Lift The Ban on Asylum Seekers Right to Work

Right now, right here in the UK, people seeking refugee status are banned from working whilst they wait months, and often years, for a decision on their asylum claim.

Instead, they are left to live on just £5.39 per day, struggling to support themselves and their families, whilst the Government wastes the talents of thousands of people.

We think that’s wrong. We believe that people who have risked everything to find safety should have the best chance of contributing to our society and integrating into our communities. This means giving people seeking asylum the right to work so that they can use their skills and live in dignity.

The Lift the Ban coalition is working to change this. Together, we believe we can #LiftTheBan and ensure that people seeking safety in the UK have the right to work.

It’s ironic that people detained in immigration removal centres can work for as little as £1 per day for the global corporations like G4S, Serco GEO and Mitie who run them but are banned from work when they are released.

SYMAAG is proud to be part of the Lift the Ban Coalition which is calling for the right to work for people seeking asylum, and their adult dependants, after six months of having lodged an asylum claim or further submission, unconstrained by the Shortage Occupation List.

The alternative is destitution for people seeking asylum or the dangers of working illegally – no rights or protection at work, unpaid wages and a weakening of all workers’ rights

What can you do to support our campaign? See the Lift the Ban Activism Pack for resources and ideas

Zimbabwe still not safe – Sheffield Protest Against Deportations July 25

End Forced Deportations to Zimbabwe

Demonstrate outside Sheffield Town Hall

Wednesday 25th July 12noon to 1pm

Stop another Windrush Scandal

According to New Zimbabwe.com, British ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing, in February 2018 told Zimbabwean Deputy President Kembo Mohadi that her government intended to deport 2,500 “illegal Zimbabweans” in that country. The announcement came as Theresa May said that her government was “determined to reduce the number of immigrants coming into the country by thousands”. Very few people have been deported to Zimbabwe over the past ten years.

There are now reports of Zimbabwe Embassy staff going to detention centres to interview any Zimbabwe nationals there to give them travel documents so that they can be forcibly deported. Some people have already been deported to a Zimbabwe where the same regime is in power even though Mugabe has gone. Their lives are in danger.

As Marian Machekanyanga, an exiled trade unionist from Zimbabwe and SYMAAG Executive Committee member, explained to us  “nothing has changed for Zimbabwean people here or at home. Mnangagwa is still ZANU-PF…there are no changes and no democracy”.

Zimbabwe refugees here for years are facing deportation rather than extension to their right to safety here in the UK

Tell Sajid Javid the Home Secretary to stop deporting Zimbabwe refugees. This is Theresa May’s Hostile Environment yet again bringing misery and danger to families seeking protection from persecution and torture in the UK

Zimbabwe: “no changes and no democracy”

Why Zimbabwe is still not safe for refugees like Marian Machekanyanga

Marian was forced to leave Zimbabwe in November 2002 as
a result of victimisation and mistreatment. As a member of a workers
committee in a government department in Harare,she led a protest to
the Zimbabwean Parliament against the misdirection of the Government
funds to ZANU-PF. She has spent 16 years trying to secure her safety
by fighting for the right to remain in the UK.

During those 16 years Marian has also continued her fight for the
human rights of others. She is an Executive Committee member of the
South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group and active in
Zimbabwean opposition organisations in the UK, protesting against
ZANU-PF and for the rights of all asylum seekers in the UK, including
Zimbabweans.

Marian on “Don’t Let Them Drown” protest at the Home Office in Sheffield

Like many Zimbabwean political exiles in the UK she was relieved when
Robert Mugabe was forced to resign in November 2017, but wasn’t
positive about his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa. When I asked Marian
she explained “nothing has changed for Zimbabwean people here or at
home. Mnangagwa is still ZANU-PF”. Separated from her family in
Zimbabwe for an unimaginable 16 years, Marian would dearly like to
return to Zimbabwe but the party that victimised her before she came
to the UK are still in power. “The treatment of Joice Mujuru is a
sign there are no changes and no democracy” Marian said. Joice Mujuru
was Vice President of Zimbabwe who left ZANU-PF in 2015 to become an
opposition politician and has faced harassment since.

With elections due later this year there are reports that 5000 troops
have been deployed in rural Zimbabwe and voters threatened with
compulsory use of new biometric voting cards which will identify who
they cast their vote for. Despite these and other repressive measures
directed at the opposition in Zimbabwe the UK government seems
determined to continue the deportation of people seeking asylum to
Zimbabwe. The UK ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Lang, recently told
Zimbabwean Deputy President Kembo Mohad  that the UK wanted to deport
2500 Zimbabweans who were “living illegally in the UK”.

