We demand Mears provide free WiFi in all of their housing urgently, so that residents can contact support workers, lawyers, family in other countries, access medical information, education and entertainment.
The Mears Housing Group, an outsourcing company working in housing management and home care, are the UK’s biggest refugee landlord, who have three 10-year asylum accommodation contracts from the Home Office worth a total £1.15 billion from when the contracts started.
People seeking Asylum in the UK, who live in these homes, are now under ‘lockdown’ due to Covid-19. There is not wireless internet provided in Mears Housing for residents, leaving them disconnected from the outside world, and unable to access medical information, or online resources for home schooling. They are not allowed to work, so would not be able to pay for a WiFi connection. Being locked down in poor housing is creating a high risk of mental health problems from social isolation. People seeking asylum who live in these properties in South Yorkshire have reported to us that they have asked Mears for WiFi, but this has not been granted.
One resident was due to have a tribunal appeal this week, and therefore needs to be in close contact with her lawyer. Her partner (who she does not live with) is seriously ill in hospital with CV19. She said, “We struggle with sorting everything and when we buy data for our phones it runs out very quickly. With Wifi we can watch things on our phones and not feel so lonely and isolated. WE need to access e mails to communicate with our lawyers. I am afraid of missing important, urgent e mails.
We also need to keep up to date with everything that is going on and changes with what we are allowed to do, and not supposed to do.”
Many residents of Mears housing usually spend a lot of their days out of the home, volunteering and involved in community projects. Now locked away without access to these communities, this creates a very high risk of mental health issues.
We demand Mears provide free WiFi in all of their housing urgently, so that residents can contact support workers, lawyers, family in other countries, access medical information, education and entertainment.
On Tuesday 24th March, a representative of Mears Housing said that Mears are currently ‘assessing comms needs’ for residents. Provision of free WiFi for those without any income can only be a good thing. People who have no income, and cannot take out a mobile phone contract, cannot use mobile data, which is very costly. Many residents have previously used libraries and public WiFi which they now cannot access. We are concerned that Mears may use evidence that some have used internet elsewhere, or spent any money they do have on costly mobile internet, to avoid paying for WiFi routers in these homes. We ask them to immediately install WiFi routers, that cover the whole house, and with enough bandwidth for the number of residents in each property.
Sign the petition here https://www.change.org/p/mears-housing-don-t-cut-us-off-mears-install-wifi-internet-in-all-asylum-housing?lang=en-GB
The appalling, overcrowded, unhygienic housing offered to some asylum seekers and their young children is putting them at especial risk of Covid-19. A refusal of insanitary accommodation leads to threats of homelessness. John Grayson of South Yorkshire Migration & Asylum Action Group investigates the reality in Leeds, Halifax and Wakefield.
Helen ‘I don’t want to stay in that haunted house’
Helen is from South Asia with a 13-month-old daughter Debbie, she rang me late in the afternoon on Wednesday 18 March because she had been taken from Urban House to a mother and toddler ‘unit’ in Leeds. She was distraught, saying the Mears housing manager had said she could not refuse to stay there and had left her saying she would return the next morning. Helen said, ‘I don’t want to stay in that haunted house’.
I went to Leeds the next morning to wait for the manager and tell her that Helen had the right to refuse the accommodation. Arriving at a Victorian villa in the suburbs of Leeds I realised that four years ago, in March 2015 I was at this same Victorian villa just after G4S had leased the former student accommodation from a developer.
I met five of the mothers in the building in the first floor ‘lounge’, all of them spoke some English, some were fluent. Hazel was holding a kettle full of boiling water. ‘We have had no hot water in here for two months. I am just going to fill a bath for my baby. We have reported and reported it, nobody in Mears does anything. The housing manager says she has reported it.’
Helen pointed to the dirty carpet, ‘I am frightened for my baby on that carpet. She is already ill with a vomiting sickness’. Kelly said, ’We have to put down bed sheets over the carpet so our children can crawl and play here. We vacuum regularly but this carpet needs a proper deep clean – or changing for a new one.’
I remembered the building and asked if I could look around. I told them I was trying to improve the conditions and they were happy to show me round. The room allocated to Helen was tiny and there was another small bedroom but many of the rooms were quite large. Bathrooms and toilets were grubby, and very old, internal window frames rotten. One shower was broken and very dirty. There were a couple of vacant rooms so probably about 18 mothers, babies and toddlers are resident there.
Downstairs, what I remembered as the playroom (four years ago) was now simply packed with buggies with a space for a sofa. Drying washing was piled on a radiator near the main door. ‘We keep the kitchens as clean as we can do’, said Kelly. Hazel pointed to a closed bag full of dirty nappies in the corner of the first-floor lounge, ‘There are no special bins for the nappies.’ Beth joined in the discussion on hygiene. ‘Every child in this place is on antibiotics for some infection or other. My own child recently had mumps. Thank goodness no other children have got it from him.’
Sewage, rats and a dead fox
Our conversation was interrupted by two workmen coming into the hallway. One of them asked, ‘Do you know where we can get into the cellars?’ I asked if they were there to repair the boiler. ‘No, we’ve been told they are flooded.
A few minutes later Steve and Joe (not their real names) returned. Steve said, ‘The cellar is not flooded with water, it’s sewage down there.’ Joe said, ‘You can come round the back with us if you want and take photos of the cellar. There must be dozens of rats here. I saw their holes all round the building. I’ll take some photos for you. There’s a dead rotting fox in the outhouse near the front door. I’ve taken a picture of that too.Those babies and toddlers should not be living in this place, it should be closed down.’
I remembered that Helen had told me she had seen a rat the night before. Steve and Joe were independent sub-contractors for Mears, and they rang and reported the sewage. I asked them to report the hot water problems at the same time. Over an hour later, two Mears workers arrived asking if anyone knew how to get into the boiler room.
Eventually the Mears housing manager Fiona (not her real name) arrived determined to make sure Helen accepted the room. I asked her about the hot water and the rats. ‘I have reported the hot water. The rats are outside the building not inside and I reported them.’ I asked her if she would be happy for her own two-year-old to be living in the building. ‘Alright,’ she said, ‘I will report the rats again.’
For the next few hours Helen and I negotiated with Fiona’s managers at Mears to try and get Helen alternative accommodation. A compromise was reached where Mears managers agreed to move Helen with her baby to one of the many hotels they are using for those waiting for a move to accommodation.
I sent my report on the ‘unit’ immediately to the constituency workers of the local MP Alex Sobel. They sent me the response they received from Mears, denying all my claims and those of the independent contractors. Here are relevant sections dated 20 March:
We have a newly recruited resident welfare manager on patch, X who has visited the property every other day over the last 2 weeks and spent time 121 getting to know the residents and children. I held a small steering group last week to collect resident thoughts and feedback and again this Monday [16 March], there were no concerns raised about lack of provision, we are continuing to monitor this alongside the children centre and react accordingly.
The cellar flooded due to bad weather and we believe food waste being placed down sinks, nappies and wipes being thrown into the toilet also. Yorkshire Water removed the blockages two weeks ago (emphases mine)
So … Mears says that all the mothers I spoke to and the independent contractors were … lying?
The Leeds mother and toddler ‘unit’ and the children in there have had to endure the poor hygiene and lack of hot water at a time when a national health emergency was unfolding. A similarly worrying situation had developed at Urban House IAC (Initial Accommodation Centre) in Wakefield.
‘How do we wash our hands with no soap in the bathrooms?’
Our South Yorkshire Migration & Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) had organised discussions with twelve of the residents of Urban House in early February. Further contacts and discussions were held and testimony recorded with eighteen new people on 4 March. These discussions, often through our interpreter, were dominated again by worries over food for children, bed-bug infestation, health care and constant references to poor hygiene in the bathrooms and showers in the older parts of the 310-bed hostel.
