|Protests outside the UK Border Agency HQ in Sheffield after G4S won contracts to house asylum seekers. Photograph: South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group|
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 Sheffield council has played a large role in offering accommodation and support to these new arrivals. They have established an asylum team to deal with accommodation and a drop-in centre to offer advice. They have also set up a multi-agency forum representing the various organisations and charities that support asylum seekers and refugees in the city.
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.
Change for the worse
However, many asylum seekers and voluntary sector organisations in Sheffield are worried that this is all about to change. From May 2012 the private security firm G4S will take over the housing contract from Sheffield City Council. In a bid 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 as a network in which people co-operate for the well being of asylum seekers. What we fear with G4S coming in is that all the mutual respect and understanding we have built up is going to be wiped out.”
Under its new procurement arm, COMPASS, the UKBA have 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 unsavoury track record of G4S who have been criticised over their treatment of asylum seekers.
On 6th 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. In that same month Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan asylum seeker, died as a result of his forced deportation by G4S prison guards. Three guards are facing criminal charges and G4S lost their contract to escort deportees after the killing of Mubenga.
Campaign organisations like South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) fear that asylum seekers will be subject to further abuse and negligence and that the UKBA is deliberately intimidating asylum seekers by threatening to install prison guard companies 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 housing that will be sub-standard.”
Myra Davies believes that G4S have a profile that is totally terrifying to asylum seekers. “G4S will not have the same sort of brief that the council has had for the well being of people, they have a brief for the profit margins of their company, for making asylum seekers accept poor accommodation because it will be cheaper. They have also got responsibility for removing asylum seekers, so overall G4S is not someone who will want to listen to humanitarian concerns.”
Lowering of standards
But 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.”
However, Jim Steinke, chief executive of the Northern Refugee Centre, believes that housing standards will lower once G4S are in control. He is concerned that the loss of local authority influence will destroy the strong relationships that have been built up between the councils, asylum seekers and voluntary sector organisations.
“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,” said Jim Steinke.
Councils are cornered
Stuart Crosswaite from SYMAAG said, “Sheffield council has a tradition of being humanitarian and we’ve got a pretty good relationship with them. We have spoken to them about G4S and in the end they gave in and agreed that it would be really bad if housing was privatised. The problem is that they said they have to work with these people, so they have to keep a good relationship with them.
“I suspect there will be a lot of unofficial support from the council and a lot of official silence. I hope there will be official support as well because 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 get involved.”
Sheffield Councilor Mick Rooney, 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.”
However, when asked about how this will 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.”