South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) Tue, 16 Jun 2020 16:32:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 61904253 Charity So White Tue, 16 Jun 2020 16:27:56 +0000

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted what we’ve known for years: racism is embedded in every aspect of our society and its history.

It isn’t limited to the hostile environment policy or violent racist attacks. It isn’t unique to those institutions that make life hard for migrants or people of colour as a matter of policy. Institutional racism exists everywhere, including within organisations which claim to oppose it. Even organisations in the charity sector which have as their stated aim the support of refugees and people seeking asylum.

Charity So White is an organisation set up to tackle racism in the charity sector. We can learn much from them.

Who are Charity So White?

In their words “#CharitySoWhite sparked a conversation on the many ways in which racism operates within the charity sector. It was a conversation rooted in the experiences of people of colour working in the charity sector. We are a POC led campaign group seeking to tackle institutional racism in the charity sector.

This is a conversation about power and privilege. It is a conversation about how the structures and cultures within our sector reinforce inequality in our sector.

We don’t want to burn the sector down, we want to make it better.”

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Support Urban House residents Tue, 16 Jun 2020 16:01:25 +0000

Asylum residents at Urban House need your support. Urban House is an Initial Accommodation Centre in Wakefield. Like other asylum accommodation in our region it is run by Mears Group as part of a £1.15 billion contract.

Before Covid 19, residents bravely protested about overcrowding, poor food and unsanitary conditions. Not much changed, except Mears banned camera phones so that people couldn’t easily document the appalling conditions.

Now residents are being forced to share rooms making social distancing impossible. There is no PPE. ‘How do we wash our hands with no soap in the bathrooms?’ asked one woman. Residents, including children, pregnant women and people with severe underlying health conditions are being expected to live on food like this…

A typical ‘main meal’ at Urban House

Most of the 240 residents have no money due to asylum support being stopped or delayed.So South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), along with Wakefield charities, Kurdish community organisations, trade unionists, volunteers from churches, mosques and political parties (including a Baroness!) have been organising regular donations of food, sanitary products, clean clothes and children’s toys to Urban House. 
We’ve received huge support and now we need volunteers to help sort, pack and safely deliver these generous donations

What can you do?

📦Volunteer to help sort and pack donations. Every Thursday from 12 noon in Sheffield

Deliver donations from Sheffield to Wakefield on Saturdays

😷Help safely distribute donations to Urban House residents in Wakefield on Saturdays.

💷Donate to our £10,000 fundraising target here

While donations can sustain residents at Urban House in the short term we know the safety and well-being of residents can only be guaranteed by them being moved to dignified accommodation with decent food and room to socially distance and self-isolate if necessary. Along with campaigns in other parts of the UK which have Mears Group as the accommodation provider we are calling for safe hotel accommodation to be provided with some of Mears’ £1.15 billion public money. Already one man, 30 year old Adnan Olbeh died in a Mears-provided Glasgow hotel, a casualty of the hostile environment.

Urban House residents continue to protest for decent food, safe conditions and respect. We ask you to show your solidarity with them.

Read more about Urban House, including interviews with residents, here.

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How Mears are putting asylum tenants in danger Wed, 15 Apr 2020 13:28:12 +0000

Along with asylum tenants, SYMAAG has long documented conditions in asylum housing in Yorkshire and the north east. We assumed that when Mears took over the asylum housing contract in our region from G4S in September 2019 things would improve. They haven’t.

Now in the midst of a pandemic, overcrowding and lack of hygiene are threats to the lives of asylum tenants and residents in Mears-run accommodation. We have called on Mears and the Home Office to urgently remedy this situation.

Here, John Grayson and Manuchehr M-D from SYMAAG investigate conditions in Mears accommodation and how Mears, Migrant Help and the Home Office are putting the lives of asylum tenants in danger.


As one resident said looking at this rubbish left yesterday 12 April near the
front entrance of Urban House “If they can’t manage rubbish, no wonder they
can’t manage Urban House”

Registration started again in Urban House on Sunday 12 April after no checks
for three weeks. Around 120 people were present for Sunday breakfast. The
registration list showed 180 people should have been in Urban House .Around
60 had left for the weekend or for longer with friends to escape infection in UH.
Some will return Tuesday others may not.
But the Home Office has told one man from Urban House, now with friends,
that he has to travel back to Urban House to register. Breaking all their own
stated rules on travel and Covid-19.

Pregnant women

We have managed to get all but one pregnant woman out of Urban House. She
presented to nurses because she thought she was pregnant. Five weeks later they tested her and told her she was pregnant. We are pressing for her to be
moved near to the father of her child.

There are still many children in Urban House
Social distancing is very difficult where children are in queues or in shared
bathrooms etc. On Monday 13 April our estimate from inside Urban House is
that there are still 10 children at risk, under 10 years,4 children under 4 years
and a baby under 12 months. There are two older children of 13 and 14.


Up to the Easter weekend toilets in Urban House were used potentially by 180
people were cleaned only once a day. Now it is only twice a day. We checked the toilet 12noon on April 13. It was blocked.


PPE for staff but none for residents

Kitchen and canteen staff wear masks and gloves. Reception and security
wear masks and gloves, but they are often seen without them – around 20% of
the time they do not wear PPE.
In a policy statement released on 6 April Mears claimed that
“Mears are working closely with the staff at Urban House to ensure adequate
supplies of PPE are available to all users of the building”
On 13 April we were told from inside Urban House that no residents had been
offered masks or gloves.

There is still no possibility for self-isolation for many people in Urban House

There is no change, in that there are still two or three unrelated people sharing

There is social distancing for meals at last – a maximum of 25 people is
allowed in the canteen. This means a long queue for 45 minutes outside the
canteen with social distancing made difficult.

Still no translated information on Covid-19 from Mears for people in Urban
The 6 April Mears statement on Urban House said:
“We have written to all service users, in their native language as well as
speaking with them regularly face to face to make them aware of the
government’s advice to dealing with COVID-19”
On 13 April we were told from inside Urban House that no one had received
any written communication.