One couple who came out to see us said they were moving on the next day. David, from the Middle East, said, ‘We have had bed bugs in our room. We have been bitten for all the 56 days we have been in Urban House.’ Most of those who gave us testimony had been in Urban House for months. The majority of the people we spoke to were women. One told us of an operation in her country where the surgeon told her to avoid infections and gave her medication. She told us, ‘I am terrified of going to the dirty toilets and I cannot get my medication renewed in Urban House. I am sure my vaginal infection is getting worse.’ Another woman was crying, ‘I have had to leave my two small children in my country, I cry all the time. I am desperate. I need medication and counselling support. The nurse at Urban House just said “try not to think about your children”.’
With the women, whom we met in the town centre, we looked online to find an NHS walk-in centre. We found one a few streets away. Kay said, ‘Let’s go there now, they are open until 10 tonight. we will sit and wait there and ask to be treated.’ Four of the women went off to the NHS centre, I learned later that some went the next day and all were treated.
Hygiene in Urban House was raised again and again. Some of the people, who had given us testimony before, had sent dated video and photo material showing that there was no soap dispenser in the women’s bathroom in the oldest part of the hostel where they all lived. The soap foam dispensers were also empty in the men’s bathroom. Kay, who had taken some of the videos, said, ‘We are really worried about the coronavirus. They put notices up to tell us to wash our hands – and there is no soap!’
Lucy’s parents ‘We are worried about coronavirus spreading in this crowded place’
Whilst I was writing this piece (on Sunday 22 March) I received a text message from a couple, Frank and Yvonne with a two-year-old daughter, Lucy, who had been moved to Urban House from a London hostel six days before. Frank wrote of his worries about coronavirus and the dirty carpet in their room ‘because my daughter puts her hand on the ground and then puts in her mouth’. Frank sent me a picture of the bed sheet they had to put on the floor of the room to allow their daughter to play. Of the bathroom and toilets, he wrote, ‘these places are so dirty, and we cannot use them’.
Frank said they had a washbasin in their room and some soap. Frank emphasised his fears ‘due to the high risk of coronavirus spreading in this crowded place. This situation is very scary.’ There was, he said, one other family with a small daughter in Urban House.
Gemma’s parents ‘We were already in an asylum house and they sent us here’
On Monday 23 March I was sent another text, this time from Bill inside Urban House. ’My daughter is seven years old could you help me? We were in a refugee house in Newcastle for two weeks, then five days ago they brought us here. I don’t know why they did that.’
So a family with a seven-year-old child is taken from an asylum house, where they could presumably self-isolate, to a crowded Urban House with 300 people.
A question for the Home Office
Why was two-year-old Lucy transported 185 miles from London by the Home Office to a high-risk ‘crowded place’, Urban House in Wakefield, at a time when the government was advising against travel and for families to stay at home and to avoid ‘crowded places’? People seeking asylum presently in the UK surely have the same rights as all of us to try and stay safe in their homes, even in hostels, when faced with the threats from Covid-19. The Home Office apparently does not think so.
‘He said I had no choice … you can stay outside’
May is 62 years old and has severe arthritis, asthma and a depressive illness. She came to the UK from the Middle East in October 2019 to reunite with her son, who is settled in Yorkshire. May claimed asylum and in December the Red Cross advised her to apply to go to Urban House IAC in Wakefield, where she would wait until the Home Office could find asylum housing accommodation suitable for her needs as a disabled person. May spent three months in Urban House (the Home Office says people should spend no longer than three to four weeks there). She was regularly told by Migrant Help and Mears that they were trying to find her suitable accommodation, if possible near to her son.
I went to see May on Saturday 21 March in her Mears house in Halifax, 52 miles away from her son. May told me through an interpreter, ‘I was brought here on 3 March from Urban House around 11 in the morning. It was a very rainy day. I was shown my room, a tiny room up two flights of very narrow stairs, by the Mears manager. I said I cannot stay here up all those stairs. He said I had no choice, “If that’s your choice you can stay outside. You have to sign and stay here.”’
I was crying and asking him ‘please take me back to Urban House’. He said, ‘go yourself but it will cost you £40.Then he left and locked the door. Someone saw me in the rain, and they called a taxi to take me to the police station. After hours waiting, around 6 pm, the police told me that if I was homeless, I had to go back to my Mears house. The police said they had rung Urban House and they said I had to take the room. The police brought me back here in their police car.’
‘Since then I have rung Migrant Help many times. Two weeks ago, they said I would have to sign and accept the place, or I would lose my NASS support and money. I signed. They said they would make an assessment. They rang me then and said they were looking to find a place near my son. That was two weeks ago and nothing from them since.’
May very slowly showed me to her tiny attic room, up really difficult stairs. The bathroom was on the floor below – the shower was broken. ‘Just over a week ago I fell down the stairs, I still have bruises all over.’
May was denied her rights under the asylum contract
The Home Office contracts since 2012, even though outsourced, have had to conform to all statutory equalities and safeguarding legislation. They also include some protection for tenants to prevent them being allocated accommodation which is ‘unfit for purpose’ and unfit for their medical or disability needs. (see attached section on Contract Requirements)
May had a perfect right to refuse the property. Mears should have immediately tried to find another more suitable property or at the very least, taken her to one of the many hotels where Mears have places, to wait for a suitable property.
Uncaring treatment of people trying to get a safe home
Researching the Mears asylum contracts in Yorkshire over the past few weeks, people have told me of the uncaring treatment they receive when they leave Urban House, and how they then face unacceptable accommodation, and are threatened by Mears staff that they will ‘be on the streets’ if they don’t accept the property.
Paul is from the Middle East and while at Urban House he was diagnosed with a serious medical condition in a nearby Wakefield hospital, and sent urgently for tests and medication to a specialist unit in Leeds. His consultant at the Leeds unit said in a letter sent to Mears on 21 February and later to the Home Office, that Paul was at ‘serious risk of opportunistic infection’. What are his chances of avoiding that?
On Thursday 27 February Paul was picked up at Urban House and taken to an address in Leeds. At the front door he was greeted with piles of household waste overflowing from bins. The front door was damaged and would not close and lock. His room door had a damaged lock. The kitchen was very dirty and unusable. Paul sent me mobile phone pictures and I said I would go the next day. Paul was with a friend at the house when I arrived, he said, ‘I could not stay here last night; it would have been too dangerous for me. My friend says I can stay over the weekend … When I came the woman from Mears said I had to stay here, I could not refuse. She said that they would repair the doors and then I would have to stay.’
Paul showed me the kitchen. ‘I need to cook for myself, there is no real cooker and that (pointing to a table-top cooker full of grease and dirt) would make me ill. The carpet is full of stains and old food. …I waited all day yesterday from 10 am right through to 7 pm when the repair men came. I had rung Migrant Help every couple of hours. They said I had to wait for the repair men and if wanted to move I had to send a doctor’s letter for the Home Office to consider a move to another house which would take some time.’
We went upstairs. ‘I could never use the shower here. They had brought a new mattress and pushed it into my small room with the bed and old mattress … The Mears woman came when the repairs were done and told me to stay. I rang my friend and he came for me.’
For the next thirteen days, Paul was homeless, sleeping at any friends’ who would help him. He constantly rang Migrant Help. I emailed and rang all the Mears management I had contacts with. Paul’s doctors emailed Mears and the Home Office.
The doctors were very clear about the hazards of the house offered to Paul. This is what they said: ‘It is important that he is able to cook his own meals to keep his strength up in a clean environment. Possible exposure to any bacteria will be disastrous for this man as his own immunity is unable to fight off infection. His current property is surrounded by uncollected household waste that could also make him vulnerable to exposure to bacteria.’
Paul was panicked by being homeless. On the evening of 6 March, he rang me. ‘If I get a cold I will die. I am homeless.’ On 12 March Mears finally contacted Paul to say they would move him to a house in Leeds on Monday 16 March, later changed to Tuesday 17 March. Paul rang me from the new property. ‘They say I have to stay here in a shared house with another man, I cannot refuse.’
