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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mood at Morton Hall was low.

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

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

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

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

Standing up for immigration detainees

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

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

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

But then, things changed.

Intrusive surveillance

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twenty two years,” he replied.

Speaking from inside Morton Hall

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

They told us management had tried to undermine the demonstration.

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

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

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

“Freedom! Freedom!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A safe place?

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

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

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

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

Main gate, Morton Hall (HMIP)

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

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

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

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

Protest and be punished

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fail, fail and have another contract

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

Fail, fail, and have another government contract

G4S asylum housing, Leicester (John Grayson)

 

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

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

Living with bed bugs

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

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

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

David’s room (John Grayson)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ask him about the Stoke house.

“Really bad,” he says.

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

Bed bugs (John Grayson)

 

David shows me his leg and a badly scarred knee.

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

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

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

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

Victoria Derbyshire — a bad day for contractors

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

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

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

BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme 31 January 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Missing the boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Considerable interest”

What does “considerable interest” look like?

It looks like this:

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Asylum Market from Brass Moustache Films on Vimeo.

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

Red doors and a Taliban room-mate

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

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

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

But that didn’t happen.

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

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

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

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

MPs in the dark

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

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

Criminal investigation into G4S and Serco

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

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

Financial Times features ‘struggling’ outsourcers, 23 December 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

Turning the tide

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

You can see The Asylum Market here

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

Merry Christmas from G4S, you’re evicted

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodwill then gave the details of his largesse:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Goodwill also formally announced a consultation on new contracts from 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Jayne’s cellar steps (John Grayson)

 

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

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

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

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

A typical G4S house

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

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

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

 

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

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

Jayne carries Sam down the stairs (John Grayson)

 

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

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

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

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

Breaches of contract

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica: blood and mice

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

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

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

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

Jessica attempts rodent control (John Grayson)

 

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

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

Buckets for hand-washing clothes (John Grayson)

 

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

Ken – two years with rats

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

Ken’s kitchen window (John Grayson)

 

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

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

And that’s not all.

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

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

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

What next for asylum housing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

Rats in the yard: 4 years of UK asylum housing by G4S

“They simply want to make profits out of us, they show us no respect.” Why are we still handing public money to G4S, Serco and Clearsprings despite all the evidence of their failure to treat asylum seekers with respect or house them safely?

Rats in the yard: 4 years of UK asylum housing by G4S

Today, yet again, a Parliamentary committee will hear how commercial landlords are failing asylum seeker tenants. And then what?

Jean’s back yard (John Grayson)

A few days ago I was chatting with Jean, the mother of three small children, in the back yard of her Sheffield home.

Jean pointed to rat poison boxes, the fence gnawed by rats. “My children cannot play here, they are frightened of the rats,” she said.

Jean (not her real name) is an asylum seeker from North Africa. She finished a degree in England last summer. Her home has water leaks, unsafe flooring, and damp walls which had holes in them, back in April, when the family moved in. The house is managed under a government contract by the world’s largest security company, G4S.

Unity and social justice

On the day that Home Secretary Theresa became Prime Minister, she stood on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street and proclaimed her ‘mission’.  It was “to make Britain a country that works for everyone”. She spoke of “social justice”. She spoke of the union, not just between the countries of the United Kingdom, “but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we are from”.

Remember that: “Everyone of us, wherever we are from.”

In late July the UK government named the company that would run a helpline for people who have faced discrimination on the grounds of their sex, race or disability. The company? G4S.

Did it matter that G4S is well known for the “unhealthy culture” and “endemic racism” noted by the coroner at the inquest into the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an asylum seeker “unlawfully killed” by G4S?

Did it matter that G4S had recently been stripped of a contract to run Medway children’s prison after revelations of abuse of young people, abuse which had prevailed in secure training centres for many years?

Apparently not.

Over the past four years the Home Office, under Theresa May, has come under relentless criticism for the quality of asylum housing. There was the  Children’s Society parliamentary inquiry in early 2013, the Home Affairs select committee inquiry in 2013, the Public Accounts Committee inquiry in 2014 — all reported on “atrocious” asylum housing conditions. G4S and Serco were fined £5.6m for this fundamental breach of the contract in 2012/13.

Back in 2013, Zoe Williams asked in the Guardian, “just how bad does G4S need to get before it loses government contracts?

Something for parliamentary Home Affairs committee to consider when it resumes hearings on the G4S, Serco and Clearsprings asylum housing contracts on Tuesday 13 September.

Hostile environment

Lately I’ve been talking with Angela. She was a G4S asylum tenant in 2012. I wrote then about how she had found cockroaches in her baby son’s bottle and slugs in the carpets. Now a refugee settled in Leeds, Angela (not her real name) said: “I am really shocked G4S still has that asylum housing contract, they have ruined the early months and years of so many children.”

In May 2012, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, told the Telegraph: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”

The following month, G4S, along with Serco and the smaller Reliance security company (in partnership with Clearsprings housing company), were handed the £620m contract for housing people awaiting the outcome of their asylum claims. At the time, this was the largest contract ever given by the Home Office.

Over four years, working alongside asylum seekers, I have witnessed and reported on the “hostile environment”. I have seen its devastating impact on vulnerable lives.

John Grayson, BBC TV Inside Out programme March 2015

Catherine Tshezi, who was dumped in a G4S/Jomast ‘mother and baby’ hostel in Stockton in 2012, weeks after giving birth, said about her experience there: “This really goes to show that the asylum seekers are not respected. We are all human beings and we deserve respect and dignity.”

Cha Matty, a whistle-blower who exposed conditions in the hostel in the Guardian and before a parliamentary inquiry told me: “They simply want to make profits out of us, they show us no respect.”

When I interviewed her in 2012 she had been in the hostel with her toddler son for over a year. She said she was “shocked and disappointed at how we have been treated by the powers that be. How inhuman they are treating us, and we are just numbers for them in making a profit which is very unfair and sad”.

It’s 2016 and I am still visiting squalid G4S asylum properties in Yorkshire. In March, The Times reported on allegedly “horrific” asylum housing supplied by Serco in Glasgow, and Clearsprings in London. On 2 August the Guardian reported:

“There are currently 18 women and 15 children living in the property in Hounslow, which is two terrace houses knocked together …. Residents have complained of infestations of rats in the kitchen, bedbugs and slugs, filthy conditions, leaks, naked wires left exposed and periodic infestations of cockroaches.”

Good enough for an asylum seeker

Stuart Monk is owner and managing director of Jomast, a property company based in the north east of England, that “strives to relentlessly pursue improvement in all aspects of its business” according to its publicity material.

