“We need humanity and accountability” in asylum housing

Asylum tenants organise at Sheffield conference

This was the first national meeting of asylum tenants. At the same time as a new £4 billion 10 year government contract for asylum housing and related services is being tendered and due to start in 2019.

The current contract, called COMPASS, has operated from 2012, run by G4S, Serco and Clearsprings. Since then four separate Parliamentary inquiries have confirmed what asylum tenants have been saying since: that asylum housing during the COMPASS contract has been “unacceptably poor” and “substandard”. The Home Affairs Select Committee report in January 2017 described asylum housing provision as “a disgrace” and called for a complete overhaul of the contract.  The government rejected the findings and recommendations wholesale and claimed that the “the standard of accommodation provided to asylum seekers has improved since 2012.” We know that G4S are one of the bidders for the new Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts and it’s likely the others will be major outsourcing corporations.

Protesting in Sheffield in 2012 at the start of the COMPASS contract. Photo Sam Musarika

That’s why 64 of us came together in Sheffield on February 24th. We want global serial human rights abusers G4S and Serco to be barred from bidding for the new contract to provide asylum housing. So, asylum tenants, migrant rights campaigners, journalists and academics from Yorkshire, the North East, the Midlands, Manchester, Derbyshire, London and Northern Ireland met in Sheffield’s new refugee centre The Sanctuary.

We were welcomed by Manuchehr, co-chair of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG),  who called for support to the women hunger strikers at Yarls Wood who are also up against Serco, G4S and the Home Office.

Lorna Gledhill from Asylum Matters chaired the meeting and introduced 3 themes that ran through the day:

  • the importance of basing our campaigns on the rights of asylum tenants;
  • the lack of accountability inherent in privatised asylum housing
  • that this Government’s declared aim is to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants.

 

First up was Kate Smith from Huddersfield University and Huddersfield Women’s Centre. Kate spoke about the lack of safety, security and privacy for women and children in privatised asylum housing in Kirklees. “It’s a really harmful house. We are living with rats that are dying, dead. Dying in the house” Shahnaz had told her. “I wanted (stair) gates for the baby, waited for 9 months” said Jane. Doors without locks, no hot water for women and young children and the all too familiar “I complained to G4S but they didn’t do anything”. She pointed to the existence of overcrowded and dangerous “mother and baby hostels” and the effect of such conditions on children’s early development. Kate suggested that embedding children’s rights into the running of asylum accommodation was necessary to achieve accountability.

 

Makhosi Sigabade and Philani Dube from the Belfast Housing 4 All campaign explained how “you cannot hold anyone accountable” in Northern Ireland’s asylum housing system. Serco and the Northern Ireland Executive (the devolved government of Northern Ireland) are joint landlords, routinely passing the buck for vital repairs between each other. “Serco don’t provide what they say they do” but “If I make a noise will it prejudice my case?” Philani explained echoing a common fear amongst many asylum tenants all over the UK. And an understandable fear – G4S displayed notices in tenants’ houses threatening to report them to the Home Office if they complained.

Makhosi Sigabade and Philani Dube from the Housing 4 All campaign. Photo Manuchehr

Jalloh Ibrahima from Newcastle’s Migration and Asylum Justice Forum (MAJF) emphasised Philani’s point about the difficulty in speaking out “If you can’t speak good English how can you put the problem forward?” Asylum housing in the North East is run by Jomast ex-G4S subcontractor, infamous for painting asylum seekers’ doors red in an area with high levels of racist attacks.

Jalloh described how MAJF had pressured Newcastle City Council into opposing overcrowding and the practice of forcing asylum tenants to share bedrooms but that Jomast had refused to implement the Council’s decision and had appealed against it.  Overcrowding is endemic in privatised asylum housing since contractors are paid per tenant. “Private companies are always trying to make money out us,” he said. Jalloh was inspired by the success we’ve had in Yorkshire in stopping forced room sharing and invited us all to join MAJF’s protests against Jomast’s policy in the North East in March.

Clare Sambrook gave us an illustrated guide to G4S’ grisly history. Clare is the founder of Shine A Light and dedicated to exposing G4S’ record as a serial abuser of human rights and at the same time a “strategic supplier” to the government. A legal challenge to force the government to designate G4S as a “high risk” supplier has been launched by Bail For Immigration Detainees.

Photo: Manuchehr

Not only did G4S have no experience in housing when they bagged a £620 million share of the COMPASS asylum housing contract in 2012, they were being investigated for the death of Jimmy Mubenga. He died in 2010 while being forcibly restrained by G4S guards on a deportation flight to Angola, telling them “I can’t breathe”. Clare described G4S apparent impunity. Dave Beadnall, a G4S security guard, fatally restrained a 15 year old child in a children’s prison and was then promoted to Health and Safety Manager. She noted the irony of G4S running an employee vetting company.

Clare pointed to the role of investigative journalism in “shining a light” to expose corporate and state injustice. She pointed to John Grayson’s key role in investigating asylum housing (see here and here), forming the basis for a number of parliamentary inquiries and kick-starting other investigative and campaigning journalism into what G4S call their “asylum market”

John – co-chair of SYMAAG – explained how he was inspired by a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who told him in 2012 “I don’t want a prison guard as my landlord”. “I don’t just want improvements to asylum housing I want G4S off the contract” he said. He stressed that it was the contracting out of services like the provision of asylum housing, not just G4S, that was the problem. Given the close relationship between government and corporations (here for example) unaccountability and an apparent rotation of corporate contracts was inherent. He echoed Jalloh Ibrahima’s sentiment about the conference saying “we’ve been working at this for 5 years but we’re learning a lot from asylum tenants today”.

Jalloh Ibrahima of Newcastle Migration and Asylum Justice Forum and Bailor Jalloh, Sheffield Live reporter, discover they are from the same country. Photo: Manuchehr

Like most events of this type, the breaks are as important as the speeches and presentations. I could hear animated conversations in many languages between asylum tenants meeting each other or the first time, comparing experiences, sharing ideas. Some of us were interviewed by local TV and radio, some tried on and bought jewellery made and donated by Gogo Manyoni of Hope and Dignity Hearth, others tucked into their dinner. Nobody touched the tomato juice, which I’d bought by mistake, though.

We resumed with a poem about G4S by Jo Thorpe from Nottingham including the line “They’re hard to crack, like a cockroach in a baby’s bottle” (remember this?) We heard from asylum rights advocate Debbie Rea from Leicester about campaigning in the East Midlands (another region with G4S-run asylum housing) and the city’s history of multi-ethnicity and familiarity with new arrivals from around the world.

We called the event an Action Conference, aiming to end the day with a plan on how we can work together for decent asylum housing. So we split into 3 groups to look in detail at how to best use media; about legal challenges to the contracts and how to mobilise our allies.

Apart from sharing contacts of sympathetic journalists and linking on-line campaigning, the media group looked at ways to publicise the toxic brands of G4S, Serco, Clearsprings, Jomast etc. In the North East, the Migration and Asylum Justice Group has demonstrated where Jomast had other business interests telling people about their role in asylum housing.

The legal group looked at gathering evidence to compare the requirements of existing asylum housing contracts with the reality, without which accountability isn’t possible. We also looked at how to support the legal challenge to G4S launched by Bail for Immigration Detainees (here’s one way). We noted the success of local campaigns on housing standards when supported by the threat of legal action.

Action group discussing how to mobilise our allies. Photo: Manuchehr

In the discussion about working with our allies people pointed out the high-profile failures of companies like G4S, Serco and now Carillion to provide the public services they are paid by us all to do. This means we have more potential allies in political parties, trade unions and local authorities. We can also find allies amongst other groups campaigning against the abuses of G4S etc, for example the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

All the groups noted the importance of illustrating the big political issue of how people seeking asylum are treated with personal stories, because the dehumanisation of people is key to the government’s ‘hostile environment’ approach.

