12m to strengthen security at Calais port and the high security fence erected in Newport for the NATO summit. This was in response to September events according to the Press Association ‘where 250 illegal immigrants recently stormed the ferry terminal’. Refugees and migrants had earlier in the summer produced a manifesto of demands and sought negotiations with British and French authorities, or as the Sunday Express put it ‘Hundreds of illegals demand the French send them to Great Britain’ Once in Britain they will claim asylum and all the social security and other benefits that entails…which is why the migrants continually try to sneak aboard lorries headed here’ – asylum seekers as benefit tourists ! The image of asylum seekers ‘sneaking in’ by Britain’s ‘back door’, if they survive the Mediterranean crossing. has become embedded in media and political narratives

 

French-police-detain-a-mi-001French police attack migrant at Sangatte refugee camp

 

On 19 August the Daily Express headlines continued the theme with ‘Camp to be bulldozed to stop migrants sneaking in’. There obviously was little embarrassment at the Express that these headlines appeared two days after a death occurred in a container with refugees ‘sneaking in’ from Afghanistan.

When thirteen children were discovered alongside twenty two adults, one of whom had died, in a container at Tilbury on 17 August the media were puzzled by what to call them – the I settled for ‘Afghan stowaways’, although the piece appeared in the ‘Crime’ section and was covered by their Crime Correspondent. The Daily Mail decided on ‘cargo stowaways’ although they were described as ‘migrants’ later in the piece.   Other editions of the Mail quoted officials describing the people as ‘these poor people’ and ‘victims’. The Telegraph fell back on ‘Illegal immigrants in Tilbury shipping container’ and put the story in their Crime section. The Guardian followed with a more guarded ’35 suspected illegal immigrants’. By Monday 18 August Channel 4 News was reporting ‘Afghan Sikhs claim asylum in Britain’.

The Tilbury container death and the fact that there were thirteen children involved did, as direct contact with asylum seekers always does, evoke human sympathy; and press reports settled into this vein. Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail cut through the sentiment

‘Basic humanity requires that we give them medical treatment and temporary accommodation…There were thirteen blameless children among those packed into what has been described as a ‘metal coffin’…Why didn’t they seek asylum in Russia, or Turkey, or any of the countries that they crossed en route to Zeebrugge?…I know there is supposed to be free movement within Europe, but surely that privilege applies only to EU citizens not illegal aliens…However heartbreaking some of the stories, we can’t go on giving asylum to all the world’s waifs and strays’

UKIP and Syrian refugees at Calais

The views of UKIP’s politicians, and their policy on refugees gathering at Calais, is very much in line with the Littlejohn view of the world. Janice Atkinson a UKIP MEP, visiting Calais thought that the ‘French authorities might start to think seriously about repatriating the thousands crowding around the Eurotunnel entrance rather than tolerating the countless attempts to violate our borders’. Her UKIP MEP colleague Steven Woolfe agreed: “The people being thrown out of the camps are not going to give up…It is essential the UK Government makes it absolutely clear we will return illegal migrants to their ­countries of origin.”

 

syrian refugees at calaisThe verdict of well-read Syrian refugees on UK immigration policy

 

The fact is of course that many of the thousands of refugees and migrants who have gathered at Calais over the past two years are Syrians and Eritreans often with family or friends in émigré communities in the UK. Already in October 2013 65 Syrians blockaded gangways on ferries and 40 staged a hunger strike. The Daily Express recognised their protest as one from ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’. The Guardian described them clearly as ‘Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the UK’, and quoted a statement they had prepared:

‘We have the right to claim asylum in England, but how do we get there? There is not a legal way to cross.’

Labour and Calais

When in April 2014 Yvette Cooper Labour’s shadow Home Secretary set out the party’s Immigration policy she again turned to the asylum mantra, and claimed rather implausibly that Labour:

 

“Believe it is right to offer safe haven to those escaping rape, torture, genocide or the midnight knock on the door from the secret police. That’s always been the British way.”

 

Labour’s ‘new’ smart and progressive policy on asylum claims to distinguish between asylum and other types of immigration. Refugees (not of course asylum seekers) along with university students will not be included in caps and target numbers – for asylum seekers it will be made even more difficult to enter the UK to claim. Cooper spelt this out looking at Calais:

 

We need stronger controls at the ports where the most problems arise. Particularly in Calais, [my emphasis] where we’ve seen not just abuse but tragedy. Awful cases of young men camping by the roadside then leaping onto the wheel arches of passing lorries, only to be crushed and killed. So yes, it is progressive to call for much stronger enforcement at Calais. And we will bring back finger printing for illegal migrants caught stowing away at Calais – something the Government has refused to do.”

 

 ‘take back the immigration discourse from the right wing’

At a fringe meeting at the Labour conference Cooper pledged to ‘take back the immigration discourse from the right wing’ and presumably responding to lobbying on Syria said that Labour policy on refugees would create’ a more flexible system for when major international crises like the current situation in Syria happens again.’ Cooper is careful to distinguish between refugees and ‘asylum seekers’. Moreover campaigners have found in their present attempts to resettle a handful of Syrian refugees, it is mainly Labour councils who are unwilling to resettle them even though the terms are slightly better than the Gateway programme which many of them are signed up to. The reason is of course – that same right wing ‘discourse’ which makes them all nervous before an election.

 

In any event the near defeat in Heywood and Middleton and the demands of Labour M.P.’s like Simon Danczuk has meant another new strategy on UKIP (and Yvette Cooper is in charge of this). Labour now seems to be returning to its default positions on asylum and ‘strong borders’ Ed Miliband ‘s response to UKIP delivered in Chatham on 23 October, as part of the by-election campaign in Rochester and Strood, certainly suggests this. The ‘I’ banner headlines perhaps says it all.

 

‘Deportation, Deportation, Deportation: Miliband toughens Labour’s immigration policy to counter UKIP’

 

blunkett sangatteRefugees make their views of Mr Blunkett known in 2002

 

 Swamped

This impression of a Labour ‘Groundhog day’ on immigration is strengthened by David Blunkett’s outburst supporting Tory minister Michael Fallon in his assertion that immigrants are ‘swamping’ communities. Blunkett in his article for the Daily Mail, looked back to the times when he had used the term ‘swamping’ before:

‘This storm [over Fallon’s outburst] echoed the experience I went through 12 years ago when I, too, used the word ‘swamped’ to describe the anxious feelings of people who were facing the dispersal of large numbers of asylum seekers into their own hard-pressed Northern communities’.
Of course both outbursts deliberately echo the ‘swamping’ rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher. Blunkett himself obviously realises why the term is offensive:

‘That is because the term ‘swamped’ is so loaded with political history. It was famously uttered by Margaret Thatcher in a World in Action television interview in 1978, when she was still Leader of the Opposition.’

 

Labour having abstained on votes on the Coalition’s 2014 Immigration Act – the most racist piece of legislation in years – is also apparently determined to start a Miliband government with a new Immigration Reform Act. Last time they were in office Labour managed six Immigration Acts We no doubt will be re-entering what Steve Cohen called the ‘Orwellian world of Immigration controls’.

 

The Liberal Democrats

 

In the Liberal Democrat’s policy on Immigration ‘Making Migration Work for Britain’ passed at their recent Annual Conference, of the 45 ‘Policy Points’ only one obliquely deals with ‘strong borders’:

Liberal Democrats propose to accelerate the delivery of full monitoring of all UK border entry and exits

 

The Lib Dems see ‘illegal immigration’ as a criminal activity, and want more deportations

Liberal Democrats propose an intelligence-led approach to tackling illegal immigration, with more investment into investigating criminal gangs, the black market, and others who support illegal migration with a robust returns policy.

 

Labour in its 2010 election manifesto similarly had a section headed ‘Crime and Immigration’

 

In the main document the issue of asylum is dealt with by restating a commitment to the 1951 Convention

Liberal Democrats want an improved asylum system which both strongly upholds the UN Convention and minimises the potential for abuse (p.45).

 

The ambiguities in this position are hinted at in other sections. Falling numbers of asylum claims from ‘people arrived in the UK claiming asylum’ to just 5% of total immigration is seen as a good thing…. Nevertheless it is still an area of public concern [bold in original] (p.44).

