Asylum seeking women with babies in Glasgow have spoken out about stressful conditions after being moved from flats into cramped bedsits by Home Office accommodation provider, Mears Group.
About 20 women, who are either pregnant or have babies or toddlers under two-years-old, have been moved into the new mother and baby unit, run by asylum accommodation provider Mears Group, in recent weeks.
The refurbished rooms were previously used to house vulnerable young homeless people supported by Quarriers’ James Shields project. The project closed last January after the council deemed it “out-dated”, with young people either moved to a new facility or given flats.
Asylum charities were told about the new mother and baby unit earlier this month, which they hoped would offer some benefits. But in recent weeks some have expressed concerns after learning that women were moved out of flats in the community in the midst of the Covid-19 restrictions, to be accommodated in cramped bedsits.
The Ferret spoke to two mothers – who did not want to be named – by video call. One had previously been accommodated in a two-bed Glasgow flat since last February, the other in a one-bedroom flat since April 2020.
Both thought they were being moved to alternative one-bed flats when they were told to pack up their belongings. Instead, they discovered they would be staying in self-contained bedsits at the unit, each containing a single bed, cot, kitchenette area and shower room.
One woman showed us how she had to squeeze between her child’s cot and the kitchen workspace. In a room seen on video by The Ferret, the only space for a baby to play appeared to be less than two-metres-square. A metal fold-down chair has been provided as there is no space for an armchair.
Mears said that room sizes exceed both Home Office contractual and Glasgow City Council guidelines.
Residents said they had been told the use of communal space in the building was not advised due to Covid-19 restrictions. But a spokesman for Mears said this would be allowed after the women had been in the building for 14 days without showing symptoms of coronavirus.
Two women spoke of the stress of being cooped up in their room, each with a seven-month-old baby. Neither know how long they will stay there and both fear they will not be allowed to move until their babies turn two-year-old, the maximum age of children in the unit.
The first mother said: “I told them [Mears’ housing officers] I didn’t want to be moved but they told me it will be really good for you. They told me every mum and baby now has to live there now.”
“There are ten rooms on this floor and we have to share the laundry room and two mops and two brooms for cleaning. So though we are meant to distance due to Covid-19, we are forced to be in contact anyway.
“There is nowhere for my baby to play – at this age they want to be free to crawl all over the place but there is no room.
“I’m breastfeeding but there is no comfortable chair to sit on. We have to sign in and out [of the building], and we can’t have visitors [from support bubbles allowed for single people]. It feels like we are being punished.
“I’m all over the place [emotionally]. It’s disturbed all of us.”
On Friday she was seen by a health worker who contacted her GP and she is now taking antidepressants for the first time. She added: “How are we supposed to care for our babies in this state? Our babies are picking up on the stress.”
The other mother believes she was moved after complaining about the difficulty of living on the third floor, where she struggled to carry both shopping and baby to her one-bed flat. “They told me I was going to a better place,” she said. In reply, Mears told The Ferret that women had been moved from “less suitable accommodation”.
The woman said she was “frustrated and depressed”. She added: “On Monday there was a fire alarm and we had to stand outside in the rain with our babies.”
She says only the security guard was present, as Mears staff are only at the unit during the day.
She too, is worried about how long she will be here. “Will it be until my baby is two years?” she asks. “This is not a home.”
Amanda Purdie, head of strategy for Amma Birth Companions – a Glasgow-based charity that supports asylum seekers, amongst others, during pregnancy and into early motherhood – said she started hearing from women who had been moved in last week.
“We know from speaking with several of the affected mothers that moving into this unit has been a deeply distressing experience,” she said. “Already we’ve seen some mothers suffer a significant decline in their mental wellbeing.”
She claimed mothers were only allowed to bring two bags, plus their cot and that many had to leave items behind. Mears says only large items, like furniture were not allowed.
Serious questions must be raised, Purdie added, about the timing of the move.
“At the height of a pandemic, these mothers were pressured into putting their health and the health of their babies at risk by relocating to accommodation where it simply isn’t feasible to physically distance from other residents,” she said.
“On top of this, they are now faced with the prospect of spending up to two years raising their children in a cramped room without space to play or safely explore, in a building designed without any obvious consideration for the realities of family life.”
She called for futher relocations to the unit to cease “until these concerns are fully explored and addressed by Mears”.
“We insist that a full vulnerability assessment is completed for each resident and ask for greater transparency regarding the decision to move mothers and babies from settled private accommodation into this unit,” she added.
A spokesperson for Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment (MORE) – part of a network of grassroots organisations and BME communities raising concerns – said: “All mothers should have the right to live in safe housing, in an environment that enables them to raise their children in dignity.”
The network has written to Mears asking to pause the relocation of mothers while they conduct vulnerabilty assessments.
Sheila Arthur, manager of the Asylum Seeker Housing (ASH) project, said the unit could be a good alternative to hotel accommodation for pregnant women and new mothers. But she was concerned to hear that women and older babies had been moved out of the community into the unit.
“There may be benefits for a new mother in need for support to stay there for, say, six weeks,” she said. “But this is not accommodation for two years. There are a lot of questions here about how long people are expected to stay.”
The number of asylum seekers accommodated in hotels across the city is increasing again, despite previous commitments to find alternative accommodation following the Park Inn tragedy. In June six people were stabbed by Badreddin Abadlla Adam, an asylum seeker being accommodated there by Mears Group.
A Mears spokesperson said: “The mother and baby unit in Glasgow is a new dedicated facility. The aim is to provide accommodation, along with access to healthcare and other support services, that is designed to best meet the needs of mothers and babies. The facility has been refurbished to a high standard, rooms have private kitchen facilities and all are en-suite.”
Mears claimed the unit was “developed in very close consultation with Glasgow City Council and with public health authorities who have been supportive of the provision”.
He added: “Most of the feedback from the initial service users has been positive and where there are issues we are working to resolve these and continue to improve the facility.”
Cover image thanks to iStock.