The day was best summed up by Marie from Huddersfield: “whoever gets the contract we need humanity and accountability”. Today’s event and the formation of a national network bring us closer to that goal.

by Stuart Crosthwaite, Secretary of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG)

Human Rights and Asylum Housing conference Sheffield February 24

SYMAAG invites you to an action day conference on human rights and asylum housing in Sheffield on Saturday 24th February, 11am – 4pm at The Sanctuary, 37-39 Chapel Walk, Sheffield S1 2PD.

Tenders are already in from the corporations and companies set to exploit the latest (and biggest) contract to be offered in the UK and European asylum markets, housing refugees waiting for the outcomes of asylum claims. G4S has already confirmed its interest.

Asylum housing throughout the UK was outsourced in 2012 by the Home Office with a five year £1.7bn contract given to three international security companies G4S, Serco and the smaller Reliance company. The contracts have been problematic for most asylum tenants (with four critical parliamentary inquiries), and disastrous for many individuals and families.

The 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act stripped asylum tenants of all the rights established in law for council and private tenants. Since 2012 there have been many examples where the legal and human rights of refugee children and disabled refugees have been threatened by conditions in, and management, of asylum accommodation.

Two of the present contractors Serco and G4S have been criticised and sanctioned for their record on human rights in managing contracts in detention centres, and children’s prisons in the UK, and in prisons and detention centres in South Africa, Palestine, and Australia.

Is this record relevant to the award of new contracts for the care of refugees with £4 billion of taxpayers money? With the collapse of Carillion and Capita on the edge, can huge private companies ever be relied on to provide public services?

Come along on 24 February, have your say and decide what actions we can take.

The event will be held at The Sanctuary, Chapel Walk, Sheffield city centre (opposite Crucible Theatre) S1 2PD.

Speakers will include asylum tenants, journalists, housing researchers and academics, and YOU in small group discussions producing plans for action.

This event is free but please let SYMAAG know if intend to come as places are limited, by contacting dignitynotdetention@yahoo.co.uk or texting John Grayson mob 07887 481355

 

G4S subcontractor Jomast painted asylum tenants’ doors red in Middlesborough and Stockton marking them out for attack

BRIEFING: From COMPASS to the £4 billion AASC asylum housing contract

On 18 November the new AASC (Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts) for asylum housing across the UK from September 2019 to September 2029 were opened for tender.The cost to the British tax payer is a staggering £4 billion. Bidders for the contracts were given TWENTY NINE DAYS to the 17 December to register an interest.There were seven contract areas offered (Northern Ireland is the smallest at £50 million, the North West and the South of England the largest with £900 million all over ten years) making it likely that bidders would be limited to corporations and large housing companies operating in asylum markets across the EU: like the present holders of the UK COMPASS contracts:G4S, Serco, and Clearsprings.

There is already confirmation that G4S has put in their tender

There are other indications that the three holders of the contracts, or private contractors like them, may well be the government’s preferred companies for delivery of the new contracts. On the 9 November, nine months on from a highly critical report on the COMPASS contracts by the Home Affairs Select Committee published on 31 January 2017, the government finally gave its response to their findings and recommendations. The government rejected the findings and recommendations wholesale and claimed that the “the standard of accommodation provided to asylum seekers has improved since 2012.”

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

In 2016 G4S was fined £5.6m for the standard of the housing it provided in 2013/14. Despite all that, regardless of persistently negative media coverage and asylum tenants’ tenacious resistance and solidarity campaigning, still, G4S, Serco and Clearel hold the contract. They were given an extension (and more money) in December 2016 which will take them through to September 2019.

 

Five years of John Grayson’s  research and monitoring of the COMPASS contracts alongside asylum tenants can be found at

https://www.opendemocracy.net/author/john-grayson and at the Institute for Race Relations News Service www.irr.org.uk

 

 

Daisy and the £4 billion Asylum Housing Contracts

As the tendering process for £4 billion worth of contracts over ten years gets under way, asylum campaigner John Grayson examines the market for asylum seekers’ housing in the UK.

© J. Grayson

© J. Grayson

G4S dumps toddler with rare cancer in dirty asylum house with rats in the yard. Can G4S be trusted to be given part of the new £4 billion ten-year contracts for asylum housing across the UK from 2019?

Daisy is two and a half years old and has suffered from a rare skin and lung cancer since she was born in Sheffield. She was improving after chemo, then her family claimed asylum and sought accommodation. The family of six, from North Africa, were dumped in a house near the motorway on the outskirts of Sheffield on 25 October.

Daisy’s father attended a weekly ‘drop in’ for refugees in central Sheffield, on 1 November, bringing a letter to the ASSIST and Red Cross desks from one of the professionals caring for Daisy. She said that Daisy’s breathing had deteriorated as a result of being moved into the house:

Daisy slept in this bedroom © J. Grayson

Daisy slept in this bedroom © J. Grayson

‘Her disease leaves her vulnerable to serious chest infections and wheeze which compromises her breathing … The age and crumbling state of the house, including a damp bathroom and damp in some of the bedrooms, crumbling walls and dirty carpets mean that this is not good for Daisy’s lungs.’

When ASSIST volunteer worker, Catherine, told me about the house I immediately recognised it as the house I had visited in September 2016.

Jean, her husband and three small children, also from North Africa, had been living there then, for six months, from April 2016. Jean had shown me the rat poison boxes in the back yard, and the fence gnawed by rats. ‘My children cannot play here, they are frightened of the rats,’ she said. Along with the rats, I was told about ‘water leaks, unsafe flooring, and damp walls.’

Broken sofa © J. Grayson

Broken sofa © J. Grayson

On 2 November 2017 I went to the house and was welcomed by Paul, Daisy’s father. ‘This place is dirty, it needs repainting. The carpets are dirty, but G4S will not let us replace them with the clean ones we have with us.’ Hazel, Daisy’s mother, showed me the crudely repaired settee in the living room, which G4S had provided. Paul showed me damp and crumbling plaster behind the settee , and damaged and crumbling paintwork on the stairs. There were dirty walls in the bedroom where Daisy slept. In the attic bedroom, where Paul’s sons slept, he opened one of the two unsecured panels in the walls, which led to dusty and dirty attic spaces.’My children say they can hear the rats in the walls. I have certainly seen the rats in the yard; this morning for instance.’

I went out into the yard which I remembered from last September – the family had sent me a video clip showing a rat running across it.

Video Player

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Unsecured wall panels © J. Grayson

Unsecured wall panels © J. Grayson

I have worked alongside refugees, and their families, in G4S asylum housing, over five years, but even I really could not believe that G4S could have put Daisy and her family in that house, knowing the state of the property … and about the rats.

But the evidence was clear; the ‘visitation log’ showed two ‘inspections’, on 23 October and on the morning of 25 October before the family were moved in. There was ‘cleaning’ on 24 October by Globe, the G4S cleaning contractor, and some ‘repairs’.

G4S inspection log © J. Grayson

G4S inspection log © J. Grayson

After I left the house, I rang the G4S manager to protest directly, on behalf of the family. ‘The Home Office checked that property before the family were moved in,’ he claimed. ‘Yes, we know about the rats in the yard, that’s a continuing problem, but there are no rats in the house, John. The place has been redecorated.’

© J. Grayson

© J. Grayson

For the next few days, a coalition comprising the Red Cross, SYMAAG, Sheffield Council, and staff of the local MP Clive Betts, supported the family and bombarded the Home Office and G4S with demands to get the family moved. The family received a letter from G4S on 6 November saying they would be moved on Wednesday 8 November, – but no apology.

From the COMPASS contracts to the £4 billion AASC contracts

Earlier this year the Home Office set up its Asylum Accommodation and Support Transformation (AAST)procurement team. On 26 August a preliminary notice of contracts beyond 2019 was announced which suggested contracts would be offered worth £600 million per annum, and that ‘the duration of the AASC contract will be confirmed in due course.’ On 18 November contracts for asylum housing across the UK from September 2019 to September 2029 were formally opened for tender. The outsourced contracts are worth a staggering £4 billion of British taxpayers’ money. Bidders for the contracts were given just twenty-nine days, to 17 December, to register an interest.