 

Clegg: “The asylum system is uniquely unfair” Sheffield Town Hall, 2008

Those were the days…Clegg: “The asylum system is uniquely unfair” Sheffield Town Hall, 2008

 

There is no analysis of extensive ‘strong border’ policies and EU border controls which brutally breach the UN convention and have to a large extent produced the fall in numbers. In fact EU asylum control measures are praised in the document – apparently the ‘Eurodac Regulation’ on fingerprinting ‘has led to the removal of 12,000 asylum seekers from the UK since 2004’ (p.47).

 

The Greens

The Green Party divides its ‘Migration Policy’ (revised in September this year), into Principles, Medium and Short Term policies. Amongst the Principles:’The Green Party is opposed to both ‘forced migration and forced repatriation’. The Short Term policies include

 

Migrants illegally in the UK for over five years will be allowed to remain unless they pose a serious danger to public safety

 

Transport providers must not be penalised for bringing people without the required visas, etc. to the UK.

 

And under ‘Immigration and the EC’, and perhaps ten years too late:

We will resist all attempts to introduce a ‘barrier round Europe’ shutting out non-Europeans or giving them more restricted rights of movement within Europe than European Nationals.

 

Political silence on deaths in the Mediterranean

 

The political parties’ silence on the carnage in refugee and migrant boats in the Mediterranean is deafening. Handwringing and rhetoric about evil traffickers and criminal gangs seem to be the limits of politicians’ interest. In her speech to the September Labour Party Conference Yvette Cooper failed to even mention the tragedy of 500 asylum seekers (including 100 children) mainly from Syria and Palestine dying only a few days earlier off the coast of Malta.

 

This time the mantra mentioned Syrians – but only the handful the Coalition had agreed to admit over three years.

“We will never turn our backs on those fleeing persecution and I’m proud our party forced the Government to accept vulnerable Syrian refugees.”

 

At present (October 2014), there are around 50 Syrian refugees in the UK, under this scheme, most of them accommodated by a housing association in West Yorkshire. There is a commitment to around 500 Syrians over three years. Germany has committed to around 24,000 over the same period, and unlike the UK where ‘irregular’ Syrians wait months for interviews Germany accepts the UNHCR view that Syria is manifestly unsafe, and was accepting Syrians a few months ago without interviews simply on application.

 

In the same speech Cooper returned to familiar territory

“That’s why a Labour Government will bring in stronger border controls to tackle illegal immigration (and)….to stop the growing crisis at Calais”

 

We should note that ‘our’ EU border force FRONTEX describes ALL migrants crossing the external borders and the Mediterranean as ‘illegal’ or ‘irregular’. The problem is that a large percentage of those crossing and dying in the Mediterranean, as recent analyses[1] have demonstrated, may be ‘irregular’, they may have used ‘traffickers’ but they are most definitely refugees seeking asylum in the EU, some aiming to join relatives and émigré communities in the UK.

 

The chilling verdict of Frances Webber in a recent Statewatch article on EU programmes and law, should be compulsory reading for politicians and their special advisers.

 

EU migration policy is ever more firmly anchored in the imperative of exclusion, causing the deaths of thousands at its borders and subjecting migrants to “institutionalised detention”. This quasi-criminal framework for migration empties of meaning the ideals on which the EU claims to be founded.
The images conjured up when we think of migration to Europe are of boats – drifting, leaky and overcrowded; bodies – drowned, washed up on beaches and caught in fishermen’s nets; fences topped with razor wire; camps – squalid places of misery and desperation. They are images of exclusion and death.
 

Deterring asylum seekers –the ‘monstrous’ UK asylum system

 

Theresa May in May 2012 told the Telegraph

“The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration,” she declares.

Work is under way to deny illegal immigrants access to work, housing and services, even bank accounts. “What we don’t want is a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need,” she says.

The ‘Go Home’ vans campaign followed in the summer of 2013, and the Immigration Act in 2014.

 

liberty go home vanLiberty parody of the infamous “Go Home” Home Office campaign

 

Back in March 2007 the Home Office published Enforcing the Rules: A Strategy to Ensure and Enforce Compliance with our Immigration Laws, The BBC reported:

A clampdown has been launched targeting “foreigners [who] come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits”, home secretary John Reid has said. The plan is to stop illegal immigrants getting housing, healthcare or work. He said the UK was now “throwing out” record numbers of asylum seekers and he hoped to make life “constrained and uncomfortable” for illegal immigrants.

 

In March 2008 Liam Byrne, Labour Immigration Minister told the Telegraph

The enforcement budget is going to be doubled; the number of detention places increased and the rate of deportations stepped up. A fleet of mobile detention vans is being sent out. “They’re big trucks with cages in,” Mr Byrne explains. “Once upon a time an illegal immigrant who was picked up would be given a map to Croydon and told to turn themselves in. That was nonsense. Now we detain people immediately.

 

Tory myths on deterrence

Ann Widdecombe, as a junior minister to Home Secretary Michael Howard in 1995, was an early advocate of a deterrent asylum policy. Her crude argument (reproduced in her 2013 autobiography) was that rapid air travel, and TV available in the ‘mud huts’ of Africa meant that

‘Any African eking out an existence in a makeshift hut, with a tarpaulin for a roof, if lucky, can see daily images of the west and its splendours. That understandably is what they want for their own families.’ (pp 284-285)

Widdecombe now a columnist for the Daily Express has long been an advocate of ‘detention on arrival’ for all asylum seekers. She was recently (25 September) quoted in the Sunday Express on the Home Office putting new asylum seekers in hotels (owned by a hotel chain described by Which? as ‘the worst hotel chain in UK’), as overspill from London’s detention centres, saying hotels are not ‘secure accommodation…You have to automatically detain all new asylum seekers…People don’t think we are a soft touch, we are a soft touch’.

 

Deterrence at Calais and in the Mediterranean

The Coalition Government’s obsession with deterrence does also overlap with their narrative of ‘strong borders’. Matt Carr recently reported on the police actions and the evictions in Calais and argued that:

The result is an unacknowledged policy of deterrence in which both the British and French governments are complicit. It is intended to make life in Calais as harsh for migrants as possible, without actually killing them, in the hope that they will stop coming.

It has also now emerged that British policy on the Mediterranean border means that the Italian navy’s Mare Nostrum rescue programme which rescued most of the 85,000 refugees who landed in Italy from January to July, will not be continued or supported; it did not deter refugees effectively enough. This policy

‘was quietly spelled out in a recent House of Lords written answer by the new Foreign Office minister, Lady Anelay: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” she said, adding that the government believed there was “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

Tony Bunyan of Statewatch called the government’s attitude “cynical and an abdication of responsibility by saying that not helping to rescue people fleeing from war, persecution and poverty who are likely to perish is an acceptable way to discourage immigration.”

David Cameron in the House of Commons on Monday 27 October spelt out this crude philosophy of deterrence arguing that the search and rescue approach “almost encouraged people to get on the boats”.

 

A mountain of evidence

 

Over the past ten years refugees and asylum seekers, campaigners, academics, asylum rights and asylum support organisations, government inspectors, Parliamentary select committees, and UN inquiries, have produced a mountain of reports and evidence on the callous and brutal asylum and immigration detention system. We already know from the Conservative’s legislation and actions that it is highly unlikely that they will propose any reform measures in their manifesto. What about the rest?

 

Labour policy on asylum for 2015

 

Labour has said little about how it would reform the asylum system – after all they created most of it and its abusive institutions and practices. Mehdi Hasan has pointed out that Labour

Is ‘willing to apologise only for being too soft on immigration and immigrants, not for being too tough….Enough with the apologies. Week after week, senior Labour figures queue up to express regret over the party’s record on immigration. …If Miliband and his pals are bent on apologising for their record on immigration, there are better places to start. …..Why not express regret or remorse for the pernicious rhetoric around immigration and asylum during the New Labour years? …..Then there is child detention, perhaps the most obscene domestic legacy of the New Labour era, rightly described as “state-sponsored cruelty”.

