The shame of asylum housing of child refugees in the UK

February 23, 2017 — Comment

Written by John Grayson

John Grayson, a campaigner from South Yorkshire, examines the market in asylum housing in the UK.

The early months of the lives of hundreds of babies, toddlers and young child refugees have been blighted by life in privatised accommodation provided by G4S, Serco and Clearsprings[1] and funded by taxpayers, since 2012. Now the government has extended their contracts for another two years.

February 2017: A tiny baby and a toddler in a G4S bedsit in Leicester

Last week I was talking with Anne as she sat on the floor of her tiny crowded bedsit cradling her three-month-old daughter and trying to gently distract her lively two-year-old son.

Anne has no chair to sit on, and no table in her room, she balances my cup of coffee on a storage heater.

Anne's belongings and boxes with her baby's things (© J. Grayson)

Anne’s belongings and boxes with her baby’s things (© J. Grayson)

I was in Leicester in a rundown early twentieth century villa near the city centre. There were four flats in the tall building – three of the flats had two rooms and a tiny kitchen, Anne had a bedsit, just one room and a tiny kitchen with a very small kitchen table and one chair. ‘All the flats here have mothers with two children, most of them small children, they’re all G4S.’

Anne, an asylum seeker from Asia, had been in the bedsit for nearly a year, from March 2016 – her landlord, G4S, the largest security company in the world. This is one of G4S’s mother and baby hostels.

Anne's only chair and table (© J. Grayson)

Anne’s only chair and table (© J. Grayson)

When she arrived, the place was filthy and Anne had to clean it to make it less dangerous for her toddler son … there are places in the kitchen she still has not reached. Anne had to buy all her own cleaning materials.[2]

Anne brought to her room belongings from a previous life. She proudly shows me a carpet rolled up under a sheet.

Grease and dirt Anne has not been able to remove from her kitchen (© J. Grayson)

Grease and dirt Anne has not been able to remove from her kitchen (© J. Grayson)

G4S refused to provide a storage room for the flats. The only storage in Anne’s room is a wardrobe with a missing door – ‘I reported that when I arrived’, Anne told me, ‘They refuse to do anything.’ Anne’s belongings are piled in cardboard boxes: ‘Those I got from a local shop and keep separate so the baby’s things are clean.’

Anne gets £35.39 a week as an asylum seeker mother and an extra £5 per week for her toddler son and £3 per week for her new baby. ‘My midwife, and now my health visitor, have brought me toys. That one arrived at Christmas for Jack.’

Damaged wardrobe (© J. Grayson)

Damaged wardrobe (© J. Grayson)

In the early weeks at the flat there was no vacuum cleaner, so Anne saved up and bought a very cheap second-hand cleaner – recently that broke down. ‘My cooker wasn’t working and I had nothing to warm my baby’s bottle. A friend helped me buy a £20 microwave. G4S have never fixed the cooker, just one ring works sometimes.’

Heating for the flat seems to consist of one storage heater, and an old wall mounted electric fire which Anne cannot use because it’s just at Jack’s height. The heating failed in January, and G4S did attend to this, but now the controls for the storage heater are broken and Anne cannot turn it down – she has to open the window. ‘I hate having the cold coming in for my baby, but it is too hot.’

Old wall mounted electric fire - dangerous for a two year old (© J. Grayson)

Old wall mounted electric fire – dangerous for a two year old (© J. Grayson)

I look at the recent G4S ‘Property Visitation Log’ sheet which notes all G4S staff visits – there was one property inspection on 22 November 2016, one ten-minute inspection on 16 December, and the heating repair on 4 January. Anne tells me: ‘Every time someone comes they say: “Don’t worry, we will get something done”. Nothing ever happens.’

Five years of G4S asylum housing for child refugees: babies, toddlers, and children

For the last five years, SYMAAG, alongside campaigners in Teesside, Sunderland, Bradford, Keighley, Huddersfield, Leeds, and Leicester have campaigned in solidarity with lone mothers, and families in G4S hostels, HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation), flats and houses, and seen the valuable early years of dozens of babies and toddlers blighted by G4S, its contractors and private landlords.

On Tuesday 8 May 2012, Andrea, a Bradford asylum seeker from Ethiopia, and her twelve-week-old baby, were given barely a week’s notice by private landlord United Property Management (UPM) to quit their home. UPM was then the favoured partner for G4S on the then new £1.7 billion Home Office COMPASS (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services) contracts for asylum housing which started in June 2012. On Thursday 17 May they were transported forty miles to a tiny bedsit in Doncaster with no cooker, table or chair, and only a tiny sink to wash dishes and clothes. Andrea’s baby had a heart defect and the bedsit was overheated. Campaigners in Bradford and Doncaster supported Andrea and demanded safe accommodation for her back in Bradford. The mother and baby were forced to stay there for over a month, and Doncaster Council’s Children’s Services Department said they would declare the family homeless and rehouse them. Andrea and her baby were then found safe accommodation in a new-build flat in Bradford city centre. G4S was forced to drop UPM from the COMPASS contracts.

