“Welcome to Sheffield” book discussion November 26

SYMAAG founding member and local author David Price will talk about his latest book, “Welcome to Sheffield – A Migration History” November 26th 7-9pm at The Sanctuary 37-39 Chapel Walk Sheffield S1 2PD

Some of the refugees mentioned in the book will talk about their own experiences of welcome, and there’ll be an opportunity to discuss some of the issues raised.

The event is free but please reserve a place here

Copies of the book will be on sale at £12 at the meeting. Event organised by Sheffield City of Sanctuary

Discuss “The UK Border Regime: a critical guide” Sheffield November 6

A vital and comprehensive resource for anyone trying understand the border regime, and ask how we can fight it effectively has been produced by Corporate Watch. The book The UK Border Regime: a critical guide is now out.

Discuss The UK Border Regime: a critical guide with Corporate Watch on Tuesday 6th November 6.30-8.30 at The Sanctuary, 37-39 Chapel Walk Sheffield

This is how Corporate Watch describe their work:

This book brings together Corporate Watch’s recent research on the “hostile environment” against migrants in the UK, and the companies that profit from it. It also includes a lot of new research and analysis, and looks at the history of recent migration struggles in the UK, asking what has been effective.

You can download it for free here. And you can order paper copies here in our online shop. (It will be in bookshops soon too).

We will be glad to send copies for free to asylum seekers and other people without papers. For other people and groups fighting the border regime, we can send at cost price or whatever you can afford to donate. Email us on contact[AT]corporatewatch.org.

The UK Border Regime

Throughout history, human beings have migrated. To escape war, oppression and poverty, to make a better life, to follow their own dreams. But since the start of the 20th century, modern governments have found ever more vicious ways to stop people moving freely.

The UK border regime includes the razor wire fences at Calais, the limbo of the asylum system, and the open violence of raids and deportations. Alongside the Home Office, it includes the companies running databases and detention centres, the media pushing hate speech, and the politicians posturing to win votes. It keeps on escalating, through Tony Blair’s war on refugees to Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, spreading fear and division.

This book describes and analyses the UK’s system of immigration controls. It looks at how it has developed through recent history, the different actors involved, and how people resist. The aim is to help understand the border regime, and ask how we can fight it effectively.

You can read the introduction and summary of the book here.

And see the full table of contents below.

 

 

Table of Contents

Introduction, Acknowledgements, Summary

Part One: Background
1. A brief history of the UK border regime
2. The Home Office: an overview
3. Sorting people
4. What is the border regime?

Part Two: Control
5. In limbo: reporting, dispersal, destitution
6. Immigration raids
7. Detention
8. Deportation
9. Calais (the ultimate “hostile environment”)
10. The “hostile environment”: making a nation of border cops
11. Hostile data
12. The logic of hostility: how collaboration works
13. Does immigration control work? The deterrent dogma

Part Three: Consent
14. Public opinion: target publics
15. Media: communication power
16. Politicians
17. Corporate power
18. Agitators
19. Anxiety engine

Part Four: How can we fight it?
20. Fighting the border regime

Annexes

Annex 1. Border profiteers: list of major Home Office immigration contracts
Annex 2. Border profiteers: company mini-profiles (G4S, Serco, Mitie, GEO, Carlson Wagonlit, Titan Airways)
Further reading

The roots of the Hostile Environment

In December 2013 SYMAAG organised a protest in Sheffield against the 2014 Immigration Act which put into law many of the measures designed to create a “Hostile Environment” for what then Home Secretary Theresa May called “illegal immigrants”

120 people came together to oppose moves to make the Hostile Environment policy law

 

One of SYMAAG’s founding members David Price has this letter published in The Guardian 17 April 2018

Amelia Gentleman’s article (Rudd’s U Turn: At last an end to the staggering heartlessness, 17 April) rightly welcomes the belated government U-turn over the Home Office’s appalling treatment of the Windrush generation. But I doubt if this will mark an end to the Home Office’s “staggering heartlessness”.

In 2012 David Cameron set up the “Hostile Environment Working Group”. Sarah Teather, then a Liberal Democrat minister, was outraged by this title and it was changed. But ministers have continued to use of this kind of language and I fear it has moulded Home Office attitudes. Out of this working group came the Immigration Act 2014, which Labour supported at second reading. This act required all sorts of public and private bodies to bear down on people without appropriate immigration documentation. Those of us who warned that it would have a pernicious effect were ignored.

David Price
Sheffield

Originally published in The Guardian 17/4/18 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/17/amber-rudds-windrush-apology-fails-to-impress

The Hostile Environment policy sees landlords, schools, the NHS, banks and employers as border guards

Sheffield election candidates on the spot over asylum policies

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

Amber, Arman and Phillis read out SYMAAG Election Pledges

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

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

We also received PaulBlomfieldPledgeResponses and NickCleggPledgeResponse

candidates were quizzed for an hour on asylum/immigration policies

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

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

Our Election Pledges displayed next to the candidates

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

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

 

all photos by Manuch

Grande Synthe and Calais: July eyewitness report and appeal for support

Grande Synthe and Calais, July 2016

As Caroline and I prepare for our latest trip, the news from Calais is pretty dire – few volunteers are at the warehouse and cold food distribution has had to be suspended because of a lack of funds, donations and people. Fortunately Sheffield Donations for Refugees have raised a tidy sum, and we receive donations and help from people through Unite, family and friends, for which we are very grateful. We bulk buy lots of food, as this seems to be the greatest need at the moment and once again Nico’s car is thoroughly rammed with donations.

Driving to and around Calais has become second nature now, we get to the warehouse in good time and unload. We arrange to meet with other volunteers next morning to go to the Medecins Sans Frontieres camp in Grande Synthe near Dunkirk. We’re glad to go there again, when we last visited in March the camp had only been set up a couple of weeks, and it will be good to see how things have progressed.

The Refugee Information Bus is on site, which gives advice and legal support to refugees in camp. We’ve brought them ten copies of the Right to Remain toolkit which have just been published, and stop for a chat. Unfortunately many refugees don’t want to hear the facts about how hard it will be for them if they make it to the UK and the intricacies of the asylum system, it’s a tough message to get across.

To save costs we’re staying on a campsite this time. Somehow we make ourselves understood to the campsite owner, despite our abysmal French, and soon we are putting our tent up in a gale. We decide to eat there tonight, even though the menu consists of two steak dishes and Caroline is vegetarian. The campsite owner offers to make up a salad for her, which turns out to be quite disgusting, then over-charges a scandalous amount for the meal. Definitely need to brush up on expressions of outrage in French if we’re coming here again.

Next morning we pack up the car with the items for distribution in Grande Synthe. Camp security is now organised by central rather than local government, and it’s a change for the worse. Previously the security was unobtrusive, but these guys seem to have modelled themselves on nightclub bouncers. They allow our vehicle in as it has boxes and bags for distribution but are refusing entry to other cars. One woman is there to collect furniture from the women and children’s centre to be moved elsewhere but they won’t let her on to get them, much to her frustration.

Our first job is the 12 o’clock men’s distribution, giving out items including socks, t-shirts and toiletries. The intention is to make it feel like a shopping experience with an element of choice, and there is much deliberation over sock selection. Two volunteers are outside advising what items are available, keeping an eye out for queue jumping, scuffles etc. But we’re not expecting any trouble, because we don’t have any shoes. Fights have broken out over shoes more than once – hardly surprising when people are walking around in sandals or in trainers with the backs broken down.

DistributionHuman rightsBarbers

There are more than enough of us so I go and help the woman who needs to shift stuff off site, but as soon as I get in the car a refugee approaches to ask when I am going back to the UK. I explain it will be on Monday, and he asks if I could take some things over for him. I’m not entirely clear what and why he wants to move things, but take his phone number and agree to visit his shelter later to discuss.

The women and children’s centre has really come on since our last visit in March, it’s now screened off from view. It has an electricity supply, enabling people to charge mobile phones and use other equipment; and a row of wood-burning stoves so that the women can come and cook meals. The volunteers there are having a meeting, discussing what activities would be appealing for the women – there is so little for people to do here. Suggestions include massage, weaving and sewing sessions, though these are all dependent on having volunteers with the right skills and equipment. A boy of about 12 with very good English is translating the ideas to some of the women to get their approval.

