Rats in the Kitchen, Sodden Carpets: Mears Group Asylum Housing

Mears Group took over asylum housing provision in Yorkshire from G4S this year. “It can’t get any worse” was the reaction of many asylum tenants. Were they wrong? John Grayson looks at life for an asylum seeking family in Rotherham

‘That’s where the rats get in.’ April [all names have been changed] was showing me round the kitchen in her Rotherham asylum house. I was visiting her with a volunteer interpreter to investigate reports that the family was in real difficulties. The visit confronted me with the worst case of neglect by an asylum housing provider I have encountered in my research and campaigning on asylum housing over the past seven years.

April and her husband Alan, who are of short stature, have a 6-month-old baby Rose who has a hole in her heart, and two other disabled daughters: tiny 7-year-old Sue, and 3-year-old Kelly, both of them have short stature and multiple health issues, including kidney problems. The family is from the Middle East seeking asylum and safety in the UK.

Since May 2019 the family has been forced to live in a house, totally unsuitable, in fact hostile to their disabilities and miscellaneous health needs. It floods regularly, water comes through the door and windows, mould grows on the wall and there are rats in the kitchen.

‘They said if I did not go into the house then I would be put on the streets’

April told me (via the interpreter), ‘they brought me, my new baby and disabled daughters from the Birmingham hostel to here. When I was in hospital after the birth someone came and asked me where I would like to live. I said my baby was born in Birmingham so I would stay in Birmingham. The person said that they would find me a flat for my kind of family. Then they came to the hostel and brought me, my new baby and my two disabled daughters to this house. When I saw the house, I told them I did not want to live there. They said if I did not go into the house then I would be put on the streets.’

She continued: ‘They sent me to the hostel in Wakefield when I was nearly due to have my baby and then moved me to the Birmingham hostel. Just before I was having my baby, they wanted to move me back to Wakefield, I said no’

With Kelly and Sue playing around us, April showed me over the house. In the living room, April pointed to damp and mould near the windows. ‘When it rains water comes through the window frame and under the door and the carpet gets very wet and my children cannot go on it’. April shows me the stains and water marks on the drying carpet.

Three-year-old Kelly says, in perfect, English, ‘I am tired.’ April states proudly, ‘Kelly goes to nursery and learns English now.’ Then through the sparsely furnished dining room, she points to a new washing machine and a fridge, still standing in their packing cases. ‘They came yesterday, we have not been able to wash clothes for weeks.’

‘That’s where the rats come in”

In the kitchen, April opens a cupboard under the sink. ‘That is where the rats come in.’ I ask April when she last saw a rat. ‘Last night it was a big one it came out of there.’ I had seen on the Visitation Log on the house notice board, that housing staff had visited on 23 and 26 November for ‘pest control’. It was now 7 December, and there was no evidence of closed poison boxes for the rats, or any other ‘control’ measures.


Outside the back door there was an abandoned toilet block, possibly one source of the rat infestation. There was a squalid backyard with rotting wooden decking leading to a large overgrown patch of weeds. This was the only outside play space for two young disabled girls with multiple medical conditions.

Living with disabilities in a Mears asylum house

April takes us all upstairs. ‘Alan and my son are in Croydon today. When they are here, there are six of us in these two rooms. There is only one small wardrobe for all of us.’ On the ceiling of the corridor are water marks from dripping water. In the bathroom April points to the toilet. ‘When we use the toilet, water leaks from the pipes into downstairs.’

April tells me, ‘I am very small, and I cannot carry my baby and watch my daughters up the stairs. Kelly has one leg shorter than the other with a twisted ankle and she fell down the stairs and broke her leg.’

April shows me reports from Sue and Kelly’s consultants at the Sheffield Children’s Hospital. The children have multiple medical needs and are undergoing tests and scans. The Children’s Hospital is eleven miles from April’s house. ‘I have no help with the travel expenses’, she tells me. ‘Alan and my son have never had any money. All of us have no ID cards.’