Marian discussing her asylum case with Paul Blomfield MP for Sheffield Central

The Home Office regard Marian as “living illegally”. Despite clear
evidence of the danger to Marian if she returns to any part of
Zimbabwe and the severe risk to her health if she could not get vital
medication there for her diabetic condition, the Home Office rejected
her asylum claim and initial appeal.

Marian clearly feels it is still unsafe for her to return to Zimbabwe
and continues her long battle to be recognised as a refugee and given
leave to remain in the UK. Lots of South Yorkshire people agree with
her too – over 1000 of us have already signed a petition in her
support.

“We need humanity and accountability” in asylum housing

Asylum tenants organise at Sheffield conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Manuchehr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights and Asylum Housing conference Sheffield February 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

There is already confirmation that G4S has put in their tender

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Daisy and the £4 billion Asylum Housing Contracts

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

© J. Grayson

© J. Grayson

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

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

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

Daisy slept in this bedroom © J. Grayson

Daisy slept in this bedroom © J. Grayson

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

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

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

Broken sofa © J. Grayson

Broken sofa © J. Grayson

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

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

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Unsecured wall panels © J. Grayson

Unsecured wall panels © J. Grayson

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

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

G4S inspection log © J. Grayson

G4S inspection log © J. Grayson

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

© J. Grayson

© J. Grayson

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

From the COMPASS contracts to the £4 billion AASC contracts

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

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

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

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

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

A torrent of criticism since 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times (20 January 2016)

Times (20 January 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A global auction for the AASC contracts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are other bidders possible?

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

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

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

RELATED LINKS

South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG)

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

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

IRR News: The Corporate Greed of Strangers

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

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

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

Another person dies at Morton Hall – a letter from detainees

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

Demonstrating at Morton Hall 27 May. pic by SYMAAG

 

IRC Morton Hall

05/10/2017

Re: Death Incident (IRC Morton Hall)

Dear Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your support, we really appreciate it.

 

Kind Regards

Concerned Detainees at IRC Morton Hall

Behave or get deported, says G4S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the legal basis for that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

John Whitwam, managing director, immigration and borders, G4S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Matter of Pride

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

 

A Matter of Pride

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

By Stuart Crosthwaite

 

 

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

 

Supporting destitute asylum seekers

 

Teaching English

 

General volunteer refugee support

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

 

Law, advice and advocacy

 

Medical and therapeutic support

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

 

Support in detention

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

 

Campaigning

 

International support for refugees

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Tell people what’s happening in here” at Morton Hall migrant prison

10 years ago SYMAAG organised a 3 day/30 mile march from Sheffield to Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) near Doncaster to protest against detaining refugees indefinitely. Lindholme has since been closed. Morton Hall is now the nearest IRC to us, hidden in the Lincolnshire countryside.

After reports of the deaths of two detainees at Morton Hall IRC within 6 weeks we decided to highlight what really goes on inside Morton Hall and show our support for the people detained there by organising a protest on March 11th. It was an experience that won’t be forgotten by those of us at the protest outside the prison fence. Or by people detained inside who were eager to tell us about their treatment by phone or by scaling the fence and shouting out to us. “Tell people what’s happening in here” was their message. One person on the protest, an activist with SYMAAG, wrote this impassioned report of the day. John Grayson has written a detailed report on the protest and what we learned about Morton Hall below.,

Shortly after our protest at Morton Hall a report of an unannounced HM Prisons Inspectorate visit in November was released. Written before the deaths of two people detained there it identifies a “significant decline in the area of safety since the last inspection”. The Detention Forum’s assessment of the report “it looks and feels like a prison” is here and May Bulman writing in the Independent commented that “the devastating impact of indefinite detention can no longer be denied”. She criticised the Home Office’s “out of sight, out of mind approach” to migrant detention.

We hope that our protests at Morton Hall (March 11th was the second – and we’ll be back) let those detained inside know they are not forgotten. And challenge the Home Office’s attempts to hide from the public the stark reality of detention in immigration prisons.

Dignity Not Detention. Protestors gather outside Morton Hall March 11th

‘People come in here normal, but they get ill.’ Protesting against deaths at a UK migrant jail

Intrusive police surveillance deployed against peaceful protestors at Morton Hall. (See also: Child held for 151 days at Morton Hall)

Demonstrators march on Morton Hall immigration removal centre, Lincolnshire, 11 March 2017 (Manuch)

“Thanks for coming, get it out there, tell people what’s happening in here!”

Message shouted through the wire and steel walls of Morton Hall detention centre

Eleven days into 2017 Lukasz Debowski, a 27-year-old Polish man, was found dead at a Morton Hall, a little-known immigration detention centre in rural Lincolnshire.

