What is it like when an asylum centre opens near you?

By Sean Clare
BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme

Image caption, Ajit Atwal says there was little consultation with locals before asylum seekers were housed in the area

Each year, thousands of asylum seekers are rehoused across the UK. But in some areas residents say they are not happy with the influx, or the lack of communication.

"It's a fantastic area, very-close knit community. One of those areas where all the neighbours are on first name terms with each other," Ajit Atwal tells the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme.

He was a vocal opponent of a plan to convert a student halls of residence in Derby into an Initial Accommodation Centre for 225 asylum seekers.

Hundreds of people signed a petition against the centre, but it opened and the first arrivals began moving in last month.

Ajit says they have had little information from private security firm G4S, which runs the centre.

Image caption, The Initial Accommodation Centre will house 225 asylum seekers once it is fully occupied

"They should've consulted with people and given reassurance that 'we're here to work with you and any concerns you've got come to us directly. You can get on with life and the refugees here can get on with their life'."

In recent years private security firm G4S has housed more asylum seekers than any other provider.

Asylum seekers are only supposed to be in Initial Accommodation Centres for a maximum of 19 days, while the Home Office decides whether they are destitute - before they are housed elsewhere in the country.

A multi-billion pound government contract to provide initial and longer term accommodation for the next 10 years is currently out to tender and G4S is hopeful of getting the green light.

But they have faced criticism.

Image caption, Mark Harris says he was told of the centre "out of the blue"

"I picked this area for [many reasons] - it's close to town, [good for] my future, it's everything it provides for me," says Mark Harris, who says he is worried about his property and his family.

"Then one day I get told out of the blue, now't to do with me, 'Oh by the way you're having 240 asylum seekers on your doorstep and guess what, you can't do anything about it'."

Janet Fuller, who manages an advice centre for Derby's refugees and asylum seekers, recognises such concerns, but is keen to point out that those entering the country are "vetted very strongly" by the Home Office.

G4S said in a statement that prior to the centre opening it "held a public consultation event and gave regular statements to local newspapers who covered the planning process", and later attended a public meeting to update residents on its progress.

"The feedback from the vast majority of local residents has been positive", it added.

'Treated like slaves'

Many asylum seekers say they have also been ill-treated by G4S and the dispersal system, having been sent to an unfamiliar part of the country.

"Usually the G4S people, they give you accommodation where no-one else wants to live and life is very difficult - crime is very high, there's prostitution, addiction," says one female asylum seeker.

She did not want to be named for fear of reprisals from the firm for speaking out.

She claims that when in need of help, G4S had ignored her attempts to contact them.

"They don't contact us, they don't reply to our problems, they don't solve our problems," she says.

"They don't return our phone calls… they think we are just like slaves, that whatever we [are given] we will accept."

'Don't call them back'

Jen - not her real name - used to work at a G4S call centre on the Compass contract, which provides accommodation to asylum seekers in the Midlands and the north of England.

"I wanted to help people because you do get to know people's situations and people's stories.

"Most people would want to do good in that situation, but you can't there [at G4S]," she explains.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, "Jen" says one of her colleagues pretended not to understand asylum seekers who phoned for help

"I've heard a senior person say that if an asylum seeker hasn't got credit [on their phone] to not call them back.

"There was a woman who I used to work with, she'd pretend that she couldn't understand somebody and put the phone down on them."

G4S said in its experience employees "act in a professional manner and actively listen to asylum seekers' concerns in order to support them with issues that they raise".

"Whenever we find to the contrary we always investigate and take action," it added.

The firm said all its front line staff "have access to telephone interpreters and use them frequently", adding: "There is no instruction to or acceptance of not calling a service user back."

'Infested by rats'

But campaigners like John Grayson - an expert on asylum housing - says the company is unfit to do the job.

"A good minority of the housing, 30% at least, is in appalling, atrocious conditions.

"It's been like that since 2012 when they took over the contract. It hasn't got any better," he says.

"We're still coming across houses with rats, terrible damp, bed bugs."

In January 2017, a Home Affairs Committee report found some asylum seekers had been placed in accommodation infested by rats, mice and insects after arriving in the UK, and called the conditions a "disgrace".

G4S said all its properties were subject to inspections to ensure they met the standards set by the Home Office.

"There are over 4,000 inspections conducted every month by G4S and the Home Office, and local authorities also conduct random, no-notice inspections," it said.

"We always take complaints about the accommodation we provide very seriously."

But Mr Grayson is adamant that G4S should not be given the 10-year contract.

"There could be legal action to stop them," he says.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and we are committed to providing safe and secure accommodation while applications are considered.

"The Home Office maintains an active partnership with local authorities across the UK and funds Strategic Migration Partnerships to plan for the most appropriate dispersal of asylum seekers and increase the number of areas who can support people seeking asylum.

Watch the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel.

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