City of Sanctuary concern for welfare of asylum seekers as housing contract goes to private security firm
Since the Chileans arrived in the seventies, the Kenyans in the eighties and the Kosovans in the nineties, Sheffield has developed a long tradition of offering sanctuary to those seeking asylum from war and persecution in their own countries.
The city council has played a large role in offering accommodation and support to these new arrivals. Councillors and staff established an asylum team to deal with accommodation and a drop-in centre to offer advice. They also set up a multi-agency forum representing the various local organisations and charities that support asylum seekers and refugees.
In 2007, with the support of the council, Sheffield became the UK’s first ‘City of Sanctuary’ for asylum-seekers and refugees. City of Sanctuary is a movement to build a culture of welcome and hospitality for refugees and asylum-seekers. There are now more than fifty City of Sanctuary groups all over the country.
Major change in prospect
However, many asylum seekers and voluntary sector organisations in Sheffield are worried that this is about to change. From May 2012 the private security firm G4S will take over the housing contract from Sheffield city council. In an attempt to cut costs, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) will give £203m to G4S to house asylum seekers across Britain.
Myra Davies, founder of Asylum Seeker Support Initiative (ASSIST) said:
ASSIST and the Sheffield council have built up organically a network in which people co-operate for the wellbeing of asylum seekers. What we fear with G4S coming in, is that the mutual respect and understanding we have built up is going to be wiped out.
Under its new procurement arm, COMPASS, the UKBA has reduced the number of prime suppliers of asylum services from ten to three. G4S and the two other multinational security companies SERCO and Reliance already provide immigration, detention and removal services to UKBA.
These three companies have now won a total of £620m worth of contracts to provide housing for 18,108 people in asylum accommodation. The Home Office claims this will save £150m over the seven years of the contract.
Accused of brutality
This cost cutting venture has been met with widespread opposition from unions, charities and organisations working with asylum seekers and refugees. Campaigners highlight the track record of G4S which has been criticised over treatment of asylum seekers.
On 6 October 2010, Jose Guttierezz, a Columbian deportee was badly injured and had to receive hospital treatment after being forced on to an aircraft by G4S staff. In that same month Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan asylum seeker, died after forced deportation involving G4S prison staff. Three are facing criminal charges and G4S lost its contract to escort deportees after the Mubenga tragedy.
Campaign organisations such as South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) fear that a different approach will be taken to asylum seekers and that the UKBA is intimidating them by using companies which also run prison services as their managing landlords.
Stuart Crosswaite from SYMAAG said:
I don’t think we should be cooperating with these people. I think we should be putting all our resources into monitoring exactly what they are doing and challenging them about the rights of the children they are going to be moving and the standard of the housing.
Jim Steinke, chief executive of the Northern Refugee Centre, is worried that the loss of local authority influence will destroy relationships that have been built up between the council, asylum seekers and voluntary sector organisations. He said:
The level of service has been better in Yorkshire than in other regions and this is why the campaign against G4S has been so acute; the campaign is not only against G4S but also the potential lowering of standards.
Reply from G4S
Stephen Small, the managing director of UK Immigration and Borders at G4S, said:
We take the welfare of all people who receive our services extremely seriously. We will use housing assessment specialists to drive up the standard of housing provided and employ dedicated social cohesion experts to work with local authorities, migrant support groups, and health and education bodies.
Sheffield Coun Mick Rooney, Cabinet member responsible for asylum, immigration and migration said:
As a Cabinet Member I will enter into a working relationship with G4S without prejudice. I cannot and will not allow their past record to colour my relationship.
Asked about how the change would affect asylum seekers he said: I believe the COMPASS procurement process showed that this was a cost cutting exercise. Will it benefit asylum seekers and refugees? That remains to be seen.
Stuart Crosswaite from SYMAAG said:
Sheffield council has a tradition of being humanitarian and we’ve got a pretty good relationship with them. If you allow housing standards to lower for one group it pulls down the level for everyone else. We want to appeal to them on humanitarian grounds to remain involved.