Liverpool asylum seekers are being forced into cramped and dangerous housing. Oliver Duggan (from the Liverpool Sunday ECHO) warns of a hidden crisis as we take a look at the lives of the most vulnerable.
Of the 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers living in Liverpool, many have been allocated privately-run accommodation deemed “not fit for purpose” or “severely defective” by inspectors.
According to a government report, Serco – a huge multinational company that runs the service – has failed to improve a considerable number of houses despite more than a year in control.
The process means some vulnerable tenants have been left in “non-compliant” accommodation, the National Audit Office found.
And now Liverpool council has admitted the addresses of new arrivals are no longer passed to the local authorities, prompting accusations of a hidden asylum seeker crisis.
Sources said the exact location of Merseyside refugees is redacted by the Home Office due to previous data breaches. Instead, only a “rough area” is given to support staff.
Serco took over all Merseyside asylum seeker accommodation in October 2012, but the ECHO has seen instances of refugees still living in slum-like conditions.
Their performance has landed them in court and labels the area the worst place in the country for housing standards.
The firm could also face £4m of penalties under its deal with the Home Office.
Council representative Gosia McKane explained Healthy Homes, the council’s housing standard’s authority, can only assess a property’s quality after a complaint is made.
She said: “If we develop good links, and good working relationships with Serco and the Home Office, then we will have the power to deal with those concerns and that is very valuable.
“But we didn’t have much to do with which properties were transferred to Serco; the properties are only inspected by our housing teams if concerns are raised. We cannot inspect every property Serco procured – it’s their duty to bring them up to standards.”
The ECHO has found evidence that some homes are well-below the standard demanded by the Home Office, and that some properties are regularly targeted by racist abuse.
The council has been praised for attempting to combat breakdowns in community cohesion, but admitted their hands are tied by not knowing where refugees are housed.
Cllr Hetty Wood, chair of the asylum seeker and refugee group, said: “It can be difficult, but we have to work around that. We have broad information, but we don’t have the exact address.
“We still do the community cohesion work despite not knowing some of the addresses people are in, because it’s a broad issue.
“Asylum seekers are not lost in the city, there is local knowledge as to where they are. We are trying to help these people, but it would be easier if we knew exact addresses.”
Meanwhile, support services have said substandard, isolated accommodation is used by the Home Office to grind down refugees seeking safe-haven in the UK.
Ewan Roberts, manager of Asylum Link Merseyside, a charity that supports asylum seekers, said the system can destroy hope.
“The companies like Serco will get paid a flat rate per asylum seeker, so if they’re going to turn a profit they have to put people into housing that is cheap as they can.”
He added that the loss of vital data, which allowed local authorities to track and support asylum seekers awaiting citizenship approval, had hugely damaging effects.
“The Home Office used to provide regularly to people like the council, and organisations that supported these people, the postcodes of where people were going to be sent.
“And [since the Serco contract] they no longer give out those details. So we know who’s coming into the city, but we don’t know where Serco are housing them. That’s not helpful.”
A spokeswoman for the Home Office did not comment on the change of policy, but said: “We continue to consult with local authorities and our providers to monitor existing agreements to ensure that performance levels can be sustained, and community cohesion issues assessed.”
The revelations come after the council was forced to prosecute the firm for the “shocking” conditions of one house.
It led to the company being fined more than £10,000 last October for packing seven tenants into the terraced house without a multiple occupancy license.
Council inspectors discovered multiple fire hazards at the property, including doors restricted by kitchen appliances that would hinder refugees fleeing a blaze.
Serco pledged to investigate The ECHO’s evidence of substandard accommodation, claiming: “We always respond to reports of property defects by carrying out an inspection and taking steps to rectify problems in a timely manner, as required by the contract.”
James Thorburn, managing director of Serco’s home affairs business said: “Our top priority is the welfare and wellbeing of almost 10,000 vulnerable asylum applicants in our care in North West England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“The transition from the previous contracts was challenging, but Serco at all times concentrated on minimising the disruption to service users, through extensive communication including the provision of information in twelve languages.
“We accept that there remains scope for further improvement and we are committed to working with the Home Office and our partners in local government, the NHS and the voluntary sector to achieve that.”
A dozen people crammed into a terraced house – one asylum seekers story
Samir, who escaped civil war in Sudan to come to the UK, told The ECHO he lived in prison-like conditions, with absent landlords and the regular torment of racist abuse.
The 37-year-old fled a UN refugee camp for London and spent four years in detention centres before being sent to a terraced house in Merseyside.
His tiny room – a space little more than seven-feet wide at the back of a property – is heated with a small electric fan and lit by bare bulbs.
When he moved in, there was no mattress on his single bed, no working lock on his door and a hole in the wall beneath his window.
From the Tuebrook street it faces, there are few clues that the house is occupied by almost a dozen asylum seekers.
But smashed glass in the front yard and the shadow of obscene graffiti on the wall offer some clues of the lifestyle afforded to Merseyside refugees.
“Do you want to see where the brick bounced off the table?” Samir asks, gesturing towards one bedroom attacked by racists in recent months.
The Serco property is believed to be one of four asylum seeker homes on the street, all of which are subjected to targeted attacks almost monthly.
“There’s always racist graffiti painted on our walls, and we always have to wash it off. Our windows have been replaced so many times after people have thrown rocks through them.
Inside, the nine-bedroom house is serviced by two small cookers – thick with burnt food -and behind a kitchen door speckled with stab marks.
“Everything was trashed up when I moved in. I had nothing, there was just the base of the bed. The shower next door has been broken in the basement for almost a year.
“But I’ve done my best, I get on my knees to scrub the floor because we don’t have a hoover. Nobody knows about these houses, so nobody cares.”