In January 2016 The Times accused Jomast of creating “apartheid on the streets of Britain” by painting asylum seekers doors red, and Monk was called before the Home Affairs Select Committee. He said memorably that the homes he provided were “a product suitable for an asylum seeker”.

Stuart Monk of Jomast, Home Affairs Committee, January 2016

Rupert Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill and CEO of Serco, in June 2015 told BBC Radio 4’s cheerleading business programme ‘The Bottom Line’ that the new outsourcing market: “makes Britain now to public service provision what Silicon Valley is to IT”.

The winners

In the first three months of 2016 new public sector contracts worth £1.35 billion were announced in the UK – sixty five per cent of all outsourced contracts.

In a close and cosy world, outsourcing companies provide well paid positions to former politicians and other prominent public figures. In 2009, John Reid, while still a serving Member of Parliament, took a £50,000-a-year “consultancy” role at G4S. They made him a director — from July 2010 until April 2013. And Reid, a former Labour Home and Defence Secretary has continued to promote the security industry’s wares in the House of Lords.

G4S board members have included Lord Condon, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Adam Crozier, head of ITV. Current chairman John Connolly, once Britain’s highest paid accountant — at Deloitte — also chairs the board at the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity, and was an advisor to Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Fence gnawed by rats in Jean’s back yard (John Grayson)

The Telegraph in April 2016 estimated that in 2011/2012 the Home Office spent £150million providing accommodation for asylum seekers, in 2014/15 it is thought to be closer to £200million.

Stuart Monk, owner of G4S contractor Jomast is reported to be worth £175m.

James Vyvyan Robinson CEO of Clearsprings, formerly of G4S, has an annual salary of more than £200,000. Graham King, the founder and chairman of Clearsprings, trousered £960,000 from the company in 2014.

Alex Langsam, founder of Britannia Hotels, twice voted the worst hotel chain in Which? Polls, this year entered The Sunday Times rich list with an estimated personal fortune of £220m. Langsam has been dubbed ‘The Asylum King’ after securing contracts in 2014 to house refugees in 17 of his budget hotels and making a profit of £14m for the company.

Over the past few months, along with other members of SYMAAG, an asylum rights group, I have been attending small ‘hearings’ in Yorkshire held to collect evidence for the Home Affairs Committee from G4S asylum housing tenants. The evidence continues to reveal a picture of filthy properties, G4S staff invading the privacy of tenants’ homes, and vulnerable and traumatised tenants being neglected.

Tenants attending the hearings and the many tenants I have worked alongside over the past four years have had the courage to raise their voices against the disrespect and abuse they have faced in their asylum homes. Will the peoples representatives take action this time? Will they force G4S, Serco and Clearsprings off the asylum housing contract? If not, why not?

 

This article was first published on Open Democracy on 13th September at https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/shinealight/john-grayson/rats-in-yard-4-years-of-uk-asylum-housing-by-g4s

The Business of Migration

For corporations like G4S, Serco, Capita and Mitie the suffering of refugees is part of their “asylum markets”. The biggest ever single Home Office contract – the disastrous COMPASS asylum housing contract –  is up for renewal next year. On the eve of an inquiry into its many failings, John Grayson looks at how global business is licking its lips at the money-making opportunities in housing, monitoring, detaining and deporting people escaping persecution.

 

John Grayson, BBC TV Inside Out programme March 2015

“The man in the family said they had bed bugs everywhere in the house.” A volunteer in Barnsley, in the north of England, was telling me about conditions in a house provided to asylum seekers by G4S, the world’s biggest security company.

The volunteer went on: “The man spoke only a little English but he was really worried about the house and his young wife Jemma (not her real name) and her elderly 76-year-old mother living with the bugs. His mother was frail and slept on the settee or sat on the carpet — with the insects. They had complained to G4S ten days before, and the local G4S worker said they would replace the carpet, but of course the bugs were still around.”

So the volunteer complained to G4S: “More than two weeks after the family had gone to them, a G4S team arrived — and took photographs! They said they would return in another ten days.”

Are bed bugs such a problem? The volunteer explained: “Bed bugs are a public health risk and bites can directly affect the health of a frail elderly woman. I am getting back on to G4S.”

I visited the family myself a few days after that. G4S had at last replaced the carpet, settee, and all the beds in the downstairs flat. Jemma told me: “We have been living with the bugs since December — the flat is now clean, and nice again.”

Welcome to Britain

Over the past few months I have spoken with asylum seeker families in G4S housing in South Yorkshire, who have spent months in homes infested with mice, endured months without a cooker, months with ceiling leaks, and months with water flooding in from front and back doors. I’ve met a mother who is forced to share a bed in a tiny room with her eight-year-old son. This is what the UK government’s ‘reception policy’ welcoming refugees looks like.

Shared bed for woman and son, aged 8

Earlier this year the BBC and The Times reported shocking allegations about another asylum housing provider, Orchard & Shipman, a Berkshire-based property company working under contract to the outsourcing giant Serco in Glasgow.

Asylum seeker tenants have been “kept in dirty and dangerous homes”, the Times reported on 18 February. They had “felt threatened and humiliated”. The allegations include the case of a mother and baby housed in a cockroach-infested property in Glasgow”. The newspaper reports O&S “staff spraying air fresheners at asylum seekers, while laughing and pinching their noses, and an allegation of a man being housed in a property with blood-spattered walls and no lock on the front door.”

openDemocracy contacted Orchard & Simpson for comment. “We contracturally can’t say anything — it would have to go through Serco,” said a spokesman.

Serco told the BBC: “All property is cleaned prior to residents moving in and checked for compliance with the Home Office requirements.

“Every property is also inspected weekly and both Serco and the Home Office conduct random inspections covering at least 20% of all properties every month.

“Orchard & Shipman staff are expected to be courteous and respectful at all times.

“If any resident is unhappy with the behaviour of staff there is a complaints procedure that residents are briefed on. All complaints are fully investigated and appropriate action taken if required.”

The charity Freedom from Torture recently reported that conditions in asylum housing had not improved since 2013:

“Torture survivors receiving therapy at our centres continue to report unacceptable treatment. This includes allegations of being locked out of their homes, belongings going missing during housing inspections, sexual harassment and physical aggression. In one case, a torture survivor said a contractor even entered their bedroom while they were sleeping.”

A concrete floor in a freight shed

We now know, thanks to a report by Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, that in the early autumn of 2015 when people made it across the Channel they were detained in Longport freight shed near the Eurotunnel terminus. The Report states that

“Conditions were wholly unacceptable. Detainees were held overnight and/or for several hours with no clean or dry clothes, no food or hot drinks, and nowhere to sleep other than on a concrete floor. Many had had long and arduous journeys before arrival at Longport.

