Friday, 10 January 2014

Damning report on G4S and Serco ignored in bid to vilify asylum seekers

 Today the National Audit Office published a report about the Compass Contract for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers.

The Home Office press release highlighted how G4S and Serco struggled to get contracts up and running, which resulted in poor performance, delays and additional costs for the Home Office.

The 8-page executive summary concludes by mentioning:
  • Unresolved issues one year on
  • The challenge of transition to the new contract
  •  The struggle to establish supply chains resulting in poor performance, delays and additional costs
  •  providers still failing to meet some of their Key Performance Indicators,

Transition to these new Compass contracts had devastating impact on the lives of people in Leeds. For example, one family were told they were being moved on a particular day. They packed their bags and waited on their suitcases until finally at around 5pm a council officer went out of his way to contact the G4S subcontractor and discovered that their move had been cancelled.

Working with asylum seekers influences my perspective and means that when I read reports like this I am filtering the information and looking for evidence that backs up my personal opinion.

Charlie Booker in his BBC2 Weekly Wipe highlighted how people’s personal opinions can be so set that they disbelieve the facts or have wildly inaccurate opinions (see the interviews 3 min 22 seconds in).
Much of this inaccuracy comes from media reporting and especially from headlines, which means that the ethos of a newspaper and the journalist perspective (or spin) on a story have a huge impact.

The first headline of the day was surprising
0:01 'Destitute' asylum seekers had iPads and luxury goods, says report by government auditors - Telegraph

This headline came from paragraph 3.20 at the end of the report:
During the fieldwork for our investigation, we visited a sample of properties used to house asylum seekers. In some of these, it was clear that the occupants may have a level of income above that expected of someone receiving the minimum level of support under section 4 or section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. There is a risk that individuals or families may be occupying properties to which they are not entitled, thus taking resources away from those more in need. Where housing officers see signs of wealth on their regular inspections, indicating that the occupant may have a higher level of income, they have a contractual duty to report this to the relevant authorities in the Department within one working day
There’s no mention of iPads but David Barrett the Telegraph reporter got extra information from the Press Office at the National Audit office. I also phoned the Press Office and was told that investigators saw “iPads, televisions, push bikes and mobiles.” They visited 10 houses in the North West, Yorkshire and Humber and London and in at least 1 house in each region they saw at least one of these items. The press officer stressed to me that this was a “very minor part of the report” and that “the sample was very small.”

Mobiles are essential to all asylum seekers. They provide the only way for people to keep in contact with their solicitor to pursue their legal case. Pafras a local charity in Leeds collects old mobiles to give to destitute asylum seekers.

Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network, another charity has had many asylum seekers volunteer. One had a push bike given to him so that he could get to the office to do his voluntary work. He had no cash for bus fares as he lived on £35.39 per week in supermarket vouchers.

That only leaves the television as the “luxury goods”.

The next batch of headlines were as follows:
0:02 G4S and Serco failing to house asylum seekers properly, says watchdog – The Guardian
0:03 G4S and Serco censured on asylum housing –
1:52 The 'destitute' asylum seekers with luxury TVs and iPads: Checks at taxpayer-funded properties find 10% have 'signs of wealth' – Daily Mail
1:20 Concerns over asylum seeker housing - ITV
1:22 Concern over asylum seeker housing – The Times
1:23 Concern over asylum seeker housing – The Star
1:29 Some refugees taking homes 'from those more in need' - ITV
2:27 G4S and Serco 'struggled' to provide asylum housing - ITV
2:38 Some asylum seekers in housing 'to which they are not entitled' - ITV
2:41 Firms 'place asylum seekers in sub-standard housing' - BBC
2:47 Govt aiming to recover £7m from G4S and Serco - ITV
3:15 Serco: Asylum seeker housing 'challenging' - ITV
4:05 NAO slams G4S and Serco over asylum housing failings – Public Finance
8:47 Asylum seekers in Britain are being housed in publicly-funded accommodation despite earning a wealthy income – Wales Online
8:49 am Serco shares fall on bungled accommodation for asylum seekers – City A.M.
10:15 Benefits Asylum Seekers Have TVs And Ipads – Sky News
10:25 G4S and Serco could pay government £4 million over failures in asylum seeker housing contracts – Supply Management
10:34 G4S and Serco heavily criticised for asylum housing conditions –

Out of the eighteen headlines, 37% have a negative focus on asylum seekers rather than focussing on the poor performance of the private contractors or the extra public money spent. No wonder the public don’t believe the facts on asylum.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Leeds No Borders Celebrates International Migrant Day

The United Nations adopted the ‘International Convention onthe Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of TheirFamilies’ on the 18th December 1990. To celebrate the 10th anniversary in 2000 the General Assembly declared the 18th December International Migrant Day.

