A new film The Asylum Market features testimony from asylum seekers, including a victim of human trafficking, alleging intimidation and bullying by employees of security giant G4S, as well as claims of sordid housing conditions.
The film was due to be aired on 31 January 2017 on BBC prime-time current affairs show Victoria Derbyshire, to coincide with the release of Westminster’s cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee report on asylum accommodation contracts, which concluded that the provision was “shameful”.
However, the film was pulled from the programme although the BBC did robustly challenge G4s in its package.
G4S is one of the providers of housing to asylum seekers under the Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services (COMPASS) project, launched by the former UK Border Agency with the aim of providing value-for-money housing for asylum seekers.
The large COMPASS contracts went in 2012 to G4S in north-east England, Yorkshire and the Humber, the Midlands and the east of England; Serco in Scotland, Northern Ireland and north-west England; and Clearel (a joint venture between Clearsprings and Reliance) in Wales and the south of England.
The Home Office is currently planning what the asylum accommodation system should look like from 2019 onwards. The COMPASS contracts were due to run out this year, but the UK Government chose to extend them by two years.
The contracts were extended despite a critical report on the contracts from the National Audit Office published in 2014, in which the approach of the providers’ housing staff was flagged up as an issue.
One issue particularly identified was staff entering properties of female asylum seekers unannounced, some of whom are likely to have suffered sexual violence or trafficking.
The report also said that many service users were scared to complain to providers as they thought it might impact negatively on their asylum claims.
Claims made in the new film include an Iranian woman refugee alleging that she and her children were threatened with being kicked out of their home if she didn’t agree to stay in a dirty property with a flooded kitchen. A Nigerian woman who had been trafficked, claimed she was put in a property with her five-month-old baby that was infested with cockroaches.
'When I rang G4S regarding this situation they were nasty and they said ‘You’re just a bloody asylum seeker anyway’'
She says in the film: “When I rang G4S regarding this situation they were nasty and they said ‘You’re just a bloody asylum seeker anyway’.” She was later moved to a property she said was even worse, and that neighbours said had been abandoned for years.
Refugee support worker Violet Dickenson, herself a former refugee, said that if people complained to G4S they could be victimised, or moved to other cities away from any support networks they had built up.
See the film in full:
Film maker Mark Donne said that producers at the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show viewed his film and asked for excerpts for use in the show, as well as requesting three guests: Donne himself; an academic expert from the film; and refugee support worker Dickenson, who took time off work in order to be able to come on the show. They also asked him to prepare a script for the package.
However, on Monday it emerged that the film wasn’t being shown after all, nor were the three guests required. Instead, Tuesday’s show featured a pre-recorded interview with G4S head of business services Sharon Holmes, and a studio interview with G4S UK managing director for immigration services John Whitwam. Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, also appeared and challenged G4s along with a man called Joel Mebara who had previously lived in G4s accommodation.
Donne said that a producer on the show told him that G4S had been in “vigorous” contact over the weekend via emails and phone calls.
He said: “He was as upset as me, he was furious and trying to fight the decision internally. He asked me, so that he could fight my corner, if he could interview one of the witnesses from the film – so I called her and explained everything, and she said she would confirm everything she had said on film, which she did.”
“However then another producer told me they were dropping the film package…both producers said that the programme had been pressured by G4S.”
Donne added that he has sympathy for TV news teams under pressure with diminishing resources and that aggressive corporate approaches were often effective.
He said: “If you use the right language you can frighten people.”
The editor of the Victoria Derbyshire show did apologise for the dropping of the film package, which Donne says she attributed to the news agenda changing, and agreed to share the film on a personal basis.
Stuart McDonald MP, who sits on the Home Affairs Select Committee and worked on its asylum accommodation inquiry, said:
“The Asylum Market strikes me as a very thorough piece of work and raises many of the issues covered in the Committee’s report such as accommodation standards, complaints procedures and treatment of asylum seekers by some staff.
'Throughout the inquiry, too many providers have seemed more interested in protecting their image than finding solutions' Stuart McDonald MP
“Throughout the inquiry, too many providers have seemed more interested in protecting their image than finding solutions to the fundamental problems with the contract.
“If G4S forced the BBC to pull the plug on showing excerpts of the film, then that is highly regrettable and should not have happened.
“The COMPASS system is not fit for purpose – fundamentally it is driven by availability of cheap accommodation in too few localities, regardless of its suitability for the complex needs of individual asylum seekers, or effects on local communities. We need a much better planned and better funded system that puts the needs of asylum seekers and local communities first.”
“Broadcasters’ plans can legitimately change for breaking stories last minute, but I was really shocked to see that after we’d been told there was no time to run Mark’s documentary, considerable time was dedicated to two G4S spokespeople.”
However, the BBC strenuously denied that programme makers had been encouraged to drop the film and associated participants, saying the claims were “ridiculous”.
A spokeswoman said: “To suggest Mark Donne was not interviewed because of any pressure from G4S is frankly ridiculous. The programme interviewed a G4S boss, Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and an asylum seeker who had lived in G4S property which he described as not fit to live in. The interview with G4S was robust and challenging.
“We simply didn’t have enough room for Mark Donne as well as those other guests and chose to speak to people who were directly affected by the story rather than another journalist who has made a documentary about it.”
A spokeswoman for G4S said: “There were many inaccuracies in the video, but ultimately editorial decisions are taken by the BBC.” The Ferret requested details of any alleged inaccuracies, but G4S has yet to respond.
Donne added: “In light of the BBC producer informing me of intensive G4S lobbying, I asked the head of media at G4S to itemise legal contentions. There are none. He replied that he felt the film was ‘poorly researched’.
“On January 30th I wrote asking him to itemise areas where he feels the film is ‘poorly researched’. I have received no response of any kind.”
However, the film’s claims of mistreatment of asylum seekers by staff are not unique. In the Home Affairs Select Committee report, some allegations included:
“Asylum seekers reported being treated with hostility and being made to feel ‘sub-human’ or ‘like animals’. Others reported they felt bullied and that staff could be intimidating and aggressive:
- ‘He threatened me that if I complained I would be moved to shared accommodation.’
- ‘I was made to feel very uncomfortable and unsafe. There was an occasion the area manager visited me unexpectedly. He was very rude, intimidating and abusive. I had to report that to the police. Then on the same day, he switched off the boiler so we had no heating or hot water [ … ] I genuinely feared for my safety.’
- ‘I feel like I can complain about normal things like broken furniture but I cannot complain about how I am treated.’”
The committee report, amongst its conclusions, also says:
“The wellbeing of the individual, particularly those who are most vulnerable, has to be at the heart of a reformed asylum system.”
Serco, which has the asylum accommodation contract for Scotland, faced similar allegations at Tartan Lodge in Glasgow in The Times last year to those made against G4S in the film. The Ferret later reported further claims of bullying and substandard housing.