Dispersal from Urban House can be worse than staying there

On Friday 3 April two single men were ‘dispersed’ from Urban House to
houses in Stockton and Middlesbrough. They contacted us about the
condition of the properties

There were three other people in the Stockton house. There was no information in the house about coronavirus not even a notice board with a Migrant Help number. We had to give the man the number.
The Middlesbrough house had not been cleaned since a previous occupier.
There was a dirty used toilet, a mouldy shower curtain and used cooking
utensils etc. How was the young man to know whether the previous occupant
maybe had the virus? There were no cleaning materials around. The young
single man was forced to sign for the house – at least it was a one bedroom

Mears are thus not providing decent clean ‘fit for purpose’ housing as defined in the AASC (asylum housing) contracts for many people dispersed from Urban House. Most are still going to shared housing where self-isolation will be impossible. Mears should close Urban House and provide emergency hotel accommodation where people can self-isolate.

‘Christine’ who was in Urban House then in a Mears isolation house in
Newcastle is now in Sheffield. She has fully recovered and is in a clean room
and decent house, but a shared house with two other women.


What about those people already in Mears asylum housing?

Mears claimed in their 6 April statement that translated information on Covid-
19 had already been sent to homes.
“Guidance for Service Users distributed (including COVID-19 Symptoms,
understanding social distancing and possible lockdown),handwashing
techniques which has been translated into 12 languages”
But Mears had claimed to have done this before. On Saturday 28 March, Mears
issued a statement to the Independent saying that the company
‘Has ensured that all service users have translated guidance on how to
respond to Covid-19 and what is required of them.’
Weeks into the Covid-19 epidemic and two days into the lock down period, on
Wednesday 25 March, I rang Mears tenants to ask whether they had received
any information about the Covid-19 health emergency. No one had received
the ‘translated guidance’

On Monday 13 April I rang round 10 Mears tenants in various parts of the
Mears contract area: in South and West Yorkshire, Tyneside and Teesside, to
ask whether they had received written material in their own language on
Covid-19 from Mears. Some said they had received Boris Johnson’s letter on
Monday 6 April – in English.

In Sheffield a lone mother and a 2 year old child no information
In Sheffield a single woman no information
In Sheffield a lone mother and a 3 year old child no information
In Barnsley two single men no information
In Newcastle single man no information
In Hartlepool a lone mother and 3 year old no information
In Middleborough single man no information
In Leeds single man with serious underlying health issues no information
In South Shields single man, no information
In North East village single woman, no information

So, the second Mears statement was untrue – a second lie

And still Mears are procuring slum housing and making tenants suffer
Over the Easter weekend Elaine and her two children of 20 and 14 contacted
SYMAAG from a Bradford house in a street at present with houses selling at
The family had literally been overrun by mice for months. See video Mouse in bedroom (1)  sent to us by the family on Friday 10 April. The family moved from
Urban House into the terraced house next to a derelict property on 23 January.
Neighbours said the previous tenants had been forced out because of mice
but Mears still put the family there.
This family have been ringing Migrant Help from January about this problem.
Mears came but their poison boxes had little effect Very recently a church
group took pity on the family and brought vermin poison but again with no
effect. Again, the family have continually rung Migrant Help about their situation. The family are kept awake by mice running everywhere. The young teenage son is terrified and sleeps with his mother.
You do not have to be a housing expert to understand that the origin of the
infestation is the derelict house next door. The family should never have been
put there. We are trying to get them moved to decent accommodation.

In 2016 in Parliament a Labour MP told one of the G4S contractors for asylum
“You buy up cheap homes in some of the most deprived
communities and you’re making money out of housing some of
the most vulnerable and poor people”.

The Mears Group are doing exactly the same

In January Cllr Paul Wood chair of Sheffield City Housing told SYMAAG
‘I intend to instruct officers tomorrow (16 January) that the policy of
Sheffield City Council is that we want this asylum housing contract to revert
to the Council. We will push for the Mears contract to be terminated by the
Home Office. I think the job of a local council is to do its best to make sure
that all its residents have safe and decent homes to live in.’

SYMAAG agrees We will continue to press for the Mears asylum housing to be terminated by the Home Office.

Bulletin written by John Grayson assisted by Manuchehr M.D.

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Protect asylum residents – Close Urban House in Wakefield. Fri, 10 Apr 2020 14:28:03 +0000

Asylum residents in Urban House Initial Accommodation Centre in Wakefield are living in overcrowded conditions which endanger their lives.

For the past two months as Covid-19 has become a pandemic, people in Urban House hostel run by contractor Mears Group for the Home Office, in the centre of Wakefield, have had to endure unhygienic conditions and constant infestation by bed bugs. They should stay there for three or four weeks. Many have been forced to stay for two months, some for as long as four months

People have been given no opportunity for social distancing or isolation. Two and three unrelated people have to share rooms.

On 22 March there was a suspected case of Covid-19 and the person was taken to an isolation house. But nothing changed.

These photos were taken inside Urban House Wednesday 8 April showing shared rooms. Home Office inspectors were in Urban House on Tuesday 7 April. Why didn’t they take action?

Demand action to allow people in the asylum system to stay safe and protect themselves from Covid-19

Email John Taylor Chief operating officer of Mears

We demand the closure of Urban House.

Put people in emergency hotel accommodation to stay safe.

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Don’t Cut Us Off. Mears: Install WiFi Internet in all Asylum Housing! Sign the petition Tue, 31 Mar 2020 15:39:37 +0000

We demand Mears provide free WiFi in all of their housing urgently, so that residents can contact support workers, lawyers, family in other countries, access medical information, education and entertainment.

Sign the petition here

The Mears Housing Group, an outsourcing company working in housing management and home care, are the UK’s biggest refugee landlord, who have three 10-year asylum accommodation contracts from the Home Office worth a total £1.15 billion from when the contracts started.

Residents in the asylum housing Mears provide have no tenants’ rights, and regularly report damp, ill-repair, rat infestations, and are unable to access repairs as Mears and Migrant Help do not have sufficient staffing or infrastructure to take calls and make repairs under the ‘AIRE’ contract. We have reported and campaigned on this extensively here:

People seeking Asylum in the UK, who live in these homes, are now under ‘lockdown’ due to Covid-19. There is not wireless internet provided in Mears Housing for residents, leaving them disconnected from the outside world, and unable to access medical information, or online resources for home schooling. They are not allowed to work, so would not be able to pay for a WiFi connection. Being locked down in poor housing is creating a high risk of mental health problems from social isolation. People seeking asylum who live in these properties in South Yorkshire have reported to us that they have asked Mears for WiFi, but this has not been granted.