This year’s message from Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, was to: "...make migration work for the benefit of migrants and countries alike. We owe this to the millions of migrants who, through their courage, vitality and dreams, help make our societies more prosperous, resilient and diverse."

To mark the day the recently re-formed Leeds No Borders group, led by Kate and Manuel, organized an open mic at Wharf Chambers: an evening of short films, poetry, sharing stories and music where everyone was invited to perform. There was even dinner, a delicious vegetarian meal of pumpkin curry, rice and dahl.

The night started with a screening of a short film about the migrant situation at the Calais Border on the other side of the English Channel. It showed the terrible situations of migrants in Calais, living in single layer tents that offer no protections against the bitter cold of the Channel. The film was followed with a short talk by Kamel from Syria who just last October, after crossing Europe, was living in Calais in those same conditions, identifying many of the people showed in the film as his friends. A film to make us not forget that there are people living in appalling conditions in an internal border of two of the richest countries in Europe, a reality of life that many of us would think impossible right on our doorstep.

Leeds No Borders did not forget all those migrants imprisoned inside the several detention centers around the country. There was a table with Christmas cards, on which everyone was welcomed to write a message which would then be delivered to those who had to spend Christmas in detention centers. On the laptop people could read about the campaign to stop the deportation of Florence, who has been living in Leeds since 2002, and how to help campaign to stop her deportation to Zimbabwe. Happily she was not deported, but is still detained in Yarl's Wood women's detention center.

The event itself continued with people performing and a special mention must go to the Women Asylum Seeker Choir, who delighted the audience with poems, spoken word and some great acapela performances. Each of their pieces aims at raising awareness of the situation of migrants, as in the poem ‘Brown Envelope’ with its powerful imagery of waiting daily for a piece of paper that will decide the future.

It was an extraordinarily successful night with many of those attending saying that it was the first time that they had properly danced since arriving in Leeds. So successful that it will become a regular event held at Wharf Chambers, the next one on Tuesday 28th January. More details on their event Facebook page. A highly recommended social to add to the diary.

Leeds No Borders meet regularly and their next meeting is Tuesday 9th January.
Read more about them on their blog and Facebook page: 

Check out the social media response to International Migrant Day at #IAmAMigrant

Rodolfo Barradas

Sunday, 22 December 2013

PAFRAS and CreAtive AspIRer: Clash of the Arts Fashion Show

On Saturday the 14th December people made their way out of the cold to come to the West Yorkshire Playhouse for the Clash of the Arts Fashion Show; a collaboration between PAFRAS and Leeds youth enterprise CreAtive AspIRer. Since 2003 PAFRAS (Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) has been working in Leeds as the main provider of direct support for asylum seekers. They are a charity that offers a valuable service to people who are often the most invisible within society; running drop in sessions, mental health services and distributing food parcels.  Yet as PAFRAS director Christine Majid made clear in her speech, the work of the charity has become increasingly pressed as funding cuts take their toll while changes to government policy since 2005 have made destitution an increasingly common fate for asylum seekers. In October 2013 due to lack of funding PAFRAS was forced to close one of their weekly drop in sessions. However despite all the pressures on the charity from the current economic climate, the Clash of the Arts fashion show was an evening of celebration; celebration of talent, of CreAtive AspIRer’s young people and of the work of PAFRAS itself.

CreAtive AspIRer’s achievement of their aim to inspire youth talent and responsibility within the community was evident through their ability to put on such an amazing show. Hosted by Alisha Musungo, Miss Face of the Globe and Zimbabwe UK, the evening was an incredible display of creativity, dance and musical talent.  The models strode confidently down the catwalk showing off clothes created by four young Leeds based designers. Bright colours and patterns were a theme of all the collections. The work of Siobhan Thomas featured jewel coloured dresses for the women and colourful sportswear for the men, including an eye-catching feather headdress style hood. A collection called ‘Breaking Walls’ inspired by PAFRAS itself showcased huge headbands, brown leather capes and bold zigzagging patterns in vibrant blues and greens. Meanwhile designs by Norma, director of Olando Tailors, brought a taste of sophisticated eveningwear with her collection of cream silk dresses.  As the models changed their outfits, the audience was entertained by the improvising of the band and the energetic fluidity of dance group Y.G.T. (Young Gifted and Talented) whose passion shone through individual and group dances.