It seems highly likely, even though there are seven contract areas offered (Northern Ireland is the smallest at £50 million, the North West and the South of England the largest with £900 million, all over ten years), that the likely bidders will be limited to corporations and large housing companies operating in asylum markets across the EU, like the present holders of the UK COMPASS contracts: G4S, Serco and Clearsprings.

‘The standard of accommodation provided to asylum seekers has improved since 2012’

There are other indications that the three holders of the COMPASS contracts, or other private contractors like them, may well be the government’s preferred companies for delivery of the new contracts. On 31 January 2017, the latest UK Home Affairs Select Committee report on Asylum Accommodation provided by G4S, Serco and Clearsprings, was published, which found, ‘vulnerable people in unsafe accommodation … children living with infestations of mice, rats or bed bugs, lack of health care for pregnant women … inadequate support for victims of rape and torture.’

On 9 November 2017, nine months on, the government finally gave its response to the committee’s findings and recommendations. The government rejected the findings and recommendations wholesale, and claimed that the ‘the standard of accommodation provided to asylum seekers has improved since 2012.’

A torrent of criticism since 2012

Hundreds of asylum housing tenants have spoken to me and other campaigners about conditions in asylum housing in my pieces for Shine a Light on OpenDemocracy.net and for the IRR’s News Service.

G4S tenants and former tenants in Sheffield worked with film makers Brass Moustache to produce The Asylum Market to highlight alleged intimidation of tenants. G4S stepped in and prevented the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show showing clips of the film on the day the 2017 Home Affairs Committee report was published.

In 2013 the Refugee Council and the Maternity Alliance issued their report, When Maternity Doesn’t Matter: dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum, based on interviews with twenty women many in COMPASS contract housing.

In Scotland, the Scottish Refugee Council published, The Extent and Impact of Asylum Accommodation Problems in Scotland in 2014. In 2016, in Glasgow, in Serco’s COMPASS contract area, Red Cross researchers spoke to pregnant asylum seekers and new mothers in their report A Healthy Start?. They found that:

‘The state of carpets preoccupied several of the women with young babies who were about to crawl and spending quite a lot of time on the floor. Living in a dirty, cramped house meant that many of them were not feeling able to relax and feel at home. Several lived on upper floors, which caused difficulties when trying to carry a baby, a buggy and bags of shopping up several flights of stairs.’

In Northern Ireland in November 2016, Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) published a critical report, Home Sweet Home? on the Serco asylum housing contract.

Times (20 January 2016)

Times (20 January 2016)

The plight of asylum seekers living in substandard accommodation rarely excites national media attention, but on 20 January 2016, there was a front page story in The Timesabout asylum seekers’ front doors being painted red by Jomast Developments, the G4S contractor, in the North East, which was followed up across the national media and provoked questions in Parliament and special hearings of the Home Affairs committee. At one of these hearings on 26 January 2016, Labour MP Chuka Umunna told Stuart Monk, owner of Jomast: ‘You buy up cheap homes in some of the most deprived communities and you’re making money out of housing some of the most vulnerable and poor people, in some of the most deprived and poor places in our country. It looks like you profit from deprivation and people’s need for refuge – which to many people seems to be unseemly and unsavoury.’

From June 2012, when the COMPASS contracts started, to the deliberations of the 2016/2017 Home Affairs inquiry, there were four official inquiries featuring asylum housing in Parliament:

  • The Children’s Society Parliamentary inquiry in 2013, when Sarah Teather MP chair of the inquiry said that asylum seekers ‘are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect’. In the report, Teather also pointed to examples of ‘abject disregard for basic human dignity demonstrated by housing providers.’
  • Home Affairs committee report from its inquiry, later that year, noted: ‘We were very concerned by the description of the substandard level of housing provided to asylum seekers.’
  • In January 2014 the National Audit Office reported: ‘Both G4S and Serco took on housing stock without inspecting it . . . many of the properties they had taken on did not meet the contractual quality standards.’
  • The Public Accounts Committee followed up in April 2014: ‘The standard of the accommodation provided was often unacceptably poor and the providers failed to improve quality in a timely manner.’ And ‘Contractors have remained slow in providing decent accommodation for a very vulnerable group of people.’

In 2016, G4S was fined £5.6 million for the standard of the asylum housing it provided in 2013/14. G4S paid no UK corporation tax in 2012.asylum-accommodation

On 8 December 2016, the government quietly issued a written ministerial statement confirming that the Home Office had extended the existing COMPASS contracts, and that it was going to pay more — though not how much. ‘I have increased the amount of money that the Home Office pays for the provision of welfare officers and staff property management,’ wrote immigration minister Robert Goodwill.

As for the five years’ torrent of criticism and compelling evidence of rats, cockroaches and bed bugs. Goodwill brushed them all aside with the comment: ‘There has been considerable interest in the accommodation and support that is provided to asylum seekers,’ adding that he had ‘listened carefully’ to concerns.

A global auction for the AASC contracts?

In the international asylum, detention and prisons market, as Donna Red Wing pointed out in 2010, ’every prisoner (is) a profit centre, every immigrant a business opportunity.’

In 2012, in the lead up to the allocation of the COMPASS contracts, there was a competitive online auction, revealed in a High Court judgment here, when Jomast Developments took G4S to court. Regional consortia of local councils were faced with exclusion from the auction because they could not offer to deliver a contract across the UK, and their preliminary bids were too high for the final auction. This time around there will be seven separate regional contracts over ten years but it is highly unlikely public housing bodies will be interested. The possible exception is in Northern Ireland, where the Northern Ireland Housing Executive currently provides COMPASS asylum housing as a subcontractor from Serco.

It may well be that two of the three COMPASS contractors, G4S and Serco, will see themselves as well placed as the existing contractors in wider UK asylum markets, with contracts in linked detention centres (G4S at Brook House and Tinsley House at Gatwick, and Serco running a seven-year contract at the controversial Yarl’s Wood detention centre). Both companies have recruited establishment figures over the past few years. Rupert Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, is CEO of Serco, one of the corporations providing asylum housing, in June 2015, he told BBC radio that the new outsourcing market: ‘makes Britain now to public service provision what Silicon Valley is to IT.’ In the first three months of 2016, new public sector contracts worth £1.35 billion were announced in the UK, sixty-five per cent of all outsourced contracts in the British economy. Serco has been a military contractor to the UK government. In March 2016 the Serco website proclaimed:

‘From our inception in 1950 to our expanded role today, using unique skills and expertise we provide UK Government with national nuclear security solutions, and we continue to play a vital role in the national interest … we provide and maintain warheads for the Trident system.’

In 2009, John (now Lord) Reid, a former Labour home secretary and defence secretary, while still a serving as an MP, took a £50,000-a-year consultancy role at G4S. G4S board members have included Lord Condon, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Adam Crozier, head of Independent Television (ITV). Current G4S chairman, John Connolly, who was once Britain’s highest paid accountant, and global chairman at Deloitte — also chairs the board at the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity, and was an advisor to Boris Johnson when he was the Mayor of London,.

In any procurement process perhaps the Home Office ought also to consider the fact that both G4S and Serco were caught out ‘overbilling’ the taxpayer under contracts for monitoring offenders — the tagging scandal. Both had charged the Ministry of Justice for applying electronic tags to ex-offenders who were not tagged. Some were in prison. Others were dead. Serco agreed to pay £68.5 million back. G4S offered to pay back £24.1 million but this was rejected by the Ministry of Justice and G4S eventually agreed on nearly £110 million. The Serious Fraud Office has had both companies under criminal investigation since November 2013.

Are other bidders possible?

