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:
‘220.127.116.11 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.
When is a City of Sanctuary not a City of Sanctuary?
When it colludes with Immigration Compliance and Enforcement bodies by sharing information on its residents who are undocumented migrants.
Sheffield City Council (SCC) has accepted two grants from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG).”This funding has been granted by MCHLG to fund additional staff recruitment to the Private Housing Standards (PHS) team, primarily to focus on intelligence-led work in the East of the city where poor housing conditions are believed to be linked to recent migration in to the area”.
These grants of £192,560 and £385,120 (the latest announced on 14/8/19) are part of the Government’s controversial Controlling Migration Fund (CMF). Although, significantly, SCC’s recent application for CMF funding states that “Officers from the Private Housing Standards (PHS) team undertaking inspection work in the area over the past three years have made several referrals to the UKBA“. A recent Freedom of Information request confirms this.
A report for the SCC Cabinet states “The additional funding would also allow for more coordinated work between PHS officers and partner agencies to address wider issues in the neighbourhoods, with improved information sharing and joint working protocols established.”
Are the Home Office/UKBA are one of the ‘partner agencies’?
In the original bid by SCC for Controlling Migration Funding it’s pointed out by the Private Housing Standards team that many private landlords are NOT carrying out the Right to Rent procedures with tenants. Remember the Right to Rent regulations have been declared discriminatory and are clearly racist in intent and operation. Yet council officers seem to want landlords to operate them.
For us in the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), and many others, this is clear evidence of the Labour Council embracing the Hostile Environment policies of the Coalition and Conservative governments. These actions are not compatible with Sheffield’s status as (the first) City of Sanctuary and are a political choice. At least 11 other Labour Councils have pledged not to share immigration data with the Home Office
Over the past 5 years South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) has constantly researched City Council policies and practices to scrutinise what a City of Sanctuary actually means.
We have found them wanting in terms of allowing collusion between the South Yorkshire Police and Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) in the city which resulted, in January 2017, in a Romanian couple (both EU citizens, one a Big Issue seller in the city), being forcibly removed by ICE from a temporary homeless peoples’ camp and sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre. A SYMAAG Freedom of Information Request established that ICE staff were permanently situated in South Yorkshire Police stations to pick up undocumented Sheffield residents arrested for alleged offences.
SYMAAG has constantly asked questions of the Council about allocations of government money under the Controlling Migration Fund (CMF) 2016-2020.Sheffield Council has always denied that they applied for and received part of the Fund’s £40m “Enforcement” programme for action against ‘rogue landlords’ and deportation of undocumented tenants.
Now the Council website indicates otherwise.
So, a simple message to Sheffield City Council:
Act like Sheffield really is a City of Sanctuary
Stop collusion with Immigration Compliance and Enforcement to deport Sheffield residents
Oppose the Hostile (or Compliant) Environment in all your policies
After a six year campaign by asylum tenants G4S have lost their contracts to run asylum housing. From September 2019 tenants will not have “a prison guard as a landlord”
The new 10 year £4 billion Asylum Accommodation and Support Contract has been given to Serco, Clearsprings and the Mears Group. We will be working alongside asylum tenants to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect and provided with decent housing.
We will publish a detailed response to the announcement of the new contract soon.
In the meantime listen to John Grayson from SYMAAG interviewed on Sheffield Live on G4S getting dumped from asylum housing contract and our small part in that success here
Despite assurances Sheffield City Council are still putting migrant children in the dangerous and unsuitable Earl Marshall Bed and Breakfast which John Grayson and Violet Dickenson reported on 6 months ago. This is not acceptable behaviour from any local authority. That Sheffield City Council, which prides itself on the being the first City Of Sanctuary, should behave like this is disgraceful. That’s why SYMAAG has called for a protest on Wednesday 5th December 1pm outside the Town Hall, before the full meeting of Sheffield City Council, where we will be asking questions.
Background to recent events: In April and again in September Sheffield councillors Jackie Drayton and Jim Steinke and Chief Council Officers said no more children would be put in the Earl Marshall B&B. SYMAAG has spoken to seven families since dumped in this dangerous and unsuitable accommodation. All are people of colour – new refugee families just after celebrating their leave to remain, sent to a “home” with no safeguarding protection for babies, toddlers and young children. Parents can share one room with four, even five children. In April there were two families who had been there for two years. This has to stop.