In Stockton in 2012, Cha Matty, one of the women in the G4S contractor Jomast’s mother and baby hostel, showed me conditions there. The hostel housed around thirty lone mothers and babies and toddlers under three years old. The women described their rooms as ‘cells’, with no floor space for their children to play. Jomast owner, property millionaire Stuart Monk, with a personal fortune valued at £175 million, has continued to develop and extend his profitable Stockton hostel and described it in 2016 as an ‘exemplary product’ to the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee Inquiry into Asylum Housing.

In May 2016, Jomast won a planning appeal to develop a hostel for ‘up to twenty refugees … mainly women and children‘ in Hartlepool. The local council had turned down the original application because Jomast planned to site the hostel in a neighbourhood with a ‘high rate of sex crimes … and felt it was not a suitable premises for the intended use.’

Cockroaches and rats

In 2012, as G4S transferred asylum tenants from local council accommodation they had lived in under the previous Home Office Target contracts, its private contractor in Leeds, Cascade Housing, placed some families in squalid accommodation. Angela, an African asylum seeker was forced to leave her council flat with her five-month-old baby and was moved into a damp, dirty house where she found a cockroach in her baby’s bottle and slugs on her carpets.

In November 2012, Cascade moved Esther, also an asylum seeker from Africa, and her four-year-old daughter, from her council accommodation. Esther had been in the asylum system for six years and had been detained in the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The house in Huddersfield was filthy, the garden overgrown. The bathroom was unusable, stained and coated with grime. For weeks Esther and her daughter had to use a bucket for washing until the landlord finally sent cleaners in. The mattresses were stained and dirty and had to be replaced. The landlord supplied only a brush and mop for Esther to clean the carpeted house.

In June 2013, Esther and her daughter had rats running around the basement in the house, in the living room and in ceiling and roof spaces. Volunteers in a Huddersfield asylum seekers’ drop-in protested to G4S – but the rats were in the property and garden for three months until G4S cut down the four-foot high grass and poisoned the rats.

Mothers frightened to speak out

In July 2014, I spoke with Juliet in a G4S house in Sheffield. Juliet had been trafficked from West Africa into sex work in the UK. She became pregnant, escaped, and claimed asylum:

‘I was sent to Angel Lodge (now called Urban House, the G4S centre under the walls of Wakefield high security prison). One day in March, all the children there had food poisoning. We did not complain, we were worried what would happen to us if we did.’

Whilst she was still recovering from her caesarean, G4S and the Home Office moved Juliet and her baby in Sheffield into a tiny attic room up two flights of steep winding stairs. There was no safety gate nor a secure door to the attic. G4S staff said sleeping downstairs in the shared lounge was against the rules. Juliet, with her fear of authority, complied and descended into major depression and Sheffield Council inspectors intervened and served a notice on the house, and G4S moved Juliet and her baby to better accommodation.

Juliet with her baby on the steep stairs (© J. Grayson)

Juliet with her baby on the steep stairs (© J. Grayson)

Babies and toddlers in a neglected Victorian villa leased by G4S

In February 2015, Violet Dickenson a SYMAAG activist with women refugees, took me to meet Mary, an African asylum seeker with a three-month-old baby, in a Victorian villa in Leeds, which G4S had leased from a developer. Mary showed us up to the first floor, and opened a door: ‘This is the only bathroom with a bath in the whole house,’ she said, ‘one bathroom for twelve women, eight babies and three toddlers.’ The women and children had been there five months, in a filthy, grand but abandoned building where they had to scrub the carpets by hand, and clean huge hanging, dusty curtains, buying the cleaning materials themselves.

Rats, mice and bedbugs with the refugee children

In 2015 and 2016 volunteers in Sheffield asylum rights organisations City of Sanctuary Sheffield (COSS), and ASSIST Sheffield, told me of toddlers and children exposed to rats in their kitchens and outside play areas. In the spring of 2016, a father of young children in a G4S asylum house in Sheffield sent me photos to use and publish of bed bug bites on his young daughter, and a photo of a dead mouse in the kitchen. In the summer of 2016, another father in a Sheffield G4S house sent me a video of rats running across the yard where his children should have been playing.