 

Chris Bryant when he was appointed Labour Shadow Immigration Minister in 2011 said the first thing he wanted to do was “treat migrants like human beings”. Bryant publicly criticised Labour’s past record on asylum housing along with current abuses by G4S. Yvette Cooper in her April 2014 policy speech gave one sentence to the brutality of the asylum system

 

‘And when deportations are needed, they should be conducted according to proper standards of respect and humanity so we never tolerate the awful abuse seen by staff at Yarl’s Wood. April 2014’

 

Chris Bryant was replaced in 2013 by David Hanson. Hanson has recently contributed a chapter to ‘Why Vote…Labour’, where he fails to mention the asylum system at all – it is all part of the Labour way of moderating markets

 

‘Labour believes in making markets work, and that free and unlimited markets don’t work well. This is just as true for the labour market, and free movement of labour…There is nothing in Labour history, values, or traditions that require us to be in favour, in principle, of unlimited immigration. We are not and never have been, we have and always will be for managed immigration. (p86)

 

Liberal Democrats

In office the Liberal Democrats have supported all the legislation and regulations in the field of asylum passed by the Tory led Coalition they have been part of. Nick Clegg is currently calling for even stronger borders and accelerated deportations as part of the election rhetoric and ‘debate’ on immigration.

 

In contrast the Liberal Democratic Party policy Making Migration Work for Britain’ has been influenced by the efforts of Lib Dem M.P.’s like Sarah Teather and her campaigns to get Parliamentary scrutiny and reform of the asylum system. Teather was a leading opponent of the Coalition’s Immigration Act and one of only 16 M.P.’s of all parties to vote against it. With the Childrens’ Society she promoted a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, She is currently working with two APPG’s (All Party Parliamentary Groups) on a Parliamentary Inquiry into immigration detention supported by the Detention Forum which has already gathered an impressive amount of written evidence critiquing immigration detention regimes.

 

Liberal Democrats’ ‘paper policy’ for radical overhaul of asylum system

 

The Liberal Democrat Party’s policy on asylum ‘support’ and detention is a call for a radical overhaul of the whole system. It calls for the abolition of Section 4 (where ‘failed’ asylum seekers are given reduced support)and the Azure Card; and an end to destitution and homelessness by continuing support to those who may have had their claims rejected but cannot be returned.

 

After 6 months waiting for the resolution of claims asylum seekers will be able to work and in these six months policy should ‘make sure that appropriate training and volunteering opportunities are made available so they can make a contribution to society and be better prepared to find work.

 

The policy argues that ‘Serious problems also persist around private companies that hold outsourced contracts for the delivery of enforcement and asylum services.’ And citing the case of Jimmy Mubenga

 

‘Liberal Democrats propose to restore deportation transportation and the accountability of enforcement functions to the public sector as soon as the current contracts permit.’

 

Jimmy-Mubenga-006Jimmy Mubenga, died while being ‘escorted’ during a forced deportation by G4S guards in October 2010

 

On detention they propose to end Indefinite Detention for immigration purposes and to end the inappropriate use of the Detained Fast Track; and implement community-based alternatives to detention.

 

It will be interesting to see how these proposals survive into the Liberal Democrats’ actual Manifesto for 2015. Andrew Stunnell who chaired the policy group chose to stress in speaking at the Lib Dem conference that ‘the Lib Dem priorities on immigration will firstly be to count everyone in and everyone out and secondly to discuss immigration in parliament yearly’ which suggests that the policy will remain a paper policy.

But the influence of Liberal democrats within the City of Sanctuary movement along with other groups like Still Human Still Here have meant that some of the proposals have emerged in the eight principles being debated at a Sanctuary Summit: Standing in Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Refugeesa on 15 November[2] a summit supported by almost all the main refugee and migrant rights organisations including the Red Cross and UNHCR

 

The Greens

 

Green Party policy calls for a new Immigration law ’this law will be based on the principle of fair and prompt treatment of applicants rather than on excluding dishonest applicants whatever the cost to the honest ones’.

 

The Greens want ‘the ending of immigration detention: No prospective immigrant will be held in detention for migration-related reasons, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, eg a prospective migrant who poses a serious danger to public safety.’

And:

‘A thorough review of UK Immigration Practices and the UK Immigration Service to ensure that racist features are removed and immigration officers receive sufficient suitable training. We will encourage greater ethnic minority participation in the Immigration Service.’

 

Natalie Bennett leader of the Green Party has attacked political discourses around immigration – ‘this nasty, stigmatising rhetoric’.

 

She believes that ‘people who come to Britain, seeking to follow on our proud tradition of providing asylum, should be allowed to work if they can, should be given decent benefits equivalent to those of everyone else, and decent housing.’

 

Bennett is one of the few politicians who recognises that the asylum system has actually been constructed as a deterrent

 

‘I tend towards the theory that messes are more likely to be the result of “stuff-ups” than conspiracies, but when you look at the system for seeking asylum in Britain, the tortuous, incompetent, confusing maze that is demonstrably failing even in its own terms to deliver sensible decisions (25% of rulings that go to appeal are overturned), it can only be said to be a deliberate attempt to stop refugees from securing asylum, to which they are entitled under international treaties that we signed decades ago’.

 

imm bill demo 2Natalie Bennett of the Green Party speaking at a demonstration against the Immigration Bill in Sheffield December 2013

 

 

Campaigning for asylum rights in election time

 

There is therefore a rich array of policy proposals from organisations focusing on the asylum system and detention within the UK which organisations like SYMAAG will be able to use in their local campaigns with candidates in the 2015 election. It is worth remembering that only a few weeks ago in Scotland the ‘Yes’ campaign was mobilising thousands of working class voters on a programme of welcoming migration to Scotland, closing down Dungavel detention centre, and encouraging asylum seekers as an economic asset. The TUC at its Congress in September adopted a policy calling on a future Labour government to repeal the Coalition’s Immigration Act.

 

Joyous LemlemA winning campaign: Lemlem arriving back in Sheffield after a successful community campaign to defend her from deportation

 

Unfortunately in the pre-election documents and speeches there seems to be little awareness, or maybe a refusal to be aware of, the political narrative which suggests that the inhumanity of the system is deliberate – it is meant to deter asylum claims. All eyes are narrowly focused on the UK and firmly averted from Calais, and Lampedusa. There is an unwillingness to face the brutal reality that in the asylum system the British state, governments and civil servants have willfully developed policies based on xenophobia, discrimination and exclusion with regard to asylum. The state has used ‘our’ money to do this, and has also used ‘our’ money to outsource violence, racism and exclusion via contracts with international security companies like G4S and Serco. The coroner in the inquest of Jimmy Mubenga could not have been more direct. She commented on the racism of the guards who unlawfully killed him. This was

‘Not evidence of a couple of ‘rotten apples’ but rather seemed to evidence a more pervasive racism within G4S”. She added there was “real concern” that “endemic racism” might result in “inappropriate treatment” of detainees.

 

Campaigning for asylum rights in the 2015 election in solidarity with refugees and migrant workers has to include developing public and political awareness of this central issue of state led discrimination and exclusion in the asylum system. The campaigning has to confront the horrors of the Mediterranean and Fortress Europe. It needs to support refugees who have had the courage to resist EU asylum policies across Europe. School and university students in Germany and France have created a climate of solidarity with displaced Roma and survivors of the boats.[3]

 

German 1404584776-demonstration-in-berlin-in-solidarity-with-the-refugees_5179567“Right to Stay for All” – Berlin demonstration for refugee rights

 

Campaigns for refugees need to challenge what Michael Diedring of the European Council for Refugees on Radio 4’s World at One on 28 October, called the “morally reprehensible” position of Britain and EU countries on search and rescue in the Mediterranean. The argument that the UK is funding Syrian refugees in camps with £600m of aid, and therefore does not need to take further humanitarian action, unravels when you read what the camps are actually like.

 

Robert Fisk has recently reported on

‘200,000 Syrian refugee children – some as young as five-working in Lebanon’s potato and bean fields, or picking figs in the Bekaa valley. Many of them are beaten with sticks in a situation perilously close to slave labour….sleeping in some of the filthiest camps in the land’

 

Channel 4’s Unreported World has exposed the plight of disabled Syrian refugee children in makeshift shelters with the UN having no funds to resource their medical needs.

 

The real issue is that refugees become ‘illegal’ or ‘irregular’ migrants because the UK simply refuses to create safe routes and safe methods of claiming asylum. As Maurice Wren of the Refugee Council argues

“The answer isn’t to build the walls of fortress Europe higher, it’s to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection.”

