Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Drunk and disorderly: last orders for cheap booze

Everyone take a drink (c) Dani Lurie
So we have marked the beginning of the end of cheap booze. According to the BBC, the government's stated aim is to “turn the tide” against binge drinking, which it is hoped will lead to a reduction in problems that the police and NHS face.

I am not going to deny that excessive drinking can be very harmful to the drinker and to those in the vicinity of the drinker, but I am concerned that the UK government is dealing with a serious issue in a one-dimensional, simplistic manner that lacks substance.

So, join me with my tin of kolstrel as I have a look at The Government's Alcohol Strategy (hereafter, referred to as The Strategy). It's a very dry document, so I have another tin ready to go. It's ok, it's only 1.7%.

Claiming that beer is cheaper than water, the Prime Minister sees raising the minimum price per unit of alcohol to 40p. as an opportunity to reduce crime and increase the life expectancy of drinkers. Decent enough notions, but what evidence is there to support this theory?

In his foreward to The Strategy, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, discusses the scourge of violence caused by binge drinking, and giving more powers to those serving behind bars and pubs to stop serving those who are drunk. I hope that this going to apply to the House of Commons bars too.

The Prime Minister says that he wishes to get to the root cause of the problem...which apparently is that the price of some alcohol is too low. Are cheap prices what caused Eric Joyce to lash out?

Prime Minister David Cameron (c) World
Economic Forum/Photo by Remy Steinegger
The Strategy introduces the issues thus:
Over the last decade we have seen a culture grow where it has become acceptable to be excessively drunk in public and cause nuisance and harm to ourselves and others.
The majority of people who drink do so in an entirely responsible way...

There is no such data to support the claim that public drinking has become “acceptable”. Nor anything to suggest that the situation has gotten worse over the last decade. The opposite in fact.

Using Home Office figures, The Institute of Alcohol Studies 2010 factsheet points to a decreasing number of drunkenness offenders. There may well be several reasons for the fall in convictions, but according to the government, it has decreased.

As for the second statement, what is an “entirely responsible way” of drinking? Drinking 2/3 units every night? And who are the majority that do this?

A couple of weeks ago, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the General Lifestyle Survey 2010. In terms of drinking, it makes the following key observations:
  • Over half (54 per cent) of adults drank alcohol at least once a week
  • Adults aged 45 and over were three times as likely as those aged under 45 to drink almost every day
  • Average weekly alcohol consumption decreased from 14.3 units per adult in 2005 to 11.5 units per adult in 2010
  • One in six adults drank heavily on at least one day in the week before interview

If drinking is on the decrease, with the much maligned 16-24 year old age group binge drinking less than they were in 2005, then surely this has nothing to do with the price of alcohol. In terms of weekly alcohol consumption and household socio-economic class, the ONS report:
...Using the three-category classification, average weekly consumption in 2010 was highest, at 12.9 units, in the managerial and professional group and, at 10.5 units, was lowest among those in routine and manual worker households. This difference is particularly pronounced for women where the managerial and professional group average 9.2 units and the routine and manual group average 6.2 units a week. 

Interesting. Will a lower minimum unit price reduce the risk that this group of people will not add to NHS costs?

Yes, but what about the violence, I hear you ask. Well, this group may not spend as much time out and about in the town centres, which are frequently portrayed in the media as being full of young people fighting, tottering, lying down etc, but whenever I go into my city centre, I do not see this. Certainly not on every street corner as the media and TV would have us believe.

The Strategy claims:
A combination of irresponsibility, ignorance and poor habits – whether by individuals, parents or businesses – led to almost 1 million alcohol-related violent crimes and 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2010/11 alone

Yet, there are no definitive statistics for alcohol-related violence in the government's crime statistics for 2010/11. I am presuming, because it is not clear, that this statement is based on the number of violent crimes committed, and victims' beliefs that the perpetrator had been drinking. There is nothing to suggest that perpetrators had been drinking to excess.