Some detainees had not eaten for very long periods and many were hungry. Detainees gestured to us that they were hungry by pointing to their open mouths.

Detainees arrived with scabies, headaches and other conditions related to dehydration, such as diarrhoea. However, toilet and washing facilities were inadequate and blankets were not washed after each use, presenting obvious health risks. From 31 August to 3 October 2015, a total of 569 detainees were held, including 90 children, most of them unaccompanied. The average length of detention was just under four hours… However, the longest single period of detention was for 21 hours 25 minutes and was of a child…The detention of women and minors in this environment created safeguarding concerns.”

The company responsible for security at this holding centre is a Capita company Tascor working as a contractor for the UK Home Office. Capita are the people who last year tagged an asylum seeker woman in Barnsley G4S housing. They’ve been heavily involved in the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ project, texting migrants — and political activists who are longstanding British citizens — telling them to “Go Home” .

According to the industry portal Sourcingfocus.com: “Capita leads the ranking of the British government’s biggest suppliers of the year 2015 with $14.5bn in sales to the UK government.”

A thriving business, or not?

Asylum detention and reception centres, and housing, are now routinely sold and resold by corporations and companies totally financed from European taxpayers. The Swiss company ORS Service and its reception centres, camps and military bunkers in Switzerland, Austria and Germany have been sold three times since 2005 to private equity companies.

Equistone Partners Europe Ltd, a London-based private equity firm linked to Barclay’s Bank that manages $4 billion of funds, bought the business for an undisclosed sum in 2013, touting the acquisition in their annual report as a new opportunity with “promising organic and acquisitive growth potential”.

Dead mouse, G4S asylum housing, Sheffield 29 March 2016

In the UK, security companies G4S and Serco, and the private housing company Clearsprings are currently negotiating with the UK Home Office to extend their hold on the £620 million COMPASS asylum housing contract they acquired in 2012 – the largest ever private contract given by the Home Office. They are doing this in a growing climate of media and public hostility to the creation of ‘markets’ in sectors of care and protection which have traditionally been the responsibility of government.

In rare front page coverage of an under-reported scandal, G4S and its subcontractor Jomast was accused of creating “apartheid on streets of Britain” by painting asylum seekers’ doors red and thus identifying them and leaving them open to attacks.

G4S, struck by a BBC Panorama that broadcast apparent bullying, verbal abuse and physical assault by its workers in a child prison — Medway Secure Training Centre – has decided to sell its government contracts.

Recent reports in the FT suggest that outsourcers running UK immigration centres are losing money. Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco and grandson of Winston Churchill, argued on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line in June 2015 that Serco was set to “lose £115m over the next five years” on their share of the COMPASS contracts, and that they had “raised £700m from shareholders to meet these costs”. When John Whitwam, G4S head of COMPASS and their managing director of immigration and borders, answered questions at the Home Affairs Committee hearing on the ‘red doors’ on the 26 January, he also claimed that G4S was losing money on its asylum housing saying: “This is a loss making contract…no profits at all.”

So who is making money out of the UK’s ‘reception’ policies?

Mitie (Management Incentive Through Investment Equity) claims to be “the largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”, and it now manages the controversial Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration detention centres. In August 2015 MITIE reported an increase in annual profits which the company attributed to the new contracts. The Home Office is handing Mitie £180 million for an eight-year contract to run these centres.

Mitie’s Harmondsworth detention centre, the largest detention centre in Europe, was visited by Peter Clarke the UK prisons inspector in September 2015. He found that

“Many men were held for short periods but well over half were detained in the centre for over a month and some for very long periods. Eighteen detainees had been held for over a year and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.……Some of the newer accommodation was dirty and run down but the condition of some parts of the older units was among the worst in the detention estate; many toilets and showers were in a seriously insanitary condition and many rooms were overcrowded and poorly ventilated. ……Many rooms designed for two were being used for three detainees and some for four, with insufficient furniture. ……Staff told us that there had been insufficient clothing available and some detainees were in ill-fitting clothes; shoes had been in short supply for several weeks and some detainees had only flip-flops.”

In October 2015, shortly after accepting a Conservative peerage from David Cameron, Mitie CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith gave an interview to the Financial Times. She fondly recalled her years at Serco, and the early 1990s when Margaret Thatcher handed public contracts to commercial contractors. “It was a young industry,” McGregor-Smith told the FT. “It was exciting; there was a sense of limitless potential.”

The newspaper reported that McGregor-Smith took £1.5m a year — “more than 100 times the earnings of many of her 70,000 cleaners, carers and security guards, a lot of whom are on the minimum wage”. She took umbrage at the FT reporter’s interest in that.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive, Mitie (Ed Robinson/OneRedEye for Mitie)

Rupert Soames of Serco claims that privatisation is profitable. In June 2015 he told Radio 4’s The Bottom Line that the outsourcing market “makes Britain now to public service provision what Silicon Valley is to IT”.

In November 2014 Serco were given a further eight years and £70 million by the Home Office to renew their contract to manage Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire despite allegations about abuse, sexual exploitation, rape and self-harm.

In March 2015, following revelations of abuse and neglect of women at Yarl’s Wood, the Labour Party’s then shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper declared: “This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the home secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”

The Home Office commissioned Stephen Shaw, a former Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, to lead a Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons and his report was published in January 2016. Shaw visited the family detention centre known as CEDARS, that is run for the government by G4S and the children’s charity Barnardo’s, and reported: “My overriding impression was of a misdirection of public money that could be better used for other purposes. The centre has had no residents on either of the two occasions I have visited.”

He wrote: “the cost per family must be many tens of thousands of pounds, yet up to half are actually released rather than being removed.”

He went on: “The current use of the centre is simply unacceptable at a time of financial austerity,” and urged its closure or change of use.

The Home Affairs Committee supported Shaw’s call in its report on 4 March calling the level of spending per detainee “outrageous and unsustainable.”

In the ‘low security’ markets of asylum housing the Times reckons that G4S contractor Jomast — the company that painted asylum seeker doors red — will trouser £8 million of public funds over the next year for housing 2,646 asylum seekers. Stuart Monk, head of the family firm, has a personal fortune of £175 million. When Monk appeared before the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on 21 January he defended his business, saying that he was supplying a “product suitable for an asylum seeker”.

Stuart Monk of Jomast, Home Affairs Committee, January 2016

Two weeks later, on 9 February, the committee grilled James Vyvyan-Robinson, managing director of Clearsprings, a company which entered the asylum housing business with its partner Reliance Security in 2012 with a £75 million contract for the south of the UK and Wales.