One resident was due to have a tribunal appeal this week, and therefore needs to be in close contact with her lawyer. Her partner (who she does not live with)  is seriously ill in hospital with CV19. She said, “We struggle with sorting everything and when we buy data for our phones it runs out very quickly. With Wifi we can watch things on our phones and not feel so lonely and isolated. WE need to access e mails to communicate with our lawyers. I am afraid of missing important, urgent e mails.

We also need to keep up to date with everything that is going on and changes with what we are allowed to do, and not supposed to do.”

Many residents of Mears housing usually spend a lot of their days out of the home, volunteering and involved in community projects. Now locked away without access to these communities, this creates a very high risk of mental health issues.

We demand Mears provide free WiFi in all of their housing urgently, so that residents can contact support workers, lawyers, family in other countries, access medical information, education and entertainment.

On Tuesday 24th March, a representative of Mears Housing said that Mears are currently ‘assessing comms needs’ for residents. Provision of free WiFi for those without any income can only be a good thing. People who have no income, and cannot take out a mobile phone contract, cannot use mobile data, which is very costly. Many residents have previously used libraries and public WiFi which they now cannot access. We are concerned that Mears may use evidence that some have used internet elsewhere, or spent any money they do have on costly mobile internet, to avoid paying for WiFi routers in these homes. We ask them to immediately install WiFi routers, that cover the whole house, and with enough bandwidth for the number of residents in each property.

Sign the petition here

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‘How do we wash our hands with no soap in the bathrooms?’ Tue, 31 Mar 2020 15:18:07 +0000

The appalling, overcrowded, unhygienic housing offered to some asylum seekers and their young children is putting them at especial risk of Covid-19. A refusal of insanitary accommodation leads to threats of homelessness. John Grayson of South Yorkshire Migration & Asylum Action Group investigates the reality in Leeds, Halifax and Wakefield.

Helen ‘I don’t want to stay in that haunted house’

Helen is from South Asia with a 13-month-old daughter Debbie, she rang me late in the afternoon on Wednesday 18 March because she had been taken from Urban House to a mother and toddler ‘unit’ in Leeds. She was distraught, saying the Mears housing manager had said she could not refuse to stay there and had left her saying she would return the next morning. Helen said, ‘I don’t want to stay in that haunted house’.

I went to Leeds the next morning to wait for the manager and tell her that Helen had the right to refuse the accommodation. Arriving at a Victorian villa in the suburbs of Leeds I realised that four years ago, in March 2015 I was at this same Victorian villa just after G4S had leased the former student accommodation from a developer.

I met five of the mothers in the building in the first floor ‘lounge’, all of them spoke some English, some were fluent. Hazel was holding a kettle full of boiling water. ‘We have had no hot water in here for two months. I am just going to fill a bath for my baby. We have reported and reported it, nobody in Mears does anything. The housing manager says she has reported it.’

Helen pointed to the dirty carpet, ‘I am frightened for my baby on that carpet. She is already ill with a vomiting sickness’. Kelly said, ’We have to put down bed sheets over the carpet so our children can crawl and play here. We vacuum regularly but this carpet needs a proper deep clean – or changing for a new one.’

I remembered the building and asked if I could look around. I told them I was trying to improve the conditions and they were happy to show me round. The room allocated to Helen was tiny and there was another small bedroom but many of the rooms were quite large. Bathrooms and toilets were grubby, and very old, internal window frames rotten. One shower was broken and very dirty. There were a couple of vacant rooms so probably about 18 mothers, babies and toddlers are resident there.

Downstairs, what I remembered as the playroom (four years ago) was now simply packed with buggies with a space for a sofa. Drying washing was piled on a radiator near the main door. ‘We keep the kitchens as clean as we can do’, said Kelly. Hazel pointed to a closed bag full of dirty nappies in the corner of the first-floor lounge, ‘There are no special bins for the nappies.’ Beth joined in the discussion on hygiene. ‘Every child in this place is on antibiotics for some infection or other. My own child recently had mumps. Thank goodness no other children have got it from him.’

Sewage, rats and a dead fox

Our conversation was interrupted by two workmen coming into the hallway. One of them asked, ‘Do you know where we can get into the cellars?’ I asked if they were there to repair the boiler. ‘No, we’ve been told they are flooded.

A few minutes later Steve and Joe (not their real names) returned. Steve said, ‘The cellar is not flooded with water, it’s sewage down there.’ Joe said, ‘You can come round the back with us if you want and take photos of the cellar. There must be dozens of rats here. I saw their holes all round the building. I’ll take some photos for you. There’s a dead rotting fox in the outhouse near the front door. I’ve taken a picture of that too. Those babies and toddlers should not be living in this place, it should be closed down.’

I remembered that Helen had told me she had seen a rat the night before. Steve and Joe were independent sub-contractors for Mears, and they rang and reported the sewage. I asked them to report the hot water problems at the same time. Over an hour later, two Mears workers arrived asking if anyone knew how to get into the boiler room.

Eventually the Mears housing manager Fiona (not her real name) arrived determined to make sure Helen accepted the room. I asked her about the hot water and the rats. ‘I have reported the hot water. The rats are outside the building not inside and I reported them.’ I asked her if she would be happy for her own two-year-old to be living in the building. ‘Alright,’ she said, ‘I will report the rats again.’

For the next few hours Helen and I negotiated with Fiona’s managers at Mears to try and get Helen alternative accommodation. A compromise was reached where Mears managers agreed to move Helen with her baby to one of the many hotels they are using for those waiting for a move to accommodation.

I sent my report on the ‘unit’ immediately to the constituency workers of the local MP Alex Sobel. They sent me the response they received from Mears, denying all my claims and those of the independent contractors. Here are relevant sections dated 20 March:

We have a newly recruited resident welfare manager on patch, X who has visited the property every other day over the last 2 weeks and spent time 121 getting to know the residents and children. I held a small steering group last week to collect resident thoughts and feedback and again this Monday [16 March], there were no concerns raised about lack of provision, we are continuing to monitor this alongside the children centre and react accordingly.