Fellow inmates said that Lukasz was “young and quiet, never causing any trouble”, that he had not committed any crime in the UK and that he had sought medical help for mental health problems. They said he’d spent his time watching TV, playing games and at the gym.

They said Lukasz had killed himself, and that he’d been refused bail just before Christmas because he could not provide sureties.

His partner, whose advanced pregnancy left her unable to attend the bail hearing, gave birth to the couple’s son on the day that Lukasz died.

The mood at Morton Hall was low.

Just a few weeks earlier, another Morton Hall detainee had died in hospital. A friend reported to the Detained Voices website that Bai Ahmed Kabia fell down in his cell “foaming at the mouth”, that nurses were called at 3pm, and Kabia was taken to hospital four hours later.

“He was really a nice person and was always willing to help people,” said the friend, a fellow detainee: “He would just help people through the goodness of his heart for nothing in return.”

Bai Ahmed Kabia was reportedly 49 years old and stateless, probably from Sierra Leone. The friend said he had lived in the UK for 27 years. Detainees had heard that when Bai Ahmed Kabia was close to death, the Home Office had signed his release papers.

“If he was given bail and left here. People would have been proud and happy,” said the friend. “But the way he left really weighs heavy on your heart. The media needs to know about this. This place is a stressful place. He’s been punished. We don’t have anyone to stand for us.”

Standing up for immigration detainees

Members of SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) decided to organise a demonstration to highlight the deaths, to show support and solidarity for the 392 men locked up at Morton Hall, and to alert local and national attention to this little-known immigration removal centre in the Lincolnshire countryside. We chose the date, Saturday 11 March.

Protestors march on Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre, Lincolnshire, 11 March 2017 (picture by Manuch)

In early February I took a call from Lincolnshire Police Liaison Officer Jimmy Conway 997, a Group B Community Patrol Constable, who is based in Sleaford. He said that he and another liaison officer in pale blue jackets would be the only police presence (with ‘resources’ nearby but out of sight), and asked us to appoint our own security marshalls “to keep everyone safe”. He seemed relaxed.

But then, things changed.

Intrusive surveillance

About 60 people travelled from Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham and Oxford to Morton Hall, near the village of Swinderby, 8 miles south west of Lincoln.

On the morning of the demonstration, just as our coach was leaving Sheffield, PC Conway called me again. He said: “There will be a number of uniformed officers present now John, and a unit who will be filming – you will recognise them by the orange flashes on their jackets.”

Surveillance as deterrence works. Some of my SYMAAG colleagues in Huddersfield and Sheffield had already chosen not to come because they were still in the asylum system. They feared surveillance and its effect on their asylum claims.

PC Conway was true to his word. We were greeted at the gates to Morton Hall by a vanload of uniformed police and a van with members of the filming unit. As you can see from the picture: specialist filming cops were getting close-ups of demonstrators. This is pretty unusual in my experience — I have never seen them openly filming amongst demonstrators at the four Yarl’s Wood detention centre demonstrations I have attended.

Intense police surveillance of a peaceful demonstration, Morton Hall, 11 March 2017 (Manuch)

They didn’t like our photographer filming them. One officer asked him: “How long have you been here in the UK?”

“Twenty two years,” he replied.

Speaking from inside Morton Hall

We had some phone numbers for men locked up inside Morton Hall who had agreed to let us amplify their voices on our sound system.

They told us management had tried to undermine the demonstration.

“They play music and stop us being outside, they also bring ice cream,” one man told us. “When we heard chants and we managed to get outside. We then heard it was people supporting us people.”

Another said: “We heard the protesting and they try to stop us going outside but we manage to. They tell us it’s about a football team.”

And another: “I shut off the music, they will come and grab me today because I stopped the music.”

“Freedom! Freedom!”

About 40 men gathered behind the wire fences. One climbed up the fencing and was able to shout to us. He was Nariman Jalal Karim, an Iranian asylum seeker who said he had been locked up in Morton Hall for six months. He was a physical education teacher who had left his family in the Middle East. For two hours, he chanted “Freedom! Freedom!”

Nariman, at top right of picture, scales the fence and shouts ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ (Manuch)

One man, who spoke for eight minutes, told us: “People come in here normal but they get ill. But they don’t care, they don’t care. There are people in here who shouldn’t be here — old people with grandchildren, some have not seen family for years.”

“People need medical attention, for mental health, for diabetes. They need physical and emotional support.

“They lock us up like prison and it’s bad conditions. They don’t want us to show how we are living here. People taking their lives, we have no release date. You’ve no idea what detention does to your mind and body.

