The UK government has created a new profit source for security giant G4S and its partners: managing housing for asylum seekers. JOHN GRAYSON reports on a reckless experiment whose result is human misery.
On the evening of Tuesday 30 October a new asylum seeker sent from London, 250 miles north to a property in Thornaby, Stockton, found himself, along with four other asylum seekers, besieged by a crowd shouting racist abuse. They broke down the door and broke windows.
The asylum seeker, a journalist, had only recently fled from such harassment in Iraq. The area is well known for racism and rowdyism yet the police refused to record the attack as a ‘racist’ incident. The landlord simply repaired the door (not the window), and refused to move the journalist. The other four asylum seekers left the property, fearing further attacks.
This is the welcoming world of ‘dispersal’ for new asylum seekers in the north east of England. It is also the reality of privatised for-profit asylum housing in the UK, now dominated by security giant G4S, subcontracting, in this case, to the powerful private housing company Jomast Developments.
The scramble to evict
In the Yorkshire region, there are only days to go before G4S and its subcontracting housing firms in Yorkshire must complete the transfer of 450 asylum seekers, mainly family groups with children and dependents, from their local council accommodation into private rented sector housing. (1)
In June, when G4S officially took over the asylum housing contract in Yorkshire and the north east, the UK Border Agency claimed that they had 4883 supported persons in asylum housing to move over to the new G4S contract. (2) Figures released by Yorkshire local authorities this week show that G4S and the UKBA have, in fact, managed to evict and rehouse less than half of the families in Yorkshire council humanitarian housing for asylum seekers. Now G4S claim they will evict and rehouse the other half in a week. If this happens it will certainly be done at the expense of asylum seekers’ rights and wellbeing.
In Sheffield in the past few weeks 182 asylum seekers, many in family groups, have been evicted and rehoused. Local asylum seeker advice services have been inundated with cases of filthy and even flooded properties being allocated to families, a lack of basic furnishings, faulty electrics, cooking utensils and crockery missing or broken. In many cases, links to schools, medical care, community support have been severed. This is what the abstract concept of asylum housing privatisation actually means in the everyday lives of already traumatised asylum seekers and their families.
Pregnant and pushed out of home
Moving house is reckoned to be one of the most stressful events in the life of the average British family. In Barnsley some of the families to be moved by G4S are three generation asylum seeker families with grandparents, parents, children at local schools, and family members with disabilities, and serious chronic illness. The families may have lived in their council houses for more than five years awaiting outcomes of asylum claims. One family was told in July that they would be moved, allowed only two bags each person, and that they could be moved to Hull (72 miles away) or Newcastle (120 miles away). Over the whole summer, for three months, the families have had to pack, ready to go. (The UK Border Agency and G4S backed down on the ‘two bags rule’ after protests from campaigners.)
Despite UKBA and G4S undertakings that families with children at school would be given two weeks’ notice of a move, one of the families was given five days’ notice on 24 August and not told where they were to be moved. The move was then cancelled. The families have since had repeated notices and cancellations – for the 28 September, for the 30 October. The most recent moving dates are the 9 November and 12 November. They now face a disruptive move in term time for their school age children.
In mid-August a heavily pregnant asylum seeker, resident in Target Housing Association accommodation in Rotherham, was granted leave to remain in the UK. As a refugee, the woman had to leave the property – her landlords, subcontractors of G4S, would not be paid by the UK Border Agency if she lingered there. (3)
Her eviction notice was for the same day as the local hospital had insisted that she should go and have the birth induced. Target management made her pack, and suggested that she find her own way with her bags, first to emergency homeless accommodation, and then on to the hospital, pointing out that her destinations were on bus routes. It was only the intervention of a sympathetic member of the Target staff who insisted on using her own car to get the woman to housing and the hospital which made the journeys possible.
At the beginning of the ‘transition’ evictions and rehousing necessitated by the change from contracts for asylum housing held by local councils and private landlords, to new ones for security giant G4S and its private landlord partners, the UK Border Agency gave assurances. “UKBA will oversee the current providers’ exit plans and new providers’ transition plans to ensure that the provision of services is seamless during the transition period,” they said. (4)
The UK Border Agency, a public government body funded by taxpayers, throughout this whole transition period have worked closely with G4S. UKBA have been in total control of the evictions and rehousing – no move of an asylum seeker to, or from, housing is made without its official authorisation through regional or national civil servants. It is only after the final evictions that G4S take over the asylum housing and transport contracts fully, and, even then, decisions on transfers and moves will still be totally controlled by the agency.
Broken promises, broken rules
The UK Border Agency have claimed throughout that giving G4S the asylum housing contract would not affect the dispersal of new asylum seekers from the south east and London to Yorkshire and the north east. It was to be ‘business as usual’. (5)
What they should have made clear was that the ‘induction’ housing and transport contracts had also been given to G4S. G4S now control initial accommodation at the despised Angel Lodge (as revealed on Open Democracy’s OurKingdom (6)). Their subcontracting housing companies are procuring accommodation for dispersed new asylum seekers throughout Yorkshire and the north east.