The cellar flooded due to bad weather and we believe food waste being placed down sinks, nappies and wipes being thrown into the toilet also. Yorkshire Water removed the blockages two weeks ago (emphases mine)

So … Mears says that all the mothers I spoke to and the independent contractors were … lying?

The Leeds mother and toddler ‘unit’ and the children in there have had to endure the poor hygiene and lack of hot water at a time when a national health emergency was unfolding. A similarly worrying situation had developed at Urban House IAC (Initial Accommodation Centre) in Wakefield.

‘How do we wash our hands with no soap in the bathrooms?’

Our South Yorkshire Migration & Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) had organised discussions with twelve of the residents of Urban House in early February. Further contacts and discussions were held and testimony recorded with eighteen new people on 4 March. These discussions, often through our interpreter, were dominated again by worries over food for children, bed-bug infestation, health care and constant references to poor hygiene in the bathrooms and showers in the older parts of the 310-bed hostel.

One couple who came out to see us said they were moving on the next day. David, from the Middle East, said, ‘We have had bed bugs in our room. We have been bitten for all the 56 days we have been in Urban House.’ Most of those who gave us testimony had been in Urban House for months. The majority of the people we spoke to were women. One told us of an operation in her country where the surgeon told her to avoid infections and gave her medication. She told us, ‘I am terrified of going to the dirty toilets and I cannot get my medication renewed in Urban House. I am sure my vaginal infection is getting worse.’ Another woman was crying, ‘I have had to leave my two small children in my country, I cry all the time. I am desperate. I need medication and counselling support. The nurse at Urban House just said “try not to think about your children”.’

With the women, whom we met in the town centre, we looked online to find an NHS walk-in centre. We found one a few streets away. Kay said, ‘Let’s go there now, they are open until 10 tonight. we will sit and wait there and ask to be treated.’ Four of the women went off to the NHS centre, I learned later that some went the next day and all were treated.

Hygiene in Urban House was raised again and again. Some of the people, who had given us testimony before, had sent dated video and photo material showing that there was no soap dispenser in the women’s bathroom in the oldest part of the hostel where they all lived. The soap foam dispensers were also empty in the men’s bathroom. Kay, who had taken some of the videos, said, ‘We are really worried about the coronavirus. They put notices up to tell us to wash our hands – and there is no soap!’

Lucy’s parents ‘We are worried about coronavirus spreading in this crowded place’

Whilst I was writing this piece (on Sunday 22 March) I received a text message from a couple, Frank and Yvonne with a two-year-old daughter, Lucy, who had been moved to Urban House from a London hostel six days before. Frank wrote of his worries about coronavirus and the dirty carpet in their room ‘because my daughter puts her hand on the ground and then puts in her mouth’. Frank sent me a picture of the bed sheet they had to put on the floor of the room to allow their daughter to play. Of the bathroom and toilets, he wrote, ‘these places are so dirty, and we cannot use them’.

Frank said they had a washbasin in their room and some soap. Frank emphasised his fears ‘due to the high risk of coronavirus spreading in this crowded place. This situation is very scary.’ There was, he said, one other family with a small daughter in Urban House.

Gemma’s parents ‘We were already in an asylum house and they sent us here’

On Monday 23 March I was sent another text, this time from Bill inside Urban House. ’My daughter is seven years old could you help me? We were in a refugee house in Newcastle for two weeks, then five days ago they brought us here. I don’t know why they did that.’

So a family with a seven-year-old child is taken from an asylum house, where they could presumably self-isolate, to a crowded Urban House with 300 people. 

A question for the Home Office

Why was two-year-old Lucy transported 185 miles from London by the Home Office to a high-risk ‘crowded place’, Urban House in Wakefield, at a time when the government was advising against travel and for families to stay at home and to avoid ‘crowded places’? People seeking asylum presently in the UK surely have the same rights as all of us to try and stay safe in their homes, even in hostels, when faced with the threats from Covid-19. The Home Office apparently does not think so. 

‘He said I had no choice … you can stay outside’

May is 62 years old and has severe arthritis, asthma and a depressive illness. She came to the UK from the Middle East in October 2019 to reunite with her son, who is settled in Yorkshire. May claimed asylum and in December the Red Cross advised her to apply to go to Urban House IAC in Wakefield, where she would wait until the Home Office could find asylum housing accommodation suitable for her needs as a disabled person. May spent three months in Urban House (the Home Office says people should spend no longer than three to four weeks there). She was regularly told by Migrant Help and Mears that they were trying to find her suitable accommodation, if possible near to her son.

I went to see May on Saturday 21 March in her Mears house in Halifax, 52 miles away from her son. May told me through an interpreter, ‘I was brought here on 3 March from Urban House around 11 in the morning. It was a very rainy day. I was shown my room, a tiny room up two flights of very narrow stairs, by the Mears manager. I said I cannot stay here up all those stairs. He said I had no choice, “If that’s your choice you can stay outside. You have to sign and stay here.”’

I was crying and asking him ‘please take me back to Urban House’. He said, ‘go yourself but it will cost you £40.Then he left and locked the door. Someone saw me in the rain, and they called a taxi to take me to the police station. After hours waiting, around 6 pm, the police told me that if I was homeless, I had to go back to my Mears house. The police said they had rung Urban House and they said I had to take the room. The police brought me back here in their police car.’

‘Since then I have rung Migrant Help many times. Two weeks ago, they said I would have to sign and accept the place, or I would lose my NASS support and money. I signed. They said they would make an assessment. They rang me then and said they were looking to find a place near my son. That was two weeks ago and nothing from them since.’

May very slowly showed me to her tiny attic room, up really difficult stairs. The bathroom was on the floor below – the shower was broken. ‘Just over a week ago I fell down the stairs, I still have bruises all over.’

May was denied her rights under the asylum contract

The Home Office contracts since 2012, even though outsourced, have had to conform to all statutory equalities and safeguarding legislation. They also include some protection for tenants to prevent them being allocated accommodation which is ‘unfit for purpose’ and unfit for their medical or disability needs. (see attached section on Contract Requirements)

May had a perfect right to refuse the property. Mears should have immediately tried to find another more suitable property or at the very least, taken her to one of the many hotels where Mears have places, to wait for a suitable property.