Furthermore, a search for the term alcohol reveals that the word appears just once, in the non-reporting of driving under the influence of alcohol, and the word drink appears in terms of causing death by drink-driving. As such, the above statement lacks veracity.

Tellingly, the strategy continues thus:
We estimate that in a community of 100,000 people, each year:
2,000 people will be admitted to hospital with an alcohol-related condition;
1,000 people will be a victim of alcohol-related violent crime;
Over 400 11-15 year olds will be drinking weekly;
The key word is estimate. They do not know. Yet, these figures are used as the justification for reducing the availability of cheap alcohol.

19th Century painting of girl drinking and
boy drinking (c) Albert Roosenboom
Neither the ONS figures, nor this NHS study that found a continuing downward trend in the drinking habits of children aged 11-15, have adequately been factored into the research and publication of The Strategy.

Despite allegedly being concerned about the effects of alcohol on children aged 11-15, the government see no reason to ban alcohol advertising. Banned in France, the government has not seen any evidence to suggest that an outright advertising ban would help – an odd stance, given that much of this document lacks evidence. Even odder, when a quick google finds a study by the charity Alcohol Concern that concludes that under-18s want more protection from alcohol advertising.

So who is this strategy designed for? Ostensibly, it is meant to be for all of us, but it is particularly clear in the chapter 'Supporting individuals to change' that raising the price of alcohol is designed to affect the drinking habits of young people under the age of 25. The assumption is that it is this group that drink too much, and that it is this group that are largely responsible for violence.

But this focus ignores another major problem. An estimated 25% of women and 16% of men are its victims. Domestic violence.

In their 2010 factsheet, Civitas note 360,000 incidents of domestic violence - a third - are linked to alcohol misuse”. These figures were taken from the 2008/9 British Crime Survey (BCS) survey. According to the latest BCS survey, this number has increased to 392,000, although it is worth noting that these figures fluctuate year on year, because of the ever changing definitions of domestic violence and the changeable methodologies used by disparate police forces to capture this data.

Furthermore, as the BCS notes, these figures are unlikely to be a true representation of the problem, because many victims choose not to report such instances because of who the perpetrators are, and what the cultural, economic and physical consequences might be. Domestic violence is not about the relative cheapness of alcohol, it is about power and control. Along with other evidence, targeting young people only in The Strategy is negligent.

The Strategy hints at the social issues that lead to people drink excessively. However, it does not delve deeper into the issue:
The Chief Medical Officer for England’s 2009 guidance that young people under 15 should not drink alcohol at all is based on the fact that young people who start drinking alcohol at an early age drink more frequently and more than those who start drinking later; as a result, they are more likely to develop alcohol problems in adolescence and adulthood.
Just as it is claimed above that beer is cheaper than water, so it is said that wine is cheaper than water in the EU. So what about children in France and Italy who are allowed to drink wine with their meals from a young age?

The problem that we have in the UK appears to be cultural rather than financial. Amongst the reasons given for drinking, people drink to relax and to escape the day's stresses and strains, and they drink to fit in socially with their peers. I am presuming that these reasons are still pertinent when considering why people drink excessively; they feel a need to escape and to fit in.

A midnight modern conversation (c) William Hogarth, 1765
Raising the minimum price for alcohol will not address the root cause of the problem, as the Prime Minister hopes. Those who enjoy a drink will simply juggle their available finances to ensure that they can continue to drink either at home, or out with friends.

The question that the government should be attempting to resolve in their alcohol strategy is why the British public feel the need to drink as we do. In fact, fitting in and escaping may belie deeper rooted problems within UK society; that we are less happy and not as confident as we outwardly portray in this mass consumerist, x-factor land.

