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A Magazine for Sheffield

Asylum: The UK's burgeoning asylum industry

Last issue, Nigel Slack considered the implications of the current tidal wave of local government outsourcing to private companies (article here). The UK's burgeoning asylum industry highlights the dangers of this trend. If the words 'asylum industry' have a slightly oxymoronic ring to them, you may be further puzzled to learn that asylum contracts for Sheffield, along with around a third of the rest of the country, have been awarded to the now notorious security firm G4S in a deal reportedly worth £210 million. Many asylum seekers are fleeing war, religious and political persecution and torture in their homelands. It's worth noting the British involvement in some of these countries. In 2011 Afghanistan produced more asylum seekers than anywhere else in the world. Asylum seekers are banned from working to support themselves, and those caught doing so face prison. While many of those arriving in the UK seeking asylum are immediately rendered homeless and destitute, some qualify for accommodation while their claims are being considered, like those with children to support. The system being what it is, this can take years. Until this year, asylum accommodation was provided by various private housing companies and social landlords including the council, but these services have now been sold off as a highly profitable package to the lowest bidder following budget cuts at the UK Border Agency (UKBA). As the UK's largest private prison operator, G4S certainly seems an odd choice to deliver a humanitarian service. In a system which already strips asylum seekers of all statutory tenant's and citizen's rights, the company's use of former police hostels and properties such as Angel Lodge in the grounds of high security prison as asylum housing further suggests that people who arrive in the UK asking for help are treated like criminals. Even more disturbing is G4S's reputation. This summer's shambolic handling of security at the Olympics provides a comic twist to an ongoing corporate horror story. A 2011 report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found conditions in a G4S run immigration centre to be "objectionable, distressing" and "inhumane." In 2011 G4S lost the contract to deport failed asylum seekers after Jimmy Mubenga suffocated and died in the hands of G4S staff, who were employing restraint techniques the company were warned against using by the Home Office three years previously. The ensuing report revealed the routine use of openly racist language by G4S employees. In 2004, fifteen-year-old Gareth Myatt choked to death on his own vomit as G4S staff "restrained" him at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre for young offenders. He had refused to clean the sandwich toaster. Complaints of violence and racism remain high in the company's detention centres. In recent weeks the company was criticised after using unacceptable force against a pregnant woman who was tipped out of her wheelchair and held up by her feet, causing significant risk to her unborn child. Nonetheless, this year the company will receive £1 billion from various contracts with UK government departments including the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education. As a result of the new asylum contracts, the government claims it will save £150 million. Around 1,200 individuals and families in Yorkshire have been passed into the hands of G4S, effectively making the company their landlord. Across the region, asylum seekers are being evicted from their homes and moved into privately contracted G4S properties up to 100 miles away from their schools and communities, often with little or no notice; a direct contradiction of G4S and UKBA rules. Local refugee support groups report that vulnerable families have been moved into sub-standard accommodation, with complaints including faulty electrics, a lack of basic furnishings and flooding. No arrangements have been put in place to ensure individual needs are met, such as those of disabled residents, children about to sit GCSEs and people receiving specialised medical treatment locally. In the North East, previous council procedures for assessing suitable areas for relocation in consultation with local police do not appear to have been undertaken by G4S, and asylum seekers have suffered attacks after being moved to areas known to police for far-right activity. Fears that cost-cutting efforts will result in squeezing people into overcrowded accommodation to lower costs and maximise revenues appear to have been realised. Commitments by G4S to phase out the 'doubling up' of individuals and families into single properties are belied by the continuing use of the Stockton hostel for mothers and babies, in which 30 women and 31 children are housed in tiny rooms with limited shared facilities. When interviewed by Sheffield-based campaigner John Grayson, residents reported a repressive regime: 'They constantly returned to phrases about living in 'cells', in conditions 'like a prison', with no respect for their dignity, privacy or different cultures.' Proponents of the private sector claim that selling off government services delivers efficiency savings and gives us access to greater expertise and resources. But developments in asylum housing would suggest that selling services off to the lowest bidder will always encourage companies to offer unfeasible reductions. Once a contract is awarded and public sector provision dismantled, it is too late for us to complain about breaches of contract or poor service. When the driving force behind service provision is profit, we compromise quality, accountability and the welfare of both employees and consumers. We lose the opportunity to use our public resources to create a model of a fairer society in which people are the primary concern. )

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