G4S giving welfare support to detained children !

G4S-Tinsley-HouseThe news that the contract for welfare support for asylum seeking families with children, before being removed to the country they came from, has been granted to G4S has shocked Liberal Democrats and charities in the asylum field. The news was sneaked out just before the half term recess when Ministers could not be questioned, but Lib Dems in Parliament are getting questions ready for the return !

LD4SOS had been in correspondence with the Home Office last year, putting 15 key points to them that had to be taken into account in any new contract. We are not at all convinced they will be, with G4S’s record and background.

Nick Clegg has said “Charities have been clear that moving families waiting to be deported to Tinsley House is not in the best interests of the children. The truth is, the prison-style environment is not physically safe for children and could impact on their emotional wellbeing. That is exactly why the Liberal Democrats, whilst in coalition, insisted on the establishment of Cedars as suitable accommodation in the first place.”

LD4SOS Council member, Margaret Lally, has written this letter to The Guardian, but it has not been published. You can read it here :

I was saddened but not surprised to read your article that the Home Office is expected to announce that it has asked G4S to take over the contract to provide welfare support to detained families facing deportation when Tinsley House opens its new unit for those families in May. Previously these families had been accommodated at Cedars with welfare support provided by Barnardos which has substantial experience of working with children. Cedars was closed last July – there was no discussion allowed of this decision which was announced on the last day of Parliament. Since then it has been difficult to find out get information on the new provision (the specification was confidential), the level and quality of support they will provide and, also, any assurance that for families taken to Tinsley House it really will be the last resort.

I was not surprised because the last six months have seen an inexorable rolling back of a number of commitments that the government has made to protect and look after vulnerable children and their families. Deporting families and children is not what I want to see but if it has to happen they should be kept in an environment which is suitable for them. Cedars was opened following pressure from the Liberal Democrats to end the detention of children. With the support of Barnados, it provided a child friendly and caring environment which was suitable for families with children at a very traumatic point in their lives.  Children and families facing the stress of deportation are going to be looked after by G4S rather than an organisation whose core role and track record is in supporting vulnerable children. Cedars had not been operating to full capacity because the Family Returns Panel had been relatively successful in facilitating voluntary returns.

The change in contractor and location may seem to be relatively minor shifts but it is yet another step away from accepting that government has a particular responsibility to protect children because they cannot be expected to do so themselves, and that sometimes it is not possible for their parents to do so either. Only a couple of months ago the government agreed to accept the Dubs amendment to bring the most refugee vulnerable children into the UK – they are now stepping back from this agreement arguing that it might encourage adults to traffic other children. Since when was it right to allow children to suffer (and those children camping out in the cold in other European countries are suffering) in order to change the behaviour of adults not associated with them?

The UK can be proud of the funding it provides to refugees in the regions from where they have fled but it also needs to take on responsibility for ensuring those who reach the UK and treated with care and kindness right up to the point they may need to leave.

Report on Euro-Arab Seminar in The Hague, 2016 by Bradley Hillier-Smith.

bradley

 The seminar was a meeting of activists, charity workers, campaigners and policy makers representing their countries, institutions and projects from Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK.

They each presented best practice techniques and projects ranging from lobbying governments, integration initiatives, advocacy, education and humanitarian aid.

The most informative aspect was hearing the distinct perspectives and challenges of the refugee crisis from each represented country. In Jordan and Lebanon we heard of the significant impact of the large numbers of refugees hosted in the countries. Naturally, owing to their geographical location bordering areas of conflict they each host over 1.3 million refugees. The challenges faced centred on meeting the basic humanitarian needs of the refugee populations, food water and sanitation. Host nations are dependent on international aid to provide this. A lack of education or job prospects for refugees is of course significant but secondary to these basic needs. We learned of a great project in Jordan to educate refugees who had fled oppressive regimes on human rights, freedoms and democracy to empower them.

However similarities with European nations were found in the way that the influx of refugees can cause domestic internal tensions and some backlash and stricter border controls. Fears relating to wage undercutting, job losses and housing demand fuelled some resentment within host countries.