A heated conversation followed between Paul, me and the managers of Cascade Housing (subcontractors for Mears in Leeds). It was only when I threatened to find a solicitor for Paul to contact the Home Office that they agreed to move the other man to another property. Paul rang me the next day. ‘It’s ok here in the two-bedroomed house. Mears staff came here and said they would look for a single flat for me. I have cleaned the place and I feel safe now.’
Perhaps it is worth quoting the Mears ‘Service Users Handbook’:
If you require any specialist care, you may be provided with a support plan. Your support plan will be reviewed regularly, and other people may attend reviews if appropriate, such as a social worker.
If you feel at any time that you would like to review your support plan and the review is not due, you can speak to your Housing Manager and they will organise this for you.
We will work with you to agree a support plan that meets your needs.
If there is anything in your support plan that you disagree with, you can ask for your comments to be included in the plan.
The very first time that any Mears housing manager came to see Paul face to face was Wednesday 19 March – nineteen days after they placed him in a house which would have been a real threat to his life. Death in the time of Covid-19?
At lunchtime today (25 March) SYMAAG received this message:
‘My friend who is a asylum seeker is in hostel in Wakefield urban house.
I’m concerned for their welfare. Three people are sharing a room and the cooking facilities seems like a dining hall (crowded easily) from his description.
Doesn’t seem like they are any precautions.’
At the same time, I was sent the below image from a mobile phone inside Urban House of lunch today. There seems to be no attempt by staff in Urban House to have social distancing in the queue or in seating arrangements.
This article was first published by Institute of Race Relations at http://www.irr.org.uk/news/asylum-in-the-time-of-covid-19/. See original article for photos
‘We could take this place, which is like a prison, for three or four weeks but not for months and months’ – Barry, a businessman from the Middle East
I was sitting in a café in the centre of Wakefield having a discussion (through an interpreter) over coffee, with a group of professional workers from the Middle East who had claimed asylum in the UK. They were cataloguing, sometimes in perfect English, the grim reality of the UK asylum system and their everyday experience of an asylum hostel just ten minutes’ walk away.
Over the past two weeks I have had similar discussions, face to face or by phone/text, with twelve residents of the Urban House Initial Accommodation Centre, sited on Love Lane, under the walls of Wakefield high security prison near the city centre.
What are IACs?
Initial Accommodation Centres (IACs) or hostels, sometimes called reception centres, are situated in ‘dispersal areas’ where shared houses and flats are provided for asylum seekers. There are IACs in Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, London, Derby, Cardiff and Wakefield. Wakefield’s Urban House is run by the Urban Housing company, subcontracting from Mears. People wait in IACs or in overspill hotels to be ‘dispersed’ to asylum housing.
Through the testimony of the twelve residents it is clear that conditions in the Wakefield centre have continued to deteriorate since autumn 2019, when Mears and Migrant Help began delivering the AASC (Asylum Accommodation and Support Contracts) and AIRE (Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility) contracts respectively.
The food is horrible
‘The food is horrible, the same breakfast every single day. Porridge often burnt. Soft white bread, no toast, A little butter and jam. There is no special food for children.’ Anne, nutritionist from the Middle East
Anne was one of the residents of Urban House at the café discussion, as was Kathy, a young teacher from the Middle East. Kathy told me, ‘I have been in Urban House for over a hundred days, since last October. The food is the same every single day and very poor. Children as young as two and four years have to eat the same food as adults. They have to eat very spicy food which they often refuse
June, a young businesswoman, said ‘If you want a snack between 6.30 pm at the end of dinner and 7 am the next day there is nothing. When mothers ask for snacks for their children, they are given half a tiny sandwich for each child.’
The provisions on food services in the Mears Group contract with the Home Office are specific and have been totally ignored in Urban House.
‘2.3.6 If ‘full board’ Accommodation is supplied by the Provider for any Service User, the full board food service shall comprise complete and adequate provisions for pregnant women, nursing mothers, babies and young children, for whom three daily meals may not be sufficient, and people who need special diets e.g. gluten free. Religious dietary requirements must also be catered for.
2.3.7 …The Provider shall take proactive steps to try and ascertain whether a Service User has specific dietary needs, and shall respond …’
Anne tells me about a woman who has recently had a baby in the local hospital and was then returned to the centre. ‘When she was pregnant there was no special food for her, even though the midwife asked them to provide some.
‘The baby is now a month old and no one, since the first few days, has come into the centre to support the mother. She does go to the hospital and she has nappies. She is very upset because she has only been given secondhand baby clothes which are too big for her baby girl. Mother and father and the baby are forced to live in a small room which now has bed bugs and other insects in the bed sheets.’
‘You must wait until you have an asylum house, then you can see a GP’
Anne tells me, ‘A 4-year-old girl was in here for two months. She had an accident and seriously injured her mouth. The child needed medical attention because she simply could not eat. The nurses gave her an antibiotic and that was it.’ Anne also told me about a man suffering from coeliac disease who was in Urban House. ‘He asked for a gluten-free diet, they simply ignored him. We also told him to go to the nurses. They told him he would have to wait until he was in an asylum house and registered with a GP to get treatment. Allowing coeliac disease to go untreated is very dangerous, something should have been done.’
Again, the Home Office contract is clear on what Mears and the Urban Housing company should do in the case of illness of residents:
‘Where a Service User is taken ill during Service provision, the Provider shall ensure that access to medical treatment is made available (including, if required, the attendance of appropriate medical staff), and if necessary shall take the Service User to hospital. The Provider shall notify the Authority (the Home Office) as soon as possible from taking the decision to provide access to medical treatment or to take a Service User to hospital.’
In our café discussion James, an engineer from the Middle East speaking fluent English, recalled two cases of elderly men whose acute medical problems had been ignored in Urban House. ‘One old man in his 70s had a very visible eye disease and he had smashed his glasses somewhere on his journey. He was virtually blind and really needed urgent treatment and help. The nurses said he would have to wait till he got to an asylum house. He spent two long months here. I think they gave him pain killers and an antibiotic pill.’
‘Another old man, I think again over 70, had no teeth and had infections in his mouth. He was here for two months as well, often he simply could not eat any of the food he was given. He was given the same response by the nurses: “You will be registered with a GP when you go to your asylum house.”’
There are three nurses’ stations in Urban House which cover 300 residents from 9 am to 5 pm. Then there is no medical cover till 9 am the next day. James said, ‘People from a range of countries, very few speaking much English, are told to go to the one member of staff on the doors all night to report a medical emergency, or to themselves ring 999 or 111.’
The nursing staff are part of an NHS-commissioned ‘Health Integration Team’ whose responsibilities are described very precisely, as ‘health checks; interpreting service; minor ailment clinics; TB clinic’. This may be adequate medical support if people were in Urban House for the three to four weeks the Home Office suggests is normal, but is woefully inadequate when stays of two, three and four months have become common.
No fire drills, fire notices only in English, fire exits locked
Kathy told me, ‘Almost every night fire alarms go off. Everybody ignores them. We have never had a fire practice. There is a fire notice in all rooms but only in English, and fire exits are locked.’
At the time when Urban House was called Angel Lodge, the IAC was closed down because of fire risks and the owners were fined for breaches of fire safety regulations in 2011. Very little seems to have changed.
Bitten by bed bugs
Later, on a visit to the road outside Urban House (visitors and most charities and agencies are not allowed into the building) I spoke (through an interpreter) to Ken, who had to stay with his wife in a room infested with bed bugs. ‘I was bitten all around my neck. There are bed bugs in a lot of the rooms. The worst rooms are in the old part of the building. When people come in to look around, they are never taken to that part
‘We came in here in November, we had to stay with the bed bugs for weeks. They came and sprayed, they just sprayed where we had seen the bugs and insects, a really small area. Finally, they moved us to the tiniest of rooms. There are two beds and no floor area even to walk around. Many people come and get bigger rooms, but we seem to have been forgotten – or punished for complaining about the bed bugs.’