Women's centre

The meeting over, as we put the chairs and table that need to go off site into the car, the refugee who wants me to take stuff to the UK comes by again, and turns out to be the father of the boy doing the translating; I am also introduced to his mother and younger siblings. In the car park we transfer the furniture to another vehicle, and then the over-officious security refuse to let the car back on site, although they can plainly see it is still loaded with items for the 3 pm distribution. I have to go and get the lead volunteer, but even then they refuse entry – there is no rhyme or reason to the rules, which appear to have changed since this morning. Eventually they let us on but tell us we must be off site again in three minutes.  But they have no real interest in enforcing this, so we take our time unloading for the afternoon distribution.

We go for lunch, which is surprisingly tasty considering it consists only of rice and chickpeas, then Caroline and I go to visit the refugee family.  We are warmly welcomed to their shelter, and given tea and biscuits while they explain the situation. The father has already lived and worked in the UK and has permission to stay, but can’t meet the financial requirement to get visas for his family.  Clearly there is a cunning plan to get the family over, but whatever it is it won’t allow them to carry much luggage. We agree to take a large bag of the family’s clothes and shoes and a pushchair with us to drop off with their friend in England, then head off for the 3 pm distribution, which goes smoothly.

Loaded up with the family’s gear, we go back to the warehouse. We’re not that hungry but grab a bit of lentil curry anyway in case we don’t get another chance, because we’re definitely not eating at the campsite again. We do decide to have one drink there before heading out to another bar though, which also proves to be a mistake – when the campsite owner pours us two glasses of white wine, Caroline is appalled to see a dead bluebottle float to the top of one. The replacements he is forced to provide are warm and we make a mental note not to drink here again either.

At the other bar there is a hog roast, so Caroline is doomed to salad again, even the crudites are secreting bits of ham and fish. We manage a stilted conversation with some French holidaymakers, though it’s not until the end of the evening that one of them asks why we are there. He’s not very impressed when we explain what we are doing, though as guests we are appeasing – we understand that it is a difficult situation for French people in Calais as well, and it is a UK problem. He complains that the refugees get everything for free – clothes and food – which is partly true, but we explain that the clothes are old and the food is limited. Regardless it has been a pleasant enough evening and we decide to return there for the Euro 16 final the following evening.

We get to the warehouse early on Sunday – possibly a mistake as we are then lumbered with all the washing up from the previous day. I bump into one of the volunteers from the Calais women and children’s bus on our May trip, it’s her day off today and she needs another volunteer there, so our plans for the day are sorted.

At the bus the first thing we notice – they’re hard to avoid – are the dead rats littering the place, which look quite fresh except where they’ve been run over. At first we are concerned that there is some new disease around causing them to die, but later we are told that blocks of rat poison have been placed around the camp, so more likely they have eaten the poison and died on the way back to their nest in a sandy pit opposite the bus. Trying to ignore them, we put the day’s items for distribution on to the bus. It has been moved out a bit from the fence to the container area, to create a play area complete with a garden, shed, caravan and gazebo.

Today is cinema day and children start to arrive to watch Space Jam, while women come to collect the limited items we have – mainly baby wipes and nappies – and to sit down and chat for a while. Some of the women I met on my last visit, there has been little change for them in the meanwhile. An air conditioning unit and solar panels to power it have been provided, but no-one has had the time or knowledge to get them working, so as an interim measure the bus windows upstairs have been lined with reflective material and it’s more bearable in the heat.

Through her work Caroline has learnt a few words of Farsi and Arabic which she uses to good effect in communicating with the women. As lunchtime approaches I get a message asking if I could give a lift to a volunteer who needs to work out a money transfer with a refugee he is helping so I go back to the warehouse, and catch an impromptu drumming performance by a very young volunteer on a drum kit that was randomly donated the previous day.

Drumming

Aidan on drums

While I’m gone lunch arrives on the bus, provided by the warehouse kitchen, which, for the first time I’m aware of, turns out to be a meat dish. Caroline’s on the salad again.

The money transfer mission ends up aborted and I go back out to the bus. The baby wipes have run out, a woman who needs some is angry because there are never any left when she comes to get some. We calm her down by telling her to come back in an hour and I go to get more from the warehouse. As I leave I’m waylaid by two Ethiopian women – could I take them to the train station? It’s not on the way but I know from experience it will take them an hour to walk there so I agree. They are getting the train to one of the other French camps – they’ve been there before, and come back to the Jungle, but are now returning. There seems to be quite a lot of camp hopping going on and we’re not sure why – sometimes to visit other family members, or perhaps just to relieve the boredom.

I’ve been in and out of camp all day but each time the CRS insist on seeing my vehicle pass and driving licence and looking in the back of the car before waving me in reluctantly. Back on the bus, the woman gets her wipes and advice to come earlier in the future. A man comes to the bus door to say that his wife has just given birth, she needs clothes for the baby. We don’t have any here, and again he starts to get angry, but we make a note of his name and promise to bring what she needs the next day. Life here is a continual cycle of frustration and waiting.

Of course we are fortunate enough to be able to leave, and at the end of the day we decide to go into Calais to the Family Pub, catch the end of the Wimbledon final and get an early meal that doesn’t consist of salad. Then it’s back to the campsite and out to the bar for the football, which is of course full of folk with French flags painted on their faces singing the Marseillaise. The guy from the previous night asks us if we have been to the Jungle today – were the refugees aggressive, because they always seem to be aggressive when the French news cameras are there? We tell him about our day and show him the pictures we have taken – the sight of those dead rats perhaps gives him a bit of a different perspective, and his aunt who is with him thinks we are doing a good thing. The mood is more downbeat however once France lose the match and we make a quick exit at the end.

Marseillaise

After a poor night’s sleep due to gales battering the tent, we pack up then meet the guy from the Refugee Information Bus and continue our conversation about how to get useful information across to residents of the camp. Perhaps we can get refugees who have settled in Sheffield to come out and advise in appropriate languages; start to link in more effectively with the growing networks for refugee support in the UK. Plenty of food for thought once we are back home.

After an interminable wait for the campsite owner to get over his hangover and return my passport, we drop off a volunteer at the women and children’s bus then spend our last couple of hours at the warehouse making up food parcels, before heading for the ferry and home. On our way we drop off the refugee family’s belongings with their friend and text to say we hope to see them in the UK – we get a text back saying “We hope so too”.

We are still waiting to hear if they have made it. And waiting to find out what the implications of Brexit will be on the camp and border – if the Mayor of Calais has her way, the camp will soon be closed down. Waiting for politicians to stop backstabbing in order to save their careers and put forward some ideas for handling the migration crisis (there are honourable exceptions of course). But at least we don’t have to wait to know whether we will ever see our families again, or have a proper home again. And we have plenty to do, trying to ensure that aid and volunteers keep flowing to Calais, Dunkirk and beyond, and building the networks to support refugees here in the UK.

 

Thanks to Fran for this report and for the pics

You can read accounts of previous solidarity trips to Calais and Grande Synthe camps here

You can donate to Calais and Grande Synthe here

Your support is needed more than ever

The Business of Migration

For corporations like G4S, Serco, Capita and Mitie the suffering of refugees is part of their “asylum markets”. The biggest ever single Home Office contract – the disastrous COMPASS asylum housing contract –  is up for renewal next year. On the eve of an inquiry into its many failings, John Grayson looks at how global business is licking its lips at the money-making opportunities in housing, monitoring, detaining and deporting people escaping persecution.

 

John Grayson, BBC TV Inside Out programme March 2015

“The man in the family said they had bed bugs everywhere in the house.” A volunteer in Barnsley, in the north of England, was telling me about conditions in a house provided to asylum seekers by G4S, the world’s biggest security company.

The volunteer went on: “The man spoke only a little English but he was really worried about the house and his young wife Jemma (not her real name) and her elderly 76-year-old mother living with the bugs. His mother was frail and slept on the settee or sat on the carpet — with the insects. They had complained to G4S ten days before, and the local G4S worker said they would replace the carpet, but of course the bugs were still around.”

