Security service G4S has been accused of inciting a culture of intimidation against asylum seekers who complain about poor housing conditions.
Asylum seekers have alleged that employees of G4S, which manages asylum housing in several regions of the UK as part of a contract with the Home Office, have made threats against them when they’ve complained about housing defects, including the threat of moving them to other cities, sending them out onto the streets or interfering with their asylum claims.
It comes two days after an inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee found that asylum seekers across the UK, including those in G4S-managed housing, have been living in accommodation with "appalling conditions", including infestations of mice, rats and bedbugs.
An independent film, released on Tuesday but not broadcast in the media until now, shows a series of anonymous interviews with asylum seekers living in G4S service provision, filmed over several months last autumn, in which they allege they have been victim to threats and intimidation by G4S staff, including reports of physical force.
In the footage, which has been shared on social media, one woman alleges that she was forced to choose between signing a contract for a “very dirty” house or sleeping on the streets with her children. Another female asylum seeker, also a mother, claimed G4S staff attempted to physically force her and her baby into a house that had reportedly been abandoned for years, by “pulling her luggage” from her and into the door.
A number of asylum seeker support workers and experts in asylum said in the film and later confirmed to The Independent that such allegations against G4S were “large scale”, alleging that asylum seekers were “terrified” of complaining and that intimidation was “at the heart” of the asylum housing system.
G4S, which manages asylum housing in the Midlands, the east of England and Yorkshire and the Humber regions, strongly denied the allegations of threats and intimidation against asylum seekers, asserting that it was not in the company’s interest for defects in properties to remain unresolved.
One of the asylum seekers interviewed, a woman who arrived in the UK after fleeing political persecution in Iran, told the filmmakers she had been threatened with being “kicked out” onto the street with her children by a member of G4S staff if she didn't sign a contract for a “very dirty” property.
The woman, who remains anonymous and speaks under the name Bahar, said: “[The housing officer] said sign this, we've given you this property. I said no, I can't sign. I can't open my luggage here, it's very very dirty.
“The kitchen was full of water because the washing machine was broken. The refrigerator was full of insects. He said it you don't sign, I'll kick you out on the street and you will sleep on the street with your children.
"I was crying. He said you don’t have any other option: go to the street or sign this. I was crying and my daughter was crying. I signed it. I was forced to sign it."
Another woman, who is said to have been sex-trafficked to the UK from Nigeria, alleged that G4S officers attempted to force her and her five-month-old son to move into an "abandoned house", by use of physical force.
The mother-of-one, who is named Esther in the film, said: "When they decided to rehouse me and my son, they took us to another accommodation and when we got there, it was really horrible. Worse than where I was before.
“So I said I’m not going to accept living here. And they were saying that because I’m an asylum seeker, I don’t have any right to choose or to say I’m not going to live in this property. That I’m on a no-choice basis and that these were the orders from the Home Office.
“I said no, I’m not going to live here with my son. Then they forced my stuff into the property. I said they needed to stop. But they were actually pulling my stuff, and I was trying to pull it back for them not to take it in.
“A neighbour intervened and testified that that property had been abandoned for years. The staff said it was none of their business. When they saw that we were beginning to draw a crowd, they eventually stopped."
Esther alleged that in another instance she was told by a housing officer when she called up to complain that she "didn't have this kind of accommodation where you came from" so should appreciate the fact that she was being given "this kind of place". She added: “He made me feel really worthless. He treated me like I’m some sort of dirt."
The filmmakers said that during the production of the film two thirds of the asylum seekers who initially agreed to talk about G4S housing subsequently declined to be interviewed, and that all participants described a culture of intimidation and retribution on the part of G4S and its private sub-contractors.
John Grayson, an independent researcher in migration studies and co-chair of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), visits G4S-run asylum houses on a regular basis, and told the filmmakers asylum seekers were “terrified” of complaining, for fear it would affect their asylum claims.
“Most asylum seekers are terrified of G4S and the Home Office, because they’re told regularly that if they complain, and certainly if they go public, this will affect their asylum claims,” Mr Grayson said.
“This cannot legally happen, but if G4S are telling them this, they are very unlikely to complain or go public.”
In response to the allegations in the film, a spokesperson for G4S said: “We absolutely do not recognise the picture painted of our staff in this video, the majority of whom are career professionals in social housing, drawn from councils, charities or most recently from former asylum seekers who have gone through the Compass programme.
"They have no influence on the outcome of any asylum seekers’ application to remain in the UK and this is widely understood. Every asylum seeker has a dedicated Home Office case worker and access to a Migrant Help employee in addition to their G4S welfare officer.
“Asylum seekers access our free 24/7 service centre by telephone in large numbers to report problems with access to funds, request inventory and report property defects. In January alone we received 3,000 calls, a clear demonstration that asylum seekers in our 4,000+ properties are willing to engage where they need assistance and shows that the population is forthcoming in raising issues that need addressing.
“Our inspection regime reveals many defects in properties and their inventory that require repair or replacement each month. It is not in our interests that defects in our properties are left unresolved. As any home dweller knows, if left, defects become more costly and time consuming to fix the longer they are left.”
Since 2012, asylum accommodation in the UK has been provided through six regional contracts delivered by three providers, G4S, Serco and Clearsprings Ready Homes, appointed by the Home Office under contracts called COMPASS (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services).
While the COMPASS contracts were due to run out in August of this year, the UK Government extended them by two years in December, despite a critical report on the contracts from the National Audit Office published in 2014 in which the conduct of the providers’ housing staff was flagged up as an issue.
Dr Jonathan Darling, a geographer at the University of Manchester focused on forced migration, told the filmmakers: “G4S and Serco had no real experience of providing this form of housing before the onset of COMPASS.
“They have historically run things like detention centres and deportation contracts, so what we’re saying is that the forms of social care and support that we’re providing to people within the asylum system are being provided by the same people who might also be deporting people from the country. That is a significant political and symbolic message.”
The select committee report, published on Tuesday, found the “dispersal” scheme used to place asylum seekers around the country was not working, due to applicants being concentrated in a small number of some of the most deprived areas, placing pressure on local schools and healthcare services.
The report added that contractors were housing more people than they were funded for because of the contract design, growing delays in Home Office asylum processing and higher applications.
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