 

As the UNHCR pointed out in July, in its commentary on the situation in the Mediterranean,

‘Legal migration routes could reduce the incentives for people to embark on dangerous irregular travel. They could also help boost local economies in the medium term and create labour opportunities in the longer run. The use of humanitarian visas, protected entry procedures and enhanced family reunification need to be further explored. In specific cases some Member States in the past have provided visas at embassies to enable people in need of protection to travel to European destinations. The potential to further develop such arrangements could also be considered.’ (UNHCR p.3)

 

Now there’s an asylum policy to campaign for.

 

 

[1] Amnesty International’s report in September 2014 Lives Adrift: Refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean made this clear:

“The 400 victims of two major shipwrecks of 3 and 11 October 2013 were in the vast majority refugees from Eritrea and Syria. In 2013, FRONTEX stated that “It is undisputed that significant numbers of arrivals by boat originate from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Somalia. There is a considerable likelihood that nationals from these countries are in need of international protection. ….In 2013, out of a total of 107,365 people detected while attempting to cross a border irregularly, 25,546, about 24%, were Syrians, and 11,298, about 10%, were Eritreans.”

In 2014 the top two nationalities of people landing in Italy were 28,557 Eritreans and 23,945 Syrians – over half of the total. See also IOM (International Organisation for Migration) Fatal Journeys: tracking lives lost during migration September 2014

 

  1. [2] All asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to be treated with dignity and respect.
  2. Asylum seekers to be welcomed & befriended on arrival, and offered free language tuition so they can fully participate and contribute to the local community.  
  3. Free access to healthcare for all asylum seekers while they are in the UK.
  4. Access to good quality legal advice and representation.
  5. Improved decision making, so protection is granted to all who need it.
  6. An end to destitution, by providing sufficient support to all asylum seekers to ensure they can meet their essential living needs while in the UK.
  7. Permission to work for asylum seekers whose case has taken more than six months, or who have been refused and are temporarily unable to return home.
  8. An end to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and migrants.

 

[3] In November 2013, 20,000 university and school students marched through Paris to protest the deportation of a young Roma student, and teenagers barricaded schools (Telegraph 2013). In December 2013, thousands of school students in Hamburg walked out of lessons and demonstrated for better treatment of refugees in Germany (Snoek and Doll 2013). In February 2014, Berlin school students went on strike to stop the deportation of refugees who had arrived in Germany after crossing the Mediterranean to Lampedusa (Hansen 2014). It is perhaps no coincidence that Germany now grants asylum to more refugees than any other EU country.

A Shiver Down the Spine: David Blunkett and the immigration “swamping” controversy

David Blunkett MP chose to echo the words of Tory MP Michael Fallon (and Margaret Thatcher) in alleging that communities are being “swamped” by migrants, writing in the Daily Mail on October 27th. Migrants and supporters in South Yorkshire were shocked (though not surprised) to see Blunkett again echoing the words of those who seek to create a “really hostile environment” for those they call “illegal” migrants.

 

South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) drafted and sent a response to Blunkett’s Daily Mail article (below). SYMAAG Chair John Grayson was interviewed on Radio Sheffield on November 10th about Blunkett’s comments and according to one migrant activist John’s comments will have “put a shiver down Mr Blunkett’s spine”. SYMAAG received a response (also below) from Blunkett’s office soon after.

 

 

Original article in Daily Mail 27/10/14 by David Blunkett

 

Open letter from SYMAAG and others to David Blunkett 8/11/14

 

Dear David Blunkett

 

AN OPEN LETTER RESPONDING TO YOUR ‘DAILY MAIL’ ARTICLE

 

We are volunteers, academics, clergy, and organisations in South Yorkshire, refugees, asylum seekers and recent migrants (many of us your constituents).

 

In your 27 October Daily Mail article, which was widely publicised, you support the remarks of Conservative M.P. and Minister Michael Fallon when he alleges that communities are being ‘swamped’ by immigrants.

 

In your article you recognise that the term ‘swamping’ was used by yourself in 2002 when describing the number of asylum seeker children being dispersed to Northern towns. You also recognise that the term has a particularly unpleasant political ring about it because it was used by Margaret Thatcher in 1978. So we are puzzled that you choose not only to repeat it but to argue that this is the best way to ‘tell the truth’ about immigration – now, just a few months before a General Election.

 

We are concerned that your remarks are likely to fuel the toxic climate of debate already stoked up (as you point out) by UKIP. South Yorkshire and Sheffield in particular has a reputation as a ‘city of sanctuary’ welcoming asylum seekers and refugees. Over the past year the constant political and media barrage of xenophobic and intolerant political statements and speeches has had disturbing consequences on everyday life for migrants, asylum seekers and ethnic minority people in South Yorkshire.

 

In the county as a whole there has been an increase in racist hate crimes against these local residents. In Rotherham an increase overall in hate crime of 65 per cent, in Barnsley a 100 per cent increase with 150 already this year from January to September. Children’s help lines have noted significant increases in reports of racist bullying in schools attributed by teachers to the hostile and xenophobic political debates in the mainstream media and social media.

 

We are sure that you do not intend your rhetoric to have these sorts of consequences; and we agree that there is a place for ‘frank, rational, discussion [on immigration] where voters are treated with maturity’ – but we suggest that the use of emotive language such as this provokes exactly the opposite, and that now more than ever, politicians should be thinking very carefully before using such inflammatory metaphors.

 

You say there is a need for “practical solutions” – let’s take learning English as an example. Why not advocate an increase in the number of free good quality English classes and help migrants to understand and contribute to society, rather than cut them as present and previous Governments have done?

 

“Words are important“, you say – so why choose one that serves to inflame, rather than inform this very sensitive debate?

 

Yours sincerely

 

Phillis Andrews (SYMAAG vice-chair)

Mohammed Bary (assistant secretary SYMAAG)

Revd Robert Beard, St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Sheffield

Emma Briant (University of Sheffield – in a personal capacity)

Charles Chikwana (SYMAAG executive)

Deborah Cobbett (University of Sheffield – in a personal capacity)

Rachel Cooling (SYMAAG deputy treasurer)

Stuart Crosthwaite (SYMAAG secretary)

Violet Dickensen (SYMAAG vice-chair)

Rodrigo Edema (SYMAAG executive)

Sarah Eldridge (Sheffield City of Sanctuary)

Dave Gibson Chair Barnsley Trades Council (in a personal capacity)

John Grayson (SYMAAG chair)

Nacera Harkati (SYMAAG executive)

David Hoad (SYMAAG Executive)

Em Lawless (Housing worker – in a personal capacity)

Marian Machekanyanga (SYMAAG executive)

Revd Steve Millwood, chair Trustees of Darnall Family Development Project

Michael Miller (retired Chartered Occupational Psychologist)

Jane Petrie (Sheffield Hallam University – in a personal capacity)

Ryan Powell (CRESR, Sheffield Hallam University – in a personal capacity)

David Price (SYMAAG executive)

Mike Reynolds (chair Sheffield City of Sanctuary)

Max Senior in a personal capacity and also on behalf of the Barnsley Branch of Amnesty International

Robert Siamtinta (SYMAAG treasurer)

Robert Spooner (SYMAAG executive and ASSIST)

Prof Fionn Stevenson Head of School of Architecture, University of Sheffield

Robin Story, Sheffield Amnesty International Group (in a personal capacity)

Carita Thomas (Solicitor – in a personal capacity)

 

african-refugees protest israel

 

 

Response from David Blunkett MP

 

Thank you for your open letter which was first drawn to my attention by BBC Radio Sheffield last week.

 

As many of you know I respect the work that you and many others in South Yorkshire continue to do in terms of providing practical support and a voice for those who otherwise would not be heard.

I would only take issue with you on two points.

 

The first is the question of my “support” for Michael Fallon. In my article I supported his right to speak on the issue and within the context of a balanced interview to use the term “swamped”. I had as I pointed out, used the word within the context of enormous pressure back in 2002 although I also pointed out back then, that the word meaning the same but without the history dating back to 1978, “overwhelmed” might have been more sensitive.

 

Words cannot be captured by particular politicians at a moment in time and then become unusable.

 

My second point is to simply reinforce that all of us who care have been battling for funding not just for languages but for wider support to both those coming into the community and the host community themselves.

 

I hope to have better news on this front in weeks.

 

Finally, I know that those working at PACA at Page Hall would welcome any support you felt you could give.