So the volunteer complained to G4S: “More than two weeks after the family had gone to them, a G4S team arrived — and took photographs! They said they would return in another ten days.”

Are bed bugs such a problem? The volunteer explained: “Bed bugs are a public health risk and bites can directly affect the health of a frail elderly woman. I am getting back on to G4S.”

I visited the family myself a few days after that. G4S had at last replaced the carpet, settee, and all the beds in the downstairs flat. Jemma told me: “We have been living with the bugs since December — the flat is now clean, and nice again.”

Welcome to Britain

Over the past few months I have spoken with asylum seeker families in G4S housing in South Yorkshire, who have spent months in homes infested with mice, endured months without a cooker, months with ceiling leaks, and months with water flooding in from front and back doors. I’ve met a mother who is forced to share a bed in a tiny room with her eight-year-old son. This is what the UK government’s ‘reception policy’ welcoming refugees looks like.

Shared bed for woman and son, aged 8

Earlier this year the BBC and The Times reported shocking allegations about another asylum housing provider, Orchard & Shipman, a Berkshire-based property company working under contract to the outsourcing giant Serco in Glasgow.

Asylum seeker tenants have been “kept in dirty and dangerous homes”, the Times reported on 18 February. They had “felt threatened and humiliated”. The allegations include the case of a mother and baby housed in a cockroach-infested property in Glasgow”. The newspaper reports O&S “staff spraying air fresheners at asylum seekers, while laughing and pinching their noses, and an allegation of a man being housed in a property with blood-spattered walls and no lock on the front door.”

openDemocracy contacted Orchard & Simpson for comment. “We contracturally can’t say anything — it would have to go through Serco,” said a spokesman.

Serco told the BBC: “All property is cleaned prior to residents moving in and checked for compliance with the Home Office requirements.

“Every property is also inspected weekly and both Serco and the Home Office conduct random inspections covering at least 20% of all properties every month.

“Orchard & Shipman staff are expected to be courteous and respectful at all times.

“If any resident is unhappy with the behaviour of staff there is a complaints procedure that residents are briefed on. All complaints are fully investigated and appropriate action taken if required.”

The charity Freedom from Torture recently reported that conditions in asylum housing had not improved since 2013:

“Torture survivors receiving therapy at our centres continue to report unacceptable treatment. This includes allegations of being locked out of their homes, belongings going missing during housing inspections, sexual harassment and physical aggression. In one case, a torture survivor said a contractor even entered their bedroom while they were sleeping.”

A concrete floor in a freight shed

We now know, thanks to a report by Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, that in the early autumn of 2015 when people made it across the Channel they were detained in Longport freight shed near the Eurotunnel terminus. The Report states that

“Conditions were wholly unacceptable. Detainees were held overnight and/or for several hours with no clean or dry clothes, no food or hot drinks, and nowhere to sleep other than on a concrete floor. Many had had long and arduous journeys before arrival at Longport.

Some detainees had not eaten for very long periods and many were hungry. Detainees gestured to us that they were hungry by pointing to their open mouths.

Detainees arrived with scabies, headaches and other conditions related to dehydration, such as diarrhoea. However, toilet and washing facilities were inadequate and blankets were not washed after each use, presenting obvious health risks. From 31 August to 3 October 2015, a total of 569 detainees were held, including 90 children, most of them unaccompanied. The average length of detention was just under four hours… However, the longest single period of detention was for 21 hours 25 minutes and was of a child…The detention of women and minors in this environment created safeguarding concerns.”

The company responsible for security at this holding centre is a Capita company Tascor working as a contractor for the UK Home Office. Capita are the people who last year tagged an asylum seeker woman in Barnsley G4S housing. They’ve been heavily involved in the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ project, texting migrants — and political activists who are longstanding British citizens — telling them to “Go Home” .

According to the industry portal Sourcingfocus.com: “Capita leads the ranking of the British government’s biggest suppliers of the year 2015 with $14.5bn in sales to the UK government.”

A thriving business, or not?

Asylum detention and reception centres, and housing, are now routinely sold and resold by corporations and companies totally financed from European taxpayers. The Swiss company ORS Service and its reception centres, camps and military bunkers in Switzerland, Austria and Germany have been sold three times since 2005 to private equity companies.

Equistone Partners Europe Ltd, a London-based private equity firm linked to Barclay’s Bank that manages $4 billion of funds, bought the business for an undisclosed sum in 2013, touting the acquisition in their annual report as a new opportunity with “promising organic and acquisitive growth potential”.

Dead mouse, G4S asylum housing, Sheffield 29 March 2016

In the UK, security companies G4S and Serco, and the private housing company Clearsprings are currently negotiating with the UK Home Office to extend their hold on the £620 million COMPASS asylum housing contract they acquired in 2012 – the largest ever private contract given by the Home Office. They are doing this in a growing climate of media and public hostility to the creation of ‘markets’ in sectors of care and protection which have traditionally been the responsibility of government.

In rare front page coverage of an under-reported scandal, G4S and its subcontractor Jomast was accused of creating “apartheid on streets of Britain” by painting asylum seekers’ doors red and thus identifying them and leaving them open to attacks.

G4S, struck by a BBC Panorama that broadcast apparent bullying, verbal abuse and physical assault by its workers in a child prison — Medway Secure Training Centre – has decided to sell its government contracts.

Recent reports in the FT suggest that outsourcers running UK immigration centres are losing money. Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco and grandson of Winston Churchill, argued on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line in June 2015 that Serco was set to “lose £115m over the next five years” on their share of the COMPASS contracts, and that they had “raised £700m from shareholders to meet these costs”. When John Whitwam, G4S head of COMPASS and their managing director of immigration and borders, answered questions at the Home Affairs Committee hearing on the ‘red doors’ on the 26 January, he also claimed that G4S was losing money on its asylum housing saying: “This is a loss making contract…no profits at all.”

So who is making money out of the UK’s ‘reception’ policies?

Mitie (Management Incentive Through Investment Equity) claims to be “the largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”, and it now manages the controversial Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration detention centres. In August 2015 MITIE reported an increase in annual profits which the company attributed to the new contracts. The Home Office is handing Mitie £180 million for an eight-year contract to run these centres.

Mitie’s Harmondsworth detention centre, the largest detention centre in Europe, was visited by Peter Clarke the UK prisons inspector in September 2015. He found that

“Many men were held for short periods but well over half were detained in the centre for over a month and some for very long periods. Eighteen detainees had been held for over a year and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.……Some of the newer accommodation was dirty and run down but the condition of some parts of the older units was among the worst in the detention estate; many toilets and showers were in a seriously insanitary condition and many rooms were overcrowded and poorly ventilated. ……Many rooms designed for two were being used for three detainees and some for four, with insufficient furniture. ……Staff told us that there had been insufficient clothing available and some detainees were in ill-fitting clothes; shoes had been in short supply for several weeks and some detainees had only flip-flops.”

In October 2015, shortly after accepting a Conservative peerage from David Cameron, Mitie CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith gave an interview to the Financial Times. She fondly recalled her years at Serco, and the early 1990s when Margaret Thatcher handed public contracts to commercial contractors. “It was a young industry,” McGregor-Smith told the FT. “It was exciting; there was a sense of limitless potential.”

The newspaper reported that McGregor-Smith took £1.5m a year — “more than 100 times the earnings of many of her 70,000 cleaners, carers and security guards, a lot of whom are on the minimum wage”. She took umbrage at the FT reporter’s interest in that.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive, Mitie (Ed Robinson/OneRedEye for Mitie)

Rupert Soames of Serco claims that privatisation is profitable. In June 2015 he told Radio 4’s The Bottom Line that the outsourcing market “makes Britain now to public service provision what Silicon Valley is to IT”.

In November 2014 Serco were given a further eight years and £70 million by the Home Office to renew their contract to manage Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire despite allegations about abuse, sexual exploitation, rape and self-harm.