The ID or ARC (Application Registration Card), introduced in 2017, is given to every asylum seeker to acknowledge their asylum claim, and is at the centre of the everyday lives of asylum seekers. According to the Home Office, it ‘displays an individual’s claimed identity to third party organisations, where it is used for internal and external status checking to establish entitlement to services and the right to work.’ The ARC is also used by external bodies including the police and the NHS to verify identity details held by the Home Office.

I have never heard of a whole family denied ID cards for this long by the Home Office. April and her two daughters came to the UK in March 2019, baby Rose was born in Birmingham and Alan and their son Michael came later.

I ask April how she manages in the house. ‘The house is on hills and I cannot push the buggy with my baby and my disabled daughters. The only way I can reach the food cupboards in the kitchen is by standing on the chair. I have fallen off the chair twice. I cannot reach the sink or the cooker. Cooking is very dangerous for me.’ 

The Home Office, the Mears Group and outsourcing

For seven months, April has been forced to live in this unsuitable, hostile asylum house. No one has intervened to provide accommodation suitable for the family. The Visitation Log on the house notice board shows that Mears staff visited on 27 August, then not again till 1 October and then again on 12 November. Mears claim that their staff visit all their properties every fortnight. No one seems to have contacted the Home Office (which is ultimately responsible for placing the family in the house on a ‘no choice’ basis).

When April and her family were forced to take the house in May, G4S, the largest security company in the world, held the Home Office contract to provide asylum housing in Rotherham. In September, the Mears Group, an outsourcing company working in two sectors (housing management and home care)  became the  UK’s biggest refugee landlord, beginning three 10-year asylum accommodation contracts from the Home Office worth a total £1.15 billion. Mears is one of the UK’s biggest maintenance and repairs contractors, working on over 650,000 homes for councils and housing associations. Mears home care division provides care to 15,000 older and disabled people. The company employs 12,000 people. Mears is now responsible for asylum housing in Rotherham

In April’s house nothing changed when Mears took over. In fact, things got worse. South Yorkshire experienced the wettest November for many years and the damp walls, water leaks and sodden carpets in April’s house just got worse. April’s daughters with their weak immune systems and her baby with a hole in the heart had constant colds and infections.

Holding Mears Group to account

In the weeks leading up to the September takeover Mears Group staff spoke to voluntary sector ‘partners’ in South Yorkshire and stressed that they had experience as a company of the care sector, and would put care for their tenants, particularly vulnerable ones, in asylum housing at the top of their priorities. They said they would appoint specialist welfare officers to work with these tenants.

In the Mears ‘Service User Handbook’ for asylum housing tenants the following appears:

Support plan

If you require any specialist care, you may be provided with a support plan. Your support plan will be reviewed regularly, and other people may attend reviews if appropriate, such as a social worker

  • If you feel at any time that you would like to review your support plan and the review is not due, you can speak to your Housing Manager and they will organise this for you.
  • We will work with you to agree a support plan that meets your needs.
  • If there is anything in your support plan that you disagree with, you can ask for your comments to be included in the plan.

In the Statement of Requirements for the Mears Group’s £1.15 billion ‘Asylum Accommodation and Support Contract’ with the Home Office, the following appears:

Disabled Persons or Service Users with specific needs

Accommodation for disabled persons must be fit for purpose and used for its intended purpose in compliance with relevant legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. The Provider shall ensure that the Accommodation and its associated facilities are accessible by the Service User, and, where necessary, it has appropriate adaptations to enable the Service User to live independently, or in accordance with a Local Authority assessment under the Care Act 2014.

Asylum housing contracts and the hostile environment

Over the past three months the record of the Mears Group in Yorkshire has been disappointing to tenants. In early November the Independent reported on the ‘failing’ Home Office contracts with ‘asylum seekers left with no heating in rat infested homes’.