Uncaring treatment of people trying to get a safe home

Researching the Mears asylum contracts in Yorkshire over the past few weeks, people have told me of the uncaring treatment they receive when they leave Urban House, and how they then face unacceptable accommodation, and are threatened by Mears staff that they will ‘be on the streets’ if they don’t accept the property.

Paul’s testimony

Paul is from the Middle East and while at Urban House he was diagnosed with a serious medical condition in a nearby Wakefield hospital, and sent urgently for tests and medication to a specialist unit in Leeds. His consultant at the Leeds unit said in a letter sent to Mears on 21 February and later to the Home Office, that Paul was at ‘serious risk of opportunistic infection’. What are his chances of avoiding that?

On Thursday 27 February Paul was picked up at Urban House and taken to an address in Leeds. At the front door he was greeted with piles of household waste overflowing from bins. The front door was damaged and would not close and lock. His room door had a damaged lock. The kitchen was very dirty and unusable. Paul sent me mobile phone pictures and I said I would go the next day. Paul was with a friend at the house when I arrived, he said, ‘I could not stay here last night; it would have been too dangerous for me. My friend says I can stay over the weekend … When I came the woman from Mears said I had to stay here, I could not refuse. She said that they would repair the doors and then I would have to stay.’

Paul showed me the kitchen. ‘I need to cook for myself, there is no real cooker and that (pointing to a table-top cooker full of grease and dirt) would make me ill. The carpet is full of stains and old food. …I waited all day yesterday from 10 am right through to 7 pm when the repair men came. I had rung Migrant Help every couple of hours. They said I had to wait for the repair men and if wanted to move I had to send a doctor’s letter for the Home Office to consider a move to another house which would take some time.’

We went upstairs. ‘I could never use the shower here. They had brought a new mattress and pushed it into my small room with the bed and old mattress … The Mears woman came when the repairs were done and told me to stay. I rang my friend and he came for me.’

For the next thirteen days, Paul was homeless, sleeping at any friends’ who would help him. He constantly rang Migrant Help. I emailed and rang all the Mears management I had contacts with. Paul’s doctors emailed Mears and the Home Office.

The doctors were very clear about the hazards of the house offered to Paul. This is what they said: ‘It is important that he is able to cook his own meals to keep his strength up in a clean environment. Possible exposure to any bacteria will be disastrous for this man as his own immunity is unable to fight off infection. His current property is surrounded by uncollected household waste that could also make him vulnerable to exposure to bacteria.’

Paul was panicked by being homeless. On the evening of 6 March, he rang me. ‘If I get a cold I will die. I am homeless.’ On 12 March Mears finally contacted Paul to say they would move him to a house in Leeds on Monday 16 March, later changed to Tuesday 17 March. Paul rang me from the new property. ‘They say I have to stay here in a shared house with another man, I cannot refuse.’

A heated conversation followed between Paul, me and the managers of Cascade Housing (subcontractors for Mears in Leeds). It was only when I threatened to find a solicitor for Paul to contact the Home Office that they agreed to move the other man to another property. Paul rang me the next day. ‘It’s ok here in the two-bedroomed house. Mears staff came here and said they would look for a single flat for me. I have cleaned the place and I feel safe now.’

Perhaps it is worth quoting the Mears ‘Service Users Handbook’:

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.

The very first time that any Mears housing manager came to see Paul face to face was Wednesday 19 March – nineteen days after they placed him in a house which would have been a real threat to his life. Death in the time of Covid-19?

At lunchtime today (25 March) SYMAAG received this message:

‘My friend who is a asylum seeker is in hostel in Wakefield urban house.

I’m concerned for their welfare. Three people are sharing a room and the cooking facilities seems like a dining hall (crowded easily) from his description.

Doesn’t seem like they are any precautions.’

At the same time, I was sent the below image from a mobile phone inside Urban House of lunch today. There seems to be no attempt by staff in Urban House to have social distancing in the queue or in seating arrangements.

This article was first published by Institute of Race Relations at See original article for photos



See SYMAAG’s right to refusal leaflet

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Like a prison: discussions with people inside Urban House Initial Accommodation Centre, Wakefield Tue, 18 Feb 2020 17:16:31 +0000

Written by John Grayson

‘We could take this place, which is like a prison, for three or four weeks but not for months and months’ – Barry, a businessman from the Middle East

I was sitting in a café in the centre of Wakefield having a discussion (through an interpreter) over coffee, with a group of professional workers from the Middle East who had claimed asylum in the UK. They were cataloguing, sometimes in perfect English, the grim reality of the UK asylum system and their everyday experience of an asylum hostel just ten minutes’ walk away.

Over the past two weeks I have had similar discussions, face to face or by phone/text, with twelve residents of the Urban House Initial Accommodation Centre, sited on Love Lane, under the walls of Wakefield high security prison near the city centre.

What are IACs?

Initial Accommodation Centres (IACs) or hostels, sometimes called reception centres, are situated in ‘dispersal areas’ where shared houses and flats are provided for asylum seekers. There are IACs in Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, London, Derby, Cardiff and Wakefield. Wakefield’s Urban House is run by the Urban Housing company, subcontracting from Mears. People wait in IACs or in overspill hotels to be ‘dispersed’ to asylum housing.

Through the testimony of the twelve residents it is clear that conditions in the Wakefield centre have continued to deteriorate since autumn 2019, when Mears and Migrant Help began delivering the AASC (Asylum Accommodation and Support Contracts) and AIRE (Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility) contracts respectively.

The food is horrible

The food is horrible, the same breakfast every single day. Porridge often burnt. Soft white bread, no toast, A little butter and jam. There is no special food for children.’ Anne, nutritionist from the Middle East

Anne was one of the residents of Urban House at the café discussion, as was Kathy, a young teacher from the Middle East. Kathy told me, ‘I have been in Urban House for over a hundred days, since last October. The food is the same every single day and very poor. Children as young as two and four years have to eat the same food as adults. They have to eat very spicy food which they often refuse

June, a young businesswoman, said ‘If you want a snack between 6.30 pm at the end of dinner and 7 am the next day there is nothing. When mothers ask for snacks for their children, they are given half a tiny sandwich for each child.’

