Grande Synthe and Calais: July eyewitness report and appeal for support

Grande Synthe and Calais, July 2016

As Caroline and I prepare for our latest trip, the news from Calais is pretty dire – few volunteers are at the warehouse and cold food distribution has had to be suspended because of a lack of funds, donations and people. Fortunately Sheffield Donations for Refugees have raised a tidy sum, and we receive donations and help from people through Unite, family and friends, for which we are very grateful. We bulk buy lots of food, as this seems to be the greatest need at the moment and once again Nico’s car is thoroughly rammed with donations.

Driving to and around Calais has become second nature now, we get to the warehouse in good time and unload. We arrange to meet with other volunteers next morning to go to the Medecins Sans Frontieres camp in Grande Synthe near Dunkirk. We’re glad to go there again, when we last visited in March the camp had only been set up a couple of weeks, and it will be good to see how things have progressed.

The Refugee Information Bus is on site, which gives advice and legal support to refugees in camp. We’ve brought them ten copies of the Right to Remain toolkit which have just been published, and stop for a chat. Unfortunately many refugees don’t want to hear the facts about how hard it will be for them if they make it to the UK and the intricacies of the asylum system, it’s a tough message to get across.

To save costs we’re staying on a campsite this time. Somehow we make ourselves understood to the campsite owner, despite our abysmal French, and soon we are putting our tent up in a gale. We decide to eat there tonight, even though the menu consists of two steak dishes and Caroline is vegetarian. The campsite owner offers to make up a salad for her, which turns out to be quite disgusting, then over-charges a scandalous amount for the meal. Definitely need to brush up on expressions of outrage in French if we’re coming here again.

Next morning we pack up the car with the items for distribution in Grande Synthe. Camp security is now organised by central rather than local government, and it’s a change for the worse. Previously the security was unobtrusive, but these guys seem to have modelled themselves on nightclub bouncers. They allow our vehicle in as it has boxes and bags for distribution but are refusing entry to other cars. One woman is there to collect furniture from the women and children’s centre to be moved elsewhere but they won’t let her on to get them, much to her frustration.

Our first job is the 12 o’clock men’s distribution, giving out items including socks, t-shirts and toiletries. The intention is to make it feel like a shopping experience with an element of choice, and there is much deliberation over sock selection. Two volunteers are outside advising what items are available, keeping an eye out for queue jumping, scuffles etc. But we’re not expecting any trouble, because we don’t have any shoes. Fights have broken out over shoes more than once – hardly surprising when people are walking around in sandals or in trainers with the backs broken down.

DistributionHuman rightsBarbers

There are more than enough of us so I go and help the woman who needs to shift stuff off site, but as soon as I get in the car a refugee approaches to ask when I am going back to the UK. I explain it will be on Monday, and he asks if I could take some things over for him. I’m not entirely clear what and why he wants to move things, but take his phone number and agree to visit his shelter later to discuss.

The women and children’s centre has really come on since our last visit in March, it’s now screened off from view. It has an electricity supply, enabling people to charge mobile phones and use other equipment; and a row of wood-burning stoves so that the women can come and cook meals. The volunteers there are having a meeting, discussing what activities would be appealing for the women – there is so little for people to do here. Suggestions include massage, weaving and sewing sessions, though these are all dependent on having volunteers with the right skills and equipment. A boy of about 12 with very good English is translating the ideas to some of the women to get their approval.

Women's centre

The meeting over, as we put the chairs and table that need to go off site into the car, the refugee who wants me to take stuff to the UK comes by again, and turns out to be the father of the boy doing the translating; I am also introduced to his mother and younger siblings. In the car park we transfer the furniture to another vehicle, and then the over-officious security refuse to let the car back on site, although they can plainly see it is still loaded with items for the 3 pm distribution. I have to go and get the lead volunteer, but even then they refuse entry – there is no rhyme or reason to the rules, which appear to have changed since this morning. Eventually they let us on but tell us we must be off site again in three minutes.  But they have no real interest in enforcing this, so we take our time unloading for the afternoon distribution.

We go for lunch, which is surprisingly tasty considering it consists only of rice and chickpeas, then Caroline and I go to visit the refugee family.  We are warmly welcomed to their shelter, and given tea and biscuits while they explain the situation. The father has already lived and worked in the UK and has permission to stay, but can’t meet the financial requirement to get visas for his family.  Clearly there is a cunning plan to get the family over, but whatever it is it won’t allow them to carry much luggage. We agree to take a large bag of the family’s clothes and shoes and a pushchair with us to drop off with their friend in England, then head off for the 3 pm distribution, which goes smoothly.