Join our protest on 5th December outside Sheffield Town Hall at 1pm and come to the full Council meeting, starting at 1.45pm with us to ask why a City of Sanctuary is treating refugee families like this
A recent investigation by John Grayson and Violet Dickenson of SYMAAG revealed that Sheffield City Council are treating homeless asylum seeking children unlawfully and disrespectfully. These children and families have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) and are being placed by the Council for long periods in unsuitable and potentially dangerous Bed and Breakfast accommodation.
Carol from the Earl Marshall hostel explained to us how waiting for toilets and showers were the worst times for the families. She said some of the men “asked us for money and called us racist names. Every time we had to wait, then we had to clean the toilet, so we could use it.”
For 2 years we have tried to get Sheffield City Council – which declared Sheffield the first City of Sanctuary – to stop this practice of housing women and young children routinely and for long periods in shared hostels with vulnerable homeless men
On 7 February 2018, SYMAAG members went along to a Sheffield City Council meeting. We presented a petition, asked questions and stated our demands
1) To immediately stop placing homeless families in B&B’s
2) To immediately stop placing homeless lone mothers and children (in particular survivors of trafficking and/or domestic violence) in potentially unsafe temporary emergency accommodation with single men.
3)To immediately institute a programme to renovate or replace the council’s existing temporary accommodation for homeless people which council reports have declared ‘not fit for purpose’
Councillor Drayton in the Council meeting and afterwards did not give any undertakings on any of these points and talked of ‘monitoring’ and refused to stop using the Earl Marshall for families.
Now Sheffield City Council has finished the long break for elections, SYMAAG will be back at the Council meeting at Sheffield Town Hall Wednesday 4 July at 2pm to ask further questions to force the Council to treat homeless asylum children with NRPF just like any other homeless children in Sheffield.
We invite you to come with us. Ask the Council a question from the public gallery and lobby your councillor. We’ll be meeting at The Sanctuary, Chapel Walk at 1pm beforehand.
A Manchester asylum hostel run by Britain’s biggest outsourcer Serco is riddled with cockroaches, rodents and bedbugs.
by John Grayson
Mothers with babies in a Manchester hostel run by Serco have shown us their dirty and dangerous living conditions.
Shadow immigration minister and local MP Afzal Khan has told us: “Nobody, let alone families with children, should be forced to live with cockroaches, bed bugs, damp, leaks and mice. Unfortunately we know that this is not an isolated case. Our asylum accommodation system is not fit for purpose.”
Last week I visited the ground floor and basement of the hostel that is home to three mothers and three children. One mother, Carole, showed me the damp basement where she lived with Nathan, her 11 month old son. She showed me water gathered by the dehumidifier that she had bought.
She said Nathan is asthmatic, and showed me bedbug bites on his arms.
“I have them too, Serco said they could not find them, but they did not change the mattress — just put plastic on it.” That looked to me unsafe, and a suffocation risk.
Bed bug infested mattress wrapped in polythene (John Grayson)
Carole showed me a video on her phone of two mice running around her bed in the middle of the night. I could hear her frustrated voice: “I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep.”
An asylum-seeker from West Africa, Carole told me: “I am on medication all the time, but it is the damp and Nathan and his breathing I am really worried about.”
From the bin Carole produced a glue trap with a dead mouse and cockroaches.
She said she feared fire breaking out in the kitchen above her basement room. “If there was a fire in the kitchen I could not get up these stairs with Nathan past the kitchen. I would have to climb up through the window which is below ground and all bars.”
The kitchen ceiling showed evidence of water leakage from the flats above — presenting risks of electrocution and fire. Carole said: “The ceiling leaks when upstairs use the baths and showers. We need buckets.”
Rooms provided to mothers with toddlers had no space for play. Carole poked behind a kitchen unit and showed me a poison box for mice. “Nathan can pick the boxes up and put them in his mouth. He was playing in here, the only place where he can, and hit his head on a door handle.”
Nathan’s bedbug bites (John Grayson)
Carole showed me letters from her doctor, her health visitor, her play scheme organiser, all asking Serco to move her and Nathan. “The man from Serco comes, once or twice a week. He says he reports everything but people above him do nothing.”
