"The Home Office think we’re not people": How the UK asylum system is failing the most vulnerable

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 20 December 2016 in Inside Politics

Reports find pregnant women are being pushed into destitution by the UK asylum support system

Asylum piece - infographic

Lola was scared when she learned she was pregnant. Having fled to the UK to seek asylum and been moved to Glasgow, she knew no one in Scotland. Although she was given support by the Home Office, she had no access to cash and had to walk across Glasgow to get to hospital appointments.

In the hours after she gave birth, Lola contacted the Home Office to try and arrange accommodation, which passed her on to Orchard Shipman, a private contractor which was then in charge of delivering housing services. The company told her to come into their office, but, without being able to provide staff with a forward address, the hospital was unwilling to let her leave.

Trying to arrange housing while still recovering from childbirth, the process went on for eight hours, she says, before eventually a midwife agreed to let her out on the condition she would call with her new address when she got it. But even then, she explains, things were far from straightforward.

“I went to Orchard Shipman, this was just a few days after I had given birth, and I sat there for six hours. They said they were getting everything sorted. I called them hours and hours before, why didn’t they sort it then?”


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The flat she was given was horrible, she says. “There are cockroaches. I can’t leave my food for five seconds. They said they would bring pest controllers. Everything was disgusting. The carpet was filthy. I had to complain and complain for them to come and clean the carpet and then when they did, it wasn’t clean! It felt worse than before. It’s disgusting.”

These sorts of stories are far from unusual among asylum seekers living in Scotland. Since becoming one of the UK’s main dispersal cities, Glasgow has become home to an increasing number of asylum seekers, with figures from 2011 suggesting there are between 6,000 and 10,000 asylum-seeking women in Scotland.

The system’s failings are laid bare in a new report from the Red Cross, ‘A Healthy Start’, which explores how poverty and shortcomings in the support system are leaving pregnant women without the means to travel to hospital appointments and new mums struggling to buy essentials for their babies. 

Pregnant women are the most vulnerable group seeking asylum in the UK. Refugee and asylum-seeker women make up around 0.3 per cent of the UK’s female population, but they account for around 12 per cent of all maternal deaths.

Many refugee women in Scotland have fled traumatic experiences in their home countries, including torture and sexual violence, and the report warns that the asylum system itself is causing pregnant women prolonged stress and anxiety, and heightening the risk of health complications for their unborn child.

Forced to live outside the welfare system, asylum seekers are almost always prohibited from working. Meanwhile alongside the stress of their situation, communication problems can pose a major challenge, with expectant mothers struggling with life in a new country, often unable to access information on the services available to them. Removed from family and friends, they can be left isolated and alone.

As the Red Cross report puts it: “Dispersal can impact on continuity of care and leave a woman isolated from the networks of friends and/or family. It prevents joined-up service provision and leaves women and children vulnerable to gaps and oversights. Upon arrival to the dispersal accommodation women have little support in accessing services and it is left to the third sector to fill in these gaps.”

The research catalogues examples of the UK Government’s asylum accommodation contractors in Scotland providing women and new-borns with substandard, unsafe flats in Glasgow, including cases where infants were learning to crawl on infested carpets.

The research, carried out by Strathclyde University’s Centre for Health Policy, uncovered several instances where pregnant women were forced into destitution either through UK Government policies or through delays and administrative errors in processing their claims for support. Destitute women were found to rely on informal support networks for accommodation and food, leaving them exposed to the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. 

And even where support is available, refused asylum seekers – who are often unable to access cash – may struggle to attend hospital appointments, or to buy the necessary items for the new baby.

Nahya was nine-months pregnant before she was given accommodation, and then provided with financial support via credit on a payment card known as the Azure Card.

Unable to access cash, and so unable to save money for bus fares, she struggled to get to check-ups at hospital. Eventually she was given money to buy things for her baby, but her flat had a broken lock. When she went to hospital to give birth, she was robbed.