Civitas state:
  • A Portman Group report concluded that ‘there is no evidence that alcohol is a major factor in crime and no general link between alcohol and crime has been found’.
  • Similarly, a Home Office report also stated that ‘there is no evidence that various types of crime are actually caused by alcohol consumption’.
Violence is a way of taking control of a person and/or of a situation. Some of the rationality of resorting to violence may well be taken away when people drink to excess, but it is difficult to link the two in a simple, linear manner as the government are attempting to do in The Strategy.

Raising the minimum price for alcohol will not resolve the underlying issues that makes many of us feel the need to escape and fit in, whether it be through drink, drugs, or anything else that makes us feel like we conform to society's norms.


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Plan B - ill manors music video: a criminological review

Plan B - ill Manors. from Rokkit on Vimeo.

A couple of days ago, The Guardian reported on Plan B's TEDx speech and how the UK state has failed to look after its children from deprived backgrounds. Based on his own experiences, he recounts the problems with society at large as he sees it

He talks of a "folk deviling" of young men and women from deprived areas, and the derogatory association with the word "chav". For him, this word is akin to a racist or homphobic slur, but the media and the public at large use it to categorise these young men and women often and openly.  Often depicted in the media as benefits claimants, unemployed, and petty criminals, this term only marginalises these young people more. 

Plan B seeks to highlight deprivation and disadvantage as issues that led to the UK riots in 2011. They are not inborn, and are not characteristics specific to a person. They stem from state indifference to the social and economic inequalities that exist in different areas. Especially in a society such as the UK, which champions consumerism over its people.

Plan B's lyrics, delivered with passion and fire, highlight many of these issues. He concludes: 
We’ve had it with you politicians 
you bloody rich kids never listen  
There’s no such thing as broken Britain 
we’re just bloody broke in Britain 
What needs fixing is the system 
not shop windows down in Brixton 
Riots on the television 
you can’t put us all in prison! 
The video commences by showing Plan B as a Conductor, lording it over a seemingly burning, riot-torn, London. This depicts a shift in power from those that have to those that have not. Stereotypically, the act of conducting, and by association, classical music, is seen  as something that is the preserve of the more wealthy. See also A Clockwork Orange.

Artistic Urban Graffiti under the A73 (c) Robert Murray 
However, the main focus of the video is on the disenfranchised. What do we see? They wear hoodies, they cover their faces, they smash windows, they loot. In other words, all the stereotypes that they are associated with. 
Think you know how life on a council estate is
from everything you’ve ever read about it or heard 
Well it’s all true, so stay where you’re safest 
there’s no need to step foot out the ‘burbs 
Truth is here, we’re all disturbed 
we cheat and lie its so absurd 
Feed the fear that’s what we’ve learned 
Fuel the fire 
Let it burn. 
These images may well have been there to reinforce these lyrics. Indeed, there is another part of the video that covers violence; it shows a symmetry between some "hoodies" kicking someone laid on the floor whilst a girl films it before joining in, and John Prescott and a policeman punching members of  the public, also caught on film.

However, I feel that the video has missed an opportunity. It could have captured the disadvantage that people living in these areas face. Equally, it could have told a different story about the challenges that young people in these areas face, being that they are the predominant victims of violent crime.  

Besides, violence is not all that there is in these communities. There is family, there is art (see above), there is laughter. Whilst I understand the need to frame the video within ideas of anger and alienation, the representations are too one-dimensional and not as human as they might have been. 

It is not me that the video has to convince of the issues that the more excluded face. It is the people who read, listen and watch the mainstream media which already portrays them in a negative light, that I am afraid will pick up on this video as evidence of who "chavs" are and what they do. 

It's criminal (sorry) that this was an opportunity missed. 

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The reckoning: the battle for the international criminal court

The Reckoning trailer from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.

As some redress to my latest post, I am attaching a trailer for the documentary, The Reckoning, which follows the travails of the international criminal court (ICC) towards the end of the last decade.