Upstairs Pamela, from south Asia, grimly joked about the cockroaches, “I have the really big ones up here,” she says, and it’s true.
“I came here nearly two years ago. Paul my son is nearly two and he was a few months old then. Carole’s baby has spent his whole life down there. I think it is worse for them.”
A squalid rear yard, strewn with refuse is no place to play.
Above the women’s quarters live male asylum seekers. I hadn’t seen a mixed hostel in my six years of working alongside asylum tenants. Pamela said: “The men upstairs were really bad, noisy but there are new ones now.”
Last week I sent a detailed report and photographs to Serco company spokesman Marcus De Ville. He replied: “We are confident that in the vast majority of cases we are providing appropriate housing for asylum seekers but we are not complacent and we always want to look into any issues or concerns that are raised. We are now doing this with this property and I will get back to you in the near future.”
Dead mouse with child’s toy (John Grayson)
I sent the same evidence to local MP and shadow immigration minister Afzal Khan. He replied: “The description of conditions in this house is shocking. Nobody, let alone families with children, should be forced to live with cockroaches, bed bugs, damp, leaks and mice. Unfortunately we know that this is not an isolated case. Our asylum accommodation system is not fit for purpose. It is unacceptable that in 21st century Britain, people fleeing war and persecution are routinely housed in appalling and at times unsafe conditions.”
Serco accommodates nearly 15,000 asylum seekers in more than 5,000 properties across the North West of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. According to the Home Affairs Committee Inquiry into asylum housing Serco housed 8,342 asylum seekers in the North West of England in September 2016, including 994 in Manchester. This suggests that they manage between 200 and 300 asylum properties in the city. In evidence to the same inquiry Serco revealed its average income per service user in February 2016 was around £300 a month. So, for the three rooms in the Manchester hostel with a mother and child in each Serco received £1800 every month of taxpayers money, £21,600 over twelve months.
Security company G4S and Clearsprings also provide accommodation under the contracts known as COMPASS (Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support).
This work has helped to provoke and inform a National Audit Office Inquiry and Parliamentary scrutiny.
Stairs down to Carole and Nathan’s room (John Grayson)
The National Audit Office in 2014 found that G4S and Serco, were “still failing to meet some of their key performance targets, notably relating to the standards of property and the time taken to acquire properties for asylum seekers.”
Three years later, in January 2017, MPs reported that the contractors were still failing. “Some of the premises used by Providers as temporary accommodation are substandard and unfit to house anyone, let alone people who are vulnerable,” MPs said.
The Home Affairs Committee urged that inspections should be passed to local authorities and should include: “whether an individual’s health or special needs are being met; the quality and quantity of food available; the fabric of the building itself.” And whether are facilities are appropriate for “vulnerable people, including mothers and children and victims of torture and trafficking.”
They warned that people were being moved around the asylum system without their consent, which can “disrupt vital support networks” and “cause emotional distress”. And they said the complaints system wasn’t working — asylum seekers feared complaints would prompt reprisals.
Basement window: Carole and Nathan’s escape route? (John Grayson)
The contractors carried on failing. In November 2017, the Guardian reported charities’ claims that in Greater Manchester, asylum seekers wereforced to live in “squalid, unsafe, slum housing conditions” and the public was largely unaware of the conditions into which “traumatised people are routinely dumped”.
Four years ago, an undercover reporter at Channel 4 recorded Serco guards at Yarl’s Wood calling women detainees “animals”, “beasties” and “bitches”. “Headbutt the bitch,” one guard says. “I’d beat her up.”
Serco is tendering for the new asylum housing contracts from 2019 worth a potential £4 billion of taxpayers’ money over seven regional contracts over ten years.
Serco CEO is establishment figure Rupert Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill. In his written evidence to the Home Affairs parliamentary select committee Inquiry into asylum housing in 2016 Soames said: “Our determination to provide a decent and caring level of provision and fulfill our contractual obligations despite massive losses deserves some recognition.”
I am not sure Carole and Pamela would agree.
Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light at openDemocracy. Names have been changed. First published at Open Democracy on 29 May 2018 here