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A Magazine for Sheffield
Imagine for a moment that you live far from the cosy comforts of Sheffield and that brutal forces of control dominate daily life. Disappearances, beatings and torture are common, by the government or some patriarchal warlord who objects to your views, appearance, sexuality, religion - or perhaps just wants power over you, or the land you live on. Persecution on a biblical scale has existed through history, from Herod to Hitler, Stalin to Mugabi. It remains the grim reality in many parts of the world. Rather than risk being dumped in a shallow grave, a brave few go into exile. Mostly this means escaping to a neighbouring country, but even Sheffield has people from places like Afghanistan, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe. Here, seeking sanctuary means a tedious wait for legal wheels to grind, typically amounting to a tenth of a life-span spent in agonising limbo. Legal advice can be minimal and poor quality; working is illegal; life is cold and lonely; racist harassment and media demonisation are common. Add to this, worries for friends and family left behind, post-traumatic stress, perhaps shame at having left, fear of further danger from government spies or assassins, and of being deported. It's no surprise that stress, depression and even suicide can be the result. Asylum seekers in Italy describe themselves as 'living ghosts'. In this bleak situation there is no choice of where to live, so how would it be to find prison guards as your landlords? A growing howl of protest is rising at our government's proposal to name three preferred bidders for such housing contracts. These are, predictably, close cronies among the corporations - Serco, Reliance, and the worst of all, G4S (the name is derived from its earlier gangland-style title, Group 4 Security). With its sinister mission statement of 'Securing your world', G4S uses Bahrain as a haven for tax evasion and avoidance. Its octopus-like tentacles guard prisons, government buildings and industries from South Africa to Afghanistan. It has swelled to become the world's largest private security army. G4S lost Australian government contracts through the appalling death, by heat exposure, of a famous Aboriginal elder while being transported in a van with faulty air conditioning. It lost the UK contract for deporting asylum seekers following reported abuse and the death of an Angolan asylum seeker in 2010. The guards face criminal charges. A Kenyan detainee died at G4S's Oakington Detention Centre near Cambridge, partly through gross neglect of his medical condition. There are hundreds of cases of alleged physical assault, racial abuse and violent restraint techniques in G4S-run detention centres, but G4S is allowed to 'investigate itself' under UK law. The detention centres have high rates of suicide, self-harm, hunger strikes and appalling levels of mental and physical illness. Now asylum seekers in Yorkshire and Humberside may face G4S as their landlord through sub-contractor United Property Management. Housing contracts worth millions would be slashed by shifting contracts from local authorities or voluntary sector providers to a huge capitalist profit-making enterprise, cutting costs by lowering standards. Asylum seekers do not deserve prison guards as their landlords, nor the resulting disruption to their lives. They are not criminals, but ordinary people seeking sanctuary under international treaties. Tax-payers should expect prison management, security and social housing to be totally accountable to Parliament. G4S is not a social landlord, it is a security force. Thank goodness some people in Sheffield are prepared to stand on the side of the vulnerable. South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), unfunded and run by over-worked activists, is leading the charge. Having built up a huge body of experience and research, they are leading a regional demonstration in Sheffield in early March 2012, aiming to stop this hand-over to the vampire corporations. Resistance works. Effective campaigns have prevented this happening elsewhere. Local council involvement provides such services with more humanity and accountability than the private sector ever could. Keep an eye on what is happening if you care at all about people isolated and suffering among us. OpenDemocracy and Corporate Watch publish online information about G4S. Alt-Sheff's 'Links' tab has an Asylum/Refuge section detailing several great organisations working for humanity in the treatment of asylum seekers in Sheffield - groups like SYMAAG, Campaign to Defend Asylum Seekers, City of Sanctuary, Northern Refugee Centre, ASSIST and RASAG IT club. Turn out for the protests and offer help if you can. Degrading people's living conditions seems to be the drive behind so much of the government's actions. Let's fight this new threat. Helping others is a basic human instinct; feeling safe is a basic human need. )

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