Increasing numbers of asylum seekers are being moved to Yorkshire - and now MPs want more affluent areas to take their ‘fair share’. Chris Burn reports.
“I just feel so blank at the moment, I can’t even dream of anything really. The way things are at the moment, if I could just find a nice clean place where I could sit with my children, that is my big dream.”
Asylum seeker Layla who says the bleak conditions her family have been housed in Yorkshire are far from how she imagined life in England. Her recently-arrived family who say they have fled political persecution in Egypt told The Yorkshire Post how they had been moved into a filthy house in Bradford that was filled with rubbish, had mold-covered walls and an infestation of insects. They say they were told if they didn’t accept it they would not get an alternative and their children would be put into care.
A new report says the conditions that greeted the family are far from the worst recorded by asylum seekers in Yorkshire. Among the other examples are 23 people, including 11 children and babies, packed into a filthy property without working heating in Leeds, a group living in ‘the worst house in Sheffield’ and even allegations of housing staff stealing money and trying to arrange marriages in Bradford.
Speaking through an interpreter, mother Layla (not her real name), says: “We just tried not to stay at home. It was cold outside but far better than being in the house.”
MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee have labelled the state of some asylum accommodation a ‘disgrace’ and said it was shameful that vulnerable people had been placed in living conditions that included rat infestations and rotten furniture.
With around 4,500 asylum seekers living in temporary accommodation in Yorkshire, local councils are now calling on other areas of the UK to take their ‘fair share’. But even in Yorkshire, there are huge variations in the numbers different town and cities are taking in.
Sheffield has the highest with 822, followed by Bradford with 772 and Leeds with 647. Rotherham, Barnsley and Kirklees all have over 400 asylum seekers each.
In contrast, York, Harrogate, Ryedale and Scarborough are among the places named as currently having absolutely no asylum seekers in listed as living in ‘dispersal accommodation’ as they await the outcome of their applications to stay in Britain. But officials says they are often valid reasons why they are not housing such people - including the fact they have never been asked to.
The select committee report warns the current situation is putting huge pressure on schools and health services in deprived areas - and is calling on the Government to consider forcing councils currently refusing to take in any asylum seekers to house their ‘fair share’.
Individuals seeking asylum in the UK are entitled to £36.95 per week and housing.
Since 2012, accommodation has been provided to asylum seekers via regional contracts, with G4S responsible for Yorkshire and the Humber, as well as the north-east, the Midlands and the east of England.
The Government said at the time it hoped the new contracts run by private providers would save £140m over seven years. But while it is unclear whether the hoped-for savings will actually be delivered, G4S say they expect to lose £47m over the course of the contract as the money they are paid for housing asylum seekers does not match the rental costs they are paying landlords.
When the contracts were drawn up, the Home Office estimated the system would need to accommodate a maximum of 25,000 people at any one time. But providers are actually now housing 38,000 people across the country. And while the migration crisis across Europe has resulted in substantial increases in applications since the second half of 2015, the number of Home Office staff processing applications has almost halved.
Not all local authorities are currently willing to accept asylum accommodation and at the end of September just 121 local authorities out of a total of 453 provided it within their boundaries.
Dave Brown, head of Migration Yorkshire which represents ten local councils including Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, says: “Under the current system local authorities have no control over where people are placed.
“We are committed as a region to take our fair share, but we currently have a higher than average number of asylum seekers, and the priority should be to rebalance this with other regions taking more. There is a momentum now to put local authorities back in control and to work together as a region for a fair and equitable system for everyone.”
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the select committee’s chairwoman, says it is “completely unfair so many local authorities in more affluent areas are still doing nothing at all”.
But councils in Yorkshire that have no dispersal accommodation insist the situation is not their fault, with a lack of available housing and support contributing. Kim Robertshaw, housing manager at Ryedale Council, says: “In Ryedale, we have never been asked to take asylum seekers. We have never turned anything down, it is up to G4S. If they could find accommodation in Ryedale, there would be nothing to stop them.”
Robertshaw adds: “We are in a rural area. It is alright saying yes we can provide accommodation but people have got to be able to access services. In some of our areas, you can’t get public transport.”
In evidence to the inquiry, politicians were told of a filthy six-bedroom villa in Leeds where 12 women, eight babies and three toddlers were sharing a property with “dangerously unhygienic” cookers and unreliable heating.
They were also informed about a disabled man living with others in a slum property in Sheffield with history of rats and disrepair, as well as an asbestos notice warning which should have prevented anyone from being housed there. The property was allegedly described by a repair man as “the worst house G4S has in Sheffield”.
A caseworker in Bradford highlighted an incident in which it was alleged a housing officer had proposed to a single mother of two children ‘a temporary marriage in exchange for money’. The Bradford City of Sanctuary organisation said: “The worker in question was never suspended and was only ‘spoken to by senior management’. The lesson the asylum seeker took from it was that it was better not to complain.”
Another woman claimed she had £60 stolen from her purse after a G4S worker went into her house while she was out.
While the problems in the system can seem insurmountable, potential hope is offered through the example of the special scheme to settle 20,000 Syrian refugees in this country.
The resettlement programme has seen 175 local authorities sign up to help - including 121 councils like Ryedale, Harrogate and York that don’t have dispersal accommodation.
Special support and extra funding is provided by the Government to help find suitable places to live, taking into account pressure on housing and school places. MPs have recommended the success of this scheme should be replicated with other asylum seekers.
For now, though, the current system is not working for anyone - from asylum seekers, to local communities and even the companies running the contracts themselves. For those at the sharp end, it is having a draining effect.
One recently-arrived family in Bradford have come to the UK from Egypt to seek asylum here. They said they had fled political persecution that resulted in the father being imprisoned on a number of occasions.
After flying into the UK on a visa, the family, including five young children, made a claim for asylum. Mother Layla said they came to England by chance.
“The agency that we approached to get us out of the country said we will get you a visa to go anywhere. They managed to get one to the UK which is why we came here.”
After spending two months in a temporary accommodation centre in Wakefield, the family were told they had been found a house in Bradford.
But when they arrived they found the house was “full of rubbish and all of the walls were covered in mould”.
After attempting to clean it up themselves as best they could, it took several weeks of making complaints for G4S to eventually make the necessary repairs - but not before the parents and children had been repeatedly bitten by bugs.
Layla says she is pleased to be in a safer environment but the whole family is struggling to adapt to their new surroundings.
“In Egypt, we had our own apartment and a business down on the ground floor, we were ok. But we had to sacrifice all that and come here for safety.
“We don’t regret it, we came here for the safety of the children.”
Father Hasani says the family are coming to terms with their new lives in Bradford, despite their new surroundings being different to how they imagined England.
“The children cry a lot and say ‘this can’t be the UK’. It is different. You imagine blue skies, green fields and flowers. But at least we have the house.”
Provider defends housing record
G4S have defended their record in providing housing to asylum seekers in Yorkshire in the wake of some stinging criticism.
John Whitwam, G4S head of immigration and borders said the report “sets out the challenge of housing double the number of asylum seekers than were forecast under this contract while three-quarters of local authorities in the regions in which we work do not allow us to place people into their areas”.
He said the company has not had any performance penalties since November 2013 “on the basis we rectify many tens of thousands of defects each year to meet the required standard”. The Home Office says it works closely with providers to ensure standards are met.