In March 2015, following revelations of abuse and neglect of women at Yarl’s Wood, the Labour Party’s then shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper declared: “This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the home secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”

The Home Office commissioned Stephen Shaw, a former Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, to lead a Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons and his report was published in January 2016. Shaw visited the family detention centre known as CEDARS, that is run for the government by G4S and the children’s charity Barnardo’s, and reported: “My overriding impression was of a misdirection of public money that could be better used for other purposes. The centre has had no residents on either of the two occasions I have visited.”

He wrote: “the cost per family must be many tens of thousands of pounds, yet up to half are actually released rather than being removed.”

He went on: “The current use of the centre is simply unacceptable at a time of financial austerity,” and urged its closure or change of use.

The Home Affairs Committee supported Shaw’s call in its report on 4 March calling the level of spending per detainee “outrageous and unsustainable.”

In the ‘low security’ markets of asylum housing the Times reckons that G4S contractor Jomast — the company that painted asylum seeker doors red — will trouser £8 million of public funds over the next year for housing 2,646 asylum seekers. Stuart Monk, head of the family firm, has a personal fortune of £175 million. When Monk appeared before the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on 21 January he defended his business, saying that he was supplying a “product suitable for an asylum seeker”.

Stuart Monk of Jomast, Home Affairs Committee, January 2016

Two weeks later, on 9 February, the committee grilled James Vyvyan-Robinson, managing director of Clearsprings, a company which entered the asylum housing business with its partner Reliance Security in 2012 with a £75 million contract for the south of the UK and Wales.

Clearsprings forced asylum seekers to wear red wristbands to get food in its centre in Cardiff. Vyvyan-Robinson admitted that his annual salary was over £200,000 despite the ‘small amount’ (a two to three per cent return he claimed) the company made on the contracts. Graham King, the founder and chairman of Clearsprings, had taken £960,000 from the company in the last financial year. Vyvyan-Robinson had been with Clearsprings for ten years, before which he served as director of business development for Group4 Securicor (G4S), then Reliance Security.

Chukka Umunna, MP for Streatham, at the committee hearings, observed that many people would see asylum contracts as a “bit of a racket”.

Scrutiny and transparency

The Home Office revealed to the Financial Times late last year that it was negotiating with G4S, Serco and Clearsprings about the option to extend the COMPASS contract for asylum housing for at least two years beyond 2017.

These negotiations are taking place behind firmly closed doors. On 20 January SNP Member of Parliament  Stuart McDonald raised the issue of scrutiny, asking: “When will a decision need to be made into the extension of these contracts and what opportunities will there be for parliamentarians to scrutinise and input into that decision?”. (20 Jan 2016 : Column 1429 Hansard)

The immigration minister James Brokenshire simply ignored the question.

For months McDonald has been calling for an Inquiry into the COMPASS contracts by the Home Affairs Committee of which he is a member. Glasgow and Sheffield City Councils and the Scottish Refugee Council have all called for an inquiry. SNP members signed an ‘early day motion’ (EDM) in the Westminster parliament on 25 February to this effect.

When the Times exposed Jomast’s red doors policy on 20 January it was Brokenshire who ordered an  “an urgent audit” of Jomast’s properties in Middlesbrough.

Red doors and whitewash

According to the Home Office audit report, the inspection team “discussed incidents of anti-social behaviour and verbal and physical abuse with approximately 60 asylum seekers”. But they accepted the evidence of multimillionaire property develop Stuart Monk, concluding: “It was not a deliberate policy for asylum seeker accommodation to be identifiable by the colour of the doors. This was a consequence of the sub-contractor Jomast painting the doors of many of their properties red, a practice going back 20 years, according to the evidence which Stuart Monk the Owner and Managing Director of Jomast gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 26 January.”

Never mind that the chair of the Home Affairs committee Keith Vaz had described Stuart Monk’s evidence to the committee as “unsatisfactory”.

The audit was not an audit of tenants’ repairs and property complaints about the Jomast Middlesbrough asylum housing stock as one might expect. After all, Stuart Monk of Jomast told the Home Affairs Committee when asked to send the complaints to the Committee “There’ll be a lot, there’ll be an enormous number.”  [video here: 5.31pm to 5.33pm]

Instead, a Home Office team inspected 78 properties over six days and audited paperwork from previous Home Office and Jomast planned inspections. How well did Jomast perform in responding to the ‘enormous number’ of complaints from tenants? We don’t know.

Brokenshire used his Home Office ‘red doors’ audit to suggest more generally that the contractors for COMPASS were ‘on track’. They were now being fined much less for providing unfit properties under the contract. Only £158,000 in 2014/15 compared with £5.6 m in 2012/13. In fact, wherever activists monitor asylum housing they find a shocking world of rats, and asbestos, with tenants being ridiculed and punished by G4S and Serco staff.

The Home Affairs Committee itself issued a report on the ‘red doors’ and ‘red wristbands’ on 4 March that contradicted the conclusions from the audit. It concluded that the: “delivery of the contract has been mostly unsatisfactory to date, with these episodes highlighting flaws in accountability and oversight of the contracts, and a failure to ensure that the way asylum seekers are treated and housed meets basic standards.”The HAC was clear in its report on 4 March that they plan to investigate “the quality of accommodation provided in all parts of the UK under the COMPASS contract.”

Last month Keith Vaz announced that the Home Affairs Committee would indeed start a full inquiry after visiting the “horrific” housing provided by Serco’s contractor Orchard & Shipman in Glasgow.

“Before the Home Secretary signs the next contract, the committee will have things to say,” Vaz told the BBC.

“So we will conclude our inquiry in plenty of time for the Home Secretary to be able to reflect on it before she signs the new contracts.”

 

This article was originally published at Open Democracy

 

As part of our input into the inquiry into the COMPASS asylum housing contracts SYMAAG is organising two evidence-gathering sessions on May 21st in Sheffield and Barnsley. If you want to contribute (details will be anonymised) get in touch with us or come along to one of the sessions on May 21st. Venue and time will be on our Events page.

The Immigration Bill: “turning people against people”

Over 70 people came to our January public meeting on the latest Immigration Bill. There was consensus that the real aims of the Bill were

 

  • to create a hostile environment for people seeking asylum
  • to appease and inflame racist stereotypes about people coming to the UK
  • to create precedents for charging for basic services and using techniques of exclusion and repression that could potentially be extended to all of us
  • to “turn people against people”

 

But there was plenty of opposition and discussion of ways to monitor the effects of the Bill and to refuse to implement it. You can read a summary of its main provisions below.

 

To get a better picture of what happened at the meeting see this Storify account. Thanks to all who contributed to the meeting and for spreading the news about it – in particular Fran from ASSIST and Marcia for the main photo.

 

The Immigration Bill is not yet law and is still being discussed in the House of Lords. You can track its progress here.

 

 

 

________________________________________________________________________

A new year, a new Immigration Bill, a new attempt to stir up a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants in the UK. According to Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield:

“To call the suggested measures dangerous would be an understatement. They vilify the exploited and, even worse, strengthen the hand of unscrupulous employers. The steps contained in the Immigration Bill not only risk forcing undocumented workers into exploitative employment relationships—supposedly outlawed by the Modern Slavery Act—but potentially give abusive employers even more weapons with which to threaten employees”
He should know, having sat on the parliamentary scrutiny committee which went through the Immigration Bill line by line in November and December. So, we’re pleased invite to Paul Blomfield MP to introduce a discussion on what the bill is and how we oppose it.
                         ________________________________________________
Thursday 14th January 2016 SYMAAG Public Meeting:
What is the Immigration Bill and how do we fight it?
With speaker Paul Blomfield MP
7-9pm (doors open at 6.30 for tea & biscuits) 
Quaker Meeting House 10 St James’ St, Sheffield S1 2EW
_________________________________________________
Demonstrating against the last Immigration Bill in Sheffield December 2014

Demonstrating against the last Immigration Bill in Sheffield December 2014. Pic by Sam Musarika

What’s in the latest Immigration Bill?
  • A new offence of “Illegal Working” carrying huge penalties for undocumented workers
  • Making landlords responsible for checking immigration status of prospective tenants
  • Creating a new offence: driving a vehicle while not legally resident
  • Making banks responsible for policing accounts of undocumented migrants
  • Extending the “deport first, appeal later” policy
  • Restrictions on asylum support for those with initially rejected asylum claims

 

The results (aims?) of the Immigration Bill if it becomes law are likely to mean:

  • Increased exploitation of undocumented workers as they are driven “underground”
  • Discrimination and racism against prospective tenants who look or sound “foreign”
  • More police stop and search actions targeted against ethnic minorities
  • Excluding part of society from access to banking and related services
  • Deporting people to persecution in their country of origin, denying appeal rights
  • Using destitution as a weapon against undocumented migrants and their children

 

 

Protest against Home Office harassment of Chinatown workers 2014. pic: Harry Stopes

Protest against Home Office harassment of Chinatown workers 2014. pic: Harry Stopes

 

 

What can we do?

