Faulty fridges, broken bed frames, and conked-out cookers. Rats, filthy flooring, and sagging mattresses.
Recently, refugees and asylum seekers in Halifax told us about the appalling conditions they face when living in housing provided by security service G4S. The private company – which also runs notorious immigration detention centres such as Brook House – has been contracted by the Home Office since 2012 to provide accommodation and housing services to more than 18,000 people in the north, midlands and east of England.
One asylum-seeker explained how sewage accumulated for three months outside her G4S home after her requests for her broken toilet to be fixed went unheeded. Another mother described how the dangerously hot water in her bathroom left her young son with severe burns. A grandmother outlined how damp and mould in her own room was forcing her to share a bed with her teenage daughter, alongside her own 10-month old infant.
Several individuals also described how their homes suffered from little or no heating; insufficient or broken furniture and appliances; and dirty flooring, carpet, and walls. They reported that it took G4S months to complete simple home maintenance tasks, such as changing a lightbulb, which are necessary both to maintaining safety in the home and contributing towards a basic quality of life.
Complaints about shoddy G4S housing are not new. In fact they are so common – and poor conditions so pervasive – that in January the House of Commons’ home affairs select committee called for a major overhaul of the system for housing destitute asylum seekers. After hearing evidence from families living in unhygienic and unsafe housing, MPs branded conditions as “disgraceful”.
Meanwhile, G4S was accused of inciting a culture of intimidation and retribution against asylum seekers living in the accommodation it provides. Asylum seekers have alleged that G4S employees have made threats against them when they’ve complained about housing defects, from threatening to move them to other cities, put them out onto the streets, or even interfering with their asylum claims. Some of the people we spoke to in Halifax were so fearful of their asylum cases being affected if they raised a complaint that they would not admit to experiencing problems with their housing – even while living in squalor.
No room for respect
G4S also shows a complete disregard for the privacy and dignity of the people that they are paid to house. At the beginning of the year, it was revealed that G4S was filming asylum seekers in their own homes without their consent, via body-worn cameras operated on a ‘constant recording mode’. One man we spoke to recalled how a G4S housing office arrived at his house unannounced and began to take photos. “They took images of my kitchen, my food, what I was eating. They went through all my personal possessions without my permission,” he said. Another woman told us that she felt humiliated and disrespected when a male housing officer entered her home without prior notice. “They have keys, so they just let themselves in without warning you. They are rude and make your house dirty when they come in.”
A contract for change?
Despite the home select committee’s call for the government to act immediately to improve housing conditions for asylum seekers, there has been little progress over the past ten months since the recommendation was made. The Home Office only responded to the committee’s findings last month, and said that the improvements they announced back in December 2016 – which will not come into effect until the current contracts end in 2019 – already met some of the MP’s criticisms.
As reported in the media, the Home Office recently invited private companies to bid for new housing contracts worth between £3 billion to £4 billion. This is more than double the yearly cost of the existing contract when it was first awarded in separate lots to G4s and other providers, Serco and Clearsprings.
As the government awards these new contracts – which will decide the future of housing for refugees for the next decade – it has the opportunity to reform the systemically unsafe, unsanitary, and insecure housing in which it forces asylum seekers to live. As 30 leading refugee and asylum seeker charities called for last week in a letter to the Home Secretary, the government must give local authorities more power and independent oversight of housing in their areas to ensure that it is fair, accountable and inclusive of communities and people’s individual needs.
The Home Office must meet its self-declared commitment of providing accommodation that is “safe, habitable, fit for purpose and adequately equipped.” A safe, secure home for those vulnerable people seeking sanctuary in the UK is a necessity and a right – and for the government, providing proper shelter to people seeking international protection is a legal obligation.
Migrants Organise is currently working with migrant and refugee communities in the Yorkshire and Humber region, as well as across the country, to support them in campaigning for improvements to Home Office-contracted housing provided by private firms G4S, Serco, and Clearsprings.
By Eleanor Weber-Ballard