The failures of Migrant Help
Migrant Help has an office in Urban House and has a central role connecting the residents with the Home Office for necessary paperwork to allow them to move on to asylum housing. Support is means-tested, and Migrant Help assesses and processes applications. Migrant Help is also a crucial link in the official contract complaints procedure:
‘126.96.36.199 With particular reference to complaints, the Provider (Mears/Urban Housing) shall:
notify the AIRE Provider (Migrant Help) of any complaint where the Provider is informed of a complaint directly by Service Users, on the same day on which the Provider is made aware of the complaint, in accordance with the requirements set out in Annex H of this Schedule 2;
inform the Service User and AIRE Provider of the outcome of the action in response to the complaint, and any subsequent action to be taken …’
In the café discussion, the businessman Barry said, ‘Always we had complaints about the food, the bed bugs, the heating, but mainly about the months and months waiting here in these conditions. When we have applied for Home Office support no one is getting a reply letter. Migrant Help tell us letters must have been lost. Then we get a letter telling us we are to be moved to shared housing on a date. We get ready and nothing happens. Ten days ago, Migrant Help shut their door. They have refused now to talk about conditions or help us.’
Resistance in the asylum system
Sit-downs and protests in Urban House
Migrant Help’s failure to carry out its responsibilities for complaints sparked a peaceful process on 30 January, when 50 residents gathered outside the (locked) door of Migrant Help’s office. James told me about a similar protest outside the Urban House office of Migrant Help on 4 December. ‘There were around 100 of us, we wanted something done about the long wait for people forced to stay in the centre and about conditions here. We all sat down peacefully and refused to move until we got some answers. Migrant Help rang for the police who arrived quickly. The Migrant Help man then told the police that we had been violent, trying to break down the doors. He did not realise that some of us spoke and understood English. When he had finished, I spoke calmly to the police explaining what actually happened. They seemed quite happy with this and left.’
Kathy added to James’s account. ‘I have been here now since October 2019. After the protest we have been treated like criminals. There are uniformed security guards watching us. One always stands with his arms folded in the canteen at mealtimes. It is just like a prison.’
Protests and petitions in the hotels
When I spoke with Terry, a design manager, in January, he told me about a protest in November in a West Yorkshire hotel. ‘There were over a hundred of us put in a hotel. The food was dreadful, the rooms were dirty, and nobody seemed to be cleaning them. There was nothing for the children to do. We complained a lot to the reception staff, but nothing was done so we organised a large protest and demanded the manager come and speak to us. She came and was very nervous and I think frightened, although it was a very peaceful crowd. From then on things changed. She became very nice to us. The food improved and the manager brought lots of toys and gave a room as a playroom for the children.’
In another West Yorkshire hotel, a petition was organised in December which was sent directly to the Home Office on 13 January:
Dear Home Office
We are asylum seekers staying at the … hotel. We are very grateful for your help to us. We live in a hotel now.
Unfortunately, we don’t have an activity, we can’t use the washing machine for our clothes. Most of us don’t have the resources to buy necessary things, even for the children. We are far from the city, from the Red Cross from… We are also far from Mosques, Churches and synagogues. We cannot use mobile communication because we do not have money. That’s why it is difficult for us to contact our lawyers, only (sic) the internet.
Many people live here for 3 months
Please help us!
The petition was signed with their full names and signatures by nineteen of the hotel residents.
Why the protests and resistance?
I have been researching and writing about asylum housing in Yorkshire since 2011. I have also written about Urban House over the same period. This is the very first time that I have witnessed large-scale peaceful protests and spoken to those involved. The Home Office and the Mears Group, I am sure, were assuming that people in Urban House and the 800 people in hotels across West Yorkshire and Hull would be too frightened to protest, thinking that protests would influence their asylum claims.
The long delays in getting to their asylum housing, the really poor conditions in Urban House and some of the hotels, and crucially, the fact that nobody in their position receives any money at all – simply full board hostel or hotel accommodation – has angered people, in particular families with children.
My discussions with residents about conditions in Urban House and in the hotels return constantly to anxieties about the safety of children in the hotels, the effect of insufficient nutritious food for children, inadequate health care for children and pregnant women, and that charities have been prevented from bringing clothes, toiletries and gifts of toys and children’s clothes into the hotels and into Urban House.
A young woman I talked to outside Urban House was distressed about the fact that she had been in Urban House for three months and that her auto-immune disease which resulted in a serious skin condition had never been treated – she had to wait to get a GP until she was in an asylum house. She was equally distressed because she had very few clothes with her when she arrived at Urban House and no money at all to buy new ones. ‘I did manage to find some nice clothes which a charity gave me. Urban House staff refused to allow me to bring the clothes into the centre. They said all charity things were banned.’
It is this fundamental disrespect and lack of understanding and care for people on their journey through the asylum system which triggered the petitions, the sit-downs and protests.
The Mears Group’s response
I sent a detailed list of questions to Juliet Halstead, Head of Partnerships at Mears, citing the allegations in the testimonies from residents of Urban House. Ms Halstead was Head of Housing for G4S under the COMPASS contracts for asylum housing prior to her job at Mears.
Ms Halstead totally rejected all the allegations, here are some examples.
The photo you have sent through does not represent what we provide for breakfast. Breakfast is served between 8.00am – 10.00am and consists of Cornflakes, Porridge, Weetabix, Eggs and toast plus Tea and Coffee.
On food for children and special diets:
Our menus are varied and have been designed and agreed by a qualified dietician who has signed them off as being nutritionally appropriate for our client group of all ages. For children we provide age appropriate food. We also cater for any SU’s with special dietary needs (Gluten free etc.) or medical conditions
In answer to my question ‘Why is Urban House infested with bed bugs? Why is a one-month-old baby kept in a small room with her parents, a room infested with bed bugs?’ Ms Halstead responded:
The building is inspected regularly by Mears / Urban House staff and there is no recurring issue with Bedbugs. We have seen small outbreaks on rare occasions in the past and following investigation it has transpired that the infestation has been brought into the building in clothing / belongings of new arrivals.
Ms Halstead’s response does not appear to follow the procedures, agreed when her company won the £ 1.15 billion contract, for ‘pro-active monitoring of service users’. Did she ask the residents in Urban House whether the allegations were accurate?
Here is the relevant section of the Requirements for the contracts:
‘2.17 Service User Experience
2.17.1 The Provider (MEARS) shall proactively monitor Service User experience of Provider services. The Provider shall provide quarterly reports to the Authority on the effectiveness of their approach, and the Authority may review and/or audit the approach at any time, and make recommendations to improve its effectiveness and/or efficiency.’
Maybe Mears were afraid that actually asking the people in Urban House might have produced a result which could have led to Home Office fines or other sanctions, under the contract:
‘2.17.3 Where the Authority consider the outputs of the proactive monitoring of Service User experience to indicate a systemic issue or persistent shortfalls in service delivery against the specified standards on the part of the Provider, the Authority may require the Provider to develop and implement a Remedial Plan, in accordance with the provisions of Schedule 7 (Contract Management).’
This article was published on 13 February at http://www.irr.org.uk/news/like-a-prison-discussions-with-people-inside-urban-house-initial-accommodation-centre-wakefield/
Complaints about conditions in Urban House Initial Accommodation in Wakefield have been mounting over the past weeks and months. Dirty toilets and washrooms, overcrowding, very poor food and above all the long wait to be sent to shared housing.
On January 30th at 10am 50 people housed at Urban House bravely protested at conditions there. And the fact that there were people stuck in these conditions for 5 months – the Home Office contract says that Mears should keep people in Urban House only for a few weeks. Initial Accommodation is – as its name suggests – temporary hostel accommodation before people seeking asylum are allocated asylum housing.
Urban House Initial Accommodation centre and asylum housing in Yorkshire, Humberside and the north east is run by the Mears Group as part of a Home Office 10 year £1.15 billion contract.