Nonetheless an important thing to note was the relative welcome and acceptance of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. On the whole it was evidenced that the host populations were more tolerant, understanding, accepting and open towards refugees. This could be explained by a historical experience of hosting refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as cultural solidarity and a general understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the plights and circumstances of refugees. Regular and historical experience and daily confronting and exposure of the issues faced by refugees seemed to foster a more compassionate understanding of refugees circumstances. This could provide some insight as to how we might influence public opinion in European countries spreading accurate information, exposure and education on the circumstances of refugees.

A key theme is once you are face to face with a refugee, once you are exposed to the experiences and stories of a refugee, once the refugee is humanised to that extent then this appears to dispel fears, suspicion and fosters understanding and tolerance in its place.

It was noted that a common theme across European nations was after an initial welcoming and positive sentiment and de facto accommodation towards refugees, public opinion became more negative.

A common theme found through Morocco, and European countries is the public perception of unfairness of refugees having access to housing, welfare and resources having not contributed to it. This fostered a hostility to refugees and migrants. This was particularly strong in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands which have a strong welfare system which newly arrived refugees have access to. It was noted however that this was not as evident in Greece. This can be explained by a lack of a strong welfare system and a more tolerant welcoming public opinion.

The shift in public opinion towards more negative attitudes against refugees has been rising in Sweden, Denmark, the UK and Austria. This has led to rise in far-right nationalism drawing on a fear of loss of cultural identity and then to tighter border controls and restrictions on intake of refugees. This of course has significant implications on refugees themselves, making crossing more dangerous and the rise of informal camps with poor conditions along border lines.

To me this brings out the central problem that we in the UK face along with other European countries. Negative public opinion towards refugees was agreed to be the most significant challenge we currently face. This in my view can be countered through the public being exposed to the personal stories, journeys and identities of refugees, positive narratives and a more effective asylum system which facilitates greater integration and engagement with local communities.

An important best practice on asylum applications which we might seek to adopt in the UK is that of the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, from day one of an asylum application the asylum seeker is provided with language lessons, is able to apply for work and is expected to attend cultural exchange events.

The language lessons naturally meant the asylum seeker could speak the native language and as such became more independent and autonomous. It also fostered an immediate understanding of Dutch culture, ways of life and provided a means of integration.

An example of a cultural exchange event is that local Dutch residents are invited to meet and share food with newly settled refugees. The refugees and native residents each prepare traditional food from their home countries and share with each other. This fosters understanding of different cultures as well as providing a way for Dutch persons to meet and understand the journeys and stories of refugees, which as I have noted above dispels fears and fosters tolerance.

Purpose built asylum accommodation centres have been established in response to the influx. These also include provision for social housing thus alleviating that demand as well. Here is an example of how the accommodation of refugees can actually improve social housing and infrastructure rather than place additional pressure.

To compare to our asylum application system where the process can take up to two years, asylum seekers are given no language lessons, are not entitled to work, and given no incentives for integration and may be accommodated in immigration detention centres, we can see how this could make a significant difference to the well-being and integration of asylum seekers. We can ask how welcome does one feel under such a system, how likely are you to want to integrate or feel you are able to. It is likely that our system could be perceived as hostile to asylum seekers which in turn could make the asylum seeker themselves feel hostile towards it. This opposition is not conducive to an effective asylum and integration process.

In sum the take away points ought to be the following.

  1. It is a shared problem among western European host countries that after an initial welcoming sentiment they saw a backlash in the form of resentment, anti-migration rhetoric and far-right nationalism. This in my view is the biggest challenge we face. It is crucial to change public opinion on refugees in order to have the public support for a more welcoming and accommodating environment for refugees and to push for the government to take in more refugees.
  2. A clear solution to this problem is public exposure to the stories, journeys and identities of refugees, thus humanising them. This dispels fears and intolerance and fosters acceptance and accommodation. This is shown in numerous examples in the Netherlands as well as in host countries bordering conflict zones. Positive narratives and personal exposure are essential.
  3. We ought to research further into and push for the UK to adopt what we may call the Dutch system of asylum applications and integration. This also helps significantly to address points 1 and 2.

