Very worrying developments in Scotland do not bode well for the civil rights of asylum-seekers in Northern Ireland, following the award of a new contract for asylum housing to global multinational SERCO in both places.
In Scotland, earlier this month, the organisation, Positive Action in Housing, has put out an urgent appeal for supporters and benefactors, individuals, registered social landlords, voluntary organisations, trade unions, politicians and anyone else to donate to an emergency hardship fund for hundreds of refused refugees currently being made absolutely destitute in Glasgow. They are also appealing for volunteers to come forward and offer a temporary space in their home to someone who is destitute.
Positive Action in Housing reports that 156 asylum-seekers have suddenly been made homeless after Y People, a Christian charity paid to provide asylum housing, lost its contract to SERCO. SERCO, according to Positive Action in Housing: “wants vacant possession with only “supported” asylum seekers. Anyone unsupported will be put out”. Those put out are not entitled to social housing or emergency homelessness accommodation, because they are classified as “failed asylum-seekers” by the Home Office, even though that same Office acknowledges that they cannot be returned to their home countries due to those countries being unsafe. Positive Action In Housing says it is desperate to avoid a tragedy similar to that when a Russian family of 3 died after jumping from the balcony of their Glasgow flat, on the same day they were told their support was being stopped. They also, rightly, question how it can be, in a civilised society, that people are being made destitute and homeless to leave properties empty, when, if this was happening abroad, aid agencies would be brought in to provide shelter, food and warmth. If it wasn’t for the prohibition on work for most, if not all, of the newly homeless, Positive Action In Housing claims that most would gladly work “for almost nothing” rather than face destitution and desperate dependence on charity.
Why all this bodes so ill for us is because SERCO has also recently won the government contract to provide ongoing contract provision for asylum support services from 2012 in Northern Ireland. SERCO, which runs the notorious Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia, will be well-known to many UK asylum-seekers and their friends and advocates, as the company that runs Colnbrook and Yarl’s Wood detention centres in England.
Then working as a caseworker at Bail For Immigration Detainees, I spoke out with heavy criticisms of the treatment of detainees at SERCO-run Colnbrook back in 2006, when a detainee whom I was assisting – a frail, 24-year-old woman from Uganda, who was HIV positive and weighed only six stone – reported that she was assaulted by officers at Colnbrook.
Four years on, in its most recent report inspecting the facility, published November 2010, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons noted that safety remained a concern with two-thirds of detainees reporting feeling unsafe inside Colnbrook. There was “an increasing number of highly frustrated, long-term detainees, all housed in austere, higher security conditions designed for short stays” whilst “problems had been compounded by a significant drug problem which Colnbrook had only just begun to address.” The Inspectorate also noted “some security responses were disproportionate, with high use of force and separation – not all of which was properly managed. The vulnerable detainee unit remained oppressive and an alternative is urgently required.” Accommodation was recorded as “noisy” and ventilation “poor”.
In 2011, police investigations were launched into two deaths at Colnbrook, amid growing concern about the treatment of detainees when the two detainees died of suspected heart attacks.
In 2010, Yarl’s Wood witnessed a hunger strike by reported over 80 women detainees held there, protesting their conditions of detention.
Earlier this month, John Grayson published a thorough article on the “corporate takeover of Britain’s ‘asylum seeker markets’,” which can be read here. Although focusing primarily on a different multinational, G4S, rather than SERCO, it is well-worth reading, as it documents in some detail how “[P]rivate security firms with records of abuse in managing detention centres and escorting asylum seekers are about to take over as asylum housing landlords and disperse asylum seeker tenants into poor quality private rented housing.”
One Zimbabwean asylum-seeker quoted by John Grayson says, very understandably: “I do not want a prison guard as my landlord”. It remains to be seen what SERCO plans for its “asylum support services” in Northern Ireland and whether there will be the need for a public campaign here as those plans emerge. If so, will local people stand in solidarity with some of the most vulnerable in our society as they claim their rights to basic housing, welfare support and dignified treatment?
Positive Action In Housing has produced a film in support of its campaign, which can be viewed here.