The provisions on food services in the Mears Group contract with the Home Office are specific and have been totally ignored in Urban House.

‘2.3.6 If ‘full board’ Accommodation is supplied by the Provider for any Service User, the full board food service shall comprise complete and adequate provisions for pregnant women, nursing mothers, babies and young children, for whom three daily meals may not be sufficient, and people who need special diets e.g. gluten free. Religious dietary requirements must also be catered for.

2.3.7 …The Provider shall take proactive steps to try and ascertain whether a Service User has specific dietary needs, and shall respond …’

Anne tells me about a woman who has recently had a baby in the local hospital and was then returned to the centre. ‘When she was pregnant there was no special food for her, even though the midwife asked them to provide some.

‘The baby is now a month old and no one, since the first few days, has come into the centre to support the mother. She does go to the hospital and she has nappies. She is very upset because she has only been given secondhand baby clothes which are too big for her baby girl. Mother and father and the baby are forced to live in a small room which now has bed bugs and other insects in the bed sheets.’

‘You must wait until you have an asylum house, then you can see a GP’

Anne tells me, ‘A 4-year-old girl was in here for two months. She had an accident and seriously injured her mouth. The child needed medical attention because she simply could not eat. The nurses gave her an antibiotic and that was it.’ Anne also told me about a man suffering from coeliac disease who was in Urban House. ‘He asked for a gluten-free diet, they simply ignored him. We also told him to go to the nurses. They told him he would have to wait until he was in an asylum house and registered with a GP to get treatment. Allowing coeliac disease to go untreated is very dangerous, something should have been done.’

Again, the Home Office contract is clear on what Mears and the Urban Housing company should do in the case of illness of residents:

‘Where a Service User is taken ill during Service provision, the Provider shall ensure that access to medical treatment is made available (including, if required, the attendance of appropriate medical staff), and if necessary shall take the Service User to hospital. The Provider shall notify the Authority (the Home Office) as soon as possible from taking the decision to provide access to medical treatment or to take a Service User to hospital.’

In our café discussion James, an engineer from the Middle East speaking fluent English, recalled two cases of elderly men whose acute medical problems had been ignored in Urban House. ‘One old man in his 70s had a very visible eye disease and he had smashed his glasses somewhere on his journey. He was virtually blind and really needed urgent treatment and help. The nurses said he would have to wait till he got to an asylum house. He spent two long months here. I think they gave him pain killers and an antibiotic pill.’

‘Another old man, I think again over 70, had no teeth and had infections in his mouth. He was here for two months as well, often he simply could not eat any of the food he was given. He was given the same response by the nurses: “You will be registered with a GP when you go to your asylum house.”’

There are three nurses’ stations in Urban House which cover 300 residents from 9 am to 5 pm. Then there is no medical cover till 9 am the next day. James said, ‘People from a range of countries, very few speaking much English, are told to go to the one member of staff on the doors all night to report a medical emergency, or to themselves ring 999 or 111.’

The nursing staff are part of an NHS-commissioned ‘Health Integration Team’ whose responsibilities are described very precisely, as ‘health checks; interpreting service; minor ailment clinics; TB clinic’. This may be adequate medical support if people were in Urban House for the three to four weeks the Home Office suggests is normal, but is woefully inadequate when stays of two, three and four months have become common.

No fire drills, fire notices only in English, fire exits locked

Kathy told me, ‘Almost every night fire alarms go off. Everybody ignores them. We have never had a fire practice. There is a fire notice in all rooms but only in English, and fire exits are locked.’

At the time when Urban House was called Angel Lodge, the IAC was closed down because of fire risks and the owners were fined for breaches of fire safety regulations in 2011. Very little seems to have changed.

Bitten by bed bugs

Later, on a visit to the road outside Urban House (visitors and most charities and agencies are not allowed into the building) I spoke (through an interpreter) to Ken, who had to stay with his wife in a room infested with bed bugs. ‘I was bitten all around my neck. There are bed bugs in a lot of the rooms. The worst rooms are in the old part of the building. When people come in to look around, they are never taken to that part

‘We came in here in November, we had to stay with the bed bugs for weeks. They came and sprayed, they just sprayed where we had seen the bugs and insects, a really small area. Finally, they moved us to the tiniest of rooms. There are two beds and no floor area even to walk around. Many people come and get bigger rooms, but we seem to have been forgotten – or punished for complaining about the bed bugs.’

The failures of Migrant Help

Migrant Help has an office in Urban House and has a central role connecting the residents with the Home Office for necessary paperwork to allow them to move on to asylum housing. Support is means-tested, and Migrant Help assesses and processes applications. Migrant Help is also a crucial link in the official contract complaints procedure:

‘ With particular reference to complaints, the Provider (Mears/Urban Housing) shall:

 notify the AIRE Provider (Migrant Help) of any complaint where the Provider is informed of a complaint directly by Service Users, on the same day on which the Provider is made aware of the complaint, in accordance with the requirements set out in Annex H of this Schedule 2;

 inform the Service User and AIRE Provider of the outcome of the action in response to the complaint, and any subsequent action to be taken …’

In the café discussion, the businessman Barry said, ‘Always we had complaints about the food, the bed bugs, the heating, but mainly about the months and months waiting here in these conditions. When we have applied for Home Office support no one is getting a reply letter. Migrant Help tell us letters must have been lost. Then we get a letter telling us we are to be moved to shared housing on a date. We get ready and nothing happens. Ten days ago, Migrant Help shut their door. They have refused now to talk about conditions or help us.’

Resistance in the asylum system

Sit-downs and protests in Urban House

Migrant Help’s failure to carry out its responsibilities for complaints sparked a peaceful process on 30 January, when 50 residents gathered outside the (locked) door of Migrant Help’s office. James told me about a similar protest outside the Urban House office of Migrant Help on 4 December. ‘There were around 100 of us, we wanted something done about the long wait for people forced to stay in the centre and about conditions here. We all sat down peacefully and refused to move until we got some answers. Migrant Help rang for the police who arrived quickly. The Migrant Help man then told the police that we had been violent, trying to break down the doors. He did not realise that some of us spoke and understood English. When he had finished, I spoke calmly to the police explaining what actually happened. They seemed quite happy with this and left.’

