Behave or get deported, says G4S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the legal basis for that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

John Whitwam, managing director, immigration and borders, G4S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Matter of Pride

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

 

A Matter of Pride

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

By Stuart Crosthwaite

 

 

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

 

Supporting destitute asylum seekers

 

Teaching English

 

General volunteer refugee support

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

 

Law, advice and advocacy

 

Medical and therapeutic support

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

 

Support in detention

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

 

Campaigning

 

International support for refugees

 

 

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