There are some harrowing images contained in the trailer, so please be aware of this before clicking. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The fallacy of international criminal justice

Former child soldiers in DRC (c) L Rose

Next month, Charles Taylor is due to find out whether he is guilty of the charges brought against him. Taylor's case has been heard at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in The Hague. Like cases held at the ICC, this case has taken place in a geographical space far removed from the sphere where crimes were carried out, and where the victims continue to live.

I was in Sierra Leone when Taylor was first arrested and transferred to Freetown. I have also attended and reported on one of the trials (Sam Hinga Norman) held at SCSL. My own perspective is that at the local level, justice meted out in this way does not work.

Many in Freetown expressed their public support for Norman. Despite the fact that there is a strong relationship, and a lot of goodwill, between Sierra Leone and the UK, even though the UK was instrumental in pursuing charges against all accused of war crimes, people argued that Norman was a hero.

For them, still shell-shocked at the brutalities waged during the previous decade, he had helped save (the soul of) Sierra Leone. In other words, they believed that Norman was a bringer of justice. That Western powers prosecuted him only divided the notions of Western and African justice.

The Foundation for Law, Justice and Society produced a series of essays on international justice and Africa written between 2008-2010. In his essay, 'International Criminal Justice and Non-Western Cultures', Tim Kelsall alerts us to the following anthropological quirks:
...It is difficult for most of us to imagine how unnerving international trials must be for many African witnesses, who find themselves miles from home, in a courtroom of extraordinary grandeur, confronted with robed judges and lawyers who speak a foreign language, and who subject them to highly unusual communicative practices including frequently hostile cross-examination. It is no wonder that getting clear testimony in such circumstances has often proved difficult (Cryer 2007), a problem compounded in contexts, not uncommon in Africa, where secrecy is prized as a high social ideal...

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative, The Trial of Charles Taylor defendant offers further evidence of the problems that the international justice system faces, judging by the comments in several recent posts:
What do these ppl care about SL ppl anyways? Look at the volume of ignorance they’ve shown for human rights in other countries! (TJ, 09/03/2012) 
We were told Iraq had WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION……who has been brought to JUSTICE for such MASS KILLINGS??? (Noko4, 10/03/2012)
It is regrettable to be aware of the fact that Mr Taylor was charge for the Sierra Leon civil war that kill thousands and cause thousands to lost body parts that was carry out by the sierra Leoners themselves and Mr Taylor was never charge for the brutal killing of Liberians and the destruction that were carry out by Mr Taylor and his forces in Liberia...Liberia need justice we do not want Taylor back in Liberia. (Samuel King, 03/03/2012)

The final comment reveals a paradox. On the one hand, the site is supposed to engage and include Sierra Leoneans in a discussion of the war as another means of achieving justice, yet it is Liberian voices that dominate, lamenting their own lack of access to international justice.

Add to that, the fact that the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans do not have access to the web, and those that do receive a cumbersome service, and it is not a surprise that many of those posting comments seem to live elsewhere (mainly the U.S.A.).

A daily news chalkboard in Liberia (c) Lt. Col. Terry VandenDolder
Although attempts have been made to reach out to those most affected, the international justice system still relies too heavily on Westernised ideas. In his analysis of the success and failures of the SCSL, Alpha Seesay recognises that Sierra Leonean victims were too far removed from the process; as well as bring geographically distant, the court had problems streaming the trial and it made no funds available for an outreach programme.

The ICC has been criticised as imperialist by various African governments. Several comments on The Trial of Charles Taylor defendant also refer to the iniquitous manner in which indictments and prosecutions only seem applicable to African leaders.

Whilst some locals may see the the ICC, and the reasons behind it, as a force for good, they are also frustrated at a lack of transparency as to whose justice is sought and why it does not include everyone. In places like Liberia, where traditional media outlets reach more people in more meaningful ways than the internet, potentially, this can do serious damage to an international justice system regardless of any outreach programme.

The U.S.A., the world's foremost human rights advocate, is not a member of the ICC. Most significantly, it threatens military action against the ICC if any of its citizens are brought before the court. This incompatible approach to human rights undermines the international criminal justice system.