Bradley Hillier-Smith is a long term-volunteer in Calais, a charity worker and political campaigner for refugee rights. He is currently studying for his PhD in moral and political philosophy researching ‘our moral obligations to aid victims of rights violations, specifically refugees’.  He is also a member of the Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary Council and represented them at the seminar. He told the about the Liberal Democrat campaigns to raise item donations for the camps as well as  our lobbying campaigns working alongside Citizens UK and Calais Action to pass the Dubs amendment, and continuing to work for the subsequent transfer of unaccompanied children that come under the remit of the Dubs amendment.

 

 

CONSULTATION ON ASYLUM ACCOMMODATION IN THE UK

There is a consultation on issues around accommodation for asylum seekers being run for the voluntary sector and NGOs, currently taking place. The document was only released by UKVI (UK Visas and Immigration) on 20th December, and the responses need to be in by 31st January 2017, so time is short.

We are sure that all who are involved in anything connected with accommodation for asylum seekers will have comments and suggestions to make, so please do have a look at this document, spread the word around other interested people, and make a submission before the end of January.  You can access the document here AAST- NGO and Voluntary Sector written exercise Dec 2016 (Final) (2)

For those not familiar with how Asylum Seekers are housed in the UK, there is more detail in this document, and briefly, the responsibility for housing asylum seekers in the UK is with a contractor for the area, such as G4S covering the NE and Yorkshire. They usually subcontract out the actual housing provision to a housing provider, in the NE that is Jomast. The contract between the Home Office and contractor is referred to as the Compass Contract.

Suggestions of questions for using with asylum seekers can be accessed in this document. consultation draft 10 q it is important that asylum seekers know that they cannot be identified in any submissions made to the consultation.

Any feedback that you would like LD4SOS to see can be sent to us via info@LD4SOS@org.uk

SANCTUARY IN PARLIAMENT November 2016

logo for City of SanctuarySANCTUARY IN PARLIAMENT November 2016 

Personal view from Suzanne Fletcher from Tees Valley of Sanctuary.

 

This event drew together over 200 people including 43 MPs and Peers to listen to powerful refugee testimony on “Standing up for the Right to Asylum”.

 

Shas and SF outside parlThe evening before I met up with Baroness Shas Sheehan and gave her an outline of the issues that concern us.

These included problems around destitution; the short length of time between getting refugee status and support ending; lack of facilities for learning English; removals to unsafe countries; some housing issues, and the situation faced by some Christians fleeing from Pakistan.

Not part of the S in P agenda, but she told me about the situation in France after the Calais Jungle had been cleared from her experience there.

 

The Sanctuary in Parliament event was opened by our host Thangham Debbonaire MP. “This is your parliament; it belongs to you not the government”

 

I didn’t hear all the speakers as I was in and out of the room quite a bit ensuring people met those they needed to. A number from Stockton were able to meet Alex Cunningham MP and talk to him. James Wharton MP met with some from Stockton South. I called in briefly to talk about the 28 day after getting status issue and how it affected one of his constituents.

Sanctuary in Parliament Brian Paddick with TLord Brian Paddick came and listened to what a number of our TVOS delegation had to say on the Prevent issues, shared rooms, and other issues raised with him I was not party to. Baroness Shas Sheehan came too and listened to a lot of our people. They both said they were taking some of the issues up both for individuals and in general. Brian Paddick asked if it was a representative sample that had come down from Tees Valley, he was taken aback by the number of problems, and I told him there was worse that had not come. He said “thank you for the opportunity to hear for myself what they have to go through, it has been so illuminating”. Baroness Hamwee was only able to make it towards the end but had an emotional meeting with Emad and Emmar (her family is from Aleppo, and as she said, “it could have been her in that situation”. Lord Roger Roberts took a number for tea in the House of Lords and listened further there. He spoke of some of the things he had heard at an event I attended with him that evening.