 

Best wishes,

 

 

 

 

 

“Dignity Not Detention”? Inquiry into Immigration Detention

This is Rubel Ahmed from Bangladesh who died at Morton Hall Immigration Detention centre on Friday 5th September. Rubel’s death caused a mass protest from other people detained at Morton Hall.

 

Spotlight

 

Despite Immigration Minister James Brokenshire claiming that deaths in detention are “rare”, detainees and their supporters know otherwise. There has been more of a spotlight on the abuses that occur in immigration detention this year, particularly after news of institutional abuse of women detainees at Yarls Wood detention centre and recent news that corporations like G4S, Serco and Mitie profit from the exploited captive labour of detainees.

 

WRW protest

 

This year also sees the first ever Parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention. SYMAAG is hosting a meeting in Sheffield on September 23rd (see below) to help gather evidence for the inquiry. While there is no guarantee that an inquiry alone will bring justice it is, at the least, an opportunity for the voices of people detained to be expressed collectively and heard.

 

Sheffield meeting

 

We hope that organisations in South Yorkshire can contribute to the Parliamentary Inquiry on Immigration detention. There are many ways to do this but we have organised a meeting on Tuesday 23rd September 6.30-8pm at Northern Refugee Centre to collect evidence from those people who have been detained and those organisations which support people in detention.

 

We’d like you or your organisation to come to the meeting on 23rd with your stories of detention, your ideas about what’s wrong with the detention system and your proposals for how (or if) it can be changed for the better.

 

As an organisation you could bring details of how many of your members have been detained, for how long, if it was possible to stay in touch with people in detention. You might want to come to the meeting with evidence you’ve already collected before or discuss detention in a friendly environment with us. We can take note of what people say (anonymously if required) and collect the results and make a joint submission to the detention inquiry on behalf of all regional asylum rights and refugee community groups in South Yorkshire.

 

Dignity Not Detention 4

 

More information about detention and the inquiry

For more information on how to contribute to the inquiry see the Right to Remain guide and the Detention Action and Detention Forum sites.

 

There is also a virtual “tour” of immigration detention centres in the UK starting on 14th September via Twitter – a novel way of exposes what happens inside detention to the outside world. See here for more information about the #Unlocked tour

 

Immigration Detention Inquiry – template with key questions

 

Below are some key questions for the inquiry. Of course, you are free to present evidence in different ways but this template addresses some of the main issues commonly raised about what is wrong with immigration detention in the UK.

 

Key Questions for Parliamentary Inquiry
ORGANISATIONS AND SUPPORTERS
Please include evidence and examples

• What are your views on the current conditions within UK immigration detention centres, including detainees’ access to advice and services? Please highlight any areas where you think that improvements could be made.
• How far does the current detention system support the needs of vulnerable detainees, including pregnant women, detainees with a disability and young adults?
• What are the impacts of immigration detention on individuals, family and social networks, and wider communities?
• There is currently no time limit on immigration detention – in your view what are the impacts (if any) of this?
• Are the current arrangements for authorizing detention appropriate?
• What are the wider consequences of the current immigration detention system, including any financial and/or social implications?
• How effective are the current UK alternatives to detention (e.g. bail, reporting requirements)? Are viable alternatives to immigration detention in operation in other countries?

 

 

 

 

Key Questions for Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention
INDIVIDUALS WITH DIRECT EXPERIENCE

 

• Your experiences of living in immigration detention, including the context and duration of your stay;
• The conditions in immigration detention, including your ability to access services such as legal advice, healthcare, pastoral support;
• Whether there were appropriate mechanisms to deal with any mental, physical or emotional issues you may have experienced prior to or during your time in detention;
• Any longer-term impacts of detention on you, your family and/or your wider community;
• Any other information about detention that you would like to share.

The Dark Reality of Britain’s Privatised Immigration System

In July radical Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein came to meet members of 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.

 

Antony wrote this article (below) published by The Guardian on 25th July

 

 The Dark Reality of Britain’s Privatised Immigration System

 

Yarl’s Wood is a Serco run immigration removal centre in Milton Ernest, built in an industrial park more than an hour from central London. Allegations have been made against Serco staff, including of sexual assaults by guards against detainees, yet the British government continues to use the facility.

During a visit inside the centre, I briefly experienced the prison-like conditions suffered by immigrants on a daily basis. After submitting myself to a biometric reading of my index finger – a Serco brochure in reception helpfully informed me that the information could be kept indefinitely because the Data Protection Act is so vaguely worded – I met a young couple from Sri Lanka who were confused and anxious.

The woman was pregnant, and told me Serco staff often didn’t believe her when she said she needed to visit a local hospital for care. She was depressed and worried about her baby. She regularly missed meals and begged me to help them get out. Thankfully, they were released shortly after my visit, to an undisclosed location.

yarls wood

 

Emma Mlotshwa is the head of Medical Justice, an NGO that provides doctors to immigrants in detention. They offer independent assessments of asylum seekers condition while campaigning for the end of prolonged incarceration. She told me that the system was making people sick.

“The lowest price wins the contract”, she said. “They cut corners, which results in less care, lower paid staff, lower qualified staff – and at Yarl’s Wood, this deliberately aims to fudge responsibility between Serco and the Home Office. Serco often tries to stop us visiting, saying detainees can’t be found or we have the wrong paperwork.”

One thing is clear: keeping the Sri Lankan couple locked up for months was about punishment; they weren’t a security risk, nor flush with funds and able to disappear into the community. This brutal treatment is supposedly a deterrent for future migrant arrivals landing in a country where politics is increasingly defined by leaders who talk tough against the most vulnerable.

The desperation of immigrants behind bars was repeated during my visits to the Geo Group-run Harmondsworth and Serco-managedColnbrook sites, both near Heathrow airport. The centres will be taken over later this year by Mitie, a less well-known British provider than G4S and Serco.

In October 2013, a large fire broke out in Mitie’s Campsfield detention centre. Subsequent investigations found no sprinklers had been installed. Mitie’s CEO, Ruby McGregor Smith, told me that when her firm took over the facility from the Home Office, she wasn’t asked to install a sprinkler system.

She was confident that she had a “good team” to manage what would soon be, according to the corporation’s February press release, the “largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”.

I asked McGregor Smith why she thought her company could run these centres any differently than other contractors. She talked of a more “humane” policy towards asylum seekers – she damned G4S and Serco for their failings in Australia, and argued that both firms were clearly incapable of managing remote facilities, but didn’t admit this to the government in Canberra.

She also slammed competitors for having a “prison culture”. “There’s a danger”, she said, “that if you bring in companies who have run some of the toughest prisons in the world to run detention centres, you won’t get anything different. That’s all they know.”

Nick Hardwick, Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, told me that contractors like Serco, G4S or Mitie aren’t entirely to blame for problems in detention centres. “What causes people’s despair in immigration removal centres, the bulk of them, why they are such unhappy and sad places, is because of people’s distress in how their immigration case is being handled. It’s not generally about the centre itself.”

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

IMG_1782

G4S in Sheffield is opposed by local campaigners, such as the South Yorkshire migration and asylum action group. The privatisation of asylum seeker housing has led to allegations of corruption, incompetence and wilful blindness. A senior Serco source in Australia told me last year that his company wanted to run all Australia’s asylum housing, concerned that the immigration centres would empty and their bottom line suffer.

The political class in Britain rarely highlights the personal cost of outsourcing the most basic social services. The complete privatisation of welfare services is a real possibility, despite G4S and others failing to assist the unemployed after being paid by the state to do so. Across the UK, Europe and the world, the same few companies are competing for an ever-widening range of contracts.

What I saw and heard across Britain confirms the startling facts: poverty is soaring and the government and corporate media response is to pass these people into the warm embrace of multinational bureaucracy.

by Antony Loewenstein

*****

Detention Inquiry

The first ever Parliamentary Inquiry into immigration detention in the UK is to be held this year. While there are no guarantees that this will improve conditions in detention centres, we urge those who have experience of the centres to contribute evidence. More information on the inquiry is here and see here to get support in submitting evidence.

On Tuesday September 23rd at 6.30pm in Sheffield SYMAAG is holding a meeting to discuss our contribution to the inquiry and to assess whether a hearing of the inquiry should be held in South Yorkshire.