Just as Okechukwu Oko posits in 'The Limits of Prosecutions', I believe that whilst prosecuting some African leaders might bring about some accountability, any form of international justice system needs to take into account the social, political and cultural norms that prevail across Africa. This should apply equally to leaders from the Americas, Asia or Eastern Europe.

Without doing so, the current international criminal justice system will fail to deliver justice to those affected by war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Which way home

Above you will find a trailer for a documentary called “Which way home”.

The documentary follows several children who are trying to make their way to the USA from various Latin American countries. “Which way home” does a fantastic job of telling the personal stories of each of the children involved in these migrations. All have different reasons for trying to get to the USA (e.g. joining family) and all encounter a range of dangers and harms along their journeys.

Whilst the documentary is set on the American continent, it could be set anywhere. It is as much a story of disadvantage, migration and the harms caused by having borders and boundaries. 

Given the number of deaths, abuse and other related harms that children, and adults, suffer as a result of trying to seek refuge in more developed countries, are borders and boundaries truly worth maintaining?

Europe has questioned it. Whilst far from perfect, at least the borders between the Schengen nation states are a lot of more fluid, allowing for a less harmful passage for those joining family and finding work.

I am not pretending that I expect the world's states to subscribe to this type of Sen-globalism, and open up their borders to all any time soon. But given that these “imagined communities”, that pass for nation states, have only been in existence for a short space of time, perhaps we need to reconsider whether borders are worth the human, and economic, costs.

If you like what you see from the trailer, you can watch video clips from the documentary online here. I hope that you find it as engaging and as thought-provoking as I did.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Invisible War: justice for victims of conflict-related sexual violence?

Following yesterday's post, I feel that it appropriate to highlight the sexual abuse suffered by American service women. Hence, the above trailer for the documentary, The Invisible War. 

Whilst it showcases an often unheard side of conflict-related sexual violence, it demonstrates that it is not confined to (African) borders and boundaries. Furthermore, their testimonies, and the low percentage of prosecutions and convictions, demonstrate that these women are subject to the same physical and mental hold that men around the world use to control women's place in society. And at home.

Because conflict-related sexual violence should also be considered in terms of domestic violence. Homes too can be conflict-zones, with partners, spouses and families at war with one another. As many women, and girls, are sexually abused at home by family members, the notion that this environment is always safe is a false one. 

The prevailing focus on the reasons for rape and sexual abuse need to change. It is not  specific to the way a woman dresses, what she drinks, or what type of person she is. It is about the rapist(s), and his/their power to control the victim(s) within their gendered, cultural and institutional norms.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Justice for victims of conflict-related sexual violence?

Meeting for rape victims in the DRC (c) L Werchick/USAID
It feels a little discomforting to be writing this on International Women's Day. It should be a day to celebrate. The fact that we have a specific day to 'celebrate' women acknowledges an international failing; women are not treated equally.

Women and girls are predominantly the victims of sexual abuse – although men and boys are also victims.

A couple of weeks ago, the UN produced its annual report on conflict-related sexual violence. According to the report:
Conflict-related sexual violence refers to incidents or patterns (for the purposes of listing in accordance with Security Council resolution 1960 (2010)) of sexual violence, that is rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity against women, men or children.

The report covers the period from December 2010 to November 2011, and details the abuses suffered at the hands of government and militia groups in conflict zones including Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Libya to name a few. It documents the (mass) rapes suffered by women, girls and boys, and refers to practices used by these armies including forced pregnancies.

Because of the social stigma attached to rape in many societies around the world, women and girls have little choice but to stay with their abusers. To return to their communities, which often does not support the armies that abused these victims, is not a viable alternative, as they are shunned by family, friends and neighbours. More so, when they are expecting a rapist's child.

In most cases, the UN is seeking judicial redress for the victims. It has had some success at the local levels, notably in courts such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) that paved the way for defining rape as an act of genocide, following the case of Akeyesu.