Currently Mears has failed to provide private housing in various parts of Yorkshire and the North East on time.This means that between 600 and 900 asylum seekers with many children, are stuck for months in Urban House hostel and hotels across West Yorkshire with no money at all.
John Grayson investigated conditions there in 2014. One person said they felt “warehoused” there, with overcrowding, inadequate food, contemptuous staff and long waits to be properly housed. At that time Urban House was run by notorious security company G4S. When G4S lost the contract to run asylum housing in 2019 we and asylum tenants celebrated. Although the new 10 year asylum housing contract in our region went to another private company, Mears, we assumed it couldn’t be worse than G4S.
After hearing Urban House residents’ concerns, John Grayson has put the following questions to Mears management. We hope and expect they will be investigated promptly.
Why is everyone in Urban House including young children given every day this breakfast: Porridge often burnt. Soft white bread, no toast, A little butter and jam. There is no special food for children why? Why no cereals and milk? Why is there never any warm milk available for children?
Why are children as young as 2 and 4 years old given only spicy food and rice for their dinners which they cannot eat?
Why are there no adequate snacks available particularly for children from 6.30 pm at the end of dinner to 7am the beginning of breakfast.
Why is Urban House infested with bed bugs? Why is a one month old baby kept in a small room with her parents, a room infested with bed bugs?
Why is there no medical cover for 300 people from 5pm to 9am the next day ?
Why do the nurses at Urban House refuse to refer people from Urban House with serious acute and chronic medical conditions to General Practice doctors or to local hospitals.There have been elderly men in their seventies in Urban House with serious acute medical problems for 2 months treated with painkillers and occasional antibiotics.
Why are vulnerable single women forced to stay up to 4 months in Urban House waiting for their asylum housing? Many of the residents including children have been there two months.The contract with Mears says people should be there for three weeks.
Our friend Simba needs your help. He is gravely ill and in no physical state to leave the house, but tomorrow the Home Office have demanded he attends Vulcan House, the Sheffield Home Office building, at 6 Millsands, Sheffield, S3 8NU. Those who do not attend face the risk detention. Simba has asked for as many people as possible to meet outside Vulcan House from 10am tomorrow morning (Monday 27th January), before his appointment at 10:30am.
Simba has been living in the UK for 17 years, but has not been able to gain leave to remain as a Zimbabwean – a struggle many Zimbabweans have been facing, which we spoke out about last year when the UK Government brought in Zimbabwean Government officials to interrogate Zimbabwean asylum seekers.
Simba has wants to highlight the way borders exist in the NHS, and the system of detention. For the Home Office to demand attendance from someone who has so recently experienced massive head trauma is cruel and unjust. When the Home Office invites people to sign, it usually mentions the threat of detention if they do not, a message that one of our campaigners in Wakefield said last week, fills him with anxiety. Whilst ‘seriously ill people’ should not be detained under Home Office policy, they frequently are and are likely to deteriorate fast if so.
Please stand with Simba tomorrow, either in person or on the petition and fundraiser. Last February 200 people protested outside Vulcan House to support Marian Machekanyanga and other Zimbabweans threatened with detention and deportation. Simba was one of them. Now he needs your support.
Migrants Organise who are coordinating Simba’s campaign have requested that people bring any banners, and write demands from the petition on card or paper to bring with them. Please spread the word.
See you at Vulcan House (Sheffield Home Office) 6 Millsands Sheffield S3 8NU tomorrow Monday 27 January at 10am
Sheffield march and demonstration Saturday 18 January 12.30pm
Meet bottom of The Moor near Moor Market S1 4PF at 12.30 and march to Sheffield Town Hall for a rally at 1pm
“I was lucky to find safety in the UK before Libya erupted into chaos following the fall of Gadaffi” says one of the march organisers Mihreteab Kidane. Now people who’ve lost their money and nearly their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean find themselves in a country that is incapable of safeguarding them from exploitation and abuse”.
Tell the people of Sheffield and the Council what is going on in Libya. Join us and march alongside SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) the Eritrean and other refugee communities in Sheffield.
Thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded in horrendous detention centres in Libya facing an early death, torture, rape or being sold as slaves. There are no UNCHR camps in Libya. The European Union (including for now the British government) is stopping asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean by working in partnership with the Libyan coastguard and militias. As a result, people seeking asylum in Europe are trapped trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.The consequences of EU migration policy should, as the charity Médecins Sans Frontières puts it, “shock the collective conscience of Europe’s citizens and elected leaders”.
Many of those stranded in Libya are fleeing persecution and conflicts from Eritrea, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, etc. In Sheffield members of these communities are in daily contact with the detention camps and have family, friends and relatives dying in Libya.
We support their demands to
Rescue the stranded. Save lives.
Give them safe routes to asylum in Europe.
To tell the British government to agree to take a percentage of those crossing the Mediterranean as other countries have done.
Mears Group took over asylum housing provision in Yorkshire from G4S this year. “It can’t get any worse” was the reaction of many asylum tenants. Were they wrong? John Grayson looks at life for an asylum seeking family in Rotherham
‘That’s where the rats get in.’ April [all names have been changed] was showing me round the kitchen in her Rotherham asylum house. I was visiting her with a volunteer interpreter to investigate reports that the family was in real difficulties. The visit confronted me with the worst case of neglect by an asylum housing provider I have encountered in my research and campaigning on asylum housing over the past seven years.
April and her husband Alan, who are of short stature, have a 6-month-old baby Rose who has a hole in her heart, and two other disabled daughters: tiny 7-year-old Sue, and 3-year-old Kelly, both of them have short stature and multiple health issues, including kidney problems. The family is from the Middle East seeking asylum and safety in the UK.
Since May 2019 the family has been forced to live in a house, totally unsuitable, in fact hostile to their disabilities and miscellaneous health needs. It floods regularly, water comes through the door and windows, mould grows on the wall and there are rats in the kitchen.
‘They said if I did not go into the house then I would be put on the streets’
April told me (via the interpreter), ‘they brought me, my new baby and disabled daughters from the Birmingham hostel to here. When I was in hospital after the birth someone came and asked me where I would like to live. I said my baby was born in Birmingham so I would stay in Birmingham. The person said that they would find me a flat for my kind of family. Then they came to the hostel and brought me, my new baby and my two disabled daughters to this house. When I saw the house, I told them I did not want to live there. They said if I did not go into the house then I would be put on the streets.’
She continued: ‘They sent me to the hostel in Wakefield when I was nearly due to have my baby and then moved me to the Birmingham hostel. Just before I was having my baby, they wanted to move me back to Wakefield, I said no’
With Kelly and Sue playing around us, April showed me over the house. In the living room, April pointed to damp and mould near the windows. ‘When it rains water comes through the window frame and under the door and the carpet gets very wet and my children cannot go on it’. April shows me the stains and water marks on the drying carpet.
Three-year-old Kelly says, in perfect, English, ‘I am tired.’ April states proudly, ‘Kelly goes to nursery and learns English now.’ Then through the sparsely furnished dining room, she points to a new washing machine and a fridge, still standing in their packing cases. ‘They came yesterday, we have not been able to wash clothes for weeks.’
‘That’s where the rats come in”
In the kitchen, April opens a cupboard under the sink. ‘That is where the rats come in.’ I ask April when she last saw a rat. ‘Last night it was a big one it came out of there.’ I had seen on the Visitation Log on the house notice board, that housing staff had visited on 23 and 26 November for ‘pest control’. It was now 7 December, and there was no evidence of closed poison boxes for the rats, or any other ‘control’ measures.
Outside the back door there was an abandoned toilet block, possibly one source of the rat infestation. There was a squalid backyard with rotting wooden decking leading to a large overgrown patch of weeds. This was the only outside play space for two young disabled girls with multiple medical conditions.