Babies, toddlers and children act as a deterrent in the asylum system 

In September 2009, End Child Detention was campaigning to stop the then Labour government locking up children in detention centres. A Home Office civil servant Dave Wood, who bore the title ‘Director of Criminality and Detention’ at the UK Border Agency, was called before the Home Affairs Committee. MPs asked him: ‘Why are children detained under the immigration system, because they have not done anything wrong, have they?’ Wood explained that the lack of detention ‘would act as a significant magnet and pull to families from abroad’. Three months later, Phil Woolas, Labour’s immigration minister suggested that children were detained on the basis that ‘to do otherwise would be conducive to encouraging human trafficking’.

Privatising asylum family housing in 2012, giving the £1.7 billion COMPASS contracts to two of the world’s largest international security companies, G4S and Serco, and the smaller Reliance security company, signalled the fact that the Home Office, under Theresa May, saw low security asylum family housing as part of the UK ‘deterrent’ asylum system and an extension of the security companies’ ‘detention estate’ and ‘asylum markets’.

G4S had managed detention centres like those at Tinsley House where children were detained, since the 1990s, and Serco had the contract for Yarl’s Wood detention centre which detained women and a very small number of children.

Reliance had handled an asylum seeker tagging contract for the Labour government and in 2012 took over from G4S the contract for escorting and deporting refugees. For the contract, Reliance also took over G4S staff who had been involved in the death of Jimmy Mubenga on an aircraft in October 2010.

Before they were given contracts for asylum family accommodation in 2012, G4S and Serco had managed outsourced children’s prisons (secure training centres) for the prison service, and children’s homes for local councils. On 11 January 2012, in the High Court a judgment was handed down by Mr Justice Foskett which stated that ‘It is highly likely that large numbers of children were unlawfully restrained in secure training centres (STCs) for at least a decade (1998-2008).’ Some of those centres were managed by G4S and Serco.

In 2016, Carolyne Willow of children’s rights charity Article 39, who had for many years researched the role of G4S in children’s prisons, worked with the BBC Panorama programme to expose brutality and abuse of children in the G4S-run Medway secure training centre in Kent. G4S was forced to sack Medway staff, it lost the Medway contract, and decided to sell on its other contracts (yes, there is a commercial market in children’s prisons!).

The parliamentary Home Affairs Committee reports on asylum housing – but too late

On 31 January, the appalling record of the private companies in asylum housing was laid bare in the publication of the Home Affairs Select Committee report on Asylum Accommodation, which found ‘vulnerable people in unsafe accommodation … children living with infestations of mice, rats or bed bugs, lack of health care for pregnant women … inadequate support for victims of rape and torture.’

It was all too late …

On Thursday 8 December 2016, the immigration minister Robert Goodwill decided to announce quietly in a written ministerial statement to the Commons, the extension of the largest contract ever given by the Home Office for a further two years to June 2019. Only the Financial Times and the Telegraph reported it.

In a further low-key announcement on Wednesday 8 February, Goodwill announced that the government would stop its programme to settle refugee children in the UK from camps in Europe when 350 had arrived (only 200 had managed to get to the UK since the scheme was announced in May 2016). He did not announce the fact that the government had already stopped accepting disabled child refugees fleeing war in Syria and other countries because it says it cannot cope with their needs – a move that shadow home secretary Diane Abbott described as ‘a new low’ in government policy.

And G4S have got a new Home Office contract to lock up refugee children … On Friday 10 February, the Home Office announced that G4S is to take over from the Barnardo’s children’s charity, the contract to provide welfare support to detained families facing deportation. G4S had jointly held the contract, with Barnardo’s for the Cedars ‘pre-departure’ centre near Gatwick where families were detained, The centre was closed last year. G4S has now been given a three-year contract (with a possible two-year extension) to extend its Tinsley House detention centre for families. The Guardian reported:

‘The Home Office has privately insisted that the much-criticised private security company can provide the “same key aspects of welfare support to families” as have been delivered by the current providers, Barnardo’s.’

NOTE: Names have been changed.

Related links

South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG)

IRR News article: The corporate greed of strangers

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

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

IRR News article: First they came for the asylum seeker …

IRR News article: The shameful ‘Go Home’ campaign

IRR News article: Lies, damned lies and racism

[1] Clearsprings bought part of the COMPASS asylum housing contracts from Reliance Security in July 2012. [2] On the BBC2 Victoria Derbyshire show on Tuesday 31 January Sharon Hughes, head of Business for G4S asylum housing claimed that ‘G4S provides cleaning materials’ for tenants. In the five years I have been working alongside G4S tenants I have never come across accommodation where G4S does this.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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