Public Meeting: Syria, War and Refugees 14th August

SYMAAG invites you to a public meeting in Sheffield on Thursday 14th August with speakers from refugee and asylum rights organisations, and Syrian organisations in the UK. The meeting will give facts about the world wide refugee crisis (there are now more refugees according to the UNHCR than at any time since the Second World War) and the massive scale of the Syrian refugee crisis. Syrian refugee families are dying in the Mediterranean desperately seeking safety in an EU country.

syrians at calais

Syrian refugees along with refugees from many countries are trapped in squalor in temporary camps around Calais trying to claim asylum in the UK. Syrians who manage to get to the UK are waiting months for even their first interview on their claim for asylum.

There are over a million Syrian refugees in UNHCR camps – Germany over the past few months has agreed to take 20,000 – in June the UK had accepted just 24.

Come along and get the facts and join the campaign to get action on Syrian refugees.

Thursday 14th August 7-9pm at Houlden Hall, next to St Marie’s Church, Norfolk Row, Sheffield S1 2JB

Migrants speak out at SYMAAG AGM: “It’s great to be listened to”

“Mental Health and the Asylum System” was the theme for the 2014 Annual General Meeting of SYMAAG. 35 people came to hear three local speakers who had first hand experience of this system. Despite the pain of describing their experience of the asylum system all three speakers gave moving accounts to an audience which listened in silence and with great respect.

 

“Creak of the Floorboard”

Pride Mbiagbor from Cameroon explained that he was used to “arrest at any time” in Cameroon because of his political views. In the UK he feared that each “creak of the floorboard” at night was the sound of the Home Office coming to arrest or deport him. The medication he received to counter his depression affected him badly and induced paranoia in addition to the constant and very real threat of being deported. The result was more anxiety resulting in running from perceived threats, real or not. Like other people seeking asylum Pride has to report to the Home Office regularly. Each time there is a possibility that he could be detained and deported:  “I’m always sick… the week before I go to sign” he explained.

Despite the pressure of life as an asylum seeker Pride volunteers with ASSIST, a Sheffield charity for destitute migrants.

 

“The UKBA put me on medication”

Nacera Harkati from Algeria explained that “It’s the UKBA which put me on medication”, that “UKBA destroyed our lives” with constant threats to deport her and family along with the hopelessness of waiting for her asylum claim to be resolved. To cope with this stress she too was prescribed medication which disabled her, preventing her from carrying out everyday activities: “I couldn’t even concentrate to  do homework with my kids when I was on medication.”  When she came to the UK from Algeria to claim asylum her husband was not allowed to stay and decided to divorce her: “That way, the UKBA destroyed my family too”.

Nacera is an Executive Committee member of SYMAAG and a leading activist with Development and Advancement for Womens Empowerment (DEWA) and Why Refugee Women

 

“Taken in handcuffs to the hospital”

Phillis Andrew described his experience of being officially stateless. In particular he told us about his indefinite detention at various Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs). He compared IRCs to prisons: “if you’re doing a prison sentence at least you know when you’ll be released” and described the stress and anguish which resulted from not knowing when or if he would be released. He became ill at one IRC and was “taken in handcuffs to the hospital”. “We are treated less than animals” in detention he explained. Phillis calmly explained how he had demanded his rights in detention and been victimised for it: he was moved between various centres and been the subject of an attempt by the Home Office to frame him for things he never did.

Phillis is an Executive Committee member of SYMAAG, active with the Barnsley Afro-Caribbean Together Association and a Community Safety delegate of the Barnsley Equality Forum

 

“Re-traumatisation”

Dr Mike Nutt of the Mulberry Practice also spoke briefly. He is a GP at this medical practice in Sheffield and specialises in treating people seeking asylum. Mike paid tribute to the courage and strength of the three previous speakers and to everyone going through the asylum and detention process. He described how the UK asylum system added to the stress and trauma that many migrants were already suffering from (“re-traumatisation”). He also talked about how physical pain and injury could manifest itself as mental pain and illness (and vice versa) and the side-effects of medication. He summed up the brutality of the UK asylum system saying “If you don’t have a health problem when you arrive, you soon will”.

 

“It’s great to be listened to”

After applause for the speakers there was utter silence and some tears. The first question from the floor was a great one: “How can you manage to relive these experiences and describe them to us like this?”. Pride contrasted his treatment by the Home Office with tonight’s sympathetic audience, saying “It’s great to be listened to”. Nacera and Phillis agreed that they drew strength and confidence from being listened to, respected and taken seriously by people in the UK. They also explained that it gave them strength and boosted their self-respect to work with groups like SYMAAG for the benefit of all migrants, not just themselves. For supporters of migrants rights the fact that Pride, Nacera and Phillis shared their experiences with us is a gift which strengthens our resolve to fight for justice alongside them.

 

“Hostile Environment”

There followed a wide range of questions and contributions about alternative treatments and activities to medication for mental health problems; of the therapeutic value (as well as political) in telling these migration stories to various audiences, particularly schoolchildren, in the UK. Many people commented that the harsh treatment and persecution of migrants was deliberate Government policy (remember Theresa May’s desire to create a “hostile environment” for “illegal” migrants?). We discussed the ongoing campaign against G4S running asylum housing and our involvement in wider anti-G4S actions like persuading local public bodies not to let them bid for contracts. Speakers from campaigns which supported other demonised groups in the UK – like benefit claimants – stressed the importance of joining together against Government and media scapegoating and the importance of showing solidarity rather than charity towards migrant struggles. The further reduction in access to legal support for asylum seekers was noted along with the run-down and sell-off of asylum advice services to Migrant Help (a company previously dropped by G4S for under-performance…)

 

The SYMAAG Annual Report (available for download below) and the Treasurer’s report were presented and briefly discussed and elections to the SYMAAG Executive Committee and officers positions were held. A majority of the Executive Committee is now made up of migrants and 2014-15 will see a number of migrant activists trained and supported to take up leading positions in our group.

 

Download the SYMAAG Annual Report 2013-14 here

 

It’s official. G4S and Serco asylum housing: “unacceptably poor”

Another Parliamentary Committee, another damning report on the disaster that is privatised asylum housing. SYMAAG’s John Grayson looks at the latest report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on 24 April and the lessons from this squalid episode.

 

The PAC report comes only a month after G4S were fined over £100 million after a Serious Fraud Office investigation into overcharging for public contracts. Two weeks after the PAC’s damning report G4S were handed another £300 million of public money to run the punitive “Help to Work”  workfare scheme for unemployed people

 

This article first appeared on Open Democracy on 24th April at http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/john-grayson/five-lessons-britain-must-learn-from-botched-privatisation-of-asylum-housing

 

Five lessons Britain must learn from the botched privatisation of asylum housing

John Grayson 24 April 2014
 

A Parliamentary watchdog reports on the dangerous consequences of an ill-conceived, badly planned and poorly executed rush to privatise

Stephen Small, recruited from Rentokil, G4S executive in charge of asylum housing, gives evidence Feb 2014

Today the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) released their Report on the appalling privatisation of housing for people awaiting outcomes of asylum claims or appeals.

Committee chair Margaret Hodge’s comments on the fiasco are worth quoting in full:

“The Home Office decided to replace 22 separate contracts to provide accommodation for destitute asylum seekers with six regional contracts in order to save £140 million over 7 years,” she said. “The change was poorly planned and badly managed and is unlikely to yield the savings intended.

“Three contractors secured the new big contracts. Two, G4S and Serco, had no previous experience of accommodating asylum seekers. Instead of brokering a smooth transition between outgoing and incoming contractors and with local authorities, the Home Office short-sightedly decided to take a hands-off approach and only allowed three months to get the new contracts up and running.”

And that’s not all.

Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee

Hodge went on: “G4S and Serco failed to inspect and check the properties before taking them over. This lack of information contributed to delays, extra cost, and disruption and confusion for a very vulnerable group of service users.

“The Home Office’s decision to rely on fewer and larger contractors was risky and lies at odds with the Government’s stated commitment to encourage SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] to deliver public services. The knowledge of experienced specialist providers has been lost and there are fewer alternative options available to the Department if the contractor fails.

“The standard of the accommodation provided has often been unacceptably poor for a very fragile group of individuals and families. The companies failed to improve quality in a timely manner. None of this was helped by the Department’s failure to impose penalties on contractors in the transition period. It is disturbing that over a year into the contract the accommodation is still not of the required standard and the Department has only chalked up £8 million in savings.

“Progress was also hampered by the failure of the Home Office and its contractors to establish a proper working partnership and to share necessary information, such as forecasts of demand for asylum accommodation.”

