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'Unsafe' mother and baby unit risks breaching human rights, Scottish children's commissioner says

Glasgow City Council says it did not give 'full approval' for the unit

'Unsafe' mother and baby unit risks breaching human rights, Scottish children's commissioner says

Asylum seeker accommodation is the only one of its kind in Scotland

Conditions at Scotland's only Mother and Baby Unit for asylum seekers are so poor they risk violating residents' human rights, the office of the Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland (CYPCS) has found.

Residents must be "urgently relocated" from the cramped and unsafe bedsit accommodation, a new report has found.

A former temporary unit for homeless men, the Glasgow unit - used for women with newborns and toddlers - has rooms so small that there is insufficient space for youngsters to play, little ventilation and a lack of natural light that saw some residents compare it to a prison.

There is little cooking or washing facilities, cookers and heaters are close to babies' cots and it is "not safe to let them play, crawl or stand", CYPCS says.

Its paper, published today, states that the unit risks breaching a host of baseline standards guaranteed under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. These include the right to an adequate standard of living, rights to respect for private and family life, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to survival, safety and development and rights to leisure, play and recreation.

One mother housed there by Home Office contractor Mears said her child "isn't safe" and Nick Hobbs, head of advice and investigations at CYPCS, said he was "shocked" by the conditions. 

He stated: "We must make sure all refugee and asylum-seeking children are treated with dignity and respect."

CYPCS received assurance from Mears in November that residents would be moved to more suitable accommodation. However, many still remain.

Mears says they will be moved "over the next month" and residency has already been reduced. 

However, CYPCS says the housing was set up with the "full approval" of Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership and is calling for the Scottish Government to "legislate urgently to create human rights-based statutory minimum housing standards for children".

Hobbs said: "Asylum accommodation is a reserved matter to Westminster, but use of this unit has been approved by Glasgow City Council and the health board. Scottish public bodies have human rights obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and must ensure that all their decisions are consistent with the UNCRC. They could have withheld or withdrawn support and advocated for more suitable accommodation."

A local authority spokesperson said it is "not the case that the council or health and social care partnership have given this unit 'full approval'", adding: "We do not have a role as the contractual arrangement exists between Mears and the Home Office. Whilst Covid has caused delays in moving mothers to date, we understand the remaining mothers in the unit will be moved into alternative accommodation by the end of April."

Mears said it will "review the future use of the facility" once the moves are complete. A spokesperson said the unit was "purpose designed with the advice of the local authority and NHS" at a time when suitable alternatives were lacking. The company said: "We acknowledge the concerns raised by the Children's Commissioner's report, however these findings do not reflect our intentions around the use of the facility or the feedback we have had from statutory bodies, which has generally been positive."

Charities including the Scottish Refugee Council and Amma Birth Companions raised concerns with CYPCS last spring. 

Amanda Purdie of Amma Birth Companions said: "We are deeply concerned that the physical, social and mental wellbeing of both mothers and babies in this unit is suffering as a direct consequence of their living environment.

"We hope the findings of this report will incite swift action from Mears and all relevant authorities - not only to relocate current residents to suitable accommodation, but also to ensure that no child in Scotland is again placed within an environment that violates their human rights."

Yvonne Blake, of Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment (MORE), which has also been closely involved, said: "All mothers and babies should live in conditions that are conducive to the nurturing of their babies and the mothers’ health and well-being."

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