“I reported it to the police, and I told the Home Office – they didn’t give me anything else. They even stole the nappies. But the Home Office didn’t do anything, I had to stay in that house.” 

She says she would not have been able to get by without help from family. “The Azure Card is very limited – you can only buy children’s clothing and food and only in designated shops. I couldn’t even buy a duvet for my kids. The way they said – you can’t buy it on this card – I felt so embarrassed. I pleaded with them, it was winter. They just refused. The Azure Card is like shame, shame, just to take it out.”

One day drug dealers broke into her flat. After that Nahya did not feel safe at home, so she started piling things in front of her front door so no intruders would be able to get inside at night.

She says: “When you’re pregnant, your accommodation should be safe! I’m not saying it should be luxury, just safe, somewhere they know there’s no hassle, no people who are going to scare us.  They knew I was scared, and I lived alone and they did nothing.

“I’ve fought the Home Office for 10 years. I was 12 when I came here and claimed asylum. The Home Office think we’re not people – if we’re not born here, we’re not proper people.”

This sentiment – that asylum seekers are treated as if they are not fully human – is echoed throughout the Red Cross report. One local authority worker describes finding a pregnant woman who had been given a sofa soaked in urine. “I mean, there’s nothing else to say. The thing was drenched in urine, drenched in urine. The housing officer had passed that this place was fit for the woman. I looked at the mattress. There was blood and stains on the mattress. I actually collected about six different types of beetles. The whole place was infested.”

These housing services are delivered as part of the ‘Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services’ (COMPASS) contract, which sees Serco provide accommodation and transport services to asylum applicants in Scotland, along with parts of England and Northern Ireland.

But while for four years Orchard Shipman managed the contract on behalf of Serco – which itself won the contract from the Home Office – on 1 December 2016, Serco purchased the shares of Orchard and Shipman Glasgow Limited and took over the running of the COMPASS contract directly.  

Approached for comment on the report’s findings, Orchard Shipman directed Holyrood to Serco, which has now assumed direct operational control and responsibility for the provision of housing for approximately 4,750 asylum seekers in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Responding to the cases highlighted, Jenni Halliday, Serco’s contract director for COMPASS, said: “We welcome this report and we look forward to discussing its findings and those recommendations relevant to Serco with the British Red Cross in Scotland, with whom Serco already has a constructive dialogue and regular meetings. We will continue to listen to the views of those organisations and people in Scotland who have the interests of the asylum seekers at heart.

“Our priority has always been to ensure that we provide decent and safe accommodation for the asylum seekers in our care in Scotland and this is some of the most inspected property in the country that meets all required standards. Having taken over direct responsibility for the provision of housing for asylum seekers in Scotland at the start of December, we believe that we will be able to provide greater accountability and clarity over their care. 

“Asylum seekers accommodated by us can complain in a number of different ways – by telephone, email or letter, verbally to their housing officer or other visiting staff member or through a third party such as a representative or the voluntary sector.”

Meanwhile, days after Serco announced it would take over from Orchard Shipman, the Home Office announced it had exercised an option to extend Serco’s contract for an extra two years, taking it up to 2019. Yet what difference that will make for women like Lola and Nahya remains unclear. Another woman to have navigated the system while pregnant, Lan, describes the stress of her experience.

“It was a horrible time during my pregnancy,” she says, “when people have pressure during their pregnancy they can miscarry.  I was so worried because I found I was bleeding twice during my pregnancy, maybe it was because I was so nervous, I don’t know.

“I think Orchard Shipman could have done more for us, they knew the situation was awful. If I wasn’t pregnant, it would be different. I was an asylum seeker, I wasn’t allowed to move, I couldn’t work, I didn’t have control.”

What change Serco’s decision to take control of the contract will have remains to be seen, but it is clear that the situation cannot go on. As Nahya put it: “It was horrible to be alone and pregnant and without status. Even now, I look back and wonder how I actually survived it all.” 

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