Next week on Thursday 6 June the world's largest security firm G4S, will hold its annual general meeting in the City of London. A large coalition of groups, including several refugee rights organisations, has called for a demonstration to be held outside the event, in protest of G4S's varying and widespread human rights abuses. This article is the first in a three-part series which will outline G4S's role in the "asylum market" in the UK and how its involvement has led to many cases of serious neglect and mistreatment of those who seek sanctuary here. This piece will focus on how G4S has mishandled its contracts to house those seeking asylum in the UK.
Under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, people waiting for a decision on their application for asylum are not entitled to work (bar very limited exceptions) nor are they eligible for welfare benefits. Those who are deemed to be destitute can apply to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) for accommodation and/or housing support. Previously, this housing was provided by local authorities and housing associations. However, in 2012 the Home Office opened up asylum housing contracts to private companies. In June of that year G4S won a seven-year, £211 million contract; over one-third of the national asylum housing contracts. The company had no previous experience of providing housing to vulnerable individuals prior to this. G4S subcontracted portions of this contract to smaller companies, who in turn subcontract to small private landlords. On June 18th 2012 G4S announced that it would have four new housing companies as its partners: Cascade Homes Ltd., Live Management, Mantel, and the charitable housing association Target HA; the former being the only one to have experience in housing vulnerable people.
Quite soon after G4S was awarded these contracts, stories of negligence and maltreatment began to emerge. On May 8th 2012, a woman in Bradford and her 12-week old baby were given barely a week's notice before being evicted from their home. They were transported 40 miles to a tiny flat in Doncaster with no cooker, table or chair and only a tiny sink to wash dishes and clothes. Despite lodging complaints, they were forced to remain there for six weeks after UKBA declared it unfit for living. In August of the same year a woman was evicted on the day that she was due to be induced. These conditions are widespread: in February of this year the Maternity Alliance and the Refugee Council published a report documenting how UKBA's asylum housing policy puts pregnant women at risk.
A rally in Sheffield against G4S taking over asylum seeker housing.
During a Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People, Sarah Teather MP said the most shocking finding was the "abject disregard for basic human dignity demonstrated by housing providers." According to Open Democracy, G4S's own figures suggest that in Yorkshire alone up to 300 asylum seekers have been placed in "no choice" housing which is unfit and breaches their contract with the Home Office. There are dozens of cases of families being relocated to areas up to and over 120 miles away. After these conditions were highlighted by activists, G4S assured them that inspections were being carried out - by their own 'G4S Assessments'. Shockingly, despite public and parliamentary exposure the neglect and suffering goes on.
One asylum seeker, Angela*, suffered serious mistreatment at the hands of G4S. The company failed to pay months of rent on the property she was living in, resulting in her being incessantly harassed by the landlord. G4S finally responded to the situation by forcing her and her infant son to move for the 4th time in a few months, leaving them without their medical and support networks. Previously, the two had been forced to spend a month in a damp, filthy property which was infested with cockroaches. When Angela spoke out about her conditions, G4S employees began to harass her, with male workers entering the house unannounced. This was not an isolated case; like Angela, many women asylum seekers who have spoken out about their conditions have been subsequently harassed by male staff visiting unannounced. During the Parliamentary Inquiry, Teather said:
"Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking...it causes terror for children and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated."
At the end of February Cascade had 700 properties across West Yorkshire and nofrontline women housing officers. Complaints of racial and sexual harassment (of which there are many) are dealt with G4S and Cascade "internally".
Failure to Provide Housing at All
Alongside countless allocations of substandard housing, in many instances G4S have simply failed to provide any housing whatsoever. In March of this year a leaked email from a G4S Senior Executive revealed that the company was failing to meet its contractual obligations. The email from G4S managing director for immigration and borders, Stephen Small, admitted that one of its subcontractors has already resigned because it cannot meet its obligations, while two others have "expressed concerns" about being able to provide the requisite service. Last year hundreds of asylum-seekers had to be moved to council housing when G4S failed to put them in private accommodation. In September 2012 Corporate Watch estimated that 1,200 asylum seekers previously housed by local councils were being placed in sub-standard houses or left in limbo because G4S were unable to find enough private landlords.
Privatising a Duty of Care
The privatisation of accommodation for asylum seekers marks just one more market opened up by a Government intent on expanding the market into every arena possible. This process is problematic for a number of reasons.
G4S's three tier system requires each "landlord" to skim off a layer of profit at each level, meaning the actual money going into the service is considerably lessened. This outsourcing model depends on cost-cutting, often to dangerous levels. It means that staff levels must be decreased to the bare minimum (and often less) and all other costs minimised as much as possible, which in the case of asylum accommodation results in substandard housing. Interestingly, in many cases a bizarre "reverse privatisation" process has occurred, where G4S are using their contracts to pay local authorities and housing associations to manage asylum accommodation. In this case G4S are simply a parasite leeching profits from the budget for asylum housing. The question must be asked; what is the point of having them in the equation at all? Why should taxpayers' money go towards the £9.5 million pension pot of recently retired CEO Nick Buckles?
The crucial problem with privatising a state-provided sector is that profit becomes prioritised over providing a duty of care. When a company is obligated to provide shareholders with a return on their investment, their priority has to be to maximise profit, at any legal (and sometimes not) cost. This means that providing quality and appropriate care is at best a secondary concern. In something as crucial and sensitive as providing accommodation for those fleeing torture, violence and persecution, this is not acceptable.
The outsourcing of asylum housing to G4S is merely one facet of an immigration system designed to criminalise those who migrate to the UK and to deter others from coming. As John Grayson, an activist from South Yorkshire said:
"The G4S contract not only privatises this humanitarian function but destroys it and replaces it with the clear message [...] that asylum seekers are not welcome here, indeed they should be treated like criminals with prison guards as their landlords."
This article is merely a first in a series; the next two will look at G4S's role in the detention and deportation of asylum seekers in the UK.
Sarah McCarthy is currently an intern with the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC).
You can read more about G4S's various abuses and the upcoming protest at their AGM here.