Campaigners say asylum seekers could be housed in “sub-standard, unsecure and overcrowded” housing and face huge upheaval. The claims come after contracts to provide accommodation for people seeking asylum in Britain were awarded to a private security firm that has been accused of “inhumane” policies, and whose staff are still being investigated over the death of an asylum seeker two years ago.
G4S will receive £203m from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to house asylum seekers across Britain, from Newcastle to Birmingham and across to Ipswich, after it won two “super contracts” last month.
Campaigners are concerned that the company may attempt to lower costs by placing asylum seekers in poor-quality, unsuitable housing. Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, says: “We have consistently raised concerns in the past about the poor standard of accommodation provided for many asylum seekers, and the situation has the potential to deteriorate further with very large super-regional contracts.
“Many asylum seekers have been through hugely traumatic circumstances in their home country and on their journey to the UK, and arrive here with nothing. It is unacceptable to house asylum seekers in sub-standard, unsecured and overcrowded conditions for cost-cutting purposes while they seek safety here and wait for a decision on their claim.”
People seeking asylum in Britain have been housed since 2006 by regional public sector consortiums and housing associations. These consortiums are now handing over to the new providers, in a transition that UKBA aims to complete by the end of the year. The other four super contracts were shared by outsourcing companies Serco and Reliance. Reliance took over a government contract to deport foreign nationals and refused asylum seekers from G4S last year, and has admitted that its own guards have displayed“loutish” and “aggressive” behaviour towards minority ethnic people.
The three companies will take over the provision of housing for the 18,108 people currently in asylum accommodation at an estimated cost of £620m over seven years, which the Home Office claims will save £150m over the potential life of the contract.
Under the change of providers, existing housing arrangements could be renegotiated, requiring tenants to move to anywhere across the large geographical areas covered by each of the contracts, with transport provided by the companies
Peter Richardson, director of Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network, says the contracts may force some of its clients and their children to move to accommodation provided in different cities. “It could be devastating,” he says. “They’ve already fled persecution, escaped torture, lost families and left everything behind. Now, just as they begin to settle into a new life in Leeds, everything is disrupted again.
“People we support are vulnerable and have no support structures apart from our volunteers. Being forced to move to a new city is going to separate them from the little they have managed to make into a home. It couldn’t come at a worse time for some families. Originally, children taking exams were not going to be moved but now they could be shifted right across the city at this critical moment in their lives.”
Dave Stamp, project manager at the Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team in Birmingham, adds: “We are aware that many people will lose their homes as a consequence of this transfer of responsibility, [but] we have been given no indication of how this process will be managed, or what arrangements have been put in place to ensure that people’s individual needs – including those of children about to sit GCSE exams – will be respected during this period of upheaval.”
Campaigners are also concerned that asylum seekers will be separated from their trusted specialised health workers, who deal with problems ranging from HIV to the psychological scars of torture.
UKBA insists, however, that the housing and welfare of asylum seekers will not be jeopardised. A spokesman for the agency says: “Contracts for asylum services have been awarded to providers that demonstrated they could meet our high standards of support and ensure the welfare of individuals.”
Stephen Small, managing director of immigration and borders at G4S, says: “We take the welfare of all people who receive our services extremely seriously. Asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable people in our society and we are committed to ensuring they are integrated into local communitieswith the minimum of disruption, and into housing which is safe, sanitary and fit for purpose.
“G4S will be delivering services largely through a carefully selected supply chain of experienced housing providers, which includes local private andvoluntary sector housing organisations. We will use housing assessment specialists to drive up the standard of housing provided, and employ dedicated social cohesion experts to work with local authorities, migrant support groups, health and education bodies”.
G4S became a frontrunner for the contract to house and transport asylum seekers in December last year, when it was named as a preferred bidder, while still the subject of an inquiry by the Commons home affairs select committee.
The committee’s report, published in January, responded to the death ofJimmy Mubenga, a refused asylum seeker from Angola, while on a deportation flight in the custody of G4S guards in October 2010. Three guards who were escorting Mubenga when he died are on bail, as prosecutors weigh up the evidence against them.
The report raised concerns about the safety of restraining holds used by guards on deportees, guards’ open use of racist language, the quality of information given to guards about deportees’ health, and the excessive number of guards per deportee.
The committee also mentioned a “relationship between the agency [UKBA] and its contractors which had become too cosy”. It condemned G4S’s policy of taking extra detainees (“reserves”) to the airport without informing them that they would be taking the place of any deportees granted last-minute reprieves. Those reserves who weren’t deported were taken back into detention, but not necessarily to the centre they had left.
Keith Vaz, chair of the select committee, said on publication of the report: “It is simply inhumane to uproot somebody on the expectation that they will be returned to their home country only to then return them at the end of the day to a detention centre in the UK – sometimes a different one from the one they left that morning.”
In a separate report of an inspection of a G4S-run immigration detention centre, Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, described this practice as “objectionable and distressing” and “inhumane”.
In addition, there are fears that asylum seekers who have been refused permission to remain in Britain could be left destitute as a result of the contracts going to private companies. In Glasgow, where Serco won the accommodation contract last month, 84 households who had their applications turned down have already been served with eviction notices. Ypeople, the charity that has provided accommodation since 2000, had refused to follow the UKBA policy of eviction for refused asylum seekers.
Ypeople’s chief executive, Joe Connolly, says: “Although Ypeople receives no funding for the cost of accommodating and supporting people whose asylum claims are rejected, we have, as a not-for-profit organisation, contributed in excess of £500,000 in the last year alone, which has helped significantly to alleviate destitution and provide shelter for those who have been refused permission to remain in the UK.”
Back at the Refugee Council, Covey says: “We will be working closely with all the contractors and UKBA, and monitoring feedback from our clients following the changes, to ensure that their living conditions are not only adequate but also safe and comfortable.”