The Immigration Bill has already been voted through in Parliament (see how your MP voted here) and is now at committee stage in the House of Lords, where amendments are still possible.
If the Bill does become law, SYMAAG will work with others to create resistance to the Bill being put into practice eg trade union efforts to recruit and work with undocumented workers, monitoring the results of the landlord checks, publicising destitution caused to families due to asylum support cuts, supporting people who try to make “out-of-country” appeals against deportation.
This Immigration Bill, like the last one, aims to create a “Hostile Environment” for undocumented migrants. It also attempts to turn landlords, local authority workers, employers, bank workers, teachers, health workers into border police. We should refuse to play this role and support others when they refuse to.
imm bill demo odette
Millions of people in the UK took action in support of refugees last summer: “Refugees Welcome” was the message and solidarity efforts continue with donations and trips to the Calais migrant camp and Lesvos and demands to give asylum to refugees. But – as the latest Immigration Bill shows – the battle for the rights of migrants, documented or not, doesn’t end when they reach the UK. As Lucy Mayblin of Sheffield University put it, writing about the Immigration Bill, “the boring bits matter too“.
                                                                **********
Find more about the Immigration Bill
with thanks to Banksy, Sam Musarika, Harry Stopes and John Grayson for art and photos

“The refugees simply command respect” – eyewitness report from Calais

 

After reading about others making solidarity trips to the refugee camp in Calais, my friend and fellow Unite Community member Stuart and I decided to do our own visit, taking over a van load of donations and staying to volunteer for a few days.

We had fantastic support from people, raising sponsorship from Unite and lots of individuals, as well as donations of equipment and practical help making food parcels.  We also get lots of excellent advice when researching the trip through various Facebook groups and L’Auberge des Migrants, a French volunteer organisation.

 

Introduction

We have to leave a lot of stuff behind as we are over the weight limit for my camper van, but eventually manage to set off at 6am one November morning with only the most essential donations.  It’s really windy and a dodgy window on the van causes some concern but is resolved by begging gaffer tape off lorry drivers in a lay-by.  We make it onto Eurotunnel only slightly late, the border police search the van when they hear we are volunteering, but only in a cursory way and are not unpleasant.

On arrival we spend an hour or so getting lost in Calais, but finally make it to the warehouse to unload.  It’s getting near knocking off time when we arrive but we get all the donations moved to the relevant part of the warehouse.  A visit to the toilets round the back – Glastonbury long drop style – reveals a few people staying in caravans, so we decide to park up there as well, ready to start work in the morning.

 

Reproduced by kind permission of the cartoonist Kate Evans from http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Reproduced by kind permission of the cartoonist Kate Evans from http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Part 1 – The Warehouse

Volunteers meet at the warehouse at 9am, and first order of the day is warm-up exercises and an introduction to how things work around the place.  The more long-standing volunteers are identifiable by orange hi-viz jackets, the rest of us are in yellow, but they are at pains to point out that there is no hierarchy, everyone is welcome to suggest improvements.

The majority of volunteers only stay for a short period, and today most of us are here for the first time.  We soon discover that it doesn’t take long to become a veteran – some orange jacketed people have been here for a grand total of one week.  It’s a good, co-operative atmosphere.  Snacks at break times and lunch are provided, everyone is made to feel welcome.

Inside the warehouse it seems pretty chaotic at first.  Most noticeable is the mountain of unsorted donations.

mountain

The mountain

Many, many donations arrive like this, not sorted or just split into men’s / women’s or similar – all of them end up in this pile.  Someone then has the tedious job of going through them all and separating into men’s trousers, men’s t-shirts, etc; followed by another round of sorting into small, medium and large sizes.  Same goes for shoes, coats…  All this takes up lots of space and time – it’s immediately obvious that loads of volunteer time would be freed up if this stuff was sorted in the UK by people who want to help but aren’t able to come to Calais.

Stuart and I are put on the “lucky bags” team, getting boxes of pre-sorted clothes and bagging them up to contain a jumper, t-shirts, socks, pants, hat, scarf and gloves, to be distributed to refugees in the camp.  At various points I also work on hygiene packs, made up of toothbrushes / toothpaste, razors and shaving foam, soap, shampoo and the like; and welcome packs including a sleeping bag, torch, clothes etc.  Again, all stuff that could be done in the UK freeing up valuable volunteer time.

lucky bags

Lucky bags

Then there are the items that are not fit to be worn, and the ridiculous stuff – the high heels, the dinner suit complete with protective cover, the improbable hats, the wine glasses, the empty unwashed marmalade jars.  Loads and loads of kids’ stuff is donated, far more than can be used by the number of children and babies in the camp.  I spend an hour or so at one point tipping items that have just arrived straight into “cash for clothes” bags – at least then a bit of money is raised, but it seems such a waste that people have filled vans with this stuff and spent money on petrol to bring it over.

On Thursday afternoon I’m trying to tidy up the area near the front of the warehouse that has got overwhelmed with random arrivals.  With a few of us on the case it gets done, and by the end of the day the place is looking a lot better.  It turns out that the fire in camp the week before had created some turmoil in the warehouse, with an urgent need to get donations distributed in camp to people who’ve lost everything in their shelter.  There can be lots of volunteers at weekends but less during the week, so it’s good to be back on top of things in time for the weekend rush.

By Friday I’m a one day veteran, and am able to be a bit more proactive as more and more people arrive, helping them unload and getting the donations to the right area.  I’m a bit embarrassed when one woman catches me “cash for clothesing” the stuff she’s just brought – but she takes it in her stride and understands she needs to focus on different items next time.

I feel like I’ve learnt loads that can be taken back to the UK through the warehouse work, and am pleased to have tried out a variety of jobs so know how it’s done when I get back.  But we’re keen to get down to the Jungle itself now – with all respect to the warehouse team, the people who supported our trip will want to hear about the refugees themselves rather than the volunteers supporting them. We start to frequently remind the orange jackets that we want to go on a distribution trip, and when the call finally comes early on Friday afternoon we drop what we’re doing in the warehouse and leap into action.

 

Reproduced with kind permission from Kate Evans. http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Reproduced with kind permission from Kate Evans. http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Part 2 – The Jungle

There are six of us in the distribution team and we’re first given a briefing on how it will work.  The driver will stay in his van, and once the back doors are opened two people stand on each side at the back, flanking the middle person who is giving out the packs to people in the line.  Without people on the flanks the refugees start to all crowd around the back of the van, it can get chaotic and some people start to take more than their fair share, it’s altogether more dignified if everything happens in an orderly way.

We drive quite a way into the camp before selecting a distribution point, so I have a chance to form some first impressions.  There is a main drag strung with lighting; restaurants and shops have been constructed using wooden frames and tarpaulins – some look better stocked than the shops near my home in Sheffield.  Behind and in between these there are a lot of tents but also quite a lot of small shacks, they too have been built using a wooden frame and tarp.  Lots of people are chatting away on mobiles and one guy is polishing his windows.  It’s all far more structured than I’d expected. Maybe it’s the association with those long drop toilets, but I’m actually reminded of Glastonbury – a rain-sodden mudbath of a Glastonbury, as although it’s dry now it’s been periodically lashing it down over the previous 24 hours.