Living with disabilities in a Mears asylum house
April takes us all upstairs. ‘Alan and my son are in Croydon today. When they are here, there are six of us in these two rooms. There is only one small wardrobe for all of us.’ On the ceiling of the corridor are water marks from dripping water. In the bathroom April points to the toilet. ‘When we use the toilet, water leaks from the pipes into downstairs.’
April tells me, ‘I am very small, and I cannot carry my baby and watch my daughters up the stairs. Kelly has one leg shorter than the other with a twisted ankle and she fell down the stairs and broke her leg.’
April shows me reports from Sue and Kelly’s consultants at the Sheffield Children’s Hospital. The children have multiple medical needs and are undergoing tests and scans. The Children’s Hospital is eleven miles from April’s house. ‘I have no help with the travel expenses’, she tells me. ‘Alan and my son have never had any money. All of us have no ID cards.’
The ID or ARC (Application Registration Card), introduced in 2017, is given to every asylum seeker to acknowledge their asylum claim, and is at the centre of the everyday lives of asylum seekers. According to the Home Office, it ‘displays an individual’s claimed identity to third party organisations, where it is used for internal and external status checking to establish entitlement to services and the right to work.’ The ARC is also used by external bodies including the police and the NHS to verify identity details held by the Home Office.
I have never heard of a whole family denied ID cards for this long by the Home Office. April and her two daughters came to the UK in March 2019, baby Rose was born in Birmingham and Alan and their son Michael came later.
I ask April how she manages in the house. ‘The house is on hills and I cannot push the buggy with my baby and my disabled daughters. The only way I can reach the food cupboards in the kitchen is by standing on the chair. I have fallen off the chair twice. I cannot reach the sink or the cooker. Cooking is very dangerous for me.’
The Home Office, the Mears Group and outsourcing
For seven months, April has been forced to live in this unsuitable, hostile asylum house. No one has intervened to provide accommodation suitable for the family. The Visitation Log on the house notice board shows that Mears staff visited on 27 August, then not again till 1 October and then again on 12 November. Mears claim that their staff visit all their properties every fortnight. No one seems to have contacted the Home Office (which is ultimately responsible for placing the family in the house on a ‘no choice’ basis).
When April and her family were forced to take the house in May, G4S, the largest security company in the world, held the Home Office contract to provide asylum housing in Rotherham. In September, the Mears Group, an outsourcing company working in two sectors (housing management and home care) became the UK’s biggest refugee landlord, beginning three 10-year asylum accommodation contracts from the Home Office worth a total £1.15 billion. Mears is one of the UK’s biggest maintenance and repairs contractors, working on over 650,000 homes for councils and housing associations. Mears home care division provides care to 15,000 older and disabled people. The company employs 12,000 people. Mears is now responsible for asylum housing in Rotherham
In April’s house nothing changed when Mears took over. In fact, things got worse. South Yorkshire experienced the wettest November for many years and the damp walls, water leaks and sodden carpets in April’s house just got worse. April’s daughters with their weak immune systems and her baby with a hole in the heart had constant colds and infections.
Holding Mears Group to account
In the weeks leading up to the September takeover Mears Group staff spoke to voluntary sector ‘partners’ in South Yorkshire and stressed that they had experience as a company of the care sector, and would put care for their tenants, particularly vulnerable ones, in asylum housing at the top of their priorities. They said they would appoint specialist welfare officers to work with these tenants.
In the Mears ‘Service User Handbook’ for asylum housing tenants the following appears:
If you require any specialist care, you may be provided with a support plan. Your support plan will be reviewed regularly, and other people may attend reviews if appropriate, such as a social worker
If you feel at any time that you would like to review your support plan and the review is not due, you can speak to your Housing Manager and they will organise this for you.
We will work with you to agree a support plan that meets your needs.
If there is anything in your support plan that you disagree with, you can ask for your comments to be included in the plan.
In the Statement of Requirements for the Mears Group’s £1.15 billion ‘Asylum Accommodation and Support Contract’ with the Home Office, the following appears:
Disabled Persons or Service Users with specific needs
Accommodation for disabled persons must be fit for purpose and used for its intended purpose in compliance with relevant legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. The Provider shall ensure that the Accommodation and its associated facilities are accessible by the Service User, and, where necessary, it has appropriate adaptations to enable the Service User to live independently, or in accordance with a Local Authority assessment under the Care Act 2014.
Asylum housing contracts and the hostile environment
Over the past three months the record of the Mears Group in Yorkshire has been disappointing to tenants. In early November the Independent reported on the ‘failing’ Home Office contracts with ‘asylum seekers left with no heating in rat infested homes’.
The new contracts for asylum housing separated the reporting of repair needs from the main housing contractors. This irrational step has meant that the only number available to call about repairs in a national one — the central number for Migrant Help, a charity which has held Home Office contracts for asylum support and advice since 2014. In 2019 Migrant Help won the £100 million contract to run the Home Office system called Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility (AIRE) services, which includes the reporting of repairs. Since September, there have been continual massive delays in asylum tenants being able to report repairs to Migrant Help, to be passed on to Mears. Migrant Help puts the delays down to ‘teething problems’ and ‘high demand’.
In Sheffield, in a Mears ‘mother and toddler’ house which I have visited regularly, there have been four periods over the past two months when there has been no heating and no hot water. Residents told me that they spent literally days ringing the repair number to try and get the boiler fixed. At one stage mothers and their toddlers moved out to friends to keep their children warm. Ruth, a single parent with a 3-year-old, told me ‘I had nowhere else to go. It was very cold for us, I had to boil water to wash and bathe my son.’
The Mears contract is already failing asylum tenants in Yorkshire, like April and her family. Campaigners will get the family moved into more suitable accommodation. Hopefully Mears will monitor the housing conditions for their vulnerable asylum tenants with disabilities much more systematically in future.
I contacted the Mears Group press office on 10 December for their comments on the case of April’s family.
Simba Mujakachi, his father Victor and many other Zimbabweans living in Sheffield were threatened with deportation earlier this year. A huge campaign successfully defended them, securing the release of Victor and others from Morton Hall detention centre and halting the Home Office’s deportation plans.
The Home Office deliberately put pressure on the Zimbabwean community, with the prospect of deportation to a Zimbabwe still persecuting those protesting against the military dictatorship. Some people, like Marian Machekanyanga from SYMAAG, were interrogated by a Zimbabwean Embassy official at Vulcan House, invited by the Home Office.
During this incredibly stressful time Simba – a 30 year old fitness instructor – experienced a life-threatening stroke, which left him partially paralysed. Though he had no income he was charged over £100,000 by the NHS for the care he needed to save his life.
Simba’s case is not an isolated one – it’s a result of the hostile environment policy which denies people in our community the services and resources they need to live.
We have also invited General Election candidates from the main political parties in Sheffieldto respond to Simba’s experience of the hostile environment. We want them to tell us how they would end the hostile environment policy and answer your questions about how their parties will support the rights of people seeking asylum. It’s your chance to question and hold them to account.
We will hear about the impact of the hostile environment and together work to end to these policies. This will include a voter registration drive, as part of the Promote the Migrant Vote campaign, to support local communities to register and vote for the general election on December 12th.
Please come and show your support for Simba, his family and all the people suffering under the hostile environment, and to learn more about how we can win Justice for Simba, and end the hostile environment.
John Grayson and Victor Mujakachi look at solidarity, research and actions in Sheffield by people in the asylum system and their supporters.
I got out of Morton Hall because I spoke out loud largely through the efforts of friends, supporters, family, well-wishers, politicians and organisations with which I’m associated. It was through the strength of that level of publicity that I was released. What then is the fate of the voiceless group of men I left in there?
Victor on his release from Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) where he was awaiting removal to Zimbabwe
We are writing this joint article as colleagues working in solidarity alongside asylum seekers and refugees in South Yorkshire. We bring the experience of an academic activist researcher and the experience of an asylum seeker still without papers, after ten years resisting and surviving the UK’s deterrent reception policies.