The new contracts for asylum housing separated the reporting of repair needs from the main housing contractors. This irrational step has meant that the only number available to call about repairs in a national one — the central number for Migrant Help, a charity which has held Home Office contracts for asylum support and advice since 2014. In 2019 Migrant Help won the £100 million contract to run the Home Office system called Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility (AIRE) services, which includes the reporting of repairs. Since September, there have been continual massive delays in asylum tenants being able to report repairs to Migrant Help, to be passed on to Mears. Migrant Help puts the delays down to ‘teething problems’ and ‘high demand’.

In Sheffield, in a Mears ‘mother and toddler’ house which I have visited regularly, there have been four periods over the past two months when there has been no heating and no hot water. Residents told me that they spent literally days ringing the repair number to try and get the boiler fixed. At one stage mothers and their toddlers moved out to friends to keep their children warm. Ruth, a single parent with a 3-year-old, told me ‘I had nowhere else to go. It was very cold for us, I had to boil water to wash and bathe my son.’

The Mears contract is already failing asylum tenants in Yorkshire, like April and her family. Campaigners will get the family moved into more suitable accommodation. Hopefully Mears will monitor the housing conditions for their vulnerable asylum tenants with disabilities much more systematically in future.

I contacted the Mears Group press office on 10 December for their comments on the case of April’s family.

All images © John Grayson

This article was originally published by the Institute for Race Relations http://www.irr.org.uk/news/rats-in-the-kitchen-sodden-carpets-in-the-living-room/



No Refuge From Benefit Sanctions

With “welfare reforms” linked to increasing use of foodbanks and hunger, refugee benefit claimants face the threat of destitution, some for the second time in the UK.


Rolled Out

Migrant rights groups have long pointed to the use of destitution against people seeking asylum as a deliberate tool of government policy. Refugee Action is currently taking the UK Government to court over the issue. Now the policy appears to have been “rolled out” for use against all claimants of benefits, though it seems that refugees are suffering disproportionately


Recent figures show that an unprecedented 897,690 benefit sanctions (benefit stopped completely for between 4 weeks and 3 years) were used against all benefit claimants in the year up to September 2013. The figures also showed that there were twice as many benefit sanctions as job outcomes on the payment-by-results Work Programme for long term unemployed people.

Stuart Crosthwaite of SYMAAG argues how refugee benefit claimants are more likely to have benefit sanctions used against them…

This article first appeared on the Boycott Workfare site at http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=3093 in November 2013. SYMAAG members attended the Boycott Workfare national gathering in February 2014 to highlight the particular problems facing refugees who claim benefits.


No Refuge From Sanctions

If your aim is to reach targets for numbers of people sanctioned then you’ll pick on the easiest targets. Understanding the language of Job Centre Plus (JCP) is hard enough if you speak good English but if you don’t, you’re in trouble. Evidence from South Yorkshire shows that refugees claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) are being disproportionately sanctioned by JCP.


“Most of them get sanctioned at some point” a refugee support worker told me. From interviews with refugees I estimate that at least 50% of refugees on JSA are sanctioned. For women, particularly older women, the figure is higher still.


Why and how are refugees particularly vulnerable to being sanctioned by Job Centre Plus?


  • For most refugees English isn’t their first language. Many are sanctioned for not demonstrating jobsearch activities, verbally and/or via jobsearch records. Some JCP staff accept that other people help with completing forms – I saw one Job Seekers Agreement which explicitly recognised this, although the person who helps record jobsearches is often not allowed to accompany the claimant at interviews. Other people receive sanctions when they explain that they have had help filling in “Looking for Work” books.


  • Interpreters are supposed to be “always available” to those who need them according to JCP, though refugees are rarely told that they can request one. Some refugees told me that JCP staff have lied, claiming that an interpreter was present when important forms like the Job Seekers Agreement were signed. Others complained that interpreters were of poor quality, though understanding the difference between “mandatory” and “compulsory” isn’t easy for anyone.


  • Low quality English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision. Refugees have been sanctioned for not attending JCP-recommended ESOL courses (run by A4e etc), complaining that they are of lower quality compared to community-based, non-commercial ones.