Loaded up with the family’s gear, we go back to the warehouse. We’re not that hungry but grab a bit of lentil curry anyway in case we don’t get another chance, because we’re definitely not eating at the campsite again. We do decide to have one drink there before heading out to another bar though, which also proves to be a mistake – when the campsite owner pours us two glasses of white wine, Caroline is appalled to see a dead bluebottle float to the top of one. The replacements he is forced to provide are warm and we make a mental note not to drink here again either.

At the other bar there is a hog roast, so Caroline is doomed to salad again, even the crudites are secreting bits of ham and fish. We manage a stilted conversation with some French holidaymakers, though it’s not until the end of the evening that one of them asks why we are there. He’s not very impressed when we explain what we are doing, though as guests we are appeasing – we understand that it is a difficult situation for French people in Calais as well, and it is a UK problem. He complains that the refugees get everything for free – clothes and food – which is partly true, but we explain that the clothes are old and the food is limited. Regardless it has been a pleasant enough evening and we decide to return there for the Euro 16 final the following evening.

We get to the warehouse early on Sunday – possibly a mistake as we are then lumbered with all the washing up from the previous day. I bump into one of the volunteers from the Calais women and children’s bus on our May trip, it’s her day off today and she needs another volunteer there, so our plans for the day are sorted.

At the bus the first thing we notice – they’re hard to avoid – are the dead rats littering the place, which look quite fresh except where they’ve been run over. At first we are concerned that there is some new disease around causing them to die, but later we are told that blocks of rat poison have been placed around the camp, so more likely they have eaten the poison and died on the way back to their nest in a sandy pit opposite the bus. Trying to ignore them, we put the day’s items for distribution on to the bus. It has been moved out a bit from the fence to the container area, to create a play area complete with a garden, shed, caravan and gazebo.

Today is cinema day and children start to arrive to watch Space Jam, while women come to collect the limited items we have – mainly baby wipes and nappies – and to sit down and chat for a while. Some of the women I met on my last visit, there has been little change for them in the meanwhile. An air conditioning unit and solar panels to power it have been provided, but no-one has had the time or knowledge to get them working, so as an interim measure the bus windows upstairs have been lined with reflective material and it’s more bearable in the heat.

Through her work Caroline has learnt a few words of Farsi and Arabic which she uses to good effect in communicating with the women. As lunchtime approaches I get a message asking if I could give a lift to a volunteer who needs to work out a money transfer with a refugee he is helping so I go back to the warehouse, and catch an impromptu drumming performance by a very young volunteer on a drum kit that was randomly donated the previous day.

Drumming

Aidan on drums

While I’m gone lunch arrives on the bus, provided by the warehouse kitchen, which, for the first time I’m aware of, turns out to be a meat dish. Caroline’s on the salad again.

The money transfer mission ends up aborted and I go back out to the bus. The baby wipes have run out, a woman who needs some is angry because there are never any left when she comes to get some. We calm her down by telling her to come back in an hour and I go to get more from the warehouse. As I leave I’m waylaid by two Ethiopian women – could I take them to the train station? It’s not on the way but I know from experience it will take them an hour to walk there so I agree. They are getting the train to one of the other French camps – they’ve been there before, and come back to the Jungle, but are now returning. There seems to be quite a lot of camp hopping going on and we’re not sure why – sometimes to visit other family members, or perhaps just to relieve the boredom.

I’ve been in and out of camp all day but each time the CRS insist on seeing my vehicle pass and driving licence and looking in the back of the car before waving me in reluctantly. Back on the bus, the woman gets her wipes and advice to come earlier in the future. A man comes to the bus door to say that his wife has just given birth, she needs clothes for the baby. We don’t have any here, and again he starts to get angry, but we make a note of his name and promise to bring what she needs the next day. Life here is a continual cycle of frustration and waiting.