Less feistily, Hodge concluded: “The Home Office must insist adequate plans are in place for how it will manage the introduction of any new contracts in the future, including an understanding of what will be inherited from previous contractors, and clear arrangements for exiting previous arrangements.”

So, business goes on.

Cockroach traps, asylum-seeker flat, Leeds 2013 (Grayson)

This is the third major parliamentary investigation and report on the shambolic job the major contractors G4S and Serco have made of the housing of 23,000 asylum seekers throughout the UK. The Asylum housing contract is potentially worth £1.8 billion over seven years and is the largest single contract ever allocated by the Home Office. (The contract goes by the acronym COMPASS: Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support).

MPs, ministers and chairs of select committees have described conditions in G4S asylum housing as ‘appalling’, have exposed harassment of tenants, and gross invasions of privacy. This final report from the PAC goes over similar ground.

The PAC has at last made sure that G4S and Serco have been fined for their breaches of the contract and failure to deliver, but the two international security firms with absolutely no experience of social housing are nonetheless being allowed to continue the housing abuse of vulnerable asylum seekers and their families – potentially until 2019.

Here are five lessons we should learn from this sorry tale:

1. Don’t entrust the housing of the vulnerable to people who understand nothing about them

International security companies like G4S and Serco have been given contracts in the “asylum market” before – in detention centres, as escort guards deporting people. Former G4S guards are at present facing trial for the manslaughter of Jimmy Mubenga. Serco manages the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention and removal centre for women. The Home Office recently refused to allow the UN to visit the centre and Yvette Cooper shadow Home Office minister has called for an investigation into Yarl’s Wood.

This is the record of companies who were seen as suitable to take over the successful and sensitive provision of asylum housing for often traumatised asylum seekers from local councils. As Margaret Hodge chair of the PAC said in the committee hearings there was no reason to privatise the service:

“I don’t believe it is right to say the previous service was poor. I think they…were delivering a far better service than we’ve had so far.”

2. Don’t hand public contracts and millions in public money to companies who continually fail to deliver

And in the case of Serco and G4S illegally defraud the taxpayer. G4S spectacularly failed to deliver its security contract for the 2012 Olympic Games and this year is being rewarded with the security contract for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

3. Do make public contractors like G4S and Serco immediately accountable to regular public and parliamentary scrutiny

Companies running contracts financed entirely from taxpayers’ money should be subject to FOI (Freedom of Information) legislation. Their management and delivery of contracts should be transparent and they should not be allowed to hide behind secrecy walls of commercial confidentiality.

The only reason G4S and Serco have been exposed as slum landlords abusing asylum seekers and forced to appear before parliamentary committees is because asylum tenants have been willing to speak out and campaigners and activists have publicised the  incompetence, corruption and delusion of the privatised contractors.

4. Parliament should give asylum housing tenants the same tenancy rights as other people in social housing

The Immigration and Asylum Act of 2000 stripped asylum seekers of any tenants’ rights, and gave landlords a duty to spy on them in their homes. In practice when local authorities ran the system they defied the government and many asylum housing tenants were given tenancy “licenses” which gave them some protection but also recognised that the tenancy was only temporary. Asylum tenants were given access to the existing statutory right to be consulted by some local authority landlords again against Home Office advice.

In evidence to the Public Accounts Committee it emerged that under the present contract G4S is tearing up agreements with local authorities on numbers and overcrowding.

In Liverpool, according to the Sunday Echo on 16 March, Serco simply does not consult with the local authority and has been prosecuted and fined for conditions in asylum housing property.

The contract also requires (and the PAC Report repeats this) that the contractors Serco and G4S have to ensure that all properties should meet the Government’s legal “Decency standard” for social housing. This requirement has been ignored and G4S and Serco continue to provide appalling slum housing.

5. Don’t hand contracts to people who lack basic human decency

The sordid saga of asylum housing managed by G4S and Serco has exposed the everyday abuse and disrespect for those who exercise their rights to seek asylum and safety in the UK by the Home Office and their contractors.

What should be care and support for asylum seekers has become a monstrous system of abuse and deterrence. Asylum seekers and activists working in solidarity with them are slowly but surely shining a light on the darkest parts of the ‘asylum market’ where the state has outsourced violence and abuse, where people have become commodities — every prisoner a profit centre, every immigrant a business opportunity

This debacle with asylum housing was absolutely predictable. As one asylum tenant said when he heard that G4S had got the housing contract: “I do not want a prison guard as my landlord”. G4S is now facing growing campaigns challenging its appalling human rights record in many countries. Campaigners have recently set out the case against G4S in a comprehensive briefing for trades unions commissioned by UNITE, Britain’s largest union. Members of the Public Accounts Committee should read it, revisit their report and cancel the G4S and Serco asylum housing contracts.

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The Stop G4S Campaign has news on the global resistance to G4S, a comprehensive briefing for trade unionists and support on how to challenge proposed G4S contracts. The South Yorkshire Stop G4S Campaign meets in Sheffield – details are on the SYMAAG Events page

 

 

UK Watchdog Takes Another Bite Out of Failing Outsourcer G4S

February was a particularly bad month for G4S. At Manus Island, an Australian detention centre for people seeking asylum, the G4S guards were accused of allowing the murder of one detainee, Reza Barati, and of injuring dozens more. The incident forced even the Australian Government, notorious for its brutal treatment of asylum seekers, to investigate events there.

Vigil for murdered and injured detainees at Manus Island, Australian detention centre

Australian Embassy, London Feb 25th. Vigil for murdered and injured detainees at Manus Island, Australian detention centre

 

“Our Lives Are On Hold”

In the UK, the family of Jimmy Mubenga demanded that the G4S guards charged with his “unlawful killing” urged the Crown Prosecution Service to press charges against them. Jimmy Mubenga’s 19 year old son Roland said: “Until the men stand trial for their action we will remain desolate. Our lives are on hold while we wait your decision.” Jimmy Mubenga was “unlawfully killed” in October 2010 while being restrained by G4S guards. Soon after that, G4S lost the contract to deport asylum seekers but won others to detain, transport and, later, house them.

 

Angel Lodge

Meanwhile, after a campaign by asylum tenants and asylum rights groups including SYMAAG, G4S (along with Serco and Clearel) were summoned to appear before the National Audit Office (NAO) to answer questions about their use of £620 million of public money to provide squalid and uninhabitable asylum housing. The NAO found that G4S (and Serco) were failing to meet “key performance targets” and placing people in “substandard” housing. In practice in Yorkshire this means that many asylum tenants are unable to move to properties because of damp, lack of basic amenities and furnishings. They are being told to stay in dangerously overcrowded Initial Accommodation at locations like the misnamed Angel Lodge in Wakefield.

 

“Urgent Improvement”

Following their grilling at the NAO and investigations by the Serious Fraud Office, G4S were brought before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The PAC found that a staggering 55% of asylum housing “required urgent improvement”. John Grayson of SYMAAG analysed the results of the PAC hearing in “UK Watchdog Takes Another Bite Out of Failing Outsourcer G4S”

 

UK Watchdog Takes Another Bite Out of Failing Outsourcer G4S

by John Grayson 12th February 2014

Stephen Small spends a lot of his time trying to convince Members of Parliament that his employer is nothing like as bad as they think. He works for G4S, the gigantic security company that holds £2 billion worth of UK government contracts spanning public health, welfare, education, immigration and the justice sector.

In November 2010, just days after G4S guards killed Jimmy Mubenga on a deportation flight by heavily restraining him, Small was summoned before the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee.Disputing whistleblowers’ claims that G4S guards commonly used dangerous restraint techniques, Small claimed:

“There is no training in pushing the head downwards. There is training in trying to keep the deportee upwards. There’s no neck holds or head holds used.”

Called back to the Home Affairs Committee in June 2013 Small, a former Rentokil man, tried to explain away why G4S had piled asylum seekers into slum properties riddled with cockroaches and allowed subcontractors to harass and bully the tenants.

Lately, on Wednesday 5 February, Small was summoned to Westminster again. The Public Accounts Committee, whose job is to see that taxpayers get value for money, wanted to interrogate him. They’d been considering a reportfrom the National Audit Office (NAO) on asylum housing and the contracts held by G4S and Serco.