We decide where to distribute and immediately some refugees come up to the van, calling out, “line, line” and getting into a queue.  Hearing this more refugees start to join the queue, we’ve got the back doors open and I’m handing out the lucky bags.  These all look pretty much the same so no-one’s trying to swap or holding out for a different item.  Everyone is good-natured – one boy of maybe 14 keeps trying to come back for another pack but we’ve got his number and turn him away with a smile and a joke.  When the packs run out some people are left disappointed but no-one gets cross.  The line seems to be self-policing and the whole thing takes less than 15 minutes.

Pleased that it’s gone so quickly, the driver suggests we have a look around for half an hour and everyone is up for it.  We go to park the van a little bit away from the Jungle then walk back in.

We visit a building called the information centre, which amongst other things gives out advice on asylum matters in the UK.  This is right up Stuart’s street, and straight away he gets pulled into conversation with the volunteers there about UK asylum law. The others head off to the nearby library, and I pop out shortly after them to make sure I can see where they’re going, the other side of the church.

Just as I’ve spotted them, two teenage boys approach me anxiously; they are trying to call an ambulance for a woman in a nearby shack, but have very little French or English. Her boyfriend has to help her into her trainer so she can hobble out to show me what is wrong, her leg is clearly giving her a lot of pain. I have a long garbled conversation on their phone with the ambulance operator in English, the upshot of which is that we need to get her to one of the entrances and call again with the correct street name.

Stuart has caught up with me by this time and is on the case checking we are doing the right thing, getting the street name and ringing the ambulance again as she makes her way slowly and painfully to the entrance, reluctantly leaning on her boyfriend and me when she needs to. This has all taken some time and we know the others will be worrying so Stuart goes off to explain, they’re coming out later on another distribution and will pick us up in an hour. The ambulance arrives and the Eritrean woman is driven off, her boyfriend having to trudge back into camp.

We go on a bit of a wander, check out the library and chat to the people volunteering there. I consider using the toilets but the couple I look in are as bad as the worst Glasto toilet you ever saw. We are frequently greeted by refugees with smiles and hellos and handshakes, beckoned into restaurants. A young woman asks us if we can get her a suitcase, she wants to leave this place and go to another country but she needs a suitcase. We explain we don’t have one, maybe she could ask when another distribution team comes in and she quickly abandons us, no use to her.

After an hour darkness is edging in so we call the driver. He’s back in camp and explains that they’re in the middle of a jumper distribution, but it’s getting a bit hairy and he wants to call a halt – he’ll pick us up at the entrance. Ten minutes later here’s his van – with several refugees on top of it, a few more clinging to the back and more following behind – “line, line!” He says he’ll pick us up a bit further away from the camp, some of his distribution crew are still in the jungle; Stuart and another volunteer go back to find them while I catch up with the van, now well out of camp, but with 30 or so refugees still around it. Everyone seems good-humoured – they don’t even want jumpers, they want shoes, they want coats, they want a lift to London, to Paris, maybe Italy?  We’re trying to stay jokey and light-hearted but it’s dark now and it all feels a bit intimidating, we’re relieved when the other volunteers finally show up, perform a slightly frantic synchronised leap into the van and scoot off.

Lots of us meet up later in the pub and exchange stories and thoughts, there’s been too much going on today to process it all for now, so it’s good to relax a bit and get to know some other folk. A pint of wine is cheaper than a pint of Stella, this is my kind of place!

calaissheffieldlogo

Next morning my plan is to join the clean-up crew in the Jungle for the day, but after a bit of confusion (not because of the wine surely) the lift I grab is headed for the warehouse not the camp. I immediately volunteer for a distribution going out, now a two day veteran. It’s the van of jumpers from the night before, but now many people are in bed after being up all night trying to jump the trucks, so we can take a bit more time over it, ensuring people get the right size and a bit of choice. It’s blowing a gale and freezing cold with rain coming in.  Some of the refugees are wearing flimsy sandals but we have no shoes with us – one volunteer whips off his own socks to give to a young guy in just a pair of flipflops.

We hand out most of the jumpers then I search out the clean up crew. They’re working in a section where most tents have collapsed and been abandoned; every piece of rubbish that I pick up reveals another three.  It’s now started to piss it down and after half an hour I’m soaked and have made sod all impact.

Muttering vaguely about catching up later, I head off to see if the Eritrean woman from yesterday is back from hospital. Her boyfriend is worried, she’s not come back, he wants to go to the hospital to see her. I spend the next hour toing and froing, finding a medic who offers to drive him but doesn’t know the way, trying to find a map; her French speaking colleague offers to phone the hospital, so I go back to the boyfriend to get her name, but it’s not recognised by the hospital, back to get a date of birth (she’s 17), still not recognised and, defeated, back to the boyfriend to apologise, I cannot find anything out.  He is downcast but thanks me anyway.

I’m fed up at this failure and need to do something practical to keep going. The Ashram cafe has enough people helping out already, but a woman there hands me a bag full of tent pegs and a hammer.  Tents and tarps are flying about all over the place, many beyond repair and having to be abandoned. For the next few hours I’m roaming the camp helping people to fix what’s salvageable.

The weather is still filthy, even the more solidly built structures are affected, the roof is coming off the library, but many people are out working, rescuing tents, getting on with their building projects. I help out various people, too much wind and rain and not enough language in common to get into proper conversations, but plenty of handshakes and smiles and good to feel useful again. A group of Iraqi men are delighted to see a claw hammer, they use it to get the nails out of a pallet to re-use on the shack extension they are building. One of them who has better English turns out to be from Middlesbrough, here visiting family members.

If there is one big thing I take from this visit it is the determination and resourcefulness of the refugees throughout camp, who carry on working despite the weather, making use of whatever resources are to hand, creating order out of mayhem. Before the visit what kept me awake at night was worrying about facing up to the misery and desperation of the refugee crisis, but on the ground I can only admire the grit and ingenuity on display – if I were faced with their circumstances I think I’d be curled up in a ball whining, but they just get on with it, usually with a grin. The pep talks at the warehouse about how to respond to people in the Jungle are by the by once in camp – it’s not about volunteers bestowing dignity, the refugees simply command respect. If Cameron and his ilk only want people entering the UK who will bring skills and work their arses off, you really couldn’t get better than these guys.

Photo by A Gerrard

Photo by A Gerrard

In pub conversations with other volunteers, we reflect that the Jungle may actually be a step up for many  people there – in their home country they may well have been living in shacks or slums and in poverty – at least here they’re not being shot at or bombed. Others have come from better off circumstances, driven by war out of their professional roles and apartments, and of course I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s going on in camp, but just getting this far requires immense perseverance.

One encounter in particular makes my pre-visit white privilege angst seem a tad ridiculous. An Eritrean guy stops me for some pegs, I offer him the hammer but he says he lives too far away, that’s ok so we set off and on the way he explains his wife is pregnant, in between apologising for the distance.

We arrive at one of the little wooden-framed shacks and he sets to work with hammer and pegs to an adjoining tent, insisting I go inside to meet his wife. As he said she is pregnant, so has been afforded an actual mattress and decent blankets. She’s pinned more blankets to the walls and at one end of the narrow strip of floor space has set up a little table, on which are laid out her toiletries and comb (and a candle in a jar – eek). The carpet covering the rest of the floor is a most attractive Bradford City AFC sleeping bag.  I’m afraid my boots will besmirch it but she has a cardboard mat to protect it.  It’s proper cosy. We make some limited small talk, how many months pregnant, how many months in the camp, and she gives me a custard cream. She couldn’t be more gracious and hospitable.

The afternoon wears on, I haven’t planned a lift back anywhere and am a bit wary of it getting dark after the previous evening, so around 4 I decide that’s it for the day, return the hammer and head off. As I’m walking out the best thing happens – the Eritrean boyfriend comes running up, his girlfriend is home, and here she is, she’s had a night at the hospital and been dosed up with antibiotics, she looks loads better and we share a hug. As I leave I’m elated that I got to find out the ending to that little story.

While this high remains throughout the walk back to my van, which I’ve considerably under-estimated and takes an hour, I also get a reminder that the situation isn’t going to go away – 15 minutes out of camp a group of new arrivals stop me to ask for directions to the jungle. New people are arriving all the time, the camp has doubled in size over the last few months.

