Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner has written to the Home Office’s housing provider demanding it “urgently review” its Glasgow mother and baby unit for asylum seekers over fears it is harming children’s development.
The intervention of Bruce Adamson, which has been made using his statutory powers, comes as a coalition of charities, grassroots organisations, and legal experts across Glasgow launched a campaign – Freedom to Crawl. They are calling for the Home Office to close the “cramped and stressful” unit in the south of the city.
Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, also claimed at First Minister’s questions that the rights of the young children and babies of asylum seekers in Scotland were being breached by the Home Office.
As previously reported by The Ferret, the mother and baby unit was opened by the Mears Group – which has a contract with the Home Office to provide housing in Glasgow – in January.
About 20 asylum-seeking women, who were either pregnant or had babies or toddlers under two were moved into small, cramped bedsits. They include a single bed, cot, basic kitchen area and tiny bathroom.
Some were moved from flats where they were settled in the community and did not understand where they were moving to or why. Two said they had been told by the housing provider that they were moving to one-bedroom flats.
In video calls, women showed that the only place for children to play appeared to be less than two-metres square. One had to squeeze past her child’s cot to get to the small kitchen area. The only place to sit for breastfeeding women was the bed or a folding metal chair. Visits, including from other relatives, were restricted.
Adamson, who has been Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner since 2017, said the unsuitable accommodation was likely to negatively impact on the health and development of babies and toddlers.
Mothers told The Ferret in January that their own mental health was affected due to the stress of being isolated in the small rooms with their babies and toddlers, potentially for up to two years.
In a letter to Mears, Adamson reminded the accommodation provider that his role means he has “a range of formal powers at my disposal including powers of investigation and the ability to strategically intervene in litigation”.
His long list of concerns includes the lack of space for babies and toddlers to play or safely explore their environment, which he says is likely to impact on their development as well as both physical and mental health.
Children’s commissioner concerns
Adamson claims placing cots beside cooking facilities is potentially unsafe while providing single beds stops mothers from being able to care for their babies by co-sleeping.
Restrictions on visiting means babies could be denied contact with other family members, including fathers, he claims, noting that this impinges on the right to private and family life, laid out by article 8 of the Human Rights Act.
He also raises fears that the communal nature of the environment during the Covid-19 public health crisis puts mothers and their babies at further risk.
Children and their families should be kept safe from harm, have their physical and mental health needs met, be shown respect for their private and family life and have access to leisure, play and freedom of association, Adamson told The Ferret.
“In line with my duty to protect and safeguard the rights of children I have advised the Mears Group to urgently review the suitability of this accommodation for children, and to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that they are provided with a safe and supportive environment in which their human rights and dignity are respected,” he said.
“We intend to meet with the children and their mothers as soon as possible to hear directly from them and to assess the standards and suitability of the accommodation first-hand.”
One mother, who has been in the unit since January, told The Ferret it was getting increasingly hard to feel hopeful.
Her baby will soon turn one and though they have been moved to a bigger room within the unit, she said it was difficult to keep her safe.
She said: “She’s at the age where she is really busy all the time. She is going for the cooker, so I have to remember to keep that switched off at the wall, she opens the fridge and takes things out. Everything is in one room so I have no doors to shut.”
Tensions amongst stressed out mothers were growing as the months went by, she added.
“There is so little space so there is a lot of conflict. Most of the mothers are not speaking. There are only two washing machines and so sometimes you’ll find your clothes dumped on the floor.
“I avoid leaving my room. And I can’t sleep – I haven’t been able to sleep much here since I arrived. Mostly I am just really tired. I don’t want to be here.”
Campaigners from the Roof coalition – which includes Shelter Scotland, Amma Birth Companions and other migrant charities, grassroots organisations and legal firms, also claim that “institutional accommodation” like the unit “denies asylum seekers the stability, privacy, and sense of safety they need to rebuild their lives”.
They are calling for the mother and baby unit to be closed.
Amanda Purdie, head of strategy at Amma Birth Companions, claimed that the unit denied women “basic liberties”.
She added: “These mothers are already subjected to the extreme stress of a cruel and inhumane asylum process. They now have the added challenge of trying to build a better life for their family in an unsafe, unwelcoming, and undignified environment—the consequences of which are profound for both parent and child.
“We urgently call upon Mears and the Home Office to stop putting profits over people. More must be done to protect the dignity and wellbeing of every mother and child seeking safety in the UK.”
Shelter Scotland claimed that the accommodation provided for mothers and babies by Mears failed to meet Scottish housing standards.
Meghan O’Neill, senior community organiser for the housing charity, said: “There can be no excuse for failing to uphold dignity in the housing system. We are dismayed at the Home Office for again sanctioning agents who show such little regard for the well-being of women and their children who desperately need safe, secure, and suitable accommodation.
“Housing and social care provider Mears Group have disregarded the standards of housing that we apply to temporary accommodation in Scotland and in doing so are turning their backs on single mothers and their children at a time of crisis.”
‘Purpose designed accommodation
A Mears spokesperson said the unit “provides accommodation that is purpose designed to best meet the needs of mothers and babies” and claimed it had been developed “working closely” with Glasgow City Council (GCC) and Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS.
Both, they said, were supportive of the facility, with room sizes meeting both GCC and Home Office guidelines.
“We are continually reviewing provision and working with health professionals to make sure that we accommodate and support service users only where they advise this is the best provision and in rooms appropriate to their needs,” they added.
“We would be pleased to host visits by charities and NGOs to discuss the provision and to show them first hand why this facility is strongly supported by the social workers, midwives and others who support mothers and babies in asylum accommodation.”
The Home Office has been contacted for comment.