Clearsprings forced asylum seekers to wear red wristbands to get food in its centre in Cardiff. Vyvyan-Robinson admitted that his annual salary was over £200,000 despite the ‘small amount’ (a two to three per cent return he claimed) the company made on the contracts. Graham King, the founder and chairman of Clearsprings, had taken £960,000 from the company in the last financial year. Vyvyan-Robinson had been with Clearsprings for ten years, before which he served as director of business development for Group4 Securicor (G4S), then Reliance Security.

Chukka Umunna, MP for Streatham, at the committee hearings, observed that many people would see asylum contracts as a “bit of a racket”.

Scrutiny and transparency

The Home Office revealed to the Financial Times late last year that it was negotiating with G4S, Serco and Clearsprings about the option to extend the COMPASS contract for asylum housing for at least two years beyond 2017.

These negotiations are taking place behind firmly closed doors. On 20 January SNP Member of Parliament  Stuart McDonald raised the issue of scrutiny, asking: “When will a decision need to be made into the extension of these contracts and what opportunities will there be for parliamentarians to scrutinise and input into that decision?”. (20 Jan 2016 : Column 1429 Hansard)

The immigration minister James Brokenshire simply ignored the question.

For months McDonald has been calling for an Inquiry into the COMPASS contracts by the Home Affairs Committee of which he is a member. Glasgow and Sheffield City Councils and the Scottish Refugee Council have all called for an inquiry. SNP members signed an ‘early day motion’ (EDM) in the Westminster parliament on 25 February to this effect.

When the Times exposed Jomast’s red doors policy on 20 January it was Brokenshire who ordered an  “an urgent audit” of Jomast’s properties in Middlesbrough.

Red doors and whitewash

According to the Home Office audit report, the inspection team “discussed incidents of anti-social behaviour and verbal and physical abuse with approximately 60 asylum seekers”. But they accepted the evidence of multimillionaire property develop Stuart Monk, concluding: “It was not a deliberate policy for asylum seeker accommodation to be identifiable by the colour of the doors. This was a consequence of the sub-contractor Jomast painting the doors of many of their properties red, a practice going back 20 years, according to the evidence which Stuart Monk the Owner and Managing Director of Jomast gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 26 January.”

Never mind that the chair of the Home Affairs committee Keith Vaz had described Stuart Monk’s evidence to the committee as “unsatisfactory”.

The audit was not an audit of tenants’ repairs and property complaints about the Jomast Middlesbrough asylum housing stock as one might expect. After all, Stuart Monk of Jomast told the Home Affairs Committee when asked to send the complaints to the Committee “There’ll be a lot, there’ll be an enormous number.”  [video here: 5.31pm to 5.33pm]

Instead, a Home Office team inspected 78 properties over six days and audited paperwork from previous Home Office and Jomast planned inspections. How well did Jomast perform in responding to the ‘enormous number’ of complaints from tenants? We don’t know.

Brokenshire used his Home Office ‘red doors’ audit to suggest more generally that the contractors for COMPASS were ‘on track’. They were now being fined much less for providing unfit properties under the contract. Only £158,000 in 2014/15 compared with £5.6 m in 2012/13. In fact, wherever activists monitor asylum housing they find a shocking world of rats, and asbestos, with tenants being ridiculed and punished by G4S and Serco staff.

The Home Affairs Committee itself issued a report on the ‘red doors’ and ‘red wristbands’ on 4 March that contradicted the conclusions from the audit. It concluded that the: “delivery of the contract has been mostly unsatisfactory to date, with these episodes highlighting flaws in accountability and oversight of the contracts, and a failure to ensure that the way asylum seekers are treated and housed meets basic standards.”The HAC was clear in its report on 4 March that they plan to investigate “the quality of accommodation provided in all parts of the UK under the COMPASS contract.”

Last month Keith Vaz announced that the Home Affairs Committee would indeed start a full inquiry after visiting the “horrific” housing provided by Serco’s contractor Orchard & Shipman in Glasgow.

“Before the Home Secretary signs the next contract, the committee will have things to say,” Vaz told the BBC.

“So we will conclude our inquiry in plenty of time for the Home Secretary to be able to reflect on it before she signs the new contracts.”

 

This article was originally published at Open Democracy

 

As part of our input into the inquiry into the COMPASS asylum housing contracts SYMAAG is organising two evidence-gathering sessions on May 21st in Sheffield and Barnsley. If you want to contribute (details will be anonymised) get in touch with us or come along to one of the sessions on May 21st. Venue and time will be on our Events page.

The Hostile Environment at Sheffield Home Office

 

How does it feel for people to go into the Sheffield Home Office building knowing they might get detained and deported?

 

The first event we in the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) organised was in 2007: a 3 day, 30 mile march from Sheffield Home Office to Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre near Doncaster to protest against detention. Lindholme is now closed, the Home Office building has moved but we are still here.

The Home Office South Yorkshire asylum reporting centre is now at Vulcan House in Sheffield on the banks of the River Don. Except for temporary holding cells beneath Vulcan House there is no immigration detention centre in South Yorkshire. The nearest is Moreton Hall in Lincolnshire. But for people seeking asylum who are obliged to report to Vulcan House each visit carries with it the threat that they will be detained. And the Home Office are keen to reinforce this fear. “I’m always sick… the week before I go to sign” Pride from Cameroon explained. Mohammed from Sudan couldn’t sleep the night before his reporting day at Vulcan House and packs all his immigration case papers in a rucksack each time he has to go to report.

“Don’t Interfere”

A condition for receiving asylum support is to report at Vulcan House weekly, monthly or every few months. Some people arrange for friends or supporters to accompany them when they report, feeling this provides them with more security or – if detained – an immediate campaign for their release. In the last year Home Office staff have sometimes tried to deny people the right to be accompanied. A retired teacher from Barnsley, who is an experienced volunteer, experienced this when he accompanied a South Asian family on a recent visit to Vulcan House: “As soon as I entered the building I was shouted at to ‘identify’ myself. One of the staff spoke to me as if I was a child. ‘If you’re not their lawyer what are you doing here? Get over there out of the way and don’t interfere.’”

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Image – August 2008: South Yorkshire Sudanese community demonstrating outside Vulcan House for the right to work and to be treated respectfully. We soon discovered the newly built glass and steel Home Office HQ and surroundings had excellent acoustics.

