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

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


“Creak of the Floorboard”

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

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


“The UKBA put me on medication”

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

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


“Taken in handcuffs to the hospital”

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

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



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


“It’s great to be listened to”

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


“Hostile Environment”

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


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


Download the SYMAAG Annual Report 2013-14 here


SYMAAG Annual General Meeting Tuesday 13th May Sheffield

The theme of this year’s Annual General Meeting is “The UK Asylum and Detention System Can Damage Your Health”. We will hear from speakers who have experienced the system themselves and have campaigned for asylum seekers’ rights inside it. The meeting will be looking in particular at the affects of the detention system on mental health, coming as it does during National Mental Health Awareness Week


South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group Annual General Meeting 

  • Tuesday 13th May 7-9pm. Doors open at 6.30pm for refreshments
  • Quaker Meeting House, 10 St James Street, Sheffield

all who support migrants’ rights are welcome to attend


The meeting will also be a chance to review the last year’s work, plan the next and elect members to carry out various roles within SYMAAG.Our 2013-2014 Annual Report will soon be published here to give you an overview of what we have been doing.


Get involved

If you have some time, energy and a passion for migrants’ rights you might want to work more closely with us, perhaps take on a particular role within SYMAAG: for instance, promoting our work through social media, making sure your community’s voice is better heard, determining our campaigning priorities, helping with admin or fundraising work or taking up an issue which is important to you.

Feel free to contact us at dignitynotdetention@yahoo.co.uk to talk about what you can offer us and how we can support you if you’re thinking of getting more involved with our work. You can contribute as much or little of your time as suits you and we can make sure that your expenses are paid when you work with us. We particularly welcome asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants as leading members but everyone has a valuable role to play.


You can download an AGM flyer at agm2014flyer

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

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


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


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


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

John Grayson 24 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s not all.

Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee

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

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

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

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

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

So, business goes on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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