International asylum markets, since 2012, have become more crowded and a company like the Swiss-based ORS Service company, with asylum camps and accommodation in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, bought in 2013 by Equistone Partners Europe Ltd, an asset management offshoot of Barclay’s bank, would be perfectly capable of bidding for the UK contracts.

In the US the Trump administration has reversed the policy of Obama who slowed down the privatisation of prisons, detention centres and military spending, and market predictions suggest that G4S is set to benefit from Trump’s spending plans. Also in the US the GEO Group, which operates dozens of private prisons and detention centres, is now getting new detention centre contracts. In April 2017, GEO won a $110 million contract to build a 1,000-bed immigration jail in Texas. The Geo Group UK Ltd has also developed asylum markets in the UK with detention centre contracts at Harmondsworth, and Dungavel in Scotland. The group also has a tie-up with UK company Amey, owned by Spanish corporation Ferrovial. Ferrovial also bought UK company Enterprise in 2013, a company with a history of outsourcing and social housing partnership contracts with over sixty local authorities, and integrated it into Amey. Amey currently operates a twenty-five year ‘Streets Ahead’ highways contract in Sheffield. The GEOAmey partnership company has UK government contracts for prisoner and youth offender transport and court cell suites, transporting 10,500 prisoners a year with 2,500 staff and 400 vehicles. It is perhaps not impossible that GEO/Ferrovial might be interested in a £4-billion, ten-year Home Office asylum housing and transport contract.

Campaigners will continue monitoring the tendering process and to try to ensure that asylum tenants are offered accommodation in future contracts of a ‘decent homes’ standard. This was the standard the Home Office included in the COMPASS contracts – but never enforced.

RELATED LINKS

South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG)

IRR News: ‘I killed three … maybe four rats in my kitchen this summer’

IRR News: The shame of asylum housing of child refugees in the UK

IRR News: The Corporate Greed of Strangers

IRR News: G4S and housing abuse of asylum seekers – the truth emerges

IRR News: G4S, Jomast Stockton hostel and the mother-and-baby-market

This article was first published by the Institute of Race Relations on November 30th http://www.irr.org.uk/news/daisy-and-the-4-billion-asylum-housing-contracts/

Another person dies at Morton Hall – a letter from detainees

This letter was written by people detained at Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre and sent to Glasgow Unity Centre following the death of Mr Carlington Spencer on October 2nd. We publish it as it was written. Mr Spencer’s death follows the deaths of a number of people detained at Morton Hall this year. This is why we will be demonstrating at Morton Hall on Saturday January 20th 2018 to demand the closure of this, and all other, detention centres

Demonstrating at Morton Hall 27 May. pic by SYMAAG

 

IRC Morton Hall

05/10/2017

Re: Death Incident (IRC Morton Hall)

Dear Unity

Thank you so much for your texts this morning. I have now gathered all the information from main witnesses and even have couple of written statements.

Mr Carlinton Spencer was a detainee here at Morton Hall. Unfortunately Mr Spencer aka (Rasta) died in hospital on the 2nd of October 2017.

This whole ordeal started on Thursday the 28th of September 2017 when two of Mr Spencer’s friends turned at his room in Fry Unity 3/06. They noticed that the door was unlocked and the room was dark, however they heard some sort of distress voice coming from inside. They both came in and switched the lights on. They found Mr Spencer lying in floor in agony and unable to get back in bed. They assisted him and put him on his bed. One of them went to the office in Fry unit and informed the officers. Two female officers arrived an started speculating that Mr Spencer’s condition was induced by drugs consumption. Few minutes later a nurse came in and failed to assess Mr Spencer’s conditions properly. The nurse put a tissue on Mr Spencer’s hand, asked him to wipe his own nose when she could clearly see this was not possible. According to these two detainee’s testimony the nurse assisted Mr Spencer’s hands to wipe his own nose but his hand kept pulling back down. The officers and the nurse asked Rasta’s two friends to leave the room but one of them insisted to stay.

On Friday the 29th of September 2017 about midday, another detainee went to Mr Spencer’s room to check on him. But this point Mr Spencer was shaking in his bed and looking in a very bad state. This detainee informed the officers in Fry unit while another detainee went to the health care and dragged the medical professional to come to check on Mr Spencer’s conditions. Few detainees were standing outside Mr Spencer’s door when the nurse and doctor arrived. The officers asked the detained to go away but they decided they would not leave until Mr Spencer is taking to a hospital. An ambulance arrived at about 2pm and Mr Spencer was then taken to hospital.

It has now been said that Mr. Spence suffered another stroke while in the back of the ambulance on his way to hospital and in fact he was in a (non induced) coma in hospital and died on Monday 2nd of October 2017. We were not told by IRC Morton Hall staff of this until Wednesday 4th of October 2017.

On Monday, I personally asked one of the officers in Windsor Unit what were the conditions of Rasta and if he had an update, the officer in question told me he did not know about that incident as he was off on Friday. I found that extremely hard to believe but I continue with my activities.

Yesterday 3rd of October 2017 at around 19:00 hours the news started circulating that Mr Spencer has passed away in hospital. I was shocked and deeply traumatized when I heard the news because I personally knew him. He was a very pleasant and decent gentleman.

By 20>30, final roll check time, the officers at Windsor Unit were trying to calm down a few of the detainees that were deeply distress, They lady officer claimed that Rasta died as result of spice attack. This is very misleading and untrue. He died as a result of gross negligence from part of the health professional at Morton Hall and IRC staff that failed to identify Mr Spencer had a stroke on 28 of September 2017.

Such a gross negligence could potentially revoke a doctor’s license to practice from the GMC register. I come from a medical background environment and I understand this subject in depth. The GMC will rule that doctor is unfit to practice. However there are no Doctors here at IRC Morton Hall between 17:00-09:00. Here at Morton Hall detainees are 16 hours without a doctor. We only have nurses that do not meet the standards of a medical professional and lack insight and professionalism, obviously disregarding their patient’s duty of care. I believe in this case the protocol would have been to ring an ambulance straight away on Thursday. Perhaps this would have change the whole outcome.

I know one detainee Mr T put a written complaint on Saturday because he directly witnessed what happen to Mr Spencer and how he was neglected. Mr T was moved to the CCU on Monday 2nd of October 2017 in the afternoon and now has been moved out of this centre but no one can get a hold of him.

This should have never happened if proper medical care has been offered in time to minimize the negatives effect of a stroke. This is shocking and it revolts me to my core knowing that IRC Morton Hall staff are insisting that MR Spencer died as a result of spice attack.  This has spared anger among the population her. I am personally very distressed, traumatized and angry as his is the second death incident I have experience while in detention.

Thank you for your support, we really appreciate it.

 

Kind Regards

Concerned Detainees at IRC Morton Hall

Direct Provision – Ireland’s holding pens for asylum seekers

At a recent SYMAAG meeting, our co-chair John Grayson reported on his recent fact-finding visit to Ireland. He visited sites of Direct Provision, Ireland’s system for segregating people seeking asylum. He also interviewed some of the people who have been subjected to Direct Provision and have spoken out against it.

The article below first appeared on the Institute for Race Relations website on September 21st 2017

 

In the first of a series, John Grayson examines the Direct Provision (DP) system for asylum seekers in Ireland. Part-two will examine the private companies involved in providing services under DP.

‘The Minister for Justice has made an outspoken attack on bogus asylum-seeking and “political correctness” at the Oireachtas Justice Committee. Michael McDowell said the patience of the Irish people would be very tested if they knew the “cock and bull” stories being given by people looking for asylum … “I would prefer to interview these people at the airport, but the UN insists that I go through due procedure,” said Mr McDowell.’ (RTE News, 5 May 2005)

People caught up in the direct provision system are being denied hope by the State and forced to live in a system which is worse than prison … Former judge Dr. Bryan McMahon said anyone forced to live in a system that denied them the right to work or study and determined almost every aspect of their life without any indication as to when their circumstances might change “would go mad”. Some of them said to me: I would prefer to be in jail because I would have a definite sentence and I would know when I was getting out.’” (Dr McMahon chaired the first official Irish government inquiry into Direct Provision in 2014)

 

Direct Provision in Tralee

johnston-marina-exterior-photoIn a room in the Tralee International Resource Centre in County Kerry in the South West of Ireland, Shahidah had brought me to meet two residents from Tralee’s two DP Centres.