 

In the meeting itself, our own Emad Raad was the first speaker and there was applause as we hear his twin brother has arrived.  He told us how he was now a support worker in Hartlepool making refugees from Syria welcome and support.

He hopes to be able. Go back one day. He spoke of support for other asylum seekers in need; right to work; need to be properly updated by case worker in asylum claims; Need resettlement programme for ALL Asylum seekers

 

sanctuary in parliament 1_edited-1Mayen Mazoor originally from Aleppo, Refugees for Justice spoke, hoping that the nightmare would disappear.  He went through his issues – Was it right to leave his family? But looking for sanctuary for them too. Granted leave to remain.  Wanted family unification but not covered by legal aid.  Cost £1000 nearly.  Didn’t know people to ask for help. His charity is far too stretched and needs more funding for cases not covered by legal aid.

 

Steve simmonds Amnesty international.  “We have not enough family support ” said minister re children in education.  AI Reminded him of asylum children who need to be reunited with families and so many barriers out there.

 

George Gabriel, Safe Passage and Citizens UK spoke of situation in Calais.  U.K. is only country not to take share in Europe from those arriving Greece. By Jan not one child reunited with family in UK. Desperately need safe passage for refugees.

 

Sabin Zazal. Director of Coventry organisations including City of Sanctuary.  From Afghanistan.  Talked of journey from fear to hope.  Then welcome. Those who came under resettlement programme are now helping and supporting others. it shows the resilience of refugees. He said we had enough of stats, numbers and politics, so good now to listen to real people.

 

Ambrose Musiyima from Zimbabwe read from “The man who ran through the tunnel.” “When I heard/ how he ran/…/and through tunnels/ how could I fail/ to be inspired?” The story officials don’t want to be spread and inspire others to make such bids for safety. He spoke of the irony of the UK only securing borders so British can go safely on holiday.

 

Sohail Ali from Pakistan.  Told how Pakistan is not the safe country we think it is. Asylum process starts with screening interview, you are offered legal aid so you think it is nice, helpful and wise.

Initial conditions in Cardiff terrible he would not wish on an enemy.  No respect, awful food.  Should have been there no more than 4 weeks but there for 90 days.  On Legal Aid he said, lawyers just take the case but not very good. Told 95% of cases refused and if you need to appeal they won’t be able to do.  Legal aid lawyers must be well equipped and experienced to take on cases.

 

Lily spoke of the impact of destitution. She became homeless and had to sleep in a park.  Then when leave to remain given no NI number so destitute again but this time luck to be hosted.

Because dispersal is up north, local councils in the south have no understanding at all.  No support services.  Should have right to work, not have to use food banks for food and sanitary wear.  Such a long time to get status and then not get NI number.  Teaching qualification from Zimbabwe not recognised here so not able to teach here.

 

Dave Smith NACCOM talked of the difficulty in getting an NI number and then getting jobs.

200,000 bed nights have been offered. Stories of those helped in his book.

Jonathan Ellis, Red Cross spoke of the humanitarian crisis.  3724 last year were in crisis, destitute.  Should never happen.

28 days not enough, they were told by minister it will be reviewed but it hasn’t been.

Nobody getting status should be destitute.  Increased challenge now and it will effect children.  Impact on those who cannot return, new act will support less people.  Must make humanitarian stand on destitution.

 

Freed Voices (linked with Detention Action) speaker told how the group he was with lost 20 years of life. U.K. only country in Europe that has indefinite detention.  Most are there for no purpose as released anyway. Treated like prisoners whilst in detention. No journalists or cameras are allowed in, so nobody hears your voice.  Detention Centres are in the middle of nowhere, so it is very difficult for visitors. But he ended saying “We are part of a strong and powerful meeting, So much important work is being done “.

Maurice Wren from refugee Council summed up at the end

Take strength, energy and commitment out of this room to society, we are all hurting not just about refugees about all who are marginalised. Having heard those speak today, people are not defined by being a refugee but as an engineer, a dad, a doctor, a carer, a poet, a real person.”

