At a meeting organised by Thrive last Friday the usually silent and ignored voices of asylum seekers and refugees were heard by those who need to hear.
For some time now those housed under a contract given by the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) to a local private housing provider had been experiencing problems that no decent person in our country would find acceptable. Some had complained to the housing provider, but been met with no action at best, indifference, or verbal and racist abuse at worst.
The issues revolved around no more than the need to be treated with dignity and respect, and have adequate, not luxury, basic equipment.
However, there were so many examples of scant regard for differences in language, culture and faith in allocating not just shared housing, with shared facilities, but shared bedrooms.
There had been little regard for human dignity in the number of times representatives of the landlord had walked into houses without even knocking, and altering heating and cooking controls, as well as using toilet facilities. Imagine the distress this caused, particularly for women.
Conditions in the hostel for single women and small children were described so well and so calmly by women trying to cope with little ones in tiny spaces, with poor shared equipment. Imagine seven families sharing a kitchen with just four pans, one chopping board, and some of them having to go up and downstairs with hot food and children. Also think of those people from different faith practices dealing with the use and preparation of meat, sharing those same few utensils.
Remarks by the housing provider to very vulnerable people who had recently arrived in the country, having fled with fear from violence and torture, were completely unacceptable. Imagine being told when asked how to put a single fitted sheet onto a double bed, that you should be grateful, coming from Africa, that you had a bed at all. This is just one example of many.
Rules had been laid down by UKBA as to how the housing provider should have delivered the service, 73 pages of them, but so many had been ridden over roughshod.
Sensible and practical suggestions were put forward by those who had suffered the indignities, about how they could build a constructive and positive relationship with whoever the new housing provider is, even if it is the existing one.
So who was listening? – An audience of other people in the same situation, and a number of people from the community who have always lived here. But importantly, there was a representative from G4S, who have recently been given the contract for housing asylum seekers in the North East, who will be subcontracting and supervising the actual housing provision, along with a representative from UKBA.
Both listened, and the G4S representative did agree to the requests to put an end to each of the issues highlighted. He also said that the existing provider would not be used again, and that there would be an end to hostel and shared room provision.
It took a lot of courage for the asylum seeker community to speak out, and a lot of hard work to collate and bring together the issues in a coherent way. A big thank you to them, and to Thrive for making it possible for those who are not usually heard to be listened to and make a difference.
Thrive is a Church Action on Poverty / Oxfam UK Initiative working in Stockton-on-Tees
* Suzanne Fletcher was a councillor for nearly 30 years. Now retired, she is active as a campaigner in the community both as a Lib Dem and with local organisations. She also does voluntary work with an advice agency.