Christine looked frail and ill but she smiled briefly as she sat down at the large table in the meeting room of the centre. I told her I was from the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group in South Yorkshire ‘I was in Rotherham for a while, six years ago in asylum housing’, she said. ‘But they made me come back here because I had been fingerprinted in Ireland. I have been here in Tralee ever since.’

Christine, originally from East Africa, described the regime in the centre, Johnston Marina, a disused hotel:

‘We are not allowed to cook or even do our own washing. My clothes are ruined in the industrial washers they use in there. I am hungry most of the time. I am vegetarian but they will not cook me food I can eat. All the staff are white, from Eastern Europe I think, they simply do not treat the single Black women, like me, fairly. Even fruit is given out in a racist way, the best fruit goes to the white women, then the families with children, both Black and white – then us, we end up with apples and pears. The staff decide how much is given out and there is by the end of the week often leftovers of the best fruit which is overripe – they then put it out on the tables for all of us. The heating often fails and we have no hot water. It is not a good place to live.’

Ten years ago, when there were 40 women and 45 children in the Johnston Marina centre where Christine lives, there was a hunger strike to protest about conditions. In 2013 the Tralee International Resource Centre was one of the sponsors of the national ‘End Institutionalised Living’ protests held throughout the country, which included a demonstration in Tralee town centre.

In Tralee, talking to Shahidah, Christine and Theresa, a support worker at the Resource Centre, it was obvious that the suicide of a Korean woman in Kinsale Road DP centre in Cork on the 23 August was still affecting them. The woman, a lone parent, had been in the centre about a year with her six-year-old son. Lucky Khambule, spokesman for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) who had himself spent time in Kinsale Road, said ‘She had on occasions been to the doctor and she was evidently a quiet, sad person.’

 

Racism in rural Ireland

What many in human rights organisations suspect (or are afraid to admit openly) is that Irish society knows full well about the system of direct provision, the vast majority of the population could not care less. In fact, the vast majority may even want a harsher system.’ (Liam Thornton and Carl O’Brien, ‘Closing Our Eyes: Irish Society and Direct Provision’, 8 October 2013, humanrights.ie)

I was staying with Shahidah and John, both social justice campaigners in Kerry. The couple have lived near Tralee for over ten years, during which time Shahidah has heard racist remarks aimed at her when she walked around town: ‘Some years ago someone in town wound down his car window and threw a glass bottle at me’. John told me ‘I think racism is growing in Ireland since the Crash as people get poorer, even the traditional discrimination against the Traveller community is getting worse. DP centres are often in rundown hotels, and you hear politicians and people in the media saying, “Why are asylum seekers getting hotels, whilst Irish homeless people are on the streets”. People have no idea of what goes on in the DP centres. Tourists actually stand and take pictures of Johnston Marina and its thatched roof annexe.’[1]

©John Grayson

©John Grayson

I had talked to Charles earlier in the international resource centre about his life in the Atlas Centre, the men’s DP centre in Tralee. Charles was a surgeon from the Middle East, and he had just heard that he had been granted leave to remain in Ireland. Charles had been shocked at the racism he had met with in Tralee. ‘I volunteered to help with local work with poor people, and had to give it up, people simply insulted me and my background. In the centre where I have lived for over a year, every single weekend when the pubs shut a gang of young men fill the street outside chanting “Go Home”, and throw things at the windows. The police do nothing.’

Charles had prepared for our meeting by writing a detailed list of points he wanted to raise with me.

©John Grayson

©John Grayson

Charles told me of his despair at ‘feeling useless, defenceless, and confused’, and admitted he had felt suicidal at times. ‘In there, time turns against you, you feel ashamed of living in Direct Provision. The racism makes you feel you have no respect in society even amongst other asylum seekers. Other people in the centre suffered racism and abused people like me as a defence mechanism, facing racism by harming good people.’ He was worried about his professional skills as a surgeon deteriorating with his forced absence from practice. ‘We may be banned from working but they should allow volunteering for professional people, it is about more than just the money.’ Now he was leaving Direct Provision he was obviously very anxious about facing ‘real life’ again.

 

Direct Provision and dispersal

DP centres are not closed detention centres, new asylum seekers ‘decide’ whether they go into the DP centres and are free to leave. In 2015 there were an estimated 7,937 people in the Irish asylum system, 45 per cent living in DP accommodation, and 55 per cent living ‘outside Direct Provision‘.

The DP system commenced in April 2000, offering asylum seekers bed and board accommodation, and an allowance of €19.10 a week per adult, with an additional €9.60 a week per child. The system of DP also provides health care through the medical card scheme, and education up to the age of 18 for children of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are not entitled to any other form of welfare payment. They are not allowed to work, and Ireland is the only EU state with a complete prohibition on working. If they decide not to stay in the centres they become destitute and homeless.

Asylum seekers in DP are dispersed throughout Ireland, often in disused holiday camps, hotels, convents, hostels and caravan sites. Many of the DP centres are in remote rural or coastal areas. In these areas, the cost of living is often higher than in Dublin and the €19.10 buys less, and the value of the payment has been further eroded by inflation over the seventeen years it has remained unchanged.

 

Direct Provision: ‘an agonizing and wasted existence’ – ’a form of apartheid’

Echoing Charles and many others who have looked at or directly experienced DP, in 2012, researcher Zoe O’Reilly after interviewing residents, described their life in DP as ‘an agonizing and wasted existence.’

‘They wait in an institutional limbo for a final decision on their claims. Fed and housed through the “direct provision” system, people are kept on the margins of society, unable to access employment or education, and forced to live a “life without choice” … They are simultaneously inside and outside: inside a system which controls their everyday life and decisions, and yet kept outside of mainstream society, prevented from integrating through a series of deliberate measures’. [5]

By December 2000, 62 DP centres were operating, increasing to 84 centres consisting of nine reception centres and 75 accommodation centres. The first report on the system of direct provision in July 2001 for the Irish Refugee Council and the Combat Poverty Agency, Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Inclusion in Irelandraised serious concerns about the system. The recommendations were direct and damning:

  • Direct provision should be abolished
  • Direct provision fosters poverty and exclusion within Irish communities. Asylum seekers on direct provision experience poverty to a greater extent than other categories of asylum seeker. Asylum seekers in ‘direct provision’ had household incomes which fell below the 20 percent poverty line. The extreme poverty experienced by asylum-seeking children in “direct provision” is a direct outcome of current asylum seeker policy.
  • Those who have been accommodated under direct provision are subject to a form of apartheid whereby they are compelled to live apart from the majority community without the social and material support structures to interact with the native population. [2]

As the number of DP centres declined there were repeated reports criticising the DP system, most of them largely ignored by the government, and some legal challenges. As far as the government was concerned the deterrent system was working – fewer and fewer asylum seekers were coming to Ireland. There were 11,598 asylum applications in 2002, 940 in 2012.[4] By September 2014 the Irish Times published a leaked memo from the Justice Ministry setting out the policy. Their headlines read: ‘Minister says system is “inhumane”‘ but … ‘State fears alternative to direct provision will attract asylum seekers’.

The reports on the ‘inhumane’ system had grown, together with hunger strikes and demonstrations by people in DP centres throughout Ireland in 2014. The Irish Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, in her report in 2013 on a family in DP, estimated that there were around 1,820 children under eighteen in the centres (around 38 per cent of residents) and 640 lone parents. O’Reilly described the DP system as ‘a collective failure of a republic which needs to re-engage with what ought to be its core values.’ She said under the current asylum process ‘an entire early childhood, virtually an entire adolescence can be spent in direct provision accommodation’.