 

LORD ROGER ROBERTS SPEAKS OUT

Lord Roger RobertsAfter a long day in Parliament, which included taking some asylum seekers for tea and listening carefully to their issues, Lord Roger Roberts, President of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary, spoke at a dinner with Lewisham Liberal Democrats with passion, vision, ideas and most important of all, and gave us hope. He reminded us that we must all be ambassadors of hope to those who must be feeling that there is no hope left for them. He referred to the tragedy of Aberfan 50 years ago, and suggested that it would be a tribute to those children who died to welcome with compassion and love those who were making lone journeys across Europe, seeking refuge with us. It is up to us to embrace those who are vulnerable, and to speak up for those with no voice, referring to that day’s Sanctuary in Parliament where asylum seekers had gone along to voice their concerns. We were reminded of the much quoted poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller that is more and more relevant today “first they came for the Jews……. And then there was nobody left to speak for me” Referring to the many troubles and concerns in the world today he reminded us that we were not a party looking for issues, but issues looking for a party! Climate change was next. He pointed out what should be obvious to all, that climate change is going to really hit many of those who are already living in poverty, hunger and areas of conflict well before it hits the western world. We need to be campaigning on the issue, not for ourselves, but for them. Moving on to the future he talked about the organisation he is President of, Bite the Ballot. Which exists to encourage young people to get involved, and to register to vote. As he said, we have a large youth population, and 16 year olds got involved and voted in Scottish referendum. He urged us to support automatic registration of young people when they leave school to make sure they did get onto the voting register. It is their future after all. And they are our hope.

REFUGEE FAMILY REUNION DEBATE

REFUGEE FAMILY REUNION DEBATE   Westminster Hall, 29th November 2016 

UPDATE, request for action

City of Sanctuary have put out this message calling on people to act before Tuesday 13th December to contact and lobby their MPs on family reunion rights for unaccompanied refugee children in the UK. Please do act if you can.  https://cityofsanctuary.org/2016/12/09/follow-up-on-sanctuary-in-parliament-iii-family-reunion/

This debate was secured by Thangam Debbonaire MP, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees.

There were many contributions, mainly centred on the fact that children now in the UK should be able to be with family. Time after time MPs made this point, referring to the fact that those under 18 did need to have family with them. They have gone through so much to get to the UK, and then successfully claim refugee status in their own right.

As Alistair Carmichael said “ ….for most people, actually getting refugee status and getting here is only part of the beginning of the story, not the end …….. people need to rebuild their lives from the ground up, and there is no better context in which to do that than the family environment.”

Much is being said now about the importance of integration, and surely being able to be with close family is the step to be able to build from.

Others raised the issue were that cuts to legal aid mean no specialist support is there, and most cases are not straightforward. Added to this they are not told why they have been turned down for legal aid and relevant questions are not being asked. Legal Aid must be reinstated.

Descriptions were given of how families still in countries of origin were needing to make visa applications that were fraught with danger, as unsafe zones had to be crossed to do so at times. It would be so much simpler and safer for this to be done from the UK.

Those working in Churches and the voluntary sector were praised for the important work they did to help separated families. Without them there would be even more desperate straits for many.

Another said about the toxic atmosphere in the UK is making matters worse and only obeying UNHCR guidelines in letter not spirit .

The alleged “pull factor” was dismissed, there was no evidence to support it.

The important point was made about the crucial need for “Safe and legal routes that cut out people traffickers “ and of course “All of us want families around us at times of difficulty”.

The debate was summed up by the Minister, Robert Goodwill. It was very disappointing indeed to hear him speak. There had been so many good contributions with facts, real stories and positive, workable suggestions for the way forward. He appeared to have listened to none of it as he read his prepared speech.

The gallery I had sat in was packed, and we all left concerned progress would not be made. We have to live in hope, and continue to campaign for real and humane family reunions, just as we would want within our own families. Debates like this need to be called for, to let government know what strong feeling there are on the situation, and at least not let it get worse.

You can see an excellent briefing by Refugee Council here, and follow the full debate on this link.