Of course we are fortunate enough to be able to leave, and at the end of the day we decide to go into Calais to the Family Pub, catch the end of the Wimbledon final and get an early meal that doesn’t consist of salad. Then it’s back to the campsite and out to the bar for the football, which is of course full of folk with French flags painted on their faces singing the Marseillaise. The guy from the previous night asks us if we have been to the Jungle today – were the refugees aggressive, because they always seem to be aggressive when the French news cameras are there? We tell him about our day and show him the pictures we have taken – the sight of those dead rats perhaps gives him a bit of a different perspective, and his aunt who is with him thinks we are doing a good thing. The mood is more downbeat however once France lose the match and we make a quick exit at the end.

Marseillaise

After a poor night’s sleep due to gales battering the tent, we pack up then meet the guy from the Refugee Information Bus and continue our conversation about how to get useful information across to residents of the camp. Perhaps we can get refugees who have settled in Sheffield to come out and advise in appropriate languages; start to link in more effectively with the growing networks for refugee support in the UK. Plenty of food for thought once we are back home.

After an interminable wait for the campsite owner to get over his hangover and return my passport, we drop off a volunteer at the women and children’s bus then spend our last couple of hours at the warehouse making up food parcels, before heading for the ferry and home. On our way we drop off the refugee family’s belongings with their friend and text to say we hope to see them in the UK – we get a text back saying “We hope so too”.

We are still waiting to hear if they have made it. And waiting to find out what the implications of Brexit will be on the camp and border – if the Mayor of Calais has her way, the camp will soon be closed down. Waiting for politicians to stop backstabbing in order to save their careers and put forward some ideas for handling the migration crisis (there are honourable exceptions of course). But at least we don’t have to wait to know whether we will ever see our families again, or have a proper home again. And we have plenty to do, trying to ensure that aid and volunteers keep flowing to Calais, Dunkirk and beyond, and building the networks to support refugees here in the UK.

 

Thanks to Fran for this report and for the pics

You can read accounts of previous solidarity trips to Calais and Grande Synthe camps here

You can donate to Calais and Grande Synthe here

Your support is needed more than ever

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.

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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)

20160125_104646

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

The Immigration Bill: “turning people against people”

Over 70 people came to our January public meeting on the latest Immigration Bill. There was consensus that the real aims of the Bill were

 

  • to create a hostile environment for people seeking asylum
  • to appease and inflame racist stereotypes about people coming to the UK
  • to create precedents for charging for basic services and using techniques of exclusion and repression that could potentially be extended to all of us
  • to “turn people against people”

 

But there was plenty of opposition and discussion of ways to monitor the effects of the Bill and to refuse to implement it. You can read a summary of its main provisions below.

 

To get a better picture of what happened at the meeting see this Storify account. Thanks to all who contributed to the meeting and for spreading the news about it – in particular Fran from ASSIST and Marcia for the main photo.

 

The Immigration Bill is not yet law and is still being discussed in the House of Lords. You can track its progress here.

 

 

 

________________________________________________________________________

A new year, a new Immigration Bill, a new attempt to stir up a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants in the UK. According to Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield:

“To call the suggested measures dangerous would be an understatement. They vilify the exploited and, even worse, strengthen the hand of unscrupulous employers. The steps contained in the Immigration Bill not only risk forcing undocumented workers into exploitative employment relationships—supposedly outlawed by the Modern Slavery Act—but potentially give abusive employers even more weapons with which to threaten employees”
He should know, having sat on the parliamentary scrutiny committee which went through the Immigration Bill line by line in November and December. So, we’re pleased invite to Paul Blomfield MP to introduce a discussion on what the bill is and how we oppose it.
                         ________________________________________________
Thursday 14th January 2016 SYMAAG Public Meeting:
What is the Immigration Bill and how do we fight it?
With speaker Paul Blomfield MP
7-9pm (doors open at 6.30 for tea & biscuits) 
Quaker Meeting House 10 St James’ St, Sheffield S1 2EW
_________________________________________________
Demonstrating against the last Immigration Bill in Sheffield December 2014

Demonstrating against the last Immigration Bill in Sheffield December 2014. Pic by Sam Musarika

What’s in the latest Immigration Bill?
  • A new offence of “Illegal Working” carrying huge penalties for undocumented workers
  • Making landlords responsible for checking immigration status of prospective tenants
  • Creating a new offence: driving a vehicle while not legally resident
  • Making banks responsible for policing accounts of undocumented migrants
  • Extending the “deport first, appeal later” policy
  • Restrictions on asylum support for those with initially rejected asylum claims

 

The results (aims?) of the Immigration Bill if it becomes law are likely to mean:

  • Increased exploitation of undocumented workers as they are driven “underground”
  • Discrimination and racism against prospective tenants who look or sound “foreign”
  • More police stop and search actions targeted against ethnic minorities
  • Excluding part of society from access to banking and related services
  • Deporting people to persecution in their country of origin, denying appeal rights
  • Using destitution as a weapon against undocumented migrants and their children

 

 

Protest against Home Office harassment of Chinatown workers 2014. pic: Harry Stopes

Protest against Home Office harassment of Chinatown workers 2014. pic: Harry Stopes

 

 

What can we do?

