Privatizing Asylum Housing: Serco and G4S Get UK Contracts


Over 100 asylum seekers are facing eviction in Glasgow after Serco - a private security company - won a housing contract from the UK Borders Authority (UKBA). The company will take over in November 2012 for the charity Ypeople who currently house asylum seekers in the Scottish city. Groups ranging from the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees to the National Union of Journalists are organizing rallies to protest the plan.

This is not the first time that private security contractors have been hired to manage housing for asylum seekers in the UK. G4S was awarded two major asylum housing contracts totaling £203 million ($325 million) for thousands of asylum seekers by UKBA last month also. This is a company "best known for its immigration prisons, forcible deportations and failings in their duty of care to vulnerable people" says John Grayson of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, which has started a campaign against the company.

The UK government claims that the seven year contracts with G4S, Serco, and a third company named Reliance will save £150 million (about $240 million).

Experts are worried about this plan. "We have consistently raised concerns in the past about the poor standard of accommodation provided for many asylum seekers, and the situation has the potential to deteriorate further with very large super regional contracts," said Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, a UK charity. "It is unacceptable to house asylum seekers in sub-standard, unsecured and overcrowded conditions for cost-cutting purposes while they seek safety here and wait for a decision on their claim."

The UK government has provided housing to destitute asylum seekers via a "dispersal system" since 1999, under which they can be assigned housing anywhere in the country. They do not have any control over where they are placed although it is almost always outside London with few links to their communities.

Since 2006 regional public sector groups and housing associations have been the main providers of such housing. Often these groups also provide emotional and practical support. For example, the Leeds Asylum Support Network (LASSA) runs a befriender scheme which has helped make the transition easier for asylum seekers, most of whom arrive in the UK highly traumatized.

Under the new G4S and Serco contracts, it is likely that existing housing arrangements will be "renegotiated" and asylum seekers could be moved anywhere in the UK. This will force asylum seekers to start their transition over once again. Campaigners worry that these moves will separate asylum seekers from doctors and therapists who are helping them heal from the trauma they experienced.

"People we support are vulnerable and have no support structures apart from our volunteers," Peter Richardson of LASSA told the Guardian. "Being forced to move to a new city is going to separate them from the little they have managed to make into a home."

G4S does not have a good record in handling asylum seekers: a total of 773 complaints have been lodged against the company. In 2010 an Angolan asylum seeker died while in custody of G4S guards who were accompanying him when he was being deported on a flight to Angola. G4S subsequently lost its contract with the UK government and the guards who escorted him are currently being investigated for manslaughter.

Campaigners also worry that G4S will provide inadequate housing. In a 2011 report, the Chief Inspector of Prisons found conditions in a G4S run immigration center to be "objectionable, distressing" and "inhumane."

"Saving money means moving people to the cheapest housing and the cheapest housing is not going to be the best housing by any means," says Stuart Crossthwaite, from South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group. "When people come here they deserve protection and that's why this country signed the refugee convention and its why Sheffield is a city of sanctuary."

Unfortunately, the UK government and G4S seem to disagree.

Lily Smith is a Master's student at the London School of Economics. She previously worked for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.




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