Kathy added to James’s account. ‘I have been here now since October 2019. After the protest we have been treated like criminals. There are uniformed security guards watching us. One always stands with his arms folded in the canteen at mealtimes. It is just like a prison.’

Protests and petitions in the hotels

When I spoke with Terry, a design manager, in January, he told me about a protest in November in a West Yorkshire hotel. ‘There were over a hundred of us put in a hotel. The food was dreadful, the rooms were dirty, and nobody seemed to be cleaning them. There was nothing for the children to do. We complained a lot to the reception staff, but nothing was done so we organised a large protest and demanded the manager come and speak to us. She came and was very nervous and I think frightened, although it was a very peaceful crowd. From then on things changed. She became very nice to us. The food improved and the manager brought lots of toys and gave a room as a playroom for the children.’

In another West Yorkshire hotel, a petition was organised in December which was sent directly to the Home Office on 13 January:

Dear Home Office

We are asylum seekers staying at the … hotel. We are very grateful for your help to us. We live in a hotel now.

Unfortunately, we don’t have an activity, we can’t use the washing machine for our clothes. Most of us don’t have the resources to buy necessary things, even for the children. We are far from the city, from the Red Cross from… We are also far from Mosques, Churches and synagogues. We cannot use mobile communication because we do not have money. That’s why it is difficult for us to contact our lawyers, only (sic) the internet.

Many people live here for 3 months

Please help us!

The petition was signed with their full names and signatures by nineteen of the hotel residents.

Why the protests and resistance?

I have been researching and writing about asylum housing in Yorkshire since 2011. I have also written about Urban House over the same period. This is the very first time that I have witnessed large-scale peaceful protests and spoken to those involved. The Home Office and the Mears Group, I am sure, were assuming that people in Urban House and the 800 people in hotels across West Yorkshire and Hull would be too frightened to protest, thinking that protests would influence their asylum claims.

Some of the  staff of G4S (who had the asylum housing contracts for Yorkshire until August last year) in the past threatened asylum tenants who made complaints that they would be reported to the Home Office. Almost all Mears’ housing management staff in Yorkshire have been transferred from G4S on to the new contracts.

The long delays in getting to their asylum housing, the really poor conditions in Urban House and some of the hotels, and crucially, the fact that nobody in their position receives any money at all – simply full board hostel or hotel accommodation – has angered people, in particular families with children.

My discussions with residents about conditions in Urban House and in the hotels return constantly to anxieties about the safety of children in the hotels, the effect of insufficient nutritious food for children, inadequate health care for children and pregnant women, and that charities have been prevented from bringing clothes, toiletries and gifts of toys and children’s clothes into the hotels and into Urban House.

A young woman I talked to outside Urban House was distressed about the fact that she had been in Urban House for three months and that her auto-immune disease which resulted in a serious skin condition had never been treated – she had to wait to get a GP until she was in an asylum house. She was equally distressed because she had very few clothes with her when she arrived at Urban House and no money at all to buy new ones. ‘I did manage to find some nice clothes which a charity gave me. Urban House staff refused to allow me to bring the clothes into the centre. They said all charity things were banned.’

It is this fundamental disrespect and lack of understanding and care for people on their journey through the asylum system which triggered the petitions, the sit-downs and protests.

The Mears Group’s response

I sent a detailed list of questions to Juliet Halstead, Head of Partnerships at Mears, citing the allegations in the testimonies from residents of Urban House. Ms Halstead was Head of Housing for G4S under the COMPASS contracts for asylum housing prior to her job at Mears.

Ms Halstead totally rejected all the allegations, here are some examples.

On breakfast:

The photo you have sent through does not represent what we provide for breakfast. Breakfast is served between 8.00am – 10.00am and consists of Cornflakes, Porridge, Weetabix, Eggs and toast plus Tea and Coffee.

On food for children and special diets:

Our menus are varied and have been designed and agreed by a qualified dietician who has signed them off as being nutritionally appropriate for our client group of all ages. For children we provide age appropriate food. We also cater for any SU’s with special dietary needs (Gluten free etc.) or medical conditions

In answer to my question ‘Why is Urban House infested with bed bugs? Why is a one-month-old baby kept in a small room with her parents, a room infested with bed bugs?’ Ms Halstead responded:

The building is inspected regularly by Mears / Urban House staff and there is no recurring issue with Bedbugs. We have seen small outbreaks on rare occasions in the past and following investigation it has transpired that the infestation has been brought into the building in clothing / belongings of new arrivals.

Ms Halstead’s response does not appear to follow the procedures, agreed when her company won the £ 1.15 billion contract, for ‘pro-active monitoring of service users’. Did she ask the residents in Urban House whether the allegations were accurate?

Here is the relevant section of the Requirements for the contracts:

‘2.17 Service User Experience

2.17.1 The Provider (MEARS) shall proactively monitor Service User experience of Provider services. The Provider shall provide quarterly reports to the Authority on the effectiveness of their approach, and the Authority may review and/or audit the approach at any time, and make recommendations to improve its effectiveness and/or efficiency.’

Maybe Mears were afraid that actually asking the people in Urban House might have produced a result which could have led to Home Office fines or other sanctions, under the contract:

‘2.17.3 Where the Authority consider the outputs of the proactive monitoring of Service User experience to indicate a systemic issue or persistent shortfalls in service delivery against the specified standards on the part of the Provider, the Authority may require the Provider to develop and implement a Remedial Plan, in accordance with the provisions of Schedule 7 (Contract Management).’


This article was published on 13 February at

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Is this what we paid £1.15 billion for? Concerns grow over conditions at Urban House Fri, 07 Feb 2020 14:25:34 +0000

Complaints about conditions in Urban House Initial Accommodation in Wakefield have been mounting over the past weeks and months. Dirty toilets and washrooms, overcrowding, very poor food and above all the long wait to be sent to shared housing.

On January 30th at 10am 50 people housed at Urban House bravely protested at conditions there. And the fact that there were people stuck in these conditions for 5 months – the Home Office contract says that Mears should keep people in Urban House only for a few weeks. Initial Accommodation is – as its name suggests – temporary hostel accommodation before people seeking asylum are allocated asylum housing.