The Home Office policy to create a “hostile environment” for ‘illegal’ migrants is being put into practice at Vulcan House. Officials have handed out compulsory questionnaires (in English) to asylum seekers, demanding comprehensive personal and family information from people signing. Questions range from data-trawling: personal details of everyone who lives in the same house as the person reporting, to the apparently casual “how do you spend your time each day?” (designed to question voluntary activities). Then there’s the question “what are your hopes for the future”? Apparently innocent, but in the hands of the Home Office, a tool for entrapment. The question appears designed to push people into the ‘Voluntary’ Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme (VARRP) if anyone gives the (understandable) response of “I hope to see my family/country/home again”.

Going Home to Rotherham

The ‘Choices’ VARRP scheme has been heavily pushed by the Home Office at Vulcan House. Perhaps they’re in training for 2016 when the “Assisted Voluntary Return” programme is run directly by the Home Office. As people report at Vulcan House, they are bombarded with ‘Choices’ promotional material with pictures of smiling refugees who have ‘chosen’ to go back to the countries they fled from. Staff have clearly been instructed to push the scheme aggressively, even rudely, sometimes with unexpected results. I overheard this exchange between Grace, an exiled political activist from Malawi and a member of Vulcan House staff. (Grace is a destitute asylum seeker who has to walk miles each time she has to report to Vulcan House)

Home Office: “Do you want to go home?”
Grace: “Er…yes”
HO: We can help you with travel home, pay for your fare. Do you want us to help you with that?
Grace: Yes that would be good
HO: When do you want to go?
Grace: Today, now

When Grace explained that the bus to Rotherham costs £2.20 the nature of the misunderstanding became clear. She walked back home.

Prepare, Protect, Prevent, Pursue

Representatives from Sheffield asylum rights charities had sought a meeting with Home Office staff from Vulcan House to talk about the intrusive questionnaires, the rude and aggressive selling of the ‘Choices’ scheme and the right to be accompanied when reporting at Vulcan House.

At the meeting in February 2015 hosted by local MP Paul Blomfield, whose Sheffield constituency includes Vulcan House, the representatives were surprised to find that the Home Office had sent along its head of asylum ‘Reporting Centres’ for the Yorkshire and the North East region.

The charity people raised their concerns. The senior officer from the Home Office was apparently in no mood to apologise for her staff or give any ground to “you voluntary organisations”. Instead, she brusquely handed out copies of The Dial (see below) which seeks to criminalise and persecute people seeking safety in the UK.

thedial700

Then she read out a lecture about her exercise of powers under the new Immigration Act of 2014 (checking on addresses and landlords who housed illegal immigrants) and hinting that anyone (not just landlords) giving assistance to “illegal immigrants” in the future might find themselves subject to the law. She also threatened the representatives with the prospect of an order “at present on the Minister’s desk waiting to be signed off” banning volunteer escorts from all Reporting Centres.

“Playing a Game to Scare Us”

The Home Office’s Vulcan House has also been the chosen location for the organised interrogation of 26 Sudanese asylum seekers by Sudanese Embassy officials, described as “re-documentation interviews” in 2011. In testimonies from those people subjected to this – possibly illegal and clearly intimidatory – practice there were reports of threats to the asylum seekers’ families in Sudan and attempted bribery. “The Border Agency are playing a game to scare us” was one man’s assessment of the process and a report titled with this statement was compiled and presented to the Home Office. Despite repeated questioning of the procedure by SYMAAG and Waging Peace the (then) UKBA response was vague and evasive. A reference to our report on this practice in the August 2015 Sudan Country Information Guidance (see 4.1.4) blithely states that attendance at the interviews was “purely voluntary”. What would you do if you feared renewed torture in Sudan and received a Home Office letter stating (in bold) that “Failure to do so” (attend the interview) may affect any outstanding claim you may have with the Home Office”?

Opposition to these interviews sparked the formation of support networks within Sudanese communities in the UK and with campaigners. On other issues, people seeking asylum and asylum rights advocates have worked closely. In 2012 approaches to (then) UKBA at Vulcan House resulted in a commitment from them to ensure all staff wore clearly identifiable numbers, after complaints of rudeness and bad treatment. UKBA added that the new ID would also enable particular staff to be congratulated on their ‘good practice’. While it’s not clear how many official compliments have been received by Vulcan House staff from people forced to report there, asylum seekers are quick (and generous) to point out that some workers there are respectful and efficient.

“Soft detention”

The baffling changes in reporting regulations and the general regime at Vulcan House suggest that many measures are the knee-jerk responses of Vulcan House officials to higher management and ministerial pressure to ‘get tough’ and ‘get results’. For example the questionnaires mentioned above were heavily pushed to people reporting at Vulcan House for a few months with repeated warnings that it was “compulsory” to complete them. After a few months these badly photocopied grey sheets were forgotten and have never been mentioned again. The Home Office at Vulcan House appear to lurch from one fear-inducing scheme to another but with the clear intention of making life hard for people who can’t return home because of the threat of war and persecution.

The 2014 Immigration Act attempts to turn landlords, bank workers and health workers into informers and border guards. The Dial strategy seeks to smear people seeking asylum as somehow linked to “organised crime”, thereby enlisting state and private security forces to spy and enforce when required. State and private data-holding/collecting bodies like the DWP and Experian invisibly back up the effort. Capita were paid to send texts direct to peoples mobile phones, telling them: “You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have right to remain.” Despite that fiasco – many people texted were UK residents, an immigration lawyer in one case – Capita are now paid more public money to tag asylum tenants who have committed no crime. Asylum housing landlord G4S also runs detention, transport, even asylum advice services – a kind of monitoring and enforcement one-stop-shop. There are signs in G4S asylum houses in Sheffield issuing curfews, telling the tenants they must stay in the house overnight. “Soft detention” as John Grayson calls it.

This summer I demonstrated alongside many other people against Yarl’s Wood detention centre, despite its physical remoteness. It was a visceral experience, hearing and seeing the women’s resistance, watching the perimeter fence pulled, rocked, then torn down as the police looked on awkwardly. Later we learned that Serco had tried, pathetically and unsuccessfully, to distract the women with a game of bingo with “cash prizes” while we demonstrated. It was a public relations disaster for Serco and the Home Office and both demonstrators and detainees were emboldened. I’m not suggesting that brick walls, bingo and security guard style immigration detention is finished but that it will be increasingly augmented with means of surveillance, confinement and coercion that are harder to locate, identify and therefore challenge. As an Iraqi Kurdish refugee in Sheffield astutely remarked “They want us to imprison and deport ourselves”.

 

This post was written for Unlocking Detention by Stuart Crosthwaite, Secretary of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), with thanks to the refugees and asylum seekers quoted here (some names changed) and to John Grayson whose ‘academic activism’ contributed to this article. This post was published as Justice Gap‘s #Unlocked15 article of the week.