Since June around 60 per cent of new asylum seekers have been sent from initial accommodation in Yorkshire to the north east – mainly to Teesside (Middlesborough and Stockton) and Sunderland. This has torn up tacit agreements with local authorities operating since 2000 with regard to ‘clustering’ (the numbers of asylum seekers dispersed to each authority). In the north east Jomast Developments is the sole subcontractor for G4S, for both moves under transition, and for dispersal housing. Jomast has placed asylum seekers in its own properties, or its properties under its management with scant regard for the risks to the safety of the individuals concerned.
In Sunderland G4S / Jomast currently refuses, in clear breach of its UKBA contract, to give lists of housing to be used for asylum seekers to the police, and local councils. At a meeting on Wednesday 17 October of a group looking at issues surrounding future asylum seekers’ support, both the Sunderland city council housing manager and the police civilian liaison officer confirmed that Jomast had stopped notifying them who they are putting where.
Under UK Border Agency contracts, providers have a clear duty to safeguard asylum seekers against racist incidents: “Accommodation providers must keep under review their property portfolios with regard to the vulnerability to racist incidents of people living in particular premises or in particular area . . . Accommodation providers must consult. . . about allocations to such vulnerable premises and not let these premises to households who may be foreseen to be at risk from harassment.” (7)
G4S has appointed a social cohesion manager who seems not to have been active in Sunderland, where asylum seekers are dumped in dirty rooms in high crime areas. Properties are being used in areas well known for far right activity at a time when racist activity is on the rise. On 6 October the far right Infidels mounted a violent demonstration in Sunderland city centre. (8)
An old Rachmanite trick
On 8 August, with seven days’ notice, Jomast Developments evicted an elderly Congolese asylum seeker couple from a flat in Sunderland. Mr Pambu is 80, Mrs Pambu is 70. The couple had been dispersed to the north east in 2008. They had lived in their flat in Sunderland since 2010. The couple had developed good links with asylum support organisations and the Freedom from Torture organisation. Mrs Pambu, who has diabetes and is disabled, had received specialist support and adaptations from local social services and the NHS. The couple were sent on by the UK Border Agency and Jomast to a flat 12 miles away in Gateshead.
Two weeks after they arrived their flat became the target for a series of racist attacks with stones thrown at their windows and constant chanting of racial abuse. A series of such racist incidents, many recorded by local police, occurred throughout September and into October. The couple’s plight is well known to the local Gateshead Hate Crime Tension Monitoring Group where both the UKBA and Jomast are involved. Jomast argues it has no properties available back in Sunderland, and the UKBA refuse to move the couple.
What perhaps is most significant about the case is that the Pambus were one of 13 evictions carried out in that area of Sunderland in August by Jomast. Within days, every one of the flats, including the Pambus’s old flat, was occupied by new asylum seeker tenants – of course housed at much higher densities by Jomast. This kind of landlord practice used to be called ‘winkling’, a process whereby tenants are forced from their homes to increase the rents or rental values of the property with new tenants. (9) The Pambus remain beseiged and frightened in their Gateshead flat.
Jomast Developments is a private family company controlled by Stockton property developer Stuart Monk. Monk’s family fortune last year was estimated at £183 million.
Jomast seems to simply ignore Home Office and UK Border Agency rules for children in the asylum system which state: “Our statutory duty to children includes the need to demonstrate fair treatment which meets the same standard a British child would receive.” (10)
In its pursuit of maximum income from UKBA accomodation payments Jomast has, with G4S and the UK Border Agency, established a degrading hostel for asylum seeker mothers and babies in Stockton. (11) Cha Matty, one of the women in the hostel who has been there a year with her baby, says she was “shocked and disappointed at how we have been treated by the powers that be. How inhuman they are treating us, and we are just numbers for them in making a profit which is very unfair and sad.”
“We are just numbers for them in making a profit which is very unfair and sad.”
In 1999 the Labour government introduced the Immigration and Asylum Act to make sure asylum seekers were dispersed from the south east. The Act also introduced an oppressive and unjust system of ‘support’ for asylum seekers.