Urban House Initial Accommodation centre and asylum housing in Yorkshire, Humberside and the north east is run by the Mears Group as part of a Home Office 10 year £1.15 billion contract.

Currently Mears has failed to provide private housing in various parts of Yorkshire and the North East on time.This means that between 600 and 900 asylum seekers with many children, are stuck for months in Urban House hostel and hotels across West Yorkshire with no money at all.

John Grayson investigated conditions there in 2014. One person said they felt “warehoused” there, with overcrowding, inadequate food, contemptuous staff and long waits to be properly housed. At that time Urban House was run by notorious security company G4S. When G4S lost the contract to run asylum housing in 2019 we and asylum tenants celebrated. Although the new 10 year asylum housing contract in our region went to another private company, Mears, we assumed it couldn’t be worse than G4S.

After hearing Urban House residents’ concerns, John Grayson has put the following questions to Mears management. We hope and expect they will be investigated promptly.

Why is everyone in Urban House including young children given every day this breakfast: Porridge often burnt. Soft white bread, no toast, A little butter and jam. There is no special food for children why? Why no cereals and milk? Why is there never any warm milk available for children?
Why are children as young as 2 and 4 years old given only spicy food and rice for their dinners which they cannot eat?
Why are there no adequate snacks available particularly for children from 6.30 pm at the end of dinner to 7am the beginning of breakfast.

Why is Urban House  infested with bed bugs? Why is a one month old baby kept in a small room with her parents, a room infested with bed bugs?

Why is there no medical cover for 300 people from 5pm to 9am the next day ?
Why do the nurses at Urban House refuse to refer people from Urban House with serious acute and chronic medical conditions to General Practice doctors or to local hospitals.There have been elderly men in their seventies  in Urban House with serious acute medical problems for 2 months treated with painkillers and occasional antibiotics.

Why are vulnerable single women forced to stay up to 4 months in Urban House waiting for their asylum housing? Many of the residents including children have been there two months.The contract with Mears says people should be there for three weeks.

Given that when Urban House was called Angel Lodge the IAC was closed down because of fire risks and the owners were fined for breaches of fire safety in 2011
Why do faulty alarm systems go off every night?
Why are there no regular fire drills at Urban House?
Why are the Fire notices in rooms only in English?
Why are Fire Exit doors locked?

These questions are being asked on behalf of the 300 residents of Urban House.They deserve quick answers and immediate action

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Justice for Simba: emergency protest 10am January 27th Vulcan House Sheffield Sun, 26 Jan 2020 13:55:13 +0000

Our friend Simba needs your help. He is gravely ill and in no physical state to leave the house, but tomorrow the Home Office have demanded he attends Vulcan House, the Sheffield Home Office building, at 6 Millsands, Sheffield, S3 8NU. Those who do not attend face the risk detention. Simba has asked for as many people as possible to meet outside Vulcan House from 10am tomorrow morning (Monday 27th January), before his appointment at 10:30am.

After Simba’s father, Victor, was detained at Morton Hall detention centre. there was a huge campaign for Victor’s release, but soon after, Simba experienced a serious brain haemorrhage and stroke. Simba received treatment in Sheffield hospitals, but purely due to his immigration status is now facing £100,000 in medical bills from the NHS – because a few years ago, the government brought in new laws to charge migrants for access to the NHS.

Simba has been living in the UK for 17 years, but has not been able to gain leave to remain as a Zimbabwean – a struggle many Zimbabweans have been facing, which we spoke out about last year when the UK Government brought in Zimbabwean Government officials to interrogate Zimbabwean asylum seekers.

There is an ongoing campaign for the NHS to drop the charges for Simba – please sign the petition here, and if you can afford to contribute to his legal fees, there is a fundraiser here.

Simba has wants to highlight the way borders exist in the NHS, and the system of detention. For the Home Office to demand attendance from someone who has so recently experienced massive head trauma is cruel and unjust. When the Home Office invites people to sign, it usually mentions the threat of detention if they do not, a message that one of our campaigners in Wakefield said last week, fills him with anxiety. Whilst ‘seriously ill people’ should not be detained under Home Office policy, they frequently are and are likely to deteriorate fast if so.

Please stand with Simba tomorrow, either in person or on the petition and fundraiser. Last February 200 people protested outside Vulcan House to support Marian Machekanyanga and other Zimbabweans threatened with detention and deportation. Simba was one of them. Now he needs your support.

Migrants Organise who are coordinating Simba’s campaign have requested that people bring any banners, and write demands from the petition on card or paper to bring with them. Please spread the word.

See you at Vulcan House (Sheffield Home Office) 6 Millsands Sheffield S3 8NU tomorrow Monday 27 January at 10am

thanks to Rosie from These Walls Must Fall for this message

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Don’t Let Them Die in Libya – Sheffield protests 18 January Mon, 13 Jan 2020 19:14:41 +0000


 Don’t let them die in Libya

Sheffield march and demonstration Saturday 18 January 12.30pm

Meet bottom of The Moor near Moor Market S1 4PF at 12.30 and march to Sheffield Town Hall for a rally at 1pm

“I was lucky to find safety in the UK before Libya erupted into chaos following the fall of Gadaffi” says one of the march organisers Mihreteab Kidane. Now people who’ve lost their money and nearly their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean find themselves in a country that is incapable of safeguarding them from exploitation and abuse”.

Tell the people of Sheffield and the Council what is going on in Libya. Join us and march alongside SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) the Eritrean and other refugee communities in Sheffield.

Thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded in horrendous detention centres in Libya facing an early death, torture, rape or being sold as slaves. There are no UNCHR camps in Libya. The European Union (including for now the British government) is stopping asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean by working in partnership with the Libyan coastguard and militias. As a result, people seeking asylum in Europe  are trapped trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. The consequences of EU migration policy should, as the charity Médecins Sans Frontières puts it, “shock the collective conscience of Europe’s citizens and elected leaders”.

Many of those stranded in Libya are fleeing persecution and conflicts from Eritrea, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, etc. In Sheffield members of these communities are in daily contact with the detention camps and have family, friends and relatives dying in Libya.

We support their demands to

  • Rescue the stranded. Save lives. 
  • Give them safe routes to asylum in Europe.
  • To tell the British government to agree to take a percentage of those crossing the Mediterranean as other countries have done.


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