The Immigration Bill has already been voted through in Parliament (see how your MP voted here) and is now at committee stage in the House of Lords, where amendments are still possible.
If the Bill does become law, SYMAAG will work with others to create resistance to the Bill being put into practice eg trade union efforts to recruit and work with undocumented workers, monitoring the results of the landlord checks, publicising destitution caused to families due to asylum support cuts, supporting people who try to make “out-of-country” appeals against deportation.
This Immigration Bill, like the last one, aims to create a “Hostile Environment” for undocumented migrants. It also attempts to turn landlords, local authority workers, employers, bank workers, teachers, health workers into border police. We should refuse to play this role and support others when they refuse to.
imm bill demo odette
Millions of people in the UK took action in support of refugees last summer: “Refugees Welcome” was the message and solidarity efforts continue with donations and trips to the Calais migrant camp and Lesvos and demands to give asylum to refugees. But – as the latest Immigration Bill shows – the battle for the rights of migrants, documented or not, doesn’t end when they reach the UK. As Lucy Mayblin of Sheffield University put it, writing about the Immigration Bill, “the boring bits matter too“.
                                                                **********
Find more about the Immigration Bill
with thanks to Banksy, Sam Musarika, Harry Stopes and John Grayson for art and photos

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

 

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

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

 

Introduction

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

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

 

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

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

Part 1 – The Warehouse

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

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

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

mountain

The mountain

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

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

lucky bags

Lucky bags

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Part 2 – The Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

calaissheffieldlogo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by A Gerrard

Photo by A Gerrard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part 3 – An explosive ending

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

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

We just arrive back to the charred remnants.

van 1

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

 

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Volunteering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other general tips:

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

 

by Fran Belbin, first published on her blog

 

 

calaisgraff

Links

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

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

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

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

Facebook groups:

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

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

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

For Sheffield people:

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew’s accommodation (John Grayson)

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

 

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

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

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

Jacob’s story

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

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

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

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

Matthew’s story

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

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

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

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

The approach to Matthew’s accommodation

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

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

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

The first heart attack and then the bed bugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resisting the asylum system and G4S

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

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

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

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

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

And if refugees do manage to get to the UK…

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

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

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

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

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

Around England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

  • For their protection, asylum seekers’ names have been changed.
  • Since the article was published G4S have complained and dispute Paul’s allegations. A company spokesman said: “We never put transgender asylum seekers in shared bedrooms. On the contrary in cases where an asylum seeker we look after identifies as transgender, we provide additional support including offering alternative accommodation in a separate unit.”  They have not complained that any of the other allegations of abuse, neglect, contempt and disrespect for asylum tenants are inaccurate.

Making a Killing Out of a Catastrophe

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

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

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

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

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

antL

 

 

Disaster capitalism, and the outsourcing of violence in the UK

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making money from misery

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

G4S houses, Sheffield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thriving profiteers

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

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

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

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

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

Bungling, overcharging. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War, who is it good for?

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

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

Paul Pindar, former chief executive, Capita

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

The book has received the following endorsements:

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

“Break fences, build bridges” Sheffield welcomes refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do you want to volunteer to support refugees?

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

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

 

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

All photos below by Tim Dennell

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

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

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

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

Welcoming refugees in Arabic and English

Welcoming refugees in Arabic and English

Kaltun speaks. Red was the colour today

Kaltun speaks about Sheffield being a welcoming place for refugees

Let them in

Let them in

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South Yorkshire says “Refugees are Welcome Here”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Something Has Changed

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

Refugee children watch a showing of Tom and Jerry in Hungary

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

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

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

 

 

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Pressure grows for review of Serco, G4S Asylum Housing

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Shocking”

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

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

 

Take Action

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

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

COMPASS contract petition 2 Sept 15