In the evening we meet volunteers who’ve been out to Dunkirk, where another camp is building up, composed mainly of Kurdish people. There is much less structure there, the stories really are of desperation and misery, of women and children drenched by the rain and not even a tent to shelter in. As in the Jungle there are no aid agencies on the ground, just the likes of us doing our amateur best to help out*.

I can’t pretend to represent the views of any refugees as the conversations I had were short and limited by the language barrier, but I have to make a couple of very obvious political points. Despite my earlier comparisons, the camp is nowhere near the size of Glastonbury. It’s a few thousand people, less than one for each town in the UK. And yes, of course more will come, especially as the bombs keep dropping; so there is absolutely no point playing the numbers game, the boundaries are constantly shifting . Open the borders across Europe and start working together to enable everyone to contribute to our society. I really can’t see any alternative – the current situation means refugees have no choices open to them, so for god’s sake let’s get on with the job of getting people settled and stop with the “not enough room” nonsense and anti-refugee rhetoric.

* Doctors of the World UK provide a clinic in the Calais camp and are amongst the refugee charities being supported by the Guardian’s 2015 Charity Appeal.

Reproduced by kind permission from Kate Evans http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

Reproduced by kind permission from Kate Evans http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk/threads-the-calais-cartoon/

 

Part 3 – An explosive ending

So yes, then the van exploded. We didn’t see it, others did, we’re told it was loud, there was a fireball when the petrol tank blew, the firefighters were heroic; one woman was cowering in a stairwell expecting the shooting to start.

I later realise that the explosion must have taken place at the time we were chatting away in the pub with a guy I’d met earlier at the warehouse, where he’d taken an interest in the van, tightening up a loose light fitting, chastising me for not cleaning it, recommending a website for a replacement window. A guy called Boomer, as it happens.

We just arrive back to the charred remnants.

van 1

Most likely the fire was set by thieves breaking in and burning it down for the fun of it, though we can’t rule out more sinister motives.  But pointless to speculate, as the French police couldn’t be less interested.

 

Epilogue

We’re somewhat shell-shocked the morning after the van getting torched, and upset to find out that there has been a fire at the camp also, destroying 50 shelters. As usual this was probably caused by a candle. We get lots of support from other volunteers and a lift to the ferry; after some delay and form-filling because our passports have been burnt or stolen we’re on the ferry, and my partner has thankfully driven all the way to Dover to collect us on the other side.

Back in Sheffield I’m still processing everything and am distressed to read that the camp fire was in the Eritrean section; someone has posted on Facebook about a pregnant lady who has been made homeless, and I’m not sure if it’s the same lady who welcomed me into her home (have since found out it was a different pregnant lady, but no means of knowing whether the Eritrean people I met were affected by the fire). In this context the loss of the van feels like small beer, although the loss of our passports means we can’t go back to Calais as quickly as we’d like.

And we will definitely be going back. My circumstances won’t allow me to go for as long on each visit, but we can certainly do shorter trips and have the knowledge to make them as useful as possible.

Spreading the word here in the UK is also vital, building solidarity amongst our communities, getting practical advice out to those who visit Calais, and campaigning for political change.

 

 

Have you been inspired to go to Calais by this? We hope so. If so the information below will be useful. We plan to make regular trips from Sheffield  to Calais, sometimes with one vehicle, perhaps a small convoy. If you want to find out when we plan to go next email dignitynotdetention@yahoo.co.uk, leave a message via this website, follow @SYMAAG on Twitter or have a look at our Facebook page.

Volunteering

I’m not going to name all the brilliant volunteers we came across in Calais because I will inevitably forget someone, but what a great group of people, so pleased to have met you all.  Since we came home many are already busy raising more funds and planning to go back, so I hope we will meet again.

This page is really aimed at those who are thinking of going over to volunteer for the first time, with some thoughts on where your time is best placed and some practical tips.

Firstly, do research your trip properly.  There is loads of great advice available on the various Facebook groups dedicated to UK-Calais solidarity (all links on next page) – people there will answer any questions you have.  If you’re taking donations over please please please make sure it’s the right kind of stuff and is properly sorted.

If like me you are a novice at such things, I really recommend working with l’Auberge des Migrants who manage the warehouse.  The warehouse work isn’t particularly glamorous and it can be frustrating to be doing stuff that could be done in the UK, but it’s great for getting an understanding of how donations are used, meeting other people and for getting experienced people alongside you when you visit the Jungle itself.  They know how things work in camp and how to get donations to the people who need them most, as well as the general distributions.

If you have construction skills to offer, l’Auberge also focuses on construction work, building shelters and getting materials into the Jungle so that the refugees can work on their own projects.

If you have other skills, there are other groups doing specific work, e.g. medics, that you should be able to find details of by asking in the Facebook groups .  As a volunteer librarian, one of the things I am going to focus on is getting more books to the library, Jungle Books, especially bilingual dictionaries and ESOL learning materials, and books in the relevant languages (Arabic, Pashto, Amharic, Tigrinya, Farsi, Urdu).

If you don’t have much time and/or feel confident enough to go straight to the Jungle, make sure you are taking the right donations – there is already a huge waste management problem out there so don’t make it worse – and seek advice / think carefully about how you will distribute them.

Other general tips:

  • The youth hostel offers a reduced rate for volunteers after the first night, you need to quote the relevant name which you can get from l’Auberge des Migrants if you volunteer with them.
  • The hostel, warehouse and camp are not particularly close to each other, a few miles between each, so think about how you will get around.
  • I’m usually not bad at finding my way around when driving, but didn’t get my bearings in Calais at all!  Take a satnav if you can!
  • The Family Pub.  It’s a terrible name for a pub, but very welcoming to volunteers, decent mid-priced food and great for meeting other volunteers and sharing experiences at the end of day.
  • Try not to get your van burned down.

 

by Fran Belbin, first published on her blog

 

 

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Links

Calaid http://www.calaid.co.uk/

Calaidipedia http://www.calaidipedia.co.uk/

Calais Migrant Solidarity https://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/

l’Auberge des Migrants http://www.laubergedesmigrants.fr/ (French)

Facebook groups:

l’Auberge des Migrants https://www.facebook.com/laubergedesmigrantsinternational (mainly English)

UK – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromUK

There are also lots of specialist groups linked to this group – e.g. for waste management, construction, firewood, food distribution

For Sheffield people:

Sheffield – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromSheffield

Sheffield drivers and passengers group https://www.facebook.com/groups/497004920476240

 

 

Thanks to Kate Evans (Twitter @cartoonkate) for her kind permission to reproduce some of her cartoon “Threads – the Calais cartoon”. You can see the whole thing in its full beauty here.

Thanks to all those people who made our trip possible.  Unite the Union NE/GEO/1(Sheffield East branch) which donated £1000, Unite Community South Yorkshire and many people who gave money. And time: someone had to fill 300 bags with portions of coriander, salt and turmeric.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are by Fran. And special thanks to her for doing most of the planning, loading and all of the driving to Calais. At least you didn’t have to drive back. RIP Bimble the camper van.

“Break fences, build bridges” Sheffield welcomes refugees

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” was the call from 250 people on a march and rally in Sheffield on October 10th.

"Refugees are human beings. Fences are for animals". Activists and artists from Hope and Dignity. pic by Tim Dennell

“Refugees are human beings. Fences are for animals”. Activists and artists from Hope and Dignity.
pic by Tim Dennell

Not only was there a good turnout for the march – called by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group – but it was supported by many organisations:  Sheffield University Amnesty International, Sheffield Unite Community Union, Nether Edge and Heeley Labour Party, Sheffield Green Party, Sheffield Trade Union Council, ASSIST, People’s Assembly, Sheffield City of Sanctuary, Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, Hope and Dignity and many refugee organisations. The march was led by refugees and university students carrying a replica border fence!

rwhbreakfencesTesfam, a refugee from Eritrea stressed the need to address the underlying causes of migration from his country. “To say ‘Don’t Let Them Drown’ is only the start, we need to look at the colonial roots of this refugee crisis. My country was wealthy”. Tesfam explained that his grandfather had been killed by the British colonial forces in Eritrea in 1941: by a soldier from Rotherham in the Yorkshire Regiment. Tamara had just returned from a support visit to the Calais refugee camp and explained how conditions there undermined people’s humanity.