Language problems also make appeals against sanctions and applications for hardship payments more difficult. Support workers frequently had to go back to JCP with refugees to find out the reasons given for sanctions so that an appeal could be made. A lack of familiarity with “the system” and fewer support networks meant it was less likely that sanctioned refugees would seek support in appealing. They were more likely to lose housing benefit when sanctioned, not knowing they had to tell the local authority about the change in their circumstances.


Cultural differences often made sanctions more likely and appeals more difficult: most refugees come from countries where there is no official welfare system. For many, particularly men, there is a social stigma attached to claiming benefit. So when problems arose through sanctions they were less likely to discuss it and therefore be able to receive support.


It’s worth remembering that those refugees on benefits have struggled to achieve refugee status, often after years of having their asylum claim dealt with by another bureaucratic and cruel organisation: the Home Office/UK Border Agency.


It’s important to recognise that many of the measures which are now used to punish unemployed people were tested on those people seeking asylum during the last decade: enforced destitution as an “incentive” and the payment of some benefits with non-cash vouchers redeemable only in certain shops to be spent on certain items. People seeking asylum are not allowed to work while their claim is determined. In 2007 the government abandoned attempts to force them to “volunteer” after widespread protest and boycotting.


Case studies (anonymous by request)


Ahmed from Iraq speaks little English: his Jobseekers Agreement requires him to apply for jobs “using body language”! When sanctioned for failing to verbally explain what he’d done to find work he applied (with help) for hardship payments. He was assessed as “non-vulnerable” and received no payment for 3 weeks. Soon after he was hospitalised with TB, assessed as unfit for work and now receives Employment Support  Allowance


Aida from Somalia was sanctioned for 4 weeks after she insisted that she wanted to do “any kind of work”. Her Job Centre advisor (without the use of an interpreter) told her that she had to specify particular “job goals” on her Jobseekers Agreement.


Louis from Cameroon has a prosthetic leg and speaks virtually no English. His Job Seekers Agreement requires him to visit packing/food preparation factories in person to find work. He was sanctioned for 4 weeks for not being able to explain the steps he took to find work despite having completed his jobsearch record in compliance with his Jobseekers Agreement. His Job Centre advisor claims that a competent interpreter was used at all times but Louis says he did not understand the French translation.



Have you been subjected to a benefit sanction?  Appeal!

87% of appeals against sanctions are successful but only 2% of those sanctioned currently appeal.





malcolm x newspapers


November 8th National Day of Action – Stop Barnardo’s Detaining Children

Thursday 8th November – Any Time – Any Barnardo’s Shop/Office
As Medical Justice put it: “they ruined the campaign to end the detention of children, which campaigners felt could be achievable as the government had already promised it.”
Along with notorious security firm G4S, children’s charity Barnardo’s runs the Cedars family detention centre in Sussex. This is where several asylum seeker families from Glasgow have been detained since it opened last year.
UNITY and other campaiginers will be leafleting outside the Barnardo’s shops in Glasgow at 250 Great Western Road G4 9EJ  and at 116 Dumbarton Road G11 6NY from 11.00am on Thursday 8th November.
Following a series of documented assaults on migrant families held in Cedars, the appalling treatment of the Saleh family, and the damning HM Inspector of Prison‘s report last month.

Anti-detention campaigners are calling on all concerned groups and individuals to join up in an intensive day of action to ratchet up the campaign against Barnardo’s involvement in child detention.