Nevertheless, on a personal level, studies have highlighted the powerlessness that local victims have felt in shaping and sharing their testimonies. On a social level, many do not want testify for fear of having to identify themselves as rape victims, which their family, friends and neighbours may have hitherto been unaware of.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) also offers victims the chance for justice beyond the local level. Although castigated at first for not pursuing sexual violence charges in the case of Thomas Lubanga, supporters of the ICC claim that it has made strides following charges of rape as a war crime, and as a crime against humanity, that it brought against Jean-Pierre Bemba.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting write that prosecutors struggle to obtain the evidence that they need for a court of law to secure a conviction. 
In a recent cross-examination by the defence in the Bemba case, a rape victim was asked why she had no medical certificate confirming that she had been raped.
In our country if you want to see a Doctor at hospital you always need money. When I was raped I had no money. I couldn't go see a Doctor”, she replied.

This is a significant problem. In countries where females have less financial power, they are further dis-empowered by a judicial system that wants them to prove their abuse.

The International Criminal Court, The Hague (c) Vincent van Zeijst
Equally significant is the fact the ICC have not acted to bring any criminal charges against UN peacekeepers who have been accused of sexual violence. The ICC is supposed to operate independently of the UN. Therefore, it should have the means to investigate and prosecute those UN soldiers guilty of these war crimes, but there is little to suggest why it has not done/can not do so.

The UN's strategy for dealing with these soldiers is based around prevention, enforcement and remedial action. The statistics might well indicate that the message is getting through to UN peacekeepers, but this is difficult to verify causally.

It could just as easily be explained by women choosing not to step forward to report cases of sexual violence since they know that peacekeepers will not be brought to justice locally or internationally.

This impunity damages the credibility of the ICC, and that of their other locally established forms of criminal justice.

The UN also state:
...“The general breakdown in law and order, the absence of justice, continuing conflict, entrenched discriminatory attitudes and practices and the prevailing culture of impunity in these situations allowed for these crimes to be committed not only with appalling consequences for the victims, but with a force that destroys the fabric of society as a whole”.
In all these situations, cases of conflict-related sexual violence remain largely unreported owing to several factors, such as social stigma, fear of reprisals, insecurity, a lack of available response services and the perceived futility of reporting as a result of weak administration of justice, apathy and political pressure”...

Both this quotation, and my discussion above, indicate that the problems are cultural and institutional. Both within the geo-spatial boundaries where the acts take place, and within the spaces that are supposed to protect the victims.

The UN propose the following initiatives to address conflict-related sexual violence:
  • Training on conflict-related sexual violence
  • Development of early warning indicators
  • Addressing conflict-related sexual violence in ceasefire and peace agreements
  • Comprehensive strategies to combat sexual violence
  • Programmatic and funding challenges and opportunities

All well and fine, but there is little substance to these proposals. Nothing that might serve to suggest that the UN are seeking to uproot the “entrenched discriminatory attitudes”, which is key to altering normative views of rape. Especially if the legal process is only going to be accessed by the few who can, and want, to use it.

Education (not the top-down approach) is going to be vital to altering social norms of sexual violence. To educate, we need to hear more from the victims and more from the rapists; because it is they that transgress the laws whilst operating within their gendered norms.

Nor am I confining this to the international conflict-related zones discussed here. Because in the West, we have constructed sexual violence in a certain way with regards to domestic conflict-related spaces, and realised justice through criminal mechanisms that operate with a similar impunity. 

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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Sachin tells Olympic Organizers to drop Dow Chemical as sponsors for London Olympics 2012

Latest news from change.org is that the Indian government may boycott the opening and closing ceremonies of London 2012, if LOCOG do not drop Dow as a stadium sponsor. For those who do not understand why this protest is taking place, please see my earlier post, or google Dow and Bhopal

Whatever you do, please watch the clip below, and ask yourself why/how Dow can not afford to take their responsibilities seriously, and why they should have the pleasure of profiting from a global event held here whilst hundreds of thousands continue to suffer in and around Bhopal. 

