UK Border Agency contractors have left mothers and their babies suffering in cramped, stuffy, indecent conditions
It emerged on Monday that a pregnant asylum seeker had been evicted on the day that her baby was induced; that the housing subcontractor, Target, knew she was set to give birth on that day; and that G4S (wouldn’t you know it), the main contractor, had an excuse waiting ready. “Neither G4S nor our subcontractors can remove an individual from their housing without the prior approval of UKBA” (the UK Border Agency).
Since March this year, £1.7bn worth of UKBA work has been subcontracted out to three companies, G4S, Serco and Clearel. They have more power over the conditions of asylum seekers than any local authority, and yet no accountability – ask G4S why they would move a woman on the day she was having a baby, or why they would house mothers and babies, three-to-a-room, in a hostel that smells like a cross between a prison and a chip shop, and they have the private contractors’ mantra. “We wouldn’t do it if UKBA hadn’t said it was OK. We’re just following orders.”
Jomast is another big private landlord with a hostel in Stockton-on-Tees that represents exactly what’s wrong with the way asylum housing is being run. If you were to conceive of a recipe for post-natal depression, this place would be it – it’s cramped and stuffy, there’s almost always a baby crying, when there isn’t you wish there was, because in the quiet you can hear someone’s high, hacking cough. Thirty-two women live here with 38 children. “Khloe has diarrhoea and is vomiting; the whole floor has diarrhoea and is vomiting. An ambulance comes to the building every week,” 30-year-old Chawada Matiwala told me. Originally from Zimbabwe, Matiwala has a first class degree in social science. “I worked in housing, I know this isn’t right. I know how bad this is for my daughter.”
Pete Widlinksi, from the North of England Refugee Service, remembers a Red Cross worker going round, asking a mother how often her child felt well. “She said in a year, her child had only had one month without a cold or a bug.” The mechanics of life would make you cry with frustration – trying to get through three fire doors carrying a baby and a hot pan, having to get to the doctor when your voucher support doesn’t cover any travel – but there are details of control, too, that seem almost sinister.
If you spend more than 14 nights away in a six-month period, you are deemed not to need support, and your money is withdrawn. Given the dispersal system, friendships are often far flung, and this makes it impossible to maintain them. They have no money, no space, no childcare, no right to work, almost no access to civic life (Surestart is a bright spot, and everybody mentions it). Matiwala’s neighbour, who speaks no English, has an 11-month old and is pregnant. “Sometimes you hear her in her room, screaming at the child. She’s going ballistic in there, the confinement is unbearable.”
Catherine Tshezi, now 40, moved out of the hostel six months ago, having been moved in when her baby, Jordan, was 15 days old. “A couple of days before I gave birth, that’s when my support was terminated. I was induced not knowing where I would live when I came out.” Again, she had no contacts in the area. “It was total displacement. I did try reading the legislation, just to understand the system, and I couldn’t see how it was reasonable.”
The housing is for people awaiting a decision on their asylum claim – it’s not detention, and yet that’s what it feels like. Pete is peeled away from our group and made to sit in the office, where Stephen Monk, the son of Jomast’s owner, sends him a fax. It’s a testimonial from another resident, Miss Bipana Malla, stating: “The person who make totally wrong complain against the staffs is not right. That’s totally wrong. The one who make wrong complain about the staffs they are themselves walking around without cloth on their body”.
We’d heard no complaints about the staff, we were only there to look at the conditions. The fax reached this Stalinist conclusion: “It is up to us to give respect for all the support that this company has provided us.”
The funny thing about the north-east is how many people will tell you that they are renowned for welcoming strangers. Sheffield is officially a City of Sanctuary. Teesside raised £40,000 last year, and much more in food, for a very niche local charity purely for asylum seekers in hardship.
The asylum process has never been pleasant, but when local authorities had most of the border agency contracts, at least they didn’t use hostels and tended to take into account, when evicting people, whether or not they were in labour at the time. John Grayson, from the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, was the one who first told me about the hostel: “I’ve been doing this a long time as a volunteer but even I’m getting stressed out by what I’m seeing. I thought that had died out with Cathy Come Home, putting mothers and tiny children in prison.”
It is estimated that the UKBA has saved 13% on these contracts, though commercial confidentiality means that that figure is unconfirmed. It’s hard to put a number on how much conditions have worsened, but they have dropped below the level of human decency.