A seminar at the Tralee International Resource Centre in June 2015 on ‘Children Living in Direct Provision’ considered the Irish Refugee Council’s report, Counting the Cost (2014), which stated that the average time spent in DP was three years, with some people waiting as long as seven years for a decision. As the seminar flyer pointed out ‘With 35% of children in DP under the age of 4yrs, the DP way of life is all they know.’

In 2014, the first ever official state investigation into the system was launched when the Irish government set up a Working Group under a retired judge, Bryan McMahon, responding to the protests across Irish DP centres. They were not given a remit to consider the ending of the DP system, only reforming it. The group reported in June 2015, and amongst their list of 173 recommendations, was an increase in the DP allowances to €38.74 for adults and €29.80 for children. [3]

On 7 May 2015, Pádraig MacLochlainn TD, Chairman of the Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, introduced the committee’s damning report on DP, dealing with the lack of rights of residents to appeal to the Ombudsman system:

‘This report on the Direct Provision System is, I believe, a “canary in the mine” moment … This report to the Dáil and Seanad makes it clear to both Houses of the Oireachtas that the Direct Provision system is not fit for purpose.’

The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) figures for June 2017 estimate that there are still 4,691 people in thirty-two DP centres across 16 counties in Ireland. There are 1,248 children under 18 in the centres, 472 of these children are under four years of age.

 

Resisting and exposing DP 

anti-deportation-ireland-july-2012In recent years, academic activists, journalists, a tiny number of politicians, and above all people forced to endure the DP system have begun to expose the system in media campaigns and direct actions.

In August 2014, during a hunger strike protest at Mount Trenchard DP centre near Foynes in County Limerick, three of the protesters said they had been waiting ten years for their asylum applications to be processed. Another resident said he had been in the asylum system for the past 14 years. The local Doras Luimní asylum rights organisation said, ‘some residents have been living at the hostel for the past 12 years’ in living conditions that have been described as ‘overcrowded and inhumane’ which see ‘eight male adults of different nationalities sharing a room, contribut[ing] to an environment that exacerbates the volatility of the centre.’

In April 2015, after further protests at Mount Trenchard over ‘poor food, broken windows, regular outbreaks of fighting’, Jonathan Muhwezi, a resident, told the Limerick Leader that ‘Foynes is called Guantanamo Bay … where they send you for punishment.’ 

 

Newbridge Asylum Support Group

In December, I spoke with two women, Hope and May, who had been in the Eyre Powell hotel, the DP centre in Newbridge in Co. Kildare, not far from Dublin. Hope was from Zimbabwe and had been in the DP system for seven years. She had leave to remain but, like many people in the centres, she could find neither employment nor housing. In July 2016, the Irish Refugee Council published research indicating that in 2015, several months after getting their official papers, 679 people remained in Direct Provision. Hope said that Co. Kildare was the best place for a refugee to try to move on – there were advice services there. ‘The real problem is racism in employment. I am getting interviews but they obviously don’t want to employ a Black woman.’ Hope told me of all the people still in DP after many years. ‘I knew a man from Rwanda, he will have been in DP for ten years, this year.’

Both women were activists in the Newbridge Asylum Support Group and had been involved in protests in 2012. The protest had been raised in the Dáil by the South Kildare TD Jack Wall, who spoke of ‘a detailed written complaint listing twelve areas of concern, signed by a number of residents, sent to the manager of the Eyre Powell centre through the support group. The concerns revolved around food, hygiene and the attitude of management towards residents.

May, from Eastern Europe, who had also lived in Eyre Powell, had her second child in the DP system. She told me of her ‘mental stress over years living in overcrowded conditions in one room. “I was always worried about my children”.’ May’s comments about her children in the DP centres are echoed by the findings of a government survey of 110 children in DP centres completed in 2015.

Children described their accommodation as ‘overcrowded’ and ‘dirty’ and the direct provision system as ‘not fair’, ‘not safe’, and many spoke about older men ‘taking over’ the TV and recreation rooms. ‘There are loads of men bothering us’, said one, while another commented: ‘There is so many men, and . . . they look creepy at you.’ The diets were described as ‘horrible and disgusting’ and ‘unhealthy’ by older groups, and as ‘always the same’ and ‘the food has no taste’ by the younger children, with several expressing the wish their mother could cook for them.

The Irish government refused to publish the survey until forced to do so this year, on 18 July, as a result of a FOI request from the Irish Times.

 

Are cracks appearing in the Irish deterrent asylum system? 

Unusually, over the past few months news of Ireland’s reception policy for refugees has been filtering over to the UK. On 30 May, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that banning asylum seekers from working was unconstitutional. The Irish Times reported that:

‘The seven judge court unanimously agreed the absolute ban was ‘in principle’ unconstitutional but has adjourned making any formal orders for six months to allow the legislature consider how to address the situation.’ (Irish Times, 30 May 2017)

Then on 14 June, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, announced an increase of €2.50 per week for adults and €6 per week for children to benefit more than 4,000 adults and children living in Ireland’s accommodation for asylum seekers, the Direct Provision (DP) centres. The rate for children will rise from €15.60 to €21.60 per week and for adults from €19.10 to €21.60 per week from August. The adult support rate remarkably had remained at € 19.10 for seventeen years ever since the DP Centres were set up in 2000.

Lucky Khambule, MASI (Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland) spokesman, said:masilogo

‘We really feel insulted by the newly-elected Taoiseach, who seems to have no understanding whatsoever about what we have gone through in direct provision for 17 years. The Taoiseach said that these offensively minuscule increases would give asylum seekers more disposable income. If our situation wasn’t so serious this would be a joke. We were not consulted on this, no one asked us what we needed. We are furious that people think that €2.50 or €6 will do anything to address the damage caused to our lives by direct provision.’

 

Cracks may be appearing in the DP system but deportations increase

The new Irish International Protection Act (IPA) which came into operation in December 2016, replaced the extremely time-consuming process for asylum seekers: first claiming asylum through the ORAC (Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner), then appealing a negative decision to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT); and finally, if unsuccessful, making a claim for subsidiary protection to the Minister for Justice, for example, claiming that they cannot be returned safely to their country.

All these stages meant long delays, often of years, spent in DP. In 2015 there were ‘approximately 1,000 people involved in judicial review proceedings relating to the various stages in the system, of whom 66 per cent have been in the system for more than five years.’ The new law, which was designed to streamline the application process for asylum seekers to reduce waiting times for decisions, seems to have stalled with the revelation earlier this year that 4,000 cases had been handed on to the Office for International Protection from the previous system, and that these would be given precedence over new claims.

The IPA also increased the State’s powers to enforce deportation orders. Lucky Khambule, on 19 June, described the rise in deportation proceedings since the introduction of the IPA as ‘alarming’. The introduction of the IPA also seems to signal a new period of asylum refusals. Figures up to May this year show that only 101 people have been granted ‘permission to remain’, compared to 532 in total over 2016. Since 2007, 23,506 people have applied for asylum status in Ireland, and the average rate of refusal is 86 per cent. Just 3,285 asylum seekers have been granted official asylum protection in Ireland in the past ten years.

As Anne Mulhall and Gavan Titley said in 2014, DP provides:

‘a holding pen where people are kept for efficient deportation … for protesters, who live with its constant threat in institutions designed to facilitate their removal, an end to deportation is the most important of their demands.’