An attractive market

Campaigners and asylum seeker tenants in Yorkshire and the North East of England had provided the National Audit Office with a mountain of evidence of incompetence, corruption and delusion since 2012 when the Home Office privatised asylum public housing. An attractive market: publicly funded social housing, compliant tenants with no legal tenancy rights, offered ‘no choice’ housing. It promised £1.8 billion of taxpayers’ money to outsourcing companies G4S, Serco and Reliance, their partners and subcontractors.

All three lead companies had a record of abuses in the brutal immigration detention and deportation ‘asylum markets’ and no experience of social housing management.

Public Accounts Committee chair, Labour’s Margaret Hodge, was scathing about G4S and its lack of experience in social housing for vulnerable people. Stephen Small contradicted her, claiming G4S had relevant experience in the “welfare and care of people in all sorts of situations-from prisons to childrens’ homes to immigration removal centres”.

 G4s demo1

Prison riots and death by restraint

G4S has run privatised UK children’s prisons, or secure training centres, since 1998. Fifteen-year-old Gareth Myatt died in April 2004 under ‘restraint’ by G4S staff at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre near Rugby. In a High Court judgment on 11 January 2012, Mr Justice Foskett found it highly likely that large numbers of children were unlawfully restrained in secure training centres run by G4S (and Serco) between 1998 and 2008.

G4S Children’s Services had eight small childrens homes in 2013. Last summer OurKingdom exposed the company’s “concealment and trickery” in applying for planning permissions for childrens’ homes under executives’ personal identities, withholding the G4S name. The company’s Children’s Services Manager for Safety Health & Environment in 2013 had been involved in the lethal restraint of Gareth Myatt in 2004.

Small drew to MPs’ attention G4S’s management of prisons, but he neglected to mention that inefficiency had in 2011 cost them the contract for Wolds Prison. Nor did he mention the recent violent disturbance at G4S-run Oakwood Prison, in Birmingham, which prison officers described as a “full scale riot”. (The line agreed by G4S and the governent: “concerted indiscipline”).

Other corporate highlights that Small chose not mention: G4S involvement in Israeli prisons for Palestinian children, and their removal from management of South Africa’s Mangaung prison amidst accusations of torture.

Under questioning from Austin Mitchell MP, Permanent Secretary Mark Sedwill admitted that the housing contracts were “driven” by Home Office cuts in 2012.

“That is the primary motive of any commercial arrangement. The aim was to save money while also maintaining a service that was adequate for the asylum seeker,” Sedwill said.

He claimed that the previous contracts, mainly run by local authorities, would have been much more expensive— £826 million compared with the outsourcers’ £687 million. He claimed (contrary to the evidence in the NAO Report) that £27 million had already been“saved” in the first eighteen months.

IMG_1782

Evidence suggests public provision was sound

Margaret Hodge said that relying on the private sector inevitably meant higher rents and lower standards for “this vulnerable group”. Sedwill insisted that the outsourced asylum contract would in the end deliver better standards than the previous arrangements. Hodge disagreed, citing Joseph Rowntree Foundation research that demonstrated the effectiveness of local authorities in managing asylum housing. She said:

“I don’t believe it is right to say the previous service was poor. I think they…were delivering a far better service than we’ve had so far.”

G4S and Small were confronted by questions from members quoting asylum tenants themselves. Ian Swales, the Liberal Democrat MP for Redcar, challenged G4S and its definition of‘acceptable accommodation’. He spoke of one asylum seeker who stayed in the G4S/Jomast Stockton hostel with her child and then, after getting her right to remain in the UK, went to a homeless hostel.

She “could hardly believe how wonderful it was, it was like arriving in heaven,” Swales said.

The MPs were clearly shocked by G4S and Serco’s failure to inspect properties before allocation to asylum seekers. The result was what Labour’s Austin Mitchell described as“unacceptable conditions, some of which were frankly appalling”.

Not one MP on the committee asked Home Office witnesses to explain why they were happy to hand asylum housing contracts to G4S, known to asylum seekers as the company that killed Jimmy Mubenga.

James Thorburn, Serco’s Managing Director, Home Affairs went unchallenged when he told the MPs that Serco qualified for the asylum housing contract because ”we care for a lot of vulnerable people and we run two immigration centres, so we understand the immigration market.”

Serco’s “immigration market” includes the notorious Yarl’s Wood women’s detention and removal centre where in October 2013 two Serco staff were sacked for sexual abuse of women inmates.

Fraud and criminality

The Public Accounts session was held in the shadow of Serious Fraud Office criminal investigations into both companies’ overcharging and fraud on electronic tagging contracts. John Fernau, Commercial Director at the Home Office, said he was “shaken by that news (of the tagging scandal) and was worried that we might find ourselves in the same situation”. He assured the committee that in the housing contracts there “were no improprieties”.

Mark Sedwill for the Home Office maintained that the new housing contract was meant to raise standards to make them “adequate for asylum seeker housing”and house the “genuinely vulnerable”, but also to deter the bogus vulnerable.

“Home Office staffs are very conscious that we are dealing with a population that has a large number of very vulnerable people, particularly women with young families, who have been trafficked and in many cases are still subject to abuse. People really care about that and are quite careful about how they interact with them……but we also need to keep in mind that there is a significant proportion of the asylum seeking population who are seeking to do so (that is, claim asylum housing and support) simply to prolong their stay in the U.K. They do not always present very differently from the genuinely vulnerable, so it is a challenging area of work for us.”

G4S and Serco are making profits from the UK’s asylum ‘support’ regime, which immigration barrister Frances Webber has described as a “system of institutionalised inhumanity” designed not to support those seeking asylum in the UK, but to deter others from coming to the UK. In the UK, where the state has outsourced its monopoly of violence to private corporations like G4S and Serco, the media, pollsters and politicians createan illusion that common sense values and principles have shifted to a view that asylum seekers are almost always “bogus” “failed” or “illegals”.

Racism and intolerance filters down to the front line management and staff of the Home Office and the staffs of the privatising companies. After the Inquest on Jimmy Mubenga the coroner decided to bring attention to “endemic racism” and the “pervasive racism within G4S”.

The Home Office wants a service“adequate” for asylum seekers in the slum private rented sector, and it wants to deter the bogus vulnerable. Labour, who consistently pressed for privatisation of the housing contracts, and Coalition ministers in 2012, knew exactly what they were doing in turning over 20,000 asylum seekers to the mercies of G4S and Serco and the UK private sector housing market. They had a previous National Audit Office report (from 2005) to show what could happen – fraud, corruption, and disgusting accommodation for thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers simply waiting for the outcomes of claims for their rights to asylum.

Coalition ministers continued Labour’s policy of cutting back harder on asylum support than for other welfare claimants. The privatisation contracts should also be seen in the context of austerity cuts and deficit reduction; tantamount to a declaration of war on the poorest and most vulnerable.

Business as usual

The Financial Times reported in July 2013 Capita’s chief executive Paul Pindar‘s confident prediction of continued handouts from taxpayers to privatising and outsourcing corporations:

“The UK’s fiscal deficit would ensure increasing involvement of the private sector in delivering public services, despite growing concerns that outsourcers are failing to give taxpayers value for money. G4S and Serco – that (tagging scandal) row is a complete distraction . . . If you look at the deficit the UK is grappling with, I genuinely don’t believe there will be a knock-on effect. When you talk to the guys in central government, Bill Crothers [chief procurement officer], Francis Maude [Cabinet Office minister], they are very keen to involve the private sector and they are going to push as far ahead with that as they can get.”

In August 2012 Capita bought Reliance Security and its asylum housing contract interests for £20 million. From 1 April 2014 Capita will take over the discredited tagging contracts from G4S and Serco. Of the £4.2 billion of government contracts out to tender, in 2013/14 about 60 per cent are funded by taxpayers.

The voices from asylum seeker tenants surfaced occasionally in the Public Accounts Committee last week. The committee even persuaded Home Office officials to agree that it was a mistake to give the contracts to huge companies with no experience of housing. They conceded that in future it would probably be a good idea to “disaggregate” future provision to small companies and housing associations. That’s of little comfort to people now living in asylum housing. The contracts have more than five years to run. The disrespect and humiliations go on and on.

g4s-secure-injustice

This article originally appeared on the Open Democracy website at http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/john-grayson/uk-watchdog-takes-another-bite-out-of-failing-outsourcer-g4s