This event was a wonderful chance for people to come together for a night of entertainment. Yet as CreAtive AspIRer’s director Talent Charura reminded everyone, it was also to raise awareness and donations for PAFRAS. A final speech by Christine Majid ended the night, denouncing racism across the city and encouraging continued pressure on the government for positive action for asylum seekers. As the audience stood holding hands through the band’s final number, Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’, the evening ended on a message of unity, compassion and determination to fight social injustices in the local community. 

Erin Rooney

Friday, 13 December 2013

Free Radio Training for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Radio in a day
Saturday 25th January
One Community Centre
10.00 – 4.00

Join Leeds Press Gang for a fantastic free training day (equivalent courses charge £90)
that will equip you to get involved with community radio and produce your own radio shows.

Book now – only five spaces remaining for refugees and asylum seekers

If you are interested please email Hannah at

The training will be led by Judith Weymont, former South Leeds Community Radio Station Manager.  Judith worked briefly in education before joining BBC Radio Leeds in the 1970s, and was part of the team that set up Manchester's Radio Piccadilly. She then spent 25 years as a producer/director with Yorkshire Television and Channel 4, heading up the Media Unit for the NUM in South Africa and producing radio and television documentaries in Zambia

Press Gang is a Leeds based group of people dedicated to the action and promotion of positive stories about asylum seekers and refugees. Acting to counteract misinformation, prejudice and negativity in the press, we work with both exiled journalists and activists to help change this imbalance. It is supported by Leeds Refugee Forum, Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, RETAS, Pafras, Solace, Refugee Council, Refugee Action, British Red Cross, Abigail Housing, and the Manuel Bravo Project.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Refugees in Focus.

Human Rights Week at Leeds University does an outstanding job every year of raising awareness of a huge array of issues that endanger the basic rights of people worldwide. The week of non-stop events is led by the Leeds University Union’s (LUU) Amnesty International Society but is successful in uniting a diverse set of groups, emphasising the diversity of rights we are fighting to protect.

On Thursday 28th November Human Rights Week brought us ‘Refugees in Focus’, an event co-hosted by Leeds Friends of Syria, LUU Revolutionary Socialists, Leeds Student Action for Refugees, and No Borders Leeds, an eclectic set of groups which served to further stress the broad-reaching scope of the week’s events.

The evening was split into two parts with a break in the middle to give a chance for the audience and the speakers to mingle, a nice touch which helped break down any artificial barriers and create an inclusive atmosphere. The first part gave the audience a chance to listen to different experiences from a refugee and an asylum seeker living here in Leeds. Nisreen Al-Zaraee, who was a student at York University when the war started in Syria, was at pains to explain that her experience of claiming asylum was not representative of the asylum procedures most people go through. Despite feeling that she is lucky in being one of the only 0.1 per cent of over 2.5 million externally displaced Syrians registered as a refugee in the UK, she still felt like she was “treated like a suspect” throughout the asylum process.

Nisreen’s situation, in which she was able to claim asylum relatively quickly while living with a friend, is in stark contrast to so many others, who may find they rely on charities such as Abigail Housing and volunteers working with projects such as Grace Hosting. During the process asylum seekers are not allowed to work and many have to rely on as little as £5 a day for food and transport before an initial decision is made. This can sometimes take up to a year and it is hard to imagine making ends meet on so little for so long while at the same time not knowing where you will sleep tomorrow night.

The second part of the evening focused on the range of charities that provide services to asylums seekers and refugees in Leeds. I was impressed to learn of charities such York Street Health Practice which provides an enormous number of services including counselling, visiting teams, immigration solicitors, and housing teams. At the same time however, there was a running theme when any charity was mentioned: increased strain and budget cuts. Major charities such as the Refugee Council received heavy cuts, meaning they have had to reduce the number of services available.

Throughout the event, it was stressed by the LUU Revolutionary Socialist that they wanted to see concrete action develop. This may not have happened in the way they envisaged but with the number of charities mentioned, the range of groups involved in the event and signup sheets available, they can be sure that the majority of people in the room that night will have felt inspired to get involved and help out with those who need our support.

Adam Leake