The names of asylum seekers and refugees who spoke to me about Direct Provision have been changed. Thanks to Shahidah Janjua, Zoryana Pshyk, and Lucky Khambule for their hospitality and assistance with my research and solidarity trip to Ireland. Liam Thornton, of University College Dublin (UCD) contributes regular legal and other comment on DP to the ‘Human Rights in Ireland’ website www.humanrights.ie. And photos and material on the Irish Direct Provision centres can be found at these very useful archives: Asylum Archive, Ireland (2014) Direct Provision Centres and Asylum Archive, Ireland (2014) Resistance 2014. References: [1] The Tralee DP centre features on the current (2017) ‘welcome’ home page of the RIA (Reception and Integration Agency) website. [2] Fanning, B. and Veale, A. (2001) Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Inclusion in Ireland. Dublin: Irish Refugee Council and Combat Poverty Agency, July. Download here. [3] Irish Government Department of Justice and Equality/An Roinn Dli Agus Cirt Agus Comhionannais (2015) Working Group on the Protection Process: the McMahon Report, Dublin, June. [4] Irish Refugee Council (2013) Direct Provision: Framing an alternative reception system for people seeking international protection. Dublin: Irish Refugee Council. [5] O’Reilly Z. (2012)  In between spaces’: experiences of asylum seekers in the ‘direct provision’ system in Ireland PhD. Departments of Geography and Media, Faculty of Social Sciences, National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth, October. [6] A Hundred Thousand UnWelcomes. Lucky Khambule speaks about Direct Provision on YouTube, published 21 November 2016.

‘How do we get out if there’s a fire?’ G4S tenants live in fear

G4S asylum housing is “a disgrace” according to a recent Parliamentary Committee report. Many asylum tenants can – and have – testified to confirm this statement. But while John Grayson was investigating a G4S asylum hostel in Halifax, West Yorkshire the Grenfell Tower fire happened.

The first named victim at Grenfell Tower was Mohammed Alhajali, a Syrian refugee. We don’t yet know how many people were killed in the fire but reports suggest that some survivors are reluctant to come forward to seek support because of fears that their irregular immigration status would leave them open to deportation or detention by the Home Office

John Grayson’s latest investigation into asylum housing shows how the disregard shown by G4S leaves tenants in substandard and dangerous conditions. One man in the top floor of the Halifax asylum hostel explained “I watched that place burn. I thought I couldn’t get out of this flat if there is a fire”.

Asylum tenants in G4S housing have complained about conditions and lack of respect – despite fears of reprisals and threats by G4S of deportation. In May there were 4000 complaints (from 5000 G4S-run asylum houses). We have documented the inadequacy of G4S’ response many times. We even helped to make a short film – The Asylum Market – about it

Given the fire risk posed by the Halifax hostel – and how many other G4S asylum houses? – we demand that G4S act immediately to remedy the dangers identified by the tenants and publicised by John Grayson.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire it was clear that all residents’ complaints had been dismissed but particularly those from ethnic minorities. As journalist Dawn Foster wrote in the New York Times: “Black and South Asian survivors told me the implicit message from everyone they contacted before the fire for help with the building was ‘you are a guest in this borough and a guest in this country, you have no right to complain,'”

 

This article was first published at Open Democracy as part of the Shine A Light series of investigative journalism on 27 June 2017

https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/shinealight/john-grayson/g4s-fire-trap-hostel-halifax-asylum-housing-grenfell

Sheffield election candidates on the spot over asylum policies

60 people came to an Asylum and Immigration Election Hustings in Sheffield on May 31st. The meeting was organised by SYMAAG and supported by Sheffield’s many asylum rights groups. We had the chance to question local candidates Natalie Bennett (Green), Paul Blomfield (Labour), Howard Denby (UKIP) and Shaffaq Mohammad (Liberal Democrat) on their party policies on asylum and immigration. We invited a representative from the Conservative Party but they failed to represent themselves.

Amber, Arman and Phillis read out SYMAAG Election Pledges

SYMAAG members began the meeting by reading out our SYMAAG General Election Pledges 2017 on the rights of EU migrants post-Brexit, safe asylum routes, child refugees in Europe, immigration detention, right to work, access to healthcare and G4S asylum housing. These had been sent to 70+ election candidates across South Yorkshire. We received 5 substantive responses (less than in the 2015 and 2010 General Elections) supporting some or all of the Pledges. They were:

Natalie Bennett Green, Sheffield Central Supported all
Paul Blomfield Labour SheffieldCentral            . see statement below
Nick Clegg LibDemSheffieldHallam see statement below
Louise Haigh Labour, Sheffield Heeley Supported all
Declan Walsh Green, Sheffield Heeley Supported all

We also received PaulBlomfieldPledgeResponses and NickCleggPledgeResponse

candidates were quizzed for an hour on asylum/immigration policies

After short introductions from the candidates they faced audience questions on their responses to hate crime and racism in Sheffield; asylum seekers facing enforced destitution; child refugees in Europe; levels of fees for asylum applications/appeals; difficulties for new refugees, especially women; how human rights and asylum rights are related and free movement in post-Brexit Europe.

Apart from the UKIP candidate there was general consensus on all but the final point. Labour’s Paul Blomfield stated “when we leave the EU free movement will end” whereas the Greens’ Natalie Bennett pointed to free movement between the UK and Norway and Switzerland, both outside the EU. Natalie Bennett criticised the record of previous Labour and LibDem/Conservative coalition Governments over making asylum seekers destitute after their asylum claims had been rejected. Paul Blomfield pointed to his record in opposing indefinite immigration detention as an MP and member of Parliamentary Select Committees. Both Labour and Green candidates attacked the levels of fees charged to people making asylum applications/renewed applications which amounted to “having to buy justice” and Shaffaq Mohammad of the Liberal Democrats suggested that fees should be charged at levels which only cover administrative costs.

Our Election Pledges displayed next to the candidates

We thank all those candidates who responded to our Election Pledges and who attended the hustings.

People seeking asylum – and many EU migrants – do not have the right to vote in UK elections. We urge those people who can vote to use it to support asylum and migrant rights on June 8th. Whatever the result of the election we will continue to hold MPs to account on their pledges to asylum and migrant rights.

 

all photos by Manuch

Who Supports Asylum and Migrant Rights?

The General Election on June 8th gives us the chance to support parties and candidates in South Yorkshire who stand for asylum and migrant rights. We’ll be helping you decide who they are by holding a pre-election meeting with candidates on immigration and asylum on May 31st 7pm at Central United Reform Church Sheffield S1 2JB.

In advance of the meeting we’re asking candidates to support some key pledges on asylum and migrants’ rights. We’ll publicise their responses before and at the meeting

 

Asylum and Immigration Election Hustings

SYMAAG has organised an Asylum and Immigration Election Hustings on Wednesday 31st May at 7pm in Sheffield where you get the chance to question representatives from the parties standing in the general election in South Yorkshire.

The event is supported by major asylum/migration organisations and charities in our region: Sheffield City of Sanctuary, Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers; Early Asylum Support, DEWA, Why Refugee Women South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice, ASSIST

The meeting is at 7pm Central United Reform Church S1 2JB in the centre of Sheffield, opposite the Crucible Theatre The meeting starts at 7pm but doors open at 6.30pm for a cup of tea and a chance to look around the information stalls.

After a short introduction on the main issues facing refugees and people seeking asylum from SYMAAG, the politicians will make short speeches about their party policies, leaving plenty of time for your points and questions.

If you want to ask a question but can’t get to the meeting use the Twitter hashtag #asylumrights and we will try to put your point to the politicians

Here’s a  downloadable flyer for the event  SYMAAGElectionhustings leaflet 2017

 

Election Pledges

By the time of the meeting, candidates in South Yorkshire will have been asked to support 6 key migrants’ rights election pledges summarised below.

  • Guarantee the rights of all EU citizens who are at present resident in the UK
  • Support safe routes for people seeking asylum in the UK. Take a fair share of refugees already in the EU and all children who have family or other links with the UK
  • End the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and migrants. End the detention of children. Close down detention centres
  • Support the right to work whilst seeking asylum in the UK. Levels of financial support whilst waiting for asylum decisions should be equivalent to standard UK benefit rates. Give those seeking asylum full access to free NHS healthcare and to English courses
  • Take asylum housing contracts from G4S in 2019 and give back the organisation of asylum housing contracts to local councils and the provision to housing associations and not for profit agencies

For full text see SYMAAG General Election Pledges 2017

 

We also support the Refugee Council’s General Election Refugee Welcome Pledge and Migrants Organise Promote the Migrant Vote project.