 

If you – or a friend – need support when visiting a Home Office building or help organising support if you are detained or threatened with deportation see the new Right to Remain toolkit

The Right to Remain toolkit is here on You Tube and is available in Arabic, Farsi, French and Spanish

RightoRemain toolkitMaze

Back to Calais, a 2-way aid trip

We had to leave a lot of stuff behind in Sheffield on our November trip to Calais, including 70 food parcels that were lovingly made up by the good people of Pitsmoor. Post-Christmas there have been appeals for more food donations for the camp and we know we have to get back over there. Finally, after a ridiculous battle with the courier company who say they have delivered Stuart’s passport but haven’t, we are no longer sans papiers and ready to go.

This will be a quick weekend trip to deliver aid and drop off a few specific items in the Jungle, such as books in relevant languages donated by Burngreave Library, and ESOL materials collated by a neighbour who teaches English to refugees. Stuart’s friend Emilie, who is French but living in Sheffield, is keen to join us. Bearing in mind the lessons of our last visit, we sort through the many donations we have received, ensuring everything is labelled with contents and sizes and ruthlessly stripping out anything that isn’t priority. I pick up the hire van on Friday afternoon and shift the heavy trays of food parcels for what feels like the umpteenth time, promising myself that someone else can unload them at the other end.

I’m looking forward to going back to the Jungle as our last visit was so inspirational, but there’s a bit of trepidation as well. Since Bumble the camper van was torched at the end of our last trip, volunteers staying at the youth hostel have had their tyres slashed, and some have been assaulted. Racists have attacked refugees near the camp while the police stand by, a couple of Syrians have been stabbed. It seems increasingly likely that the van was burnt out by fascists, so we book ourselves a cheap hotel rather than go back to the hostel.

We set off at 7am on Saturday morning and make good time. Amazing how much difference it makes to be in a spanking new vehicle, and not to have to stop every half hour or so to reapply gaffer tape to the driver’s side window. We make a leisurely stop at the services, and discuss the news we have just learned – Jeremy Corbyn is supposed to be visiting Calais today, at the same time as permission has been given for a refugee demonstration from the camp to the centre of Calais. Our original plan was to drive straight to the warehouse to drop off the aid on Saturday, then spend the day in the Jungle on Sunday before driving back, but when we make it onto Eurotunnel earlier than planned and realise that our hotel is only five minutes walk away from the site of the refugee rally, the decision is made for us.

We park up at the hotel and head off in the general direction of the camp. Tipped off by the sight of police vans, we soon see the demonstration heading towards us.

It’s fantastic, bigger than I expected (the press report 2000, which is perhaps a little conservative). About half and half refugees and supporters from all over Europe. The atmosphere of course has defiance and anger within it, but also all the elements of resilience, pride and positivity that so struck me on our first visit. It’s exhilarating to watch and join in, surprisingly pleasant to have only a hazy idea of what the chants or songs are about, and refreshing to be on a demo where I don’t recognise anyone. There’s music and dancing and sit-downs, culminating in Place D’Armes.

 

In the square there is a small platform where people are making speeches that can’t be heard very well even if you understand the language. We chat to various refugees – whenever we say we are from the UK we get smiles and handshakes and questions for David Cameron. There is a fond illusion amongst many refugees that Cameron is a reasonable man who must surely see that the border is ridiculous, they are good people, why does he not understand? We don’t want to destroy their hope, and make promises to keep fighting for their right to join their families in the UK.

We’re mulling over whether to leave and get to the warehouse before evening when there is a flurry of activity and everyone seems to be heading for the opposite side of the square. Here there is another small platform and more incomprehensible speeches, then the crowd head off again, towards the port. We’re not really sure what’s going on but start to follow. I get briefly distracted by a conversation with an Iraqi guy, and then cannot see Stuart and Emilie, so hang around a bit before catching up with the tail end of this new development. We make our way closer to the port where a ferry is in dock, through two portions of fencing that have clearly been cut down. Ahead I can see people running in a bizarre crisscross towards the ferry, as we get nearer I see they are crossing a tiny bridge.

I ask someone what’s happening? She shrugs French-style, “They are trying to get on the ship.” From the rear this is clearly a doomed enterprise – there’s no way that ship is going to sail even if the refugees manage to board it – but I follow just to see where it will lead. By the time we reach the bridge a couple of CRS (French riot police) vans have turned up, but are still waiting for reinforcements. They actively encourage people to jump the next barrier and head into the port. At that point I’m thinking, if they want us to go forward it can’t be a good thing, and immediately afterwards CRS vans start to arrive in force.

I posted this video on Facebook later that night. On closer inspection it doesn’t show what I thought it did, the CRS telling people to jump the barrier; once the reinforcements arrived they discouraged them; but shortly before they were “come right in” and even helping people over.

 

Reconvening at the hotel with Stuart and Emilie (who were ahead of me it turned out), they explain that once the protesters had got into a relatively enclosed area in the port, the CRS attempted to tear gas everyone. Stuart – who’s been around – had never seen so much tear gas, but it was not very effective in the wind. A group of refugees and No Borders campaigners did make it on to the lower deck of the ferry, but by then the doors to other parts of the ship had been locked so no chance to stow away.

We head to the pub to meet up with other volunteers, old friends and new. The rumour mill is in full force, 300 stormed the ship, the CRS are bent on revenge, all hell could break loose. And more stories about fascist activity – volunteer vehicles have been attacked not only at the youth hostel, but at the warehouse and the hotel where we are staying. It seems the safest place to park a volunteer van is in the Jungle itself.

Sunday morning we’re checking out the news, and of course the Daily Mail have got the full story. According to the Mail, protesters “broke through police lines” to storm the port and the ferry. Except there were no police lines till after the event; although the CRS were out in force on sections of the march, in the square they were few and far between, mainly hanging out by the Charles de Gaulle statue (it got defaced anyway). The sprint to the ferry caught them totally on the hop. The Mayor of Calais is sulking, “We let them protest and see what happens”. Hmm, 50 protesters making it on to the lower deck of the ferry and waving a bit was symbolically significant, but they were hardly posing a threat. However Emilie’s mum tells her the national French news portrayed the CRS in a poor light and Jeremy Corbyn’s sympathetic visit to the camp is also getting good coverage in the British press.

