Tyneside asylum seekers fight overcrowding

Victory! Following public pressure from the Migration and Asylum Justice Forum (MAJF) including FRFI supporters, Newcastle City Council has begun to take legal enforcement action against private housing and construction company JOMAST for breaking overcrowding regulations under section 139 of the Housing Act 2004. Hiding behind outdated housing law, JOMAST expect unrelated same sex adults to share bedrooms and cram multiple families into flats and hostels. Months of consistent protests, collecting testimonies and documenting asylum housing conditions have begun to yield results: several JOMAST residents have now been given their own bedroom after pressure from the campaign led to properties being inspected by Newcastle city council. This victory shows that asylum seekers and their supporters can organise to improve housing conditions.

The Home Office has contracted out the provision of housing for asylum seekers to the notorious G4S, which in turn has subcontracted private company JOMAST in the north east. JOMAST is making a fortune for housing people in run down, overcrowded accommodation. Newcastle City Council passed a policy against forced bedroom sharing in March 2017 but JOMAST ignored this. In response, MAJF rallied at the council in June to highlight the continued practice and demand the policy be enforced. Cabinet member Councillor Kilgour committed the council to 'inspect and if necessary take appropriate action in cases of forced room sharing against the wishes of the occupants'. Taking up this commitment, MAJF has knocked on doors and leafleted drop-in centres and has supported scores of residents to complain, leading to several victories. The campaign is calling on other councils to take similar action.

Now campaigners are calling for an end to the use of Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) to accommodate babies and children in JOMAST's infamous hostels. The three mother and baby hostels in Newcastle are licensed to accommodate 55 people in 23 rooms.

Many rooms are small, with insufficient space for important activities for child development. Safety gates are unsuitable due to the age-range of children and fire-safety considerations, this means children regularly fall down the stairs. Pregnant women are often housed up several flights of stairs, midwives had to arrange for one woman to be moved out of one hostel as carrying her toddler up and down the stairs to her top-floor room caused hypertension. A lack of storage space means kitchen equipment is stored in bedrooms and belongings are stored in corridors. Low ceilings in attic rooms cause young children to bang their heads whilst erratic temperature fluctuation in these rooms impacts on child health. In May, a temperature of 35° was recorded in one of these rooms. Many of the women have anxiety and depression exacerbated by these living conditions.

On 22 September members of MAJF protested at JOMAST's offices in Newcastle, chanting 'JOMAST here us say, overcrowding - NO WAY!' We had prepared a petition but their management refused to receive it. Perhaps the multi-millionaire JOMAST boss Stuart Monk was worried about us making a scene in front of his luxury Jesmond apartments!  Following this MAJF again rallied at Newcastle's civic centre on 1 November, addressing the full council meeting to raise concerns about the continued accommodation of children in these hostels.  In response Cabinet member Councillor Streather has committed the council to meet with the campaign and improve conditions. The fightback continues!

With the COMPASS contracts for asylum housing currently under review it is vital that asylum seekers and housing campaigners organise to put an end to overcrowding once and for all. The fight for decent housing for asylum seekers is central to the fight for decent housing for all, if G4S and JOMAST get away with cramming residents in to Victorian conditions, other housing providers will follow suit. 

One room – One person! One house – One family!



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