A deterrent reception policy and a hostile environment Current political and racialised discourses in the UK demonise and dehumanise the ‘migrant’, the ‘asylum seeker’ and the ‘refugee’. Over the Christmas holidays 2018, there was a debate in the media and amongst British politicians about ‘migrants’ crossing the English Channel in small boats and whether they should be rescued. Home Secretary Sajid Javid warned the deployment (of Border Force ships) would “become a humanitarian and rescue mission and there’s a risk that kind of activity can encourage more people to cross the Channel”.
Simply letting people drown as a deterrent is perhaps the best example of the public, official, dehumanising of people who are already tagged as ‘illegals’ in the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. Britain’s colonial past and slavery still seem to pattern current attitudes to the humanity of Black people and people of colour.
There is, of course, another image of the refugee in the UK. In Sheffield, the first City of Sanctuary, there are many groups dedicated to ‘welcoming’ refugees to the city. Practical help involves organising social events and conversation clubs and circles. But this positive practice is in most cases negatively framed within a view of asylum seekers and refugees as ‘victims’, simply needing ‘help’ and ‘support’.
This approach recognises the humanity of asylum seekers and refugees whilst stripping them of agency and disempowering them. The groups and their projects ignore the fact that some of the men and women finding ‘sanctuary’ in Sheffield as asylum seekers are émigré career politicians, trade union officials, successful business leaders, and university professors and teachers who are often members of UK branches of their home political parties. Christian churches and chapels in the city organise social events and English classes but asylum seekers and refugees often suspect their motives. As one Sheffield Muslim woman refugee put it, ‘I have never been to an event in a Christian church in Sheffield where I have not had a Bible given to me’.
Jonathan Darling’s (2011) research in Sheffield ‘drop-ins’ and ‘conversation clubs’ still has current resonance. He pointed to the fact that looking at the power structures within the drop-in centres and clubs, white middle class people were always in the organising and educational roles. Where asylum seeker volunteers were recruited, they filled subsidiary roles, such as making refreshments at the clubs.
Currently, in Sheffield asylum support and advice organisations, paid staff are overwhelmingly white and middle class. Even amongst volunteers, those with experience of the asylum system are still very much a minority. Perhaps as Mamdani (1973) pointed out, recalling his experience as a British overseas citizen fleeing Uganda, ‘helping’ agencies are creating a disempowered ‘refugee’ identity, giving people a new, dependent role in their new country. As a result, the voices of refugee victims relating stories of suffering become more relevant than testimony from voices demanding rights as potential citizens.
Alongside ‘welcome’ agencies that tend to disempower asylum seekers, there are, in Sheffield, rights-based organisations and groups. The two largest of these are ASSIST and SYMAAG.
ASSIST, supporting and empowering destitute asylum seekers ASSIST, a large Sheffield charity supporting destitute and homeless refused asylum seekers, engages volunteer refused asylum seekers in organising roles and on their board of trustees. ASSIST can call on the help of some 300 volunteers in Sheffield.
Refused asylum seekers live for years in the city hosted by ASSIST volunteers and their families or for shorter periods in the growing number of houses donated to the organisation. To spend ten years or more in this limbo world of the refused asylum seeker, as significant numbers of asylum seekers do in the UK, means that many refugees and their voices are silenced by anxiety and ill health. Fathers and mothers completely lose contact with children in their home countries. Where children are refused asylum seekers as well, they become traumatised by long years of anxiety and poverty, facing hostility from officials and local communities; never able to start a life. Where children in a family arrive as teenagers, they perhaps remember a settled prosperous life with their parents. Children often become resentful of parents for bringing them to a life filled with hostility and poverty.
The UK Border Agency forces refused asylum seekers, even those who they cannot deport, because their home countries will not admit them, to check in and ‘sign’ regularly in Sheffield at Vulcan House, their regional centre. For other refused asylum seekers, each signing session can mean weeks of anxiety with a real fear of being detained and sent to an Immigration Removal Centre for deportation. Living in this state of ‘deportability’ and destitution means being forced into the arms of unscrupulous employers offering poverty wages for casual labour, and therefore committing a crime – it is illegal for asylum seekers to work. Those found working illegally could be imprisoned. At the end of their sentence they can be faced with deportation as a ‘foreign criminal’. For some people, years in detention centres can still follow after prison, because they can still not be deported.
SYMAAG, solidarity campaigning and G4S SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) is a group with a membership of asylum seekers, refugees and activists led by Black activists and people of colour with experience of the asylum system. SYMAAG is not a charity and was established twelve years ago as an overtly political asylum rights, campaigning, and direct action organisation.
SYMAAG has a programme each year of solidarity campaigning and public critical pedagogy – public meetings, joint lectures with the University of Sheffield, street demonstrations, petitions to city council meetings, lobbying local MPs – all designed to put asylum rights back above the radar of public awareness and to mobilise different interest groups – public service professionals, trades unions, émigré political groups – for actions on asylum rights.
Since 2012, when UK asylum housing was privatised, SYMAAG and its members, many of whom are asylum tenants, have campaigned alongside tenants of the private companies contracted by the Home Office to provide asylum housing for people waiting for the outcome of their asylum claims. G4S, the largest security company in the world, was given the contract for Yorkshire and the North East of England in June 2012.
When the award of the contract was announced, a SYMAAG member, an asylum tenant from Zimbabwe stood up in a meeting and said, “I don’t want a prison guard as my landlord’. This statement became the slogan for a campaign, which gave a voice to asylum tenants who courageously spoke out to expose slum conditions and negligent and cruel management of accommodation particularly for refugee children. Research and investigative journalism promoted by SYMAAG, including articles published on Open Democracy and the Institute of Race Relations news service systematically questioned the reputational standing of the international corporation. Despite G4S’s attempt to ban a SYMAAG / Brass Moustache film “The Asylum Market” documenting G4S and Home Office intimidation of asylum tenants in Sheffield from a BBC showing, the film was made available on Vimeo. The campaigning fuelled by the voices of asylum tenants was successful and in part resulted in G4S losing their asylum housing contracts in January 2019.
Voices against Detention and Deportation In December 2018, seven Zimbabweans, some of whom had lived in Sheffield for more than a decade – one for 15 years another 16 years – were ordered to attend interviews at Vulcan House with Zimbabwe embassy officials. The move was the result of an agreement between Britain and Zimbabwe that Britain would ‘repatriate’ at least 2,500 refused asylum seekers. At that time nobody was detained. In February some of the seven were ordered again to Vulcan House and two were detained and sent to Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre near Lincoln. Another Zimbabwean with learning difficulties who had lived for nineteen years in nearby Barnsley was also sent to Morton Hall.
In Morton Hall’s prison-like regime, the Sheffield Zimbabweans were held in cell blocks called Rosa Parks and Mary Seacole, named in the days when Morton Hall was a women’s prison; but the naming seems entirely inappropriate now as Morton Hall becomes an institution where human rights were being trampled on. The detainees were told that if they did chores like cleaning and litter picking, they would receive £1.00 an hour and that money would be deposited into their personal Morton Hall accounts. This exploitative prison labour which paid well below minimum wages had been found to be legal in March 2019, despite evidence from people who had been in Morton Hall. The judge had ruled that the labour was ‘voluntary’, and people had a choice whether they worked or not.
There was a great deal of support for the three people detained in Morton Hall from their Sheffield and Barnsley networks. An on-line petition soon gathered 80,000 signatures and after a few days, all three were released. A SYMAAG demonstration had been planned outside Vulcan House to put pressure on the Home Office to stop detaining Zimbabweans and to release the three. It turned into a celebration – with 300 people attending. (pic)
Is Sheffield really a City of Sanctuary? Recently SYMAAG research has found that Sheffield Council although proudly proclaiming itself the first City of Sanctuary in the UK, has been actively collaborating with the UKBA ICE (Immigration Compliance and Enforcement) team at Vulcan House, using housing staff as border guards and handing over undocumented Sheffielders they found whilst inspecting private rented properties. They later admitted that Council staff, whilst clearing a makeshift camp of homeless people in Sheffield in January 2017, had handed over two Romanian nationals, one of them a Big Issue seller in the city, whom the ICE team had immediately sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre for deportation.