A 27 weeks pregnant woman who was brutally restrained by guards at Cedars was living in Glasgow before being detained with her husband and small son in a raid on her home in April this year which Unity publicised.
Barnardo’s does not really have the welfare of children at heart. If it did, it would have pulled out of Cedars as soon as its own red lines’ had begun to be breached. The reality is that these conditions relating to the use of force against minors and the length of detention at Cedars have been repeatedly broken, and Barnardo’s continued involvement in Cedars is only serving to legitimise the continued use of child detention.
As Medical Justice put it: “they ruined the campaign to end the detention of children, which campaigners felt could be achievable as the government had already promised it.”
Our aim is to put enough pressure on Barnardo’s to pull out of Cedars. We believe this will strip away any legitimacy for the continued use of child detention and take us closer to stopping it for real. We see the fight against child detention as one part of the struggle against the brutal system of immigration detention as a whole.
Suggestions For Action:
There are various simple ways through which you can take action and help stop child detention: if you can’t pay Barnardo’s a visit on the day, you can still phone, tweet or email them and their supporters. Do something!
1. Phone blockade. Call Barnardo’s and ask why they are continuing to work at Cedars despite the repeated breaches of their own Red lines. Remember, senior staff at Barnardo’s never have to hear from the families held at and deported from Cedars. Your phone calls and messages are a chance to put across some hard truths about Cedars.
– Barnardo’s head office: 0208 550 8822
– Press office:  020 8498 7555 (24 hours) – Media and communications managers:  0208 498 7685 or 0113 393 3245 – Corporate partnerships/fundraising: 0208 498 7138
– Commissioning their services as consultants: 0208 498 7734
– Supporter care/telephone donation line: 0800 008 7005
If you would like to protect your anonymity (if you don’t want a call back from Barnardo’s, for example), dial 141 before entering the number.
2. Tweet. If you have a Twitter account, why not tweet these celebrity endorsers of Barnardo’s (see Barnardo’s website for details of their support for the charity). Ask them, politely, if they are aware of Barnardo’s role in Cedars, and whether they might reconsider supporting them.
Actor and author Stephen Fry: @stephenfry
Actress Fay Ripley: @FayRipley Actress Michelle Collins: @missmcollins Actress Amanda Holden: @Amanda_Holden Taekwondo Olympic bronze medallist Lutalo Muhammad: @LutaloMuhammad Rugby player James Haskell: @jameshaskell
3. Leaflet Barnardo’s charity shops. Most Barnardo’s shop volunteers and customers probably don’t know what Barnardo’s is involved with. You can let them know about Cedars and what goes on inside.
UNITY and other campaiginers will be leafletting outside the Barnardos shops in Glasgow at 250 Great Western Road and at 116 Dumbarton Road from 11.00am.
4. Pay a visit to Barnardo’s offices. For a list of all Barnardo’s addresses, see this page.

The UNITY Centre 30 Ibrox Street Glasgow G51 1AQ 0141 427 7992 www.unitycentreglasgow.org

“United By Love, Divided By Theresa May” public meeting. Report and campaign proposals to follow soon…

Public meeting to discuss what the new family migration rules mean and how we oppose them.

When: Tuesday 25th September 7pm

Where: Quaker Meeting House, 10 James Street, Sheffield S1 2EW

Speakers from Migrant Rights Network, SYMAAG and from the Sheffield Yemeni Community Association.


This meeting is being held because major changes in family immigration rules came intoforce on 9 July . These rules mean that

Only people who earn at least £18,600 per year can bring their spouses to join them in the UK – and this increases to £22,400 for a child, and £2,400 for each additional child

Spouses of UK citizens must now wait 5 years before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain – and during this time, they can’t receive benefits

Spouses of UK citizens will have to pass an intermediate English test AND the Life in the UK test in order to settle in the UK

It is much easier to deport the parent of a British child, even if this means a permanent separation

for more information see Migrants Rights Network and Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants websites

You can download a flyer for the meeting here dividedbyteresamayflyer (2)

Next SYMAAG meetings:12th & 30th July

  •  The SYMAAG “No to G4S” working group next meets on Thursday 12th July, 6.30pm at Scotia Works

    Saying No to G4S and No to Serco in Glasgow June 16th


  • The next full SYMAAG meeting is on Monday 30th July, 6.30pm, again at Scotia Works


We meet at Scota Works, Leadmill Road, Sheffield S1 4SE (5 minutes walk from bus and train stations) at 6.30pm.

We can help with travel costs if you need us to (just bring your ticket to the meeting)