Behind the Red Doors: 3 Points on Asylum Seeker Housing

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Today’s Times Headline (paywalled), “Apartheid on the Streets of Britain” is a significant public expose of a disturbing policy that appears to have been in effect in Asylum Seeker Housing in Teesside. The report concerns Jomast, a company subcontracted by the multinational G4S to manage the housing of asylum seekers and refugees on behalf of the Home Office as part of the Home Office’s COMPASS asylum housing outsourcing program, brought in in 2012. COMPASS outsourced housing provision to 3 contractors: Serco, G4S, and Clearel.

Jomast are accused of enacting a policy of painting asylum seekers doors red to mark them apart from ‘normal’ housing. The report also documents Jomast’s millionaire owner Stuart Monk, and interviews many tenants who have been affected by the apparent policy. G4S, for its part, denies that such a policy exists. There are 3 points that I think are worth making in relation to the story.

1)The ‘Policy’ is Not New

Reports as far back as 2013 document the practiceof painting the doors of Asylum Seekers red. In a report by Suzanne Fletcher, a former councillor in Stockton on Tees to the Home Affairs Committee on Housing Conditions for asylum seekers, Fletcher stated:

“Despite instructions in the Compass document about reducing the possibility of conflict in the neighbourhood, the landlord has painted the doors of each of their properties housing asylum seekers red. This clearly says “this is where asylum seekers live”. It should be part of the contract that such clearly outwardly visible signs should not be allowed by housing providers.”

Page 28 of a joint Report from the same year, by the Regional Refugee Forum and North East Child Poverty Commission quotes an asylum seeker:

“We know that… local communities were not prepared for our arrival. We know that many of them face disadvantages themselves and are angry. And we know the negative picture the national media presents about asylum seekers as ‘bogus ‘and ‘scroungers’. We see how asylum seekers become the target of hate and we’re easily identified by our skin colour and the painted red doors of the houses we’re accommodated in.”

The Times article itself mentions Ian Swales (then Lib Dem MP for Redcar) raised the issue at a parliamentary committee hearing in 2014. Swales mentions a ‘intake of breath’ being audible from those present when he mentioned the practice.

2) This is about More than Doors

G4S have claimed that the Red Doors were not an official policy: they’ve missed the point; door colour or no, it is the separate system of asylum housing itself that is creating the conditions reported above. Red Doors, like Homeless Spikes and Poor Doors, are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the red doors lies a whole set of policies marginalising of asylum seekers through housing.

Dr Steven Hirschler documented these practices in his PhD thesis, ‘The Biopolitics of Asylum Seeker Housing Provision in the UK’. Hirschler looked at COMPASS, and interviewed employees of housing providers and asylum seekers in the region. Amongst other findings were the profound psychological impact of being effectively forcibly relocated to a new city:

“For instance, of the interviewees that explicitly described a sense of depression, half (6) of these respondents were living in the North East of England. Like others in COMPASS housing, asylum seekers dispersed to Middlesbrough cited feelings of stress, isolation and fear. The impact of shared housing felt uniquely acute for respondents in the North East; over 60 per cent of respondents reporting problems with housemates were residents in Middlesbrough or Sunderland. Two respondents explained that they felt that the managers of the COMPASS programme were insensitive to the cultural and religious differences of residents, and that it seemed as if no consideration was made for such factors when dispersing people to individual properties.” (p126)

The research also points to a need to consider the conditions of housing provided to asylum seekers- and Jomast are not the only firm to be concerned about. One interviewee for instance, described the service provided by Orchard and Shipman, a subcontractor for Serco:

“Daya, a resident in an Orchard and Shipman property in Glasgow explained that when she was initially moved into the property following the transition to COMPASS, it was very clean and she considered it to be habitable. However, one night while she was sleeping, the ceiling over her bed collapsed. She exclaimed: ‘I had to jump on the bed and was screaming! I thought somebody had [broken] into the house.’ Daya called Orchard and Shipman the same night to report the incident and was told that no one was available at that hour and that someone would come by the property in the morning. According to Daya, no one arrived the next morning. She made continuous efforts to get somebody to come to the house – ‘I phoned, and I phoned and I phoned, and nobody came.’ It was only after she went to the Unity Centre, an agency providing support for asylum seekers in Glasgow, that she felt that her situation was being adequately considered.” (pp192-193)

In a report on Open Democracy, John Grayson records how these dynamics of neglect and dislocation work to impact the health of tenants:

“Tony has lost the sight in one eye and is losing the sight in the other one. He was living in Bristol and undergoing treatment for kidney trouble at Bristol Royal Infirmary when he got the Home Office order: “I got the letter that I was moving again. They didn’t tell me where I was going.” G4S staff brought him 180 miles north to Sheffield to a filthy back street terrace house. “This house is the worst they have given me in all those years,” Tony said.

G4S is obliged to help Tony to travel for essential medical treatment and registration with a local GP, but that hasn’t happened…Tony told me that in the week he had been in Sheffield, “I was given a map to find advice places and I walked into the city – I had no cash for the bus”. He had to walk four miles into the city centre to a drop-in advice centre and then another four miles back to his house.

Tony had no cash, only his government-issued Azure card allowing him a little over £5 a day and only useable at specified supermarkets.

How was his new home? “The carpets were dirty, there was rubbish dumped outside at the back, the bathroom was filthy and I was given a room with the furniture broken. They said they wouldn’t take me back to Bristol, I had to stay in the house.”

These reports by tenants in the COMPASS program suggest that dangerous housing, forcible relocation, and physical and psychological pain are commonplace. If so, it is hard to conclude that this is not also the practical outcome of racialised and racist public debate, policies, and practices which treat migrants, let alone refugees or those from outside the ‘global north’ as untrustworthy, suspect or dangerous. In the context of controversies around deaths such as that of Jimmy Mubenga, claims of sexual abuse at detention centres, to the ‘softer end’ like Cameron’s recent call to force immigrants to learn English within two years while cutting ESOL classes, painting the doors of asylum seekers red is just another drastic symptom of a persecuting society.

3) Asylum Seeker Housing is Just The Beginning

Firms like G4S and Serco may have a stake in managing asylum seeker housing, but they have little intention of stopping there. G4S had no prior experience as a provider of asylum seeker housing before they were awarded the government contract, which they gained on the grounds of their competitive bidding; “Stephen Small, the Managing Director of Immigration and Borders at G4S, explained that the corporate vision for asylum housing was the expansion of a new ‘asylum market’” (Hirschler p9). These contractors are not experts in the provision of services (this is part of why they used subcontractors) but they are experts in bidding for contracts and lobbying for legal changes in order to open up new markets. Jeremy Stafford, former Serco CEO made an interesting comment when quizzed about the motivation for their bid:

We are very focused on building an accommodation business, and we believe that by taking on regions of the COMPASS service, we could establish the right team to do that and we felt that we could establish the platform that we felt was scalable … and take [it] to other geographies. (ibid, p88)

This suggests that Serco are interested in using COMPASS as a base from which to develop skills to expand both overseas, and possibly into other sectors of the UK housing market, including social housing.

The Future

A scathing 2014 select committee report into the Home Office’s COMPASS program concluded:

“The standard of the accommodation provided has often been unacceptably poor for a very fragile group of individuals and families. The companies failed to improve quality in a timely manner. None of this was helped by the Department’s failure to impose penalties on contractors in the transition period. It is disturbing that over a year into the contract the accommodation is still not of the required standard and the Department has only chalked up £8 million in savings.”

With the most recent government housing reforms stripping away security of tenure, MPs voting down provisions for liveable housing, and policies like ‘Right To Rent’ which demand checks from landlords of tenants’ immigration status, the conditions in asylum seeker housing serve as a precursor to the future of social housing: precarious, dangerous, and marginal.