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Amid the pandemic, Sheffield’s activists are mounting a new line of defence to protect asylum seekers

In Steel City, new grassroots groups are springing up to fight for the rights of refugees. And they're winning.

14 Dec 2020

Image: Flickr/Canva

Last week, a group of determined activists and their van set up camp outside an unassuming building near the centre of Sheffield. They were packed and ready to be on call day and night. Their mission? To prevent two asylum seeking women and their children from being evicted from their home of two years, mere weeks before Christmas, whilst Sheffield is in the midst of the tightest possible pandemic restrictions, due to worryingly high Covid-19 infection rates.

Residents of the building – managed by Mears Group the UK’s biggest “refugee landlords” – were given no official or written reasons for why the eviction would be taking place. The only information they received was a phone call to one of the residents on the Friday, telling her to get her things packed up for the following Monday. Three days to pack everything up and be ready to move 103 miles away to Stockton, County Durham in the middle of a global pandemic.

But these women are not alone. While the pandemic has thrown up an unprecedented crisis, it has also prompted renewed vigour in community activism. A new local organisation, Sheffield Against Asylum Evictions (SAAE), has been campaigning to prevent the women being evicted – and so far, they’ve been successful. 

SAAE was born out of increased concern about the impact of asylum evictions during the pandemic. James Harrison and Lili Balkin, founders of the group, describe SAAE as a non-hierarchical network of activists, made up of people who have been involved in migrant justice action in Sheffield for years. But Sheffield lacked a group specifically focused on fighting asylum evictions, despite it being named the UK’s first “sanctuary city” for refugees in 2007.

Lili and James began to send out speculative emails to local caseworkers and campaigners to get a better picture of just how many people were at risk of eviction. What they found was a desperate situation.

Prior to the pandemic, local charity ASSIST Sheffield had housed homeless asylum seekers, but now they were at capacity. This meant any evicted asylum seekers would likely wind up homeless and in increasingly vulnerable positions.

As of April 2019, 2121 asylum seekers were living in the South Yorkshire region. Stuart Crosthwaite from South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) says the pandemic has exacerbated existing difficulties for many of those currently settled in the area. Digital exclusion is a big issue, with many people lacking access to computers and phones. Key health information hasn’t been adequately translated or provided to many who may not read or speak English. The closure of many face-to-face support groups has increased isolation. Life has been made that much more difficult for a group of people who have already faced so much hardship.

On top of this, an escalation of hostile environment tactics poses a new threat. A new Home Office policy that will see “foreign” rough sleepers deported from the UK came into force this month. It’s part of a wider landscape that makes the formation of on-the-ground groups like SAAE, vital.

Alongside direct action, like defending residents in their homes, SAAE is working on more sustainable action plans to secure safe homes for asylum seekers, action that would stop an eviction process reaching the point where physical resistance is needed. The core of SAAE’s mission is to listen and amplify the voices of asylum seekers. “That’s in whatever way a resident wants or needs – it might be a silent vigil or a louder protest,” James explains.

In regards to SAAE’s current battle to protect residents at the threat of eviction, they’re making headway. Alongside SYMAAG, and local MPs Paul Blomfield and Olivia Blake, SAAE secured a verbal commitment from Mears Group – who have a 10 year contract with the Home Office worth £1.15 billion – that they wouldn’t be moving residents out of the house. But SAAE are asking for this verbal agreement to be put in writing, which it still hasn’t been. They tell me that it’s unlikely that Mears Group will provide this without significant pressure, as it will set a precedent for any future evictions.

As for reasons Mears Group had given for the evictions in the first place, they were flimsy. During the brief phone call on 27 November notifying residents of their removal, the explanation given was that it was to allow “repairs” to take place at the property.

“Several women have run away with their whereabouts unknown, and SAAE unable to contact them”

SAAE isn’t buying it. Property repairs have been carried out before whilst residents stayed in the house. Why is this time any different? SAAE has heard reports of Mears Group using the smokescreen of ‘temporary moves’ as a way to evict residents and never allow them to return. 

Furthermore, the way Mears Group has dealt with people defending the property has fuelled suspicion. When members of SAAE filmed workers attempting to move residents on 30 November, they were “completely spooked”. They left immediately and returned later with senior Mears Group representatives, who proceeded to call the police claiming the residents of the property were being harassed.

Officers eventually left the scene without taking action, a sign taken by SAAE and fellow activists that all may not be above board with the evictions. If Mears Group are within their right to temporarily remove residents, why haven’t they just done it?

As for the women facing eviction, unsurprisingly the threat of being relocated to a completely new city has been detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing. Several have run away with their whereabouts unknown, and SAAE unable to contact them. One of the residents told SAAE that they have been unable to sleep or eat properly, adding that she feels “vulnerable” and just wants a place to sleep with her kids.

Residents of asylum housing have also had to deal with overcrowding, a lack of provisions, and deteriorating living conditions. Mears Group has a £1.15 billion contract with the Home Office to provide accommodation and services to asylum residents. And yet 2020 has seen cases in Mears Group properties where the lives of residents were put at risk because of overcrowding and poor living conditions. In July 2020, it was revealed residents of Urban House, Wakefield had to share rooms and facilities, in the middle of a Covid-19 outbreak, with basics like hand sanitiser not even being provided.. The situation got so bad that some residents of Urban House even went on hunger strike to protest their conditions, but Mears Group ignored them.

For now, the women in the Sheffield property have a temporary reprieve are from the eviction threat. But this doesn’t mean that SAAE’s work is done. They’re still pushing for Mears Group to put their verbal agreement in writing, so that residents can finally have some peace in their