SYMAAG and researcher Rachel Furnis also discovered that the hostile environment announced by Theresa May in May 2012 had immediately been enforced by the South Yorkshire Police in the city. Arrests of Sheffielders under suspicion ‘of being illegal immigrants’ soared from 67 people in 2010 to over 400 in 2014. In subsequent years, arrests continued at a high level, totalling nearly 1600 arrests between April 2013 and December 2017.
Testimony not stories Collective action, research foregrounding the voices and everyday experience of asylum seekers, filmmaking, and demonstrations all make individual voices loudly heard. In our experience, asylum seekers themselves are clear that they want their voices to be heard, not through ‘stories’ but through testimony to change the world for other asylum seekers and refugees.
As people were leaving one of the regular SYMAAG demonstrations at Morton Hall there was a message shouted through the wire and steel walls of the detention centre.
References: Jonathon Darling (2011) ’Giving space: generosity and belonging in a U.K. asylum drop-in centre’ Geoforum, Volume 42, 408-417
Mahmood Mamdani (1973) ‘From Citizen to Refugee’ London: Frances Pinter
John Grayson is a retired housing academic and adult educator. He taught at Sheffield Hallam University and was Senior Tutor for Social History and Politics at Northern College for Adult Residential Education from 1986 to 2007.He has been a political activist, Labour councillor and chair of a housing committee. He has been a member and researcher for SYMAAG since 2007 and has written extensively for the investigative journalism site Shine a Light at www.opendemocracy.net, and for the Institute of Race Relations at www.irr.org.uk He has published widely in the fields of social history, theories of critical adult education and social movement studies. His latest publication is Grayson J.(2019) ‘The making and framing of solidarity campaigning on asylum rights’ in Ibrahim J. and Roberts J. eds Contemporary Left-wing activism vol 2 .London: Routledge pp. 9-27. Victor Mujakachi is a volunteer at ASSIST Sheffield and Football Unites, Racism Divides among other local projects in Sheffield. He is a recipient of the South Yorkshire High Sheriff’s Award and the Nether Edge and Sheffield Community Star Award.
Image: Victor Mujakachi speaking at a demonstration outside Sheffield Home Office February 2019
Councillors and police in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield, the UK’s first City of Sanctuary, have been working with immigration enforcement to harass and round up Sheffielders they suspect of being “illegal immigrants”, according to research uncovered by activists and academics.
Arrests of Sheffielders under suspicion soared from 67 people arrested in the year to December 2010 to more than 400 by March 2014. The jump followed the introduction of Theresa May’s plan to ramp up immigration control and delegate enforcement to employers, councillors, GPs, police, bank managers and others.
In May 2012, Theresa May, then UK Home Secretary, told The Telegraph newspaper:
The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environmentfor illegal migration… Work is under way to deny illegal immigrants’ access to work, housing and services, even bank accounts.
In Sheffield the council has clearly and repeatedly stated its opposition to the raft of policies that the Conservative government called the “Hostile Environment”. As recently as 2018, in its response to a government consultation on ‘integration’, the council said:
There can be little doubt that the so called ‘Hostile Environment’ policy has substantially undermined integration, not only for its intended targets, but for those who get caught by its sweep, AND for those who are required to be un-appointed border guards checking entitlement (banks, landlords, NHS staff etc).
Arrests of Sheffielders suspected of being “illegal immigrants” totalled 67 in the year to December 2010, and 12 in the following year, according to a South Yorkshire Police response to a Freedom of Information Request in April 2011. Then came the Hostile Environment.
In the 12 months to March 2014, 420 Sheffielders were arrested on suspicion of being “illegal immigrants”. In subsequent years arrests continued high—totalling nearly 1600 arrests from April 2013 to December 2017. Asylum seeker and refugee members of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) have repeatedly reported personal harassment, racism and discrimination over the past few years.
In one year, 420 Sheffielders were arrested on suspicion of being “illegal immigrants”
In January 2017, for example, an Immigration Compliance & Enforcement team targeted a homeless people’s camp in Sheffield’s city centre and arrested a Romanian couple, one a Big Issue seller, who were then locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
We at SYMAAG collaborated with Brass Moustache on a film shot in Sheffield “The Asylum Market” that documented intimidation and threats from G4S and the Home Office to asylum seeker tenants.
In April 2017 I discovered in an asylum house a G4S notice which threatened that tenants guilty of bad behaviour “will not be tolerated and will be reported to the Police and may be deported away from the UK”.
In October of 2017 through an FOI request I found that immigration enforcement staff had been stationed at Sheffield’s police custody suite and central police station throughout the year.
What about Sheffield council’s opposition to anti-migrant policies?
We at SYMAAG have become increasingly concerned about how, even in Sheffield, the UK’s first City of Sanctuary, council officers have been tasked to serve the “hostile environment” regardless of the council’s purported values and principles.
For three years Sheffield city council officers who’ve attended monthly Refugee Forum meetings with the Red Cross, SYMAAG, City of Sanctuary Sheffield, ASSIST, a charity working with destitute asylum seekers, and other support projects, have repeatedly assured us that Sheffield would not apply for government money for ‘immigration enforcement projects’.
In an email to me on 2 September Cllr Paul Wood, Sheffield council cabinet member for housing, said that in 2017 the city council announced that they “would not be bidding for immigration enforcement projects and we stand by this still … Our officers will continue to state this policy at meetings …. However, as a Council, if we find anyone acting illegally then we have a responsibility to inform statutory agencies.” He added:
We do not intend to be working with UKBA directly to remove people from the Country but we could as part of this intensive work uncover activity or people that do not have all the approvals they need to stay in the UK, and we will then work with all of the key statutory agencies and charities to support these individuals as you would expect for a ‘City of sanctuary’ so they can live safely whilst any further process takes place.
In July, we in SYMAAG discovered an application form on the council’s website, which had been submitted to central government asking for money from the Controlling Migration Fund in 2017. In the application, which would secure funds for the council’s private housing standards team, they assured the government that they had worked directly with the UKBA Immigration Compliance Enforcement team locally.
According to the application, housing standards staff undertaking inspections in pursuit of rogue landlords between 2014 and 2017 had “made several referrals to the UKBA and had suspicions about other individuals who disappeared from premises immediately after initial visits had been attempted.”
The council admitted these “referrals” in a reply to an FOI from migration academic Dr Rachel Humphris in July 2019, saying that “Sheffield City Council does hold information about referrals made to the UKBA” by the private housing standards team.
One response to a question on the application form suggests that the council may have checked the form with immigration enforcement before submitting it. The form asked whether the council had “demonstrated assurance from the local Immigration Compliance and Enforcement team, if a proposal involves their resource, that they are able to commit the resources requested in the…proposal”. The council answered “yes”.
The council’s application made clear that they “have particular concern over recent undocumented, unlawful immigration into the (London Road) area, linked to private rented accommodation which is often of a very poor standard”.
UK councils shun immigration enforcement
Sheffield city council has in effect turned its council officers into border control guards. The council should know that to be homeless, destitute and living in slums and “not have all the approvals” for residence in the UK is not unlawful or illegal.
SYMAAG has organised a demonstration on 19 September 12noon outside Sheffield Town Hall when a council committee discusses the issue. We will be demanding that the council ends its compliance with Home Office immigration compliance and enforcement teams in all its operations in a City of Sanctuary.
Thanks to Dr Rachel Humphris of Queen Mary University of London for allowing me to quote some of her Sheffield research.
Edited by Clare Sambrook and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi forShine A Light.
This article was first published on 13/9/19 by Shine a Light https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/shine-a-light/arrests-of-suspected-undocumented-migrants-soar-in-sheffield-the-uks-first-city-of-sanctuary/