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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

G4S turns a profit in "asylum markets": who's speaking out and whose lips are sealed

(c) Holger Ellgaard
I am republishing the following article as found on openDemocracy. It was written by John Grayson, who works with the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group. The article discusses the contract won by G4S to house asylum seekers/refugees (having beaten beaten Sheffield City Council to it on costs), and of his frustrations with local MPs and various asylum charities who have failed to speak out against the G4S takeover. 

G4S have a chequered history. They were implicated in the deaths of Jimmy Mubenga and Eliud Nyenze, they provide services to illegal settlements in the West Bank, and are accused of overworking and underpaying their staff, to name but a few of their crimes. As John points out in his conclusion, we should be concerned about G4S's (militaristic?) expansion into the criminal justice system, and the effects that this will have for all detainees who become nothing more than commodities and assets on the G4S balance sheet.   

G4S turns a profit in “asylum markets”: who's speaking out and whose lips are sealed?

The vast private sector security company, G4S, feared and distrusted by asylum seekers, is about to be awarded contracts to run asylum seeker housing throughout the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside. Last Friday a group of asylum seekers’ advocates and academics met with government and company representatives to explain why this is a thoroughly bad idea.

That the meeting happened at all was some kind of victory for the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), of which I am a member, for local people who protested outside the UK Border Agency’s Sheffield offices  on 15 February, and for 28 outraged academics from Yorkshire universities whose protest letter was published in the Yorkshire Post  . The academics — researchers and university teachers in the fields of housing and immigration in the Yorkshire region — cited the death of Jimmy Mubenga in G4S’s care, and the 773 complaints lodged against G4S in 2010 by detainees including 48 claims of assault, and said:
Asylum seeker tenants already feel intimidated and threatened by the prospect of prison guard companies being installed as their managing landlords.”
Soon after the 15 February protest, the UK Border Agency declined to speak with us, saying the contracts were as good as done. Then they appeared to change tack, agreeing to meet with us at a Sheffield refugee centre on Friday afternoon (24 February). The people they sent were not procurement or due diligence experts but serving members of UKBA Local Immigration Teams (one in full uniform) who had been working closely with G4S apparently in the period since last December when preferred bidders were announced.

It emerged during the meeting that since December 2011 a project called COMPASS TRANSITION UKBA, scheduled to begin after contracts were signed, had been actively cooperating with G4S to ‘minimise’ the effects of evicting potentially 900 asylum seeker occupants of local authority housing in Yorkshire. They had not been scrutinising the costings or human rights risks or, as UKBA claimed, working to “ensure that there are no material risks” with the contracts. They had not, it emerged, bothered to check on the impacts on asylum seeker families and children’s human rights, on education and health by referring the contract to Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) who have statutory responsibility for impact assessments of public sector of contracts this kind.

In the meeting G4S switched from its denials of being a “prison guard company” (as we had described them in the Yorkshire Post), to now claiming that G4S was developing a specialist and very separate housing division to take on asylum seeker housing as part of its interest in “asylum markets”.

This reinforces the view already held by some analysts that it is G4S’s intention to continue expanding its management of the prisons, criminal justice and immigration ‘estates’, while managing a housing contract (with effectively no legal rights for tenants), and to use this dubious base to expand into the wider privatised housing market. Housing academics and voluntary sector organisations amongst the campaigners have made clear to G4S their distaste for this enterprise, rooted as they are in traditions of public and charitable housing provision with statutory rights for tenants as both customers and citizens.

The meeting clearly demonstrated that a G4S takeover meant the end of sixty years of government and council funded humanitarian housing in South and West Yorkshire boroughs for vulnerable individuals fleeing torture and persecution and applying for asylum in the UK under international treaties.

