Created: Monday, 15 May 2017 10:02
Written by Sam Mcgill
Newcastle Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! activists have been campaigning with the Migration and Asylum Justice Forum to demand decent housing for asylum seekers, exposing the despicable conditions of housing provided by Jomast under the private COMPASS contract. In 2012, notorious subcontractor G4S won a big chunk of the Home Office contract to provide housing for those waiting for asylum case decisions. Across the north east, G4S has sub-contracted this service to property developer Jomast, whose tycoon owner Stuart Monk is worth an estimated £175 million.
Many Jomast houses are HMOs (houses of multiple occupancy) with five or more tenants over three floors. Many of the HMOs that we have visited are for single men or single women, housing eight or more adults, with strangers being forced to share bedrooms in filthy conditions, with leaking roofs and bedbugs. The failures of privatised accommodation for asylum seekers is most acute for women and children. In West Newcastle, two town houses have been converted into a hostel comprising 16 rooms, housing up to 16 adult women and 21 children. Many women have to share a small room with two children. The hostel is split into two sides with a kitchen in each with two washing machines and two cookers. These white goods are cheap and are simply not designed for the heavy use required by so many families. Consequently the women are often left without functioning cookers or washing machines.
One of the tenants explained: ‘We phone up Jomast to complain and they just ignore us. When we have phoned up about the cookers, they have tried to blame us for breaking them. They don’t understand that we are 10 women sharing one kitchen and these cookers break all the time. It’s very hard. The other day it took two hours to boil an egg! They told me to use the microwave or the oven… how can you boil an egg or fry onions in the microwave or oven?”
On one side of the hostel, 10 adults and 14 children share just two bathrooms with an additional two toilets. The limited lounge area and stairwells are full with buggies and belongings that simply can’t fit in the cramped rooms, which are fitted out with scant bedroom furniture. Due to draconian regulations on overcrowding, which have changed very little since they were set out in the 1957 housing act, this living arrangement is not technically classed as overcrowded. However, the provision of toilets and bathrooms is insufficient for the number of residents and due to the lack of storage space, the actual amount of floor space is much less than the 110 square feet ’space standard’.
With so many toddlers and small children in the property, opportunities for playing, and learning to crawl and walk are severely curtailed... and that’s without the hazards of steep stairwells with no safety gates.
Every HMO has to be licensed by the local authority, so Newcastle city council has licensed the mother and baby hostel and must be held accountable for monitoring and reviewing the living conditions.
We visited the property with John Grayson, an independent housing researcher and co-chair of South Yorkshire Migrant and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) who has visited several mother and baby units across the country and documented their many failings. He notes that at the Newcastle hostel: ‘Stairs are winding and very steep. Mothers are forced to carry babies and food or drinks up and down to kitchens and bedrooms. This is hazardous and should anyone develop mobility injuries etc would quickly be impossible. At present because of these difficulties there is the risk of babies and toddlers being left unattended in rooms whilst mothers have urgent tasks or visits to toilets. In other hostels this has had serious consequences – a baby was accidentally locked in a bedroom in the G4S Headingley hostel and the fire services had to attend, another baby in the same hostel was injured rolling off a bed when his mother had to rush to the toilet.
‘In 2008 the Newcastle mother and baby hostel had a serious fire when it was being used as a hostel for single asylum seekers. Now, rapid escape from the second floor at present with babies in arms would be a pretty hazardous process and there are no very obvious escape route posters in rooms or on corridors.’
We have been in contact with Surestart workers who have been supporting the families. They also raised concerns around fire safety and explained that they had encouraged the tenants to visit the local fire service to request an inspection. As a result, the fire service drew up a big list of faults and hazards including the lack of fire exit signs, an out of date fire extinguisher and an open cupboard with live electrics easily accessible to toddlers. Whilst this prompted Jomast to address some of these issues, the fact remains that such a high concentration of adults and children in a small space is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Pregnant women are also housed at the hostel and there are concerns about maternal and infant health. Currently one of the women living on the top floor has a child over one year old and is heavily pregnant. She has high blood pressure, and the continuous strain of carrying her child up and down several flights of stairs is taking a toll on her health. Meanwhile, her neighbour’s little boy has asthma and living at the top of the house with condensation and an erratic heating system is making his condition worse. Despite doctors letters and requests to be relocated, the Home office and G4S have refused to move the family.
As John Grayson highlights: ‘The property is hostile to the wellbeing of the children. It certainly does not promote their welfare. It is having a negative effect, it is stressful and is blighting the crucial first months and years of tiny children so crucial as all parents know for future development. These parents and children are refugees – asylum seekers at present by definition traumatised and vulnerable.... the hostel should be converted and used for single room occupancy for single men or single women but G4S and Jomast will be reluctant to do this because according to their own published figures, taxpayers give G4S/Jomast £9.20 per night for each of the residents in the hostel. That’s £2,383 per week and £123,906 over the coming year.’
Despite the daily grind of living under such conditions, the women are staying strong, speaking out against their treatment by Jomast and joining with us in the campaign to expose this inhumane situation.
Relocation does not guarantee a better standard of living. One mother of two was moved out of the hostel a few months ago when her eldest child turned four. She highlighted: ‘At first I was happy, I thought I was going to be moved into my own house, or at least into two rooms so I would share with my baby whilst my older child had their own room, but they just moved me into a two bedroom house, allocating me one small room for me and my two kids, whilst another woman and child was in the other room. My situation has not improved at all and now I`ve just been moved away from my friends.'
She explained how she had been battling Jomast against bedbugs: ‘My children were getting bitten every night, we were scared to sleep on the mattresses so we put them outside. When we called Jomast to tell them about the bedbug problem they told us to bring them back inside, but when we said we didn`t want to, they said we were choosing to sleep on the floor.’
The situation was left for weeks and got to the point that a child was rushed to hospital after a bite to the face caused his lips to swell. With the campaign, tenants and activists made several complaints to environmental health, Jomast and their contractors G4S until eventually the house was treated with insecticide and new bedding, and mattresses and bed frames were provided. At first Jomast tried to fob the tenants off with replacement second hand mattresses and bed bases that were also infested with bedbugs. They then tried to state to G4S and the tenants that a private professional pest control service had been contracted, but the tenants in the house had seen Jomast workers applying the pesticide, refuting this claim. Whilst the situation has been resolved for now, the fact remains that Jomast refused to take action for weeks, resulting in the hospitalisation of a child, before they responded to collective pressure.
The Migration Asylum Justice Forum are organising with the tenants to expose Jomast and demand action. A buggy brigade of mothers and babies attended the local councillor’s surgery recently, resulting in a surprise council inspection in the hostel. Following protests, complaints and the exposure of the conditions of the hostel and other properties, G4S and representatives from Newcastle City Council have agreed to meet with us to discuss our concerns. Jomast tenants, including mothers from the hostel, families fighting against bedbugs and men organising against room sharing have committed to attending the meeting and speaking out. Whilst we have no illusions that G4S are interested in the wellbeing of refugees, this meeting is an important step in holding them to account. We know we need to keep up the pressure and demand decent housing for asylum seekers as central to the demand for decent housing for all!
Follow the campaign on facebook ‘MigrationandJustice’ or contact us on 07404433235.
Pictures: John Grayson