As immigration barrister Frances Webber puts it in her new book, Borderline Justice: “Whereas the Tories had simply closed off parts of the welfare state to migrants and asylum seekers, Labour came up with a system of institutionalised inhumanity. It accepted responsibilty for providing support but its anxieties to appease the right wing press and to create opportunities for the private sector created a monstrous system which had a lot in common with the workhouse – bare subsistence and a deterrent system of coercion, control and stigmatisation.” (12)
The 1999 Act stripped asylum seeker tenants in ‘no choice’ asylum housing of all statutory tenants’ rights, even rights under eviction acts. The campaign to stop security companies G4S, Serco, and Reliance privatising and taking over asylum housing has consistently contested this idea that people can be stripped of citizens’ rights, and placed in a totally vulnerable ‘illegality’ outside norms of justice and humane treatment. The UK Border Agency and both Labour and Coalition politicians since 1999 have described any successful challenges to its ‘monstrous system’ as ‘concessions’ (13) and asylum seeker and asylum rights groups have over the past months certainly managed to wring out of them a number of ‘concessions’ on the G4S contracts. This has been as a result of action and campaigning by both asylum seeker tenants and asylum rights groups.
Currently there is a direct action and legal battle in Glasgow to stop Serco evicting asylum seekers it inherited from the previous contract. (14) The Yorkshire notog4s campaign continues as a campaign against G4S, which is not simply a massive commercial company privatising and exploiting asylum markets, but also a private army company, a prison guard company and a company with an established and well-documented record in managing immigration detention centres and trampling on asylum seekers’ rights. The Yorkshire notog4s campaign continues to campaign against G4S but also for asylum seekers rights.
Many if not most asylum seekers, already traumatised by their personal histories, are understandably terrified to campaign openly against the UK Border Agency, and its contractor G4S. They fear publicity in their home countries will threaten relatives there. They believe (rightly or wrongly) that dissent will threaten their claims for asylum. The UK Border Agency has punished dissent, either by forcibly moving asylum seekers, or by tightening the rules and increasing the pressures on individuals and families.
An advocate for women and children in the Stockton G4S / Jomast hostel, who was moved by the UK Border Agency, has recently spoken out, as has the woman who endured six weeks in a UK Border Agency / United Property Management slum flat in Doncaster, a flat which threatened the health of her sick child. For her rebellion she was made to travel weekly 28 miles to Leeds from Doncaster to ‘sign on’ with a baby who has a heart murmur, at the UK Border Agency regional centre. (15)
Despite the UK Border Agency’s denial of asylum seekers’ rights, and their punishment of dissent the notog4s asylum housing campaign has, from its roots, been a campaign in solidarity with, and alongside asylum seekers, not ‘for’ or ‘on behalf’ of them. At present women in the Stockton hostel are publicly campaigning; an elderly couple in Gateshead are going public on their plight, an Ivorian family in Sheffield were willing to be named, and to take on the UK Border Agency in a High Court action, as was an African lone mother from Bradford.
The Yorkshire notog4s campaign started when an asylum seeker activist in Sheffield at a meeting said simply: “I do not want a prison guard as my landlord.” The campaign continues, and it is still fundamentally about what Catherine Tshezi, a resident of the Jomast hostel, has said, that asylum seekers “regardless of our vulnerability” are “human beings who deserve respect, our concerns should be treated with utmost respect”.
Asylum seekers demand respect as their right – part of those asylum rights guaranteed by international treaties and conventions which British governments have signed on behalf of us all.
(1) See Emily Twinch ‘G4S has ten days left to rehouse 349 people’ Inside Housing Friday 2 November 2012.
See also ‘G4S ‘fails again’ as deadline on asylum seekers’ housing looms’ The Yorkshire Post Thursday 1 November 2012.
(2) UKBA COMPASS Transition ‘COMPASS Corporate Partner FAQs’ version 4.0 Leeds: UKBA, September 2012.n.p.
(4) UK Border Agency COMPASS Transition ‘COMPASS Corporate Partner FAQs’ version 3.0 Leeds: UKBA, September 2012.n.p.
(5) UK Border Agency COMPASS Transition ‘COMPASS Corporate Partner FAQs version 3.0 Leeds: UKBA, September 2012.n.p
(7) NASS Policy Bulletin 81 Racist Incidents 21 June 2004 p3
(8) Matthew Collins: ‘Trouble flares in Sunderland’ Hope not Hate Saturday 6th October 2012
(9) See Parliamentary debate on winkling 1406 and Simon Jenkins ‘Once they called it Rachmanism. Now it’s being done with taxpayers’ money’ The Guardian Friday 16 March 2007
(10) UK Border Agency ‘Asylum Support Policy Bulletin 31 Dispersal Guidelines’ September 2009 p.1
(12) Frances Webber 2012 ‘Borderline Justice: the fight for Refugee and Migrants Rights’ London: Pluto Press p 92
(13) See the language used throughout the UK Border Agency document ‘Asylum Support Policy Bulletin 31 Dispersal Guidelines’ September 2009
(14) See Jon Burnett ‘Glasgow: Solidarity with asylum seekers facing eviction’ Institute for Race Relations October 18th 2012
This article was first published on openDemocracy on 8 November 2012.
John Grayson is an independent researcher and adult educator. He teaches some of the time at Sheffield Hallam University and with the social enterprise, the AdEd Knowledge Company. He lives in Barnsley and is an activist and campaigner with SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group).