By Sonya Sceats
Keith Vaz, the energetic chairman of the home affairs select committee, has declared his horror at the terrible accommodation offered to asylum seekers in Britain's cities, with Glasgow the worst of all. When he questioned home secretary Theresa May before the committee earlier this week, she admitted that never once, in her six years in charge, had she visited asylum seeker accommodation. It's time she did.
In 2012 asylum seeker housing provision was outsourced to the private sector under Compass contracts, supposedly to provide a more efficient service than could be delivered by government. The contracts went to Serco, G4S and Clearel, who in turn often sub-contract them to smaller firms, such as Orchard & Shipman in Glasgow. What we have seen is their consistent failure to meet their obligations as housing providers.
The recent problems reported in Wales, Middlesbrough and Glasgow are not isolated. Freedom from Torture has been concerned for many years about the ongoing and serious nature of accommodation problems for torture survivors who are asylum seekers. Every week, clients tell us of housing issues and the deleterious effect this has upon their health.
Torture survivors regularly report poor treatment by housing staff including harassment, invasion of privacy, theft, and a failure to respond to complaints or to deal with outstanding repairs. This poor treatment has clinical consequences: exacerbating the survivor's trauma and impeding the work we do to help them recover.
We documented the poor standard of accommodation and inappropriate treatment of asylum seekers by contracted housing providers in our report The Poverty Barrier, published in 2013. Our clients were distressed by frequent moves between properties and away from essential services, racist abuse, lack of privacy, absence of locks on doors, pest infestation, broken facilities, poor hygiene and a failure to conduct repairs.
One client living in a shared house said: “One toilet is unusable, the carpet is dirty. The gas cooker has been broken for ages and not repaired. I never feel safe and secure where I live, I can't leave things in my room.”
Sharing rooms caused particular distress for survivors with sleeping disorders and serious trust problems. "They put you in a room with someone... They don't brief him about you, about your mental state, and they don’t tell you about him." Another torture survivor said: "I feel each and every human being needs private space, especially at bedtime and especially for me with my past rape and abused background."
The situation has not improved. Torture survivors receiving therapy at our centres continue to report unacceptable treatment. This includes allegations of being locked out of their homes, belongings going missing during housing inspections, sexual harassment and physical aggression. In one case, a torture survivor said a contractor even entered their bedroom while they were sleeping.
Steps could be taken to improve the situation. Better and more effective oversight of the Compass contracts would be a start, together with meaningful penalties for providers who fail to meet standards. An independent inspectorate, with power to conduct proactive and unannounced inspections, should monitor the quality of housing and the treatment of tenants. It is vital that private organisations that perform public functions should adhere to the same standards that the public would expect of a publicly-delivered service.
Earlier the home affairs committee recommended that the Home Office establish user groups of asylum seekers housed under the Compass contracts, to support the complaints process and feed into the wider oversight of quality and treatment in asylum accommodation. Better use of existing consultation mechanisms could provide an opportunity for organisations that have direct contact with asylum seekers, including Freedom from Torture, to alert the government to concerns raised by their vulnerable clients.
In principle, Freedom from Torture welcomes proposals to more fairly distribute responsibility for housing asylum seekers across the UK. However, this should be done safely and sustainably by ensuring dispersal areas have the requisite local infrastructure to support local integration and community cohesion. We want torture survivors to be housed in areas where they have access to the specialist services they need to recover from torture.
Specifically, any asylum seeker receiving or accepted for treatment at one of Freedom from Torture's centres in Birmingham, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Newcastle should always be accommodated close to that centre. We have been waiting for a year for the Home Office to deliver on a promise to update its dispersal policy to reflect this principle.
This situation is not just about slipshod and negligent management by private providers. They have been enabled to operate in this way because of Home Office policies which create and perpetuate a climate of hardship and hostility for asylum seekers, rather than one that welcomes persecuted people and facilitates their recovery and social integration. In the final analysis, changing underlying Home Office attitudes and practice is vital.
Sonya Sceats is the director of policy and advocacy at Freedom from Torture. Follow her on Twitter.
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