Jaber Abdullah: how I set up a refugee football team in Barnsley

Barnsley, like other northern ex-industrial towns, is often stereotyped as racist and hostile to refugees. Refugees, including SYMAAG members, do experience some wariness, hostility and racism from some in a town still struggling to recover from the closure of coal mines and related industry since the 1980s. Austerity has taken its toll –  as boarded up shops on the outskirts show. The town has the lowest average pay in the UK and high unemployment.

The privatised asylum housing system – run for profit by G4S in Barnsley – tends to house a disproportionately large number refugees in areas with the cheapest housing in ex-industrial towns like Barnsley. Without extra resources for public services for all and without a properly funded and planned integration strategy problems can arise. Problems that racist and fascist groups have done their best to exploit. But some of the trade union organisation and pride in community of the coalmining era remains.

Congolese refugee Djoly campaigning against use of conflict minerals at Trade Unions for Migrant Rights conference at Miners Hall Barnsley 2009. Pic SYMAAG

The Barnsley Community Support Centre, run by the Unite trade union, based in the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers, has organised ESOL classes for refugees. It has provided benefits and housing advice for refugees and locals alike with volunteers from around the world working alongside local ex-miners. Refugees have joined ex-miners in the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. And refugees and locals have discovered that football is a shared language.

Eritrean refugees carry the Orgreave Justice banner at Durham Miners Gala 2015

The Barnsley Community Support Centre, with support from Barnsley FC helped set up a very successful refugee 5-a side football tournament in 2016. Jaber (“Jimmy”) Abdullah (interviewed below) has been central to getting refugee football off the ground as well as helping refugees settle in Barnsley and linking them to the support and solidarity that still exists in the town.

 

Refugee Tigers football team Barnsley. Jaber Abdullah bottom right

 

Dave Gibson of Barnsley Trades Council presents a cheque to help fund ESOL classes at the Community Support Centre, after anti-racist football tournament. Pics Ian Parker/Brian Clarke

 

The article below is by Johnny McDevitt and first appeared in The Guardian on May 2nd 2017.

Jaber Abdullah: how I set up a refugee football team in Barnsley

Jaber Abdullah, a Sudanese asylum seeker, says he will never forget the day when Barnsley Football Club gave him tickets to go and watch the team play at their stadium. “It was the first activity any of us had done since we arrived in the UK because we could not afford to go anywhere,” says Abdullah, 40, who set up the Refugee Tigers football team shortly after arriving in the UK and claiming asylum almost two years ago.

Having been sent to live in the south Yorkshire town, he saved £3 from his £30-odd a week benefits, bought a football and started kicking it about in a local park. It wasn’t long before he was joined by another Sudanese asylum seeker. Within a few months, the Tigers’ roster had swelled to more than 50 asylum seekers and refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Iran, aged between 18 and 40.

The Tigers boast some unquestionably talented players, with the most eye-catching an Eritrean goalkeeper nicknamed “Tesco” (on account of his obsession with the variety of goods on offer at his local supermarket) and a Syrian midfielder monikered “Figo”, who shares the sorcerous skills of the Portuguese great, according to his teammates. “In Calais where most of the boys came to England from, there was a lot of violence, a lot of fighting between the different nationalities. They were arguing over things like territory close to the lorries and it was very tribal there, but now we are one family. Nobody cares where someone is from or what religion they are. We have many different types of Muslims and also Christians,” says Abdullah, who manages the team.

Coaching a team of penniless men who live in constant uncertainty comes with exigencies that Jaber’s idol, Jose Mourinho, does not have to face. “Some of my players are sent back to their countries and a lot leave Barnsley [when they are granted refugee status] for the big cities in search of work,” he says. “Of course, I am so happy for them that they can start to live their dreams. That is the most important thing. But also some of my best players leave and we need stability if we are going to be a great team. But every day we have new stars arriving in Barnsley to replace them so we have a good transfer system.”

Barnsley FC heard about the Tigers and donated kits, offered its Oakwell pitch for weekly training and its training ground for matches, and invited the squad to watch a game. The Tigers will be joining an amateur league next session. For now they play exhibition matches across Yorkshire. Sometimes it’s difficult for the players to find the £3 minibus money to travel and they have to borrow from friends, says Abdullah.

He says none of his players have ever been racially abused by the teams they play. But, as we speak, a car drives past and a young man cranes out of the window and shouts “Oi, blackie, fucking go home.” Anti-immigrant sentiment is not unfamiliar to Barnsley. Ukip came second in three of the four constituencies that dissect the town and there has long been a far-right presence, first with the BNP and now with the English Democrats. Members of the South Yorkshire Casuals II have marched through the town to protest against what they anticipated would be an incoming “horde of Syrian refugees”. But Abdullah ardently defends the town he likes to call his “mother in England” and says he has received more compassion than rancour.

A driver in Sudan, he fled the conflict in Darfur three years ago and flew to Russia, rather than crossing by boat to Italy from Libya because he is scared of the sea. He paid the mafia to take him across the border into Ukraine and then on through eastern Europe – to Germany and finally to Calais. He arrived in Britain hidden inside a lorry, with a small bag of possessions but armed with grand ideas about what life here would offer.

“I thought Britain was going to be a paradise, where I could get my wife to join me, become educated and fulfil my father’s dream for me to become a n aeroplane pilot,” he says. “But the [immigration] system has made my life very difficult. I want to work but cannot. I cannot go to school because I cannot afford it. I cannot open a bank account. I just have my team. For me Britain has two arms. One is the system that pushes me away, the other is the British people who hold me.”

After losing his asylum card four months ago he was evicted from his home and his benefits were stopped, but he was saved from homelessness by a local man. “He came and asked me how much I was getting a week from the government and said that I would continue to get that money from him. He drives to my home every week to give it to me. Last week he came with £100 to pay for my English classes. I tell him I will repay his kindness when I can but he says, ‘Jaber, when you have money to spare give to someone else who needs it’. I will never forget what this man has done for me.”

Jaber has taken on the mantle of a refugee envoy to Barnsley and is determined to change the minds of those who resent their presence.“ Although Abdullah has only £30 a week from the government he now gives some of his money to homeless people. “I say to them ‘this is Sudanese hospitality’. Neither of us will be hungry then.” Abdullah has become a de facto community leader to new refugees in the town. “When a new guy comes here, the Red Cross people say: ‘Go and see Jaber at his house.’ They have usually just come from Calais and have not eaten properly for a long time so I feed them, help them with their paperwork and show them where they can get English lessons.

“It is hard for the young ones. They thought it would be like heaven here. When they are stuck with nothing to do, sometimes for years, they become very depressed and some of them begin to go crazy. I tell them they must be patient while the government deals with their cases but I understand their anger. I am in the same position.”

Thoughts rarely stray far from home, with the conflicts that forced the Tigers’ players to leave. “We went to the moon and the depths of the sea and we climbed mountains. We have advanced in medicine and engineering and philosophy and in every science but we forgot how to build humanity,” he says. “We have lighting in our cities and roads but we have forgotten to light our hearts.”

As Abdullah approaches two years in immigration limbo – not knowing whether when or even if he will be granted refugee status – his mind remains resolutely fixed on the future for his blossoming Tigers.

The Premier League one day? “We have all had very difficult journeys and lost many friends to get here. You can see that nothing seems impossible to me,” he replies.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian May 2nd 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/02/jaber-abdullah-refugee-football-asylum-seeker-barnsley

Interview and picture of Jaber Abdullah by Johnny McDevitt

 

Some photos of 2016 5-a side anti-racist football tournament at Barnsley FC. Pics by Ian Parker and Brian Clarke. More photos at Barnsley Community Support Centre site.

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.’”