“A hundred of us sent a letter to the Home Office because of how long they are keeping us in here, but they never replied. They treat us like rubbish, leaving us to rot in here”

Among us protestors on the outside of the fence was Kingsley, who had been locked up at Morton Hall. Our sound system carried his voice to the protestors on the other side of the fence.

Kingsley at Morton Hall (Manuch)“They refused me health care,”

Kingsley said. “They treated me like a liar and I had to prove myself. It’s a disgrace. On my first night, I was in lots of pain. They did not believe me. By the third time I asked for help and was refused, I broke everything in the room. They finally called a nurse. They finally called the ambulance.”

About the two recent deaths at Morton Hall, Kingsley said: “One man died because he was not given medical attention. You will be next if you don’t stand up for your freedom against oppression.”

“You have to fight. Never work for £1 an hour. If you refuse to cook and clean, the place will not run. Keep fighting!!”

By phone from inside Morton Hall, one man protested about mobile phones with cameras being confiscated. “They don’t want us to show what it’s like in here,” he said. “But we can’t even have pictures of our families and grandchildren to remember. We’re not prisoners, we’re not criminals, but we would be better off in prison, there we could have our phones.”

Bill McKeith from the Close Campsfield detention centre campaign told the demonstration: “This is an important day to expose what’s going on in Morton Hall. There are ten detention centres in the UK, nine are privately run – this one is run by the Prison Service on behalf of the Home Office. It was a prison for men from 1985 then for women from 2009, and since 2011 the prison changed its name and became an Immigration Removal Centre for 392 men. But it’s still run like a prison – a badly run prison. The contract paid the Prison Service £11m of taxpayers’ money in its first year, and presumably a lot more since then.”

A safe place?

Morton Hall, a former women’s prison, was ‘reroled’ as an immigration removal centre in May 2011. Within months —  in September 2011 — eighteen men went on hunger strike to resist their removal to Afghanistan.

In July 2012 two men took to the roof; many detainees were “upset” over the duration of their detention, the BBC reported.

The Prison Officers’ Association told ITV News in November 2012 that 150 detainees had protested and staff had “been forced” to use their batons. The POA blamed rising tensions on the mix of high and low-risk detainees.

On Christmas Day and 30 December 2012, staff and detainees were injured in disturbances involving scores of inmates. The POA told the Guardian that staffing levels were “at the very, very sharp end of what we believe to be safe”. But the UK Border Agency insisted: “Morton Hall is a safe place for detainees and staff.”

Main gate, Morton Hall (HMIP)

In September 2014 Morton Hall again erupted in a protest after a 26 year old Bangladeshi man called Rubel Ahmed was found hanging in his cell.

In March 2015 Morton Hall joined Yarl’s Wood women and people in Harmondsworth in a hunger strike to highlight conditions across detention centres which had been the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, and a Channel 4 documentary exposing conditions in Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth.

Across detention centres in the UK, figures show that there were 185 recorded incidents of self-harm in 2010. By 2015, that number had more than doubled to 409. In 2015 across the detention estate there were 393 suicide attempts recorded. That’s an average of more than one a day. Morton Hall IRC with 51, was the fourth highest, and had 252 inmates listed as ‘at risk’ of suicide during the year.

A team of prisons inspectors visited Morton Hall last November and reported today: “Half the detainees in our survey said they had problems with feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival. There had been a three-fold increase in incidents of self-harm since the previous inspection [in March 2013]. During the previous year, four detainees had narrowly escaped fatal or serious injuries as a result of self-harm.”

Protest and be punished

In a statement to the BBC Look North programme, after the Morton Hall demonstration, the Home Office said it respected “everyone’s right to peaceful protest” but detention centres were “essential elements of an effective immigration system”.

Directly after the demonstration Nariman and one of the people who had spoken on the phone to us, Raffael Ebison, were punished and shipped out of Morton Hall. I spoke to both of them whilst writing this article.

Nariman told me: “I am in Brook House now, it looks like another prison. They sent both of us here yesterday (Thursday 16 March)”.

Raffael said: “At the end of the protest on Saturday I was taken straight to the segregation block. We had to stay there till they sent us here to Brook House.”

Campaigners at the demonstration continue to support and contact Nariman and Raffael in Brook House. Plans are already being made for another action at Morton Hall. We are determined to shut down Morton Hall…and all detention centres in the UK

Postcript: Shortly after this article was written Raffael Ebison, who was moved to Brook House IRC as a punishment for speaking out to protestors at conditions in Morton Hall, was released after pressure. As of 26 March Nariman Jalal Karim, who scaled the prison fence to speak to us, is still detained at Brook House. We ask you to contact Brook House 01293 566 500 to demand his release. Is telling the public how our money is spent inside immigration prisons a crime?


Author note: Thanks to Lizy for notes, and to Manuch for photographs