We marched up The Moor shopping precinct to a mixed reception: some applause and curiosity, some hostility. It certainly wasn’t possible to ignore 250 of us chanting loudly, many dressed in red to symbolise the blood spilt trying to reach safety. Perhaps the sight of real asylum seekers in person will make people think when they next hear refugees described like animals.

We ended at Sheffield Town Hall for a rally addressed first by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty. Shami congratulated the marchers for “shaming politicians” and explained that “human rights abuses are so often used as a justification for war ‘over there’ but never for human rights’ protection ‘over here'”.

You can watch video of the protest and an interview with Shami Chakrabarti by Sheffield Live here. Unite trade union also made a great short video of the march followed by interviews here 

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John Dunn an ex-coalminer on strike for a year in 1984-5 told us about his holiday on the French Riviera involving a chance encounter with the Ventimiglia migrant border camp. He compared the violence of the British state against striking miners to that of French and Italian police against the Eritrean and Sudanese inhabitants of the border camp. “Governments always want an external enemy, it was us (striking miners) in 1984 now it’s migrants escaping persecution and war”. He called for solidarity from trade unions and announced his intention to establish a “Miners For Migrants” group.

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There was time for everyone who wanted to speak to have their say, including Pride from Cameroon;  Abdi Suleiman from University of Sheffield, Gogo from Hope and Dignity; John Grayson and Phillis Andrew from SYMAAG; Councillor Nasima Akhtar; Kaltun Elmi, a local Somali community activist; Phil Turner from Rotherham Unite against Fascism and Graham Wroe, Sheffield Green Party

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Only a month after the picture of Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Greek beach, Theresa May signalled the end of any show of compassion, blaming migrants for destroying ‘cohesion’ in the UK. But for many people around Europe ‘migrants’ became seen as human beings, efforts were made to welcome refugees, mountains of goods for refugee camps were collected. We want Sheffield City Council to match this solidarity by resettling many more refugees in our ‘City of Sanctuary’. We want the UK Government to grant asylum to people currently living in desperation in camps around Europe. Our movement isn’t going away. Neither are people escaping war, poverty and persecution.

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Do you want to volunteer to support refugees?

  • Collect material for the Calais border camp and help sort stuff already collected
  • Support one of the Sheffield to Calais aid trips, like this one
  • Teach English to refugees
  • Help recruit and train refugee football teams
  • Donate to refugee charities
  • Help feed and house destitute asylum seekers
  • Support people seeking asylum with advice and legal support
  • Campaign for policy change

If so visit the Sheffield Volunteer Centre website, contact us at dignitynotdetention@yahoo.co.uk or download the volunteering fact sheet below. Many organisations in South Yorkshire and beyond can offer you training and support to work with people seeking asylum. You can download a summary at How Can I Help Make Refugees Welcome in SheffieldUpDATED

 

Thanks to Tim Dennell, Jonathan Christian, Kaltun Elmi and Sheffield Live for photos

All photos below by Tim Dennell

Shami Chakrabarti: "We are shaming the politicians who cry crocodile tears for refugees"

Shami Chakrabarti: “We are shaming the politicians who cry crocodile tears for refugees”

Phillis, vice-chair of SYMAAG closes the rally with a call to keep fighting

Phillis, vice-chair of SYMAAG closes the rally with a call to keep fighting

Welcoming refugees in Arabic and English

Welcoming refugees in Arabic and English

Kaltun speaks. Red was the colour today

Kaltun speaks about Sheffield being a welcoming place for refugees

Let them in

Let them in

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“We could not just walk by”: eyewitness report from migrant border camp

by John Dunn, ex-coal miner and striker during the 1984/85 miners strike and member of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign
“Just back from a week in the South of France, staying in Menton, a Riviera Town a few kilometres from the Italian border. On our first afternoon there Beverley and I decided to see if we could walk into Italy.
We could. Actually it’s dead easy, although it seemed a bit intimidating walking past armed gendarmes standing a few feet away from equally tooled up Carabanieri, but we strolled by unsolicited, neither side asking to see our passports, which we didn’t have.
A hundred yards or so in we saw a few banners and a collection of tents and realised we had stumbled across a migrant camp. Thus was explained the tooled up border guards.
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“We could not just walk by”
We could not just walk by, or take photos as if it was just another tourist attraction, so we entered the camp and made ourselves known. A young Italian lad who spoke good English was brought to us and explained the situation, the migrants, I use that term, on his insistence as he refused to call them refugees simply because they were being denied that status, had arrived in July, mainly Sudanese and Eritrean with some Syrians. They had landed on the rocks that line the coast and been left there with nothing, simply sleeping in the clothes they wore. The young man and others from an anarchist group had gone to support them and had stayed there since, being joined by other volunteers of differing political persuasions.
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Our first thought was on how well the camp was run and organised. This was nothing like the scenes of Calais assaulting our senses daily, courtesy of our wonderful media. It was as clean as it could possibly be and well laid out and structured. A couple of young migrants kicked a ball about, obviously glad to just be alive. Our interpreter explained that the camp was run as a collective with all decisions being made by meetings of both volunteers and migrants. No sense of a threatening atmosphere at all.
We explained that we were socialists and trade unionists from Britain and told him about the 100,000 demonstrating in London in support of refugees, something about which he knew nothing but promised to share the news with the camp. During all this I was almost overwhelmed with the sense of humanity within the camp and the fact that people were gladly giving up their time to help those less fortunate. I have wasted far too much political energy on organisations that want to ‘talk about it’ but do little else, here were people, mainly young, actually doing something about it!
Not wanting to take up any more of their time we made our farewell. We had not gone out with much cash but gave them 20 Euros which was so gratefully received it was unbelievable. Our interpreter gave us a clenched fist sign of solidarity and left with the words “hasta la victoria siempre” (“until victory, always”)
I have to admit I walked out of that camp emotionally shaken and glad my eyes were covered by sunglasses.
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On our last day we visited again, we had some holiday euros left so made another donation. This time we spent more time, talking and listening. One of our young interpreters knew about our strike and had seen the film Pride, she told us that at its peak the camp had housed almost 2000 desperate people and had originally started purely as a protest against the refusal of the French government, that had exploited countries around the globe, to allow these people access.
I shudder to think what would have happened had the camp not been formed.
Most impressive was to see 40 or so migrants in a lesson, learning French, all paying strict attention to a young woman whose only technical aid was a flip chart. We were allowed to take photos but strictly no faces as these people face repression if identified, both in their country of origin and any country they might reach.
 
Show Support
Determined that our last visit would not be the end of it, this time we took contact details in order to raise their plight upon return. This is their Facebook page, please ‘like’ it and show support – Presidio-Permanente-No-Border-Ventimiglia.
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We intend to raise support for them here, details will follow. I cannot help but remember the tremendous solidarity shown to my union, the National Union of Mineworkers, which sustained us through that fateful year. In the name of humanity if we can do just a little of that to aid people who literally have nothing then we can show some of that solidarity. One of the banners said simply that they could not go back because they have lost everything!
Please take note of that anyone who thinks we should not help!
I would never have imagined, when planning the holiday that my belief in humankind would be reinforced by being humbled, and seeing, even in the most desperate circumstances, humanity and compassion expressed so vividly.
The irony is that whilst we could stroll between borders without challenge, human beings fleeing war, torture and starvation are left to rot in a no man’s land.
A better world has to be possible.”

Postscript from John:

 

“The migrant camp I previously posted about was attacked by police last night during a peaceful demonstration. Where have we seen that before?”
Eritrean refugees carry the Orgreave Justice banner at Durham Miners Gala. ESOL classes are now hosted in the Miners Union HQ in Barnsley

Eritrean refugees carry the Orgreave Justice banner at Durham Miners Gala July 2015.  English as a Secondary Language classes are now hosted in the Miners Union HQ in Barnsley