Martyn McLaughlin: Branding highlights broken asylum system

Marked by tragedy: asylum seekers in Wales have been forced to wear wrist bands,  an all-too-common way of 'branding' refugees and making them visible targets for bigots. Picture: Getty
Marked by tragedy: asylum seekers in Wales have been forced to wear wrist bands, an all-too-common way of 'branding' refugees and making them visible targets for bigots. Picture: Getty
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Asylum seekers are marked out for abuse by the very people supposed to be helping them writes Martyn McLaughlin

When exactly does a series of isolated scandals fuse into a crisis? The Home Office, forever fond of statistics, seem to have a high figure in mind. In recent days, the ongoing farce that passes for the UK government’s asylum housing provision has again been laid bare courtesy of two examples which show how those in need are finding humiliation at their traumatic journey’s end.

The first was the revelation that properties in Middlesbrough had been marked so as to indicate that families seeking asylum were living in them. Out of 168 homes run by Jomast, a subcontractor of G4S – one of the three main asylum housing providers under the government’s Compass deal – 155 had their doors painted red. Already anxious tenants found their homes pelted with eggs, stones, excrement and spittle, with graffiti daubed on their walls.

Monday brought further shame when it emerged the Clearsprings Group, a Home Office approved housing provider, had taken the bigot’s favoured metaphor for asylum seekers – that of cattle – to its literal conclusion, issuing its “full board clients” in Cardiff with coloured wristbands, a form of branding that predictably led to them being harangued by a contingent whose knuckles are well acquainted with the ground.

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The message was clear. The process of dehumanising those in need is out in the open, no longer a clandestine intention but a fully fledged corporate strategy. It forms part of a detestable approach the journalist Anthony Loewenstein has astutely labelled “disaster capitalism” and the situation is only going to deteriorate further under this Conservative government.

It is less than a year since I wrote about the shambolic outsourcing process that sees the Home Office cede responsibility for asylum housing in Scotland’s biggest city to Serco and, in turn, Orchard & Shipman, a property services firm.

Many of those seeking a new life have instead been ushered into a sort of half-life, one where the accommodation has been woefully substandard. Some were left without heating or hot water, while others received a dubious welcome in the form of infestations, leaking ceilings and front doors without locks, with a cup of sugar replaced by casual racism.

Were the latest ignominies insufficient evidence of how this mismanagement has been allowed to fester, rumblings behind the scenes confirm suspicions. G4S, Serco and the one other main provider of UK asylum housing – a consortium known as Clearel – recently held emergency talks with ministers, such is their inability to fulfil their Compass obligations.

The confidential discussions are understood to centre on whether the existing contracts should be extended beyond their scheduled expiry in 2019. As things stand, that looks all but impossible.

A lack of habitable housing, coupled with an increase in those seeking asylum, has led to the unthinkable: whereas the firms once made a profit from every asylum seeker they successfully housed, they are now losing money.

According to those familiar with the arrangements, the likes of Serco pursued the government contract on the basis of an economy of scale that now looks misguided. Instead of the costs per person falling as numbers increased, the figures stayed high. Serco has already written off around £115 million over the course of the Compass contract and G4S expects its liabilities will run to the region of £25m. The mutually beneficial threesome between government, providers and facilitators is up the creek.

The most obvious response to the dire financial straits facing such conglomerates is one of glee. These are the big evil corporations your mammy warned you about, the interlopers responsible for driving down standards in the public sector and turning misery into profit.

But as its repercussions stand to make an already grim situation even worse, such a response is short sighted. If these companies are already racking up losses, what possible incentive is there for them to maintain, let alone raise, standards already under fire?

The only organisation with oversight of the arrangements, the Home Office, has repeatedly refused to address the problems. Last week, in light of the Middlesbrough incident, the immigration minister, James Brokenshire, rejected calls for an audit into G4S and Jomast to be broadened so as to look into the provision of accommodation across the country. Such an escalation, he insisted, was not appropriate.

Quite how his department can have confidence in its system of compliance is a mystery for the ages, especially when the Compass deal has been roundly criticised by the public accounts committee and the National Audit Office.

The Home Office has contract compliance teams who inspect a third of all asylum accommodation, doing so via an “intelligence-led, risk-based approach” to “monitor standards” and ensure “maintenance faults” are rectified. And yet not one single footsoldier from this prurient army thought something amiss with people being treated like feral hordes in 2016.

You can be sure that the doors will be repainted, the wristbands removed and promises made of lessons learned. But the system remains broken. As the losses deepen and the layers of subcontractors see their cut dwindle, what chance is there of change for better?