Repatriation of German children after
WWII - source German Federal Archive
Sheffield City Council was the first ‘City of Sanctuary’ and still embraces the label. The Council certainly did not want to get rid of asylum housing which at present serves 60 per cent of local asylum seekers – they were simply outbid on ‘cost’. When local Sheffield asylum rights organisations presented a petition opposing the G4S takeover at the city Council meeting on 1st of February the whole council applauded.

Councillors and campaigners understand that the G4S contract not only privatises this humanitarian function but destroys it and replaces it with the clear message adopted by both Labour and the Coalition that asylum seekers are not welcome here, indeed they should be treated like criminals with prison guards as their landlords, as part of deliberate policy of deterrence. As one Zimbabwean asylum seeker in Sheffield declared, “I do not want a prison guard as my landlord.”

Besides the Yorkshire Post we’ve had positive coverage on Sheffield local radio, Big Issue in the North and the Barnsley Chronicle. There’s been little interest from the mainstream national media, although the Independent  reported on our public letter, which also featured in Socialist Worker  . OurKingdom and the Institute of Race Relations  have published our journalism, we have a growing social media presence, and a newly established website  .

But for all our awareness-raising, some people you might expect to care don’t seem too bothered. In Sheffield, after Liberal Democrat local councillors helped to get a petition before the city council supporting the campaign, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a local MP, wrote to immigration minister Damien Green on 3 February and is apparently still waiting for a reply.

Labour politicians in South Yorkshire have not even responded to e-mails from their own constituents about the matter. In Barnsley, where shadow culture minister and ex-SAS hero Dan Jarvis has his seat alongside shadow Cabinet minister Michael Dugher, there has been absolutely no response.

As the campaign has spread the picture is little different. Across in Hull, campaigners lobbying Labour MP Diana Johnson to intervene before contracts were signed at the end of February, were advised by Ms Johnson to go away and get an e-petition with 100,000 signatures so that there could be a debate in Parliament.

Two Labour politicians have responded with positive action. John McDonnell promised to raise the matter in Parliament. Crucially, perhaps, the Rt Hon David Winnick MP has asked for a detailed research report from the campaign to be sent to members of the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee on Friday 24th of February which only two weeks ago published a report strongly critical of G4S  .

Whilst campaigners are astonished at how far we have come in very little time, we’re disappointed about the apparent lack of advocacy for asylum seekers that we’ve encountered in some surprising places. Refugee Action’s sole contribution was referring us to its chief executive’s statement  about his ‘concerns’ on its otherwise campaign-free website.

Distributing food aid in Congo refugee
camp (c) Julien Harneis
Refugee Action receives funding under UKBA’s voluntary returns programme, with volunteers at Vulcan House, UKBA’s regional headquarters in Sheffield, handing out leaflets to asylum seekers fleeing persecution, suggesting that they return ‘home’. The Refugee Council website search facility cannot locate a reference to G4S and the campaign, the Council of course eschews ‘politics’ and receives (much reduced) government funding.

Other asylum charities, funded through subcontracting for companies like international security company Serco, avoided the campaign. Some voluntary organisations and local authorities have been negotiating for work with G4S before contracts have been signed. Others have negotiated to reduce the impacts of the takeover — but they have still failed to voice support for the campaign.

The Yorkshire grass roots charities, refugee and asylum seeker groups, church groups, political networks and campaigners are much more vocal in their opposition to G4S and possible threats to the human rights of asylum families. In Sheffield the Children’s Society in South Yorkshire’s Embrace Project (supported by the national Society) is backing a submission to the Sheffield Safeguarding Children Board (SSCB) to demand that UKBA does a thorough children’s rights assessment of the contract.

In Barnsley local council officers are publicly backing a similar approach. In Kirklees the Local Safeguarding Children Board approach is spearheaded by Huddersfield University’s Applied Childhood Studies Department. In Bradford and Kirklees campaigners are now active and the human rights organisation Just West Yorkshire is reporting the issues.