The van is untouched and we set off to the warehouse. It’s changed a lot since our last visit. “The mountain” of clothes donations is no more, the place is looking far more organised and has separate dropping off points for clothes, equipment and food. There are portaloos! The food area has a station for making up food parcels and a kitchen where massive meals of the day are being cooked to go out to the kitchens in the camp. The guy overseeing this area asks tentatively about the content of our food parcels, we assure him they are made up according to the latest specifications and he breathes a sigh of relief that he won’t have to undo them all to take out inappropriate items. As well as the food parcels we’ve brought bulk buys of tinned and fresh food, . I fulfil my promise to myself and have a brew while overseeing the unloading.

Now we have an empty van and almost immediately we are commandeered to fulfil a mercy mission. A group of volunteers have promised a decent mattress to an Iraqi family with four kids, they have a shelter but nothing to sleep on. We squish several mattresses and volunteers into the van. It’s a tough call between Stuart’s navigation skills and the volunteer’s satnav, but Stuart ends up in the back.

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The usual route into the Jungle is blocked off by CRS, there are more police than usual in evidence, so we take a circuitous path in but pull up next to the Ashram kitchen, near to the Iraqi family’s hut. The father turns up with his kids, delighted to get the mattress. We also have a few random items with us to give out, so the kids get a baseball glove and ball and a yoyo.

The Jungle itself has changed. There is now an abundance of the wooden-framed shelters covered with tarpaulin, more of these than tents. While they don’t keep the cold out they are much sturdier and resistant to the elements than tents are (the weather is mild today though, a relief after the horrendous conditions in November). There are more water stations and toilets, new structures such as a kids play area, and clearly defined waste areas. We know a clean-up and sanitation crew have been out this weekend including a minibus from Sheffield, they have been doing a brilliant job.

Stuart is in conversation with some Afghan guys while Emilie and I give another mattress to a refugee, who brings us cups of mint tea as a thank you. We go to to deliver the ESOL materials; there are now two schools, one for adults and one for children. There are regular English classes held in both and a range of other classes for the kids. Solar panels have been installed outside so there is now a power supply, and plans to get computers in.

In the rucksack underneath the ESOL materials is the Soviet hat, complete with hammer and sickle, that was amongst the donations that came from the Barnsley Miners Hall. We offer it to the Afghan guys, who see the funny side! They take turns wearing it for a bit before ripping the badge off (which they donate back to Stuart), and strike up a conversation about communist vs liberal democracy. As one of them astutely sums it up, in communist democracy the government makes the decisions, in liberal democracy the corporations make the decisions.20160124_124738

Emilie and I then go to give books, pens and notepads to Jungle Books, the library. This has also expanded with a new children’s section, and there are plans afoot to get a wifi connection. We are near the scene of my first Jungle experience, having to sort an ambulance for a young Eritrean woman who was struggling to walk. We happen upon her straight away and she greets us with a massive hug. Her leg is completely healed, she is cooking on an open wood fire and invites us to join her. She has moved into a slightly larger hut next door to her old one, and is proud to show it off.

We walk around the camp and come upon the new container section. Until a couple of weeks ago this was the Eritrean section of the camp, but the French government decided to bulldoze the area and put some containers in to house people instead. This prompted a huge refugee and volunteer action, to move the shelters that had been built to a different area of the camp before the bulldozers came in. The “homes” are bleak looking crates stacked on top of one another, and refugees have to check in and out through a biometric systems that requires five fingerprints. The area looks grim, completely unsuitable for families, and not surprisingly, is mostly shunned by the population of the Jungle. The graffiti artists have paid a visit though!

As well as graffiti (including the Banksy by the entrance to the camp) there are other bits of art and installations, many of them very amusing!

This is what continually impresses me about the people in the Jungle – the refusal to be victims or charity cases despite their many hardships, the determination to be recognised for the hard work, humanity and wit of the individuals and collective groups who are forced to live here.

By the container camp we talk with a Kuwaiti guy. He has been in the Jungle for five months, and like every single refugee we have this conversation with, he wants to come to the UK because his family are there. Once again we get broad smiles when we say where we are from, as he associates the UK with compassion and democracy; but his face drops a little when Emilie says she is French. Although there are lots of French volunteers on site who are helping out, his view of the country is inevitably coloured by the actions of the CRS who have regularly invaded the camp with tear gas and rubber bullets, and of the right-wingers who have attacked his friends when they have been into Calais. It feels cruel to explain that things would probably be just as bad if the camp was in the UK and that David Cameron is unlikely to be their salvation. We tell him we campaign in the UK for a new government, which he seems a bit unnerved by. In the home countries of refugees a change of government is usually the result of civil war or a coup. We leave him with the only message of hope we can give – good luck in making it over the border in whatever way he can manage, keep fighting, and we will keep doing our best to support them.

We grab a delicious and enormous meal at an Afghan restaurant then go to see if we can take anything back from the warehouse to the UK in the now empty van. Maybe we could take some of the unsuitable clothes and cash them in for 40p a kilo? But there’s a lorry coming in a few days to take these to Belgium, where they’ll get a better rate. They are more concerned to shift some of the inappropriate food that is constantly donated – stuff in glass jars, when it’s not safe to have glass on site; mountains of pasta, which is unfamiliar to most people in the camp and requires lots of water to cook; the pork products and baked beans. No-one wants to see food wasted, so I suggest taking it back for the food bank in Sheffield.20160124_164257

Three pallets of food are crammed into the van. It’s worth it just to see the expression on the face of the border guard when we tell her we are carrying food to poor people in Sheffield that has been donated by refugees in Calais. Obviously struggling to process this, she uses a torch to take a good look in the back, but finds no Persians lurking in the pasta. It’s a smooth journey home and the following morning all the food is delivered to the Burngreave food bank. There’s so much that the manager will share it around the other food banks in Sheffield. (Editor’s note: The Sheffield Star published a 2-page spread with the title “Supplies for French refugee camps handed back to food banks in city” on Friday 29th January, baffling bigoted contributors to its website)

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The trip has again been a huge learning experience and it feels as if we have been away for much longer than a weekend. It’s heartening to read that Jeremy Corbyn has been arguing for long-term solutions to address the roots of the refugee crisis; for the unaccompanied children in Calais and Dunkirk to be allowed entry; and for more to be done to help those with relatives in the UK to reunite their families. Though as ever, the Ukip-type comments underneath these news articles are depressing – Corbyn is dismissed as “naive”, or it’s a French problem and nothing to do with us.

I cannot fathom the logic of creating a European fortress to keep people out when we are not under attack. Masses of resources are poured into increasing security and obsolete weapons systems, that could be diverted into settling people, making empty homes habitable, using the skills of refugees to develop our infrastructure. It’s not an easy solution – nothing about this situation is easy – but better to turn our energies into tackling the massive inequality that underlies so many problems and building a sustainable future, instead of trying to prop up the existing system that is so obviously, irretrievably broken.

 

by Fran Belbin

 

Thanks to Fran for this great write-up and photos, originally published on her blog, where you can see more pictures and videos of the trip.  And thanks for all of her work organising, loading and driving (including driving back this time).

 

 

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

 

volunteerCalais

 http://www.calaid.co.uk/

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

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

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

Facebook groups:

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

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

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

For Sheffield people:

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

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

Fran pictured in the Sheffield Star's piece "Supplies for French refugee camps handed back to food banks in the city" http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/refugees-donate-food-to-sheffield-1-7703570 Picture Dean Atkins

Fran pictured in the Sheffield Star’s piece “Supplies for French refugee camps handed back to food banks in the city” http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/refugees-donate-food-to-sheffield-1-7703570 Picture Dean Atkins

Marked out for attack with Red Doors and Wristbands: living in the “asylum market”

Twice in one week the abuse experienced by people seeking asylum from private contractors has made the headlines. On January 20th The Times front page described “asylum apartheid” with the doors of asylum tenants in the north east painted red, marking them out for racist attacks. “Private companies shouldn’t be allowed to profit from refugees” local MP Andy McDonald told parliament. Days later various reports – BBC, Guardian, described how asylum seekers were forced to wear visible wristbands as they queued to receive meals at Lynx House Initial Accommodation in Cardiff. Again this visible stigma marked them out for racist abuse and caused what one man described as “mental torture”.

timesfront

In both cases these practices were enacted by private companies – Jomast/G4S in Middlesborough, Clearsprings in Cardiff – on the COMPASS (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services) asylum accommodation contract with the Home Office. In both cases the courage and determination of asylum tenants to speak out has challenged this discrimination and abusive treatment. Jomast have agreed to repaint the doors various colours. Clearsprings (formerly called Clearel) have been forced to scrap their wristband branding system.

The “red doors” issue has been known about for 3 or 4 years, but Jomast, G4S or the Home Office have done nothing about it. Meanwhile tenants have suffered years of racist attacks, compared by one tenant to the torture he suffered in Sudan. “I experienced an arson every single night behind my property” Mr Abdul Al Bashir explained to the BBC. SYMAAG along with local campaigners raised it with G4S in 2013. Nothing was done, despite it being raised with G4S in a Parliamentary enquiry which we called for.

Public Accounts Committee Feb 2014 Stephen Small, G4S executive in charge of asylum housing, Public Accounts Committee, Feb 2014 “Do you think that painting the doors a different colour — in this case, red — so that the whole neighbourhood knows who the asylum seekers are is likely to make that accommodation more safe? Is that a good idea?” Small's reply: "I will take that point away.”

Public Accounts Committee Feb 2014 Stephen Small, G4S executive in charge of asylum housing.
MP Ian Swales:“Do you think that painting the doors a different colour — in this case, red — so that the whole neighbourhood knows who the asylum seekers are is likely to make that accommodation more safe? Is that a good idea?” Small’s reply: “I will take that point away.”

We believe these abusive practices – whether designed to stigmatise or just the result of incompetent neglect – are not isolated features but arise from the nature of the privatised COMPASS asylum accommodation contract. When SYMAAG met G4S Executive Stephen Small in 2012 he was being honest when he explained that G4S’ “primary concern” was to “make a return for our shareholders in the asylum market”.

Capita tag

Capita tag in Sheffield

There’s been consequences for asylum tenants of living, not in a home, but in an “asylum market”: asylum tenants tagged; forced to share a bedroom; disabled asylum seeker told to “crawl” to upstairs bathroom; tenants victimised for speaking out; housed in cockroach and rat-infested houses; female tenants denied privacy; pregnant women evicted as they were about to give birth; young mothers and babies forced into an overcrowded, disease-ridden hostel (Jomast again).

Clearsprings wristband

Clearsprings wristband in Cardiff

With asylum tenants, John Grayson has led the work of documenting the reality of privatised asylum housing, particularly G4S and it’s dwindling number of subcontractors. But it’s not just G4S – the other  COMPASS contractors, Serco and Clearsprings (closely connected to Capita), are responsible for a lot of misery in the lives of asylum tenants.

 

Before the COMPASS contract began in February 2012 asylum housing was often inadequate and sometimes totally unacceptable. But with COMPASS – the biggest ever single Home Office contract, potentially worth over £1.7billion over 7 years – standards have gone through the floor. “Unacceptably poor” was the verdict of the Public Accounts Committee’s investigation.

Since profit has been the “primary concern” of the contractors the lowest cost housing has been sought out. By definition this is in the most deprived ex-industrial areas of the country where hardship can easily breed desperation, competition for inadequate resources and services and racism. This isn’t to label Middlesborough, Hull, South Wales or South Yorkshire as irredeemably racist – there’s some great solidarity work from local communities and trade unions – but dumping refugees into already deprived and ravaged communities is likely to create problems, without increased resources and support for all. In these circumstances branding asylum tenants with red doors and tagged wristbands isn’t just degrading it’s potentially life-threatening.

Asylum tenants protest in 2012 against G4S in Sheffield

Locals show solidarity with refugees: Anti-racist 5-a-side football tournament in Barnsley 16th January 2016 organised by local trade unionists. Also, ex-miners teach English to refugees at the old National Union of Mineworkers HQ in the town. Photo by Mark Harvey

Questions must be asked about why the Home Office and Government have failed to monitor the contract, standards of housing and regulate the dumping of so many asylum tenants in areas of high social deprivation. Was it all part of the Government’s plan to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants? Or neglectful incompetence with £1.7 billion of public money?

Asylum tenants protest in 2012 against G4S in Sheffield

Asylum tenants protest in 2012 against G4S in Sheffield

The news that the renewal of the massively expensive COMPASS asylum accommodation contract is being discussed was sneaked out on Christmas Eve last year. These latest examples of inhumanity in the “asylum market” should – we believe – result in it being ended.  G4S, Serco and Clearsprings/Capita should pay compensation to the taxpayer; to local authorities who have picked up some of the bills for their failures and to asylum tenants. Surely it is possible for asylum tenants, tenants’ associations and local authorities to provide decent housing for people who have come to this country to escape abuse. Not to be caused more of it by private companies paid public money.

 

 

John Grayson worked with asylum tenants and Times reporter Andrew Norfolk to help break the “red doors” story. John wrote an analysis of Jomast/G4S’ red doors policy for Open Democracy on 22nd January here. For a comprehensive series of articles on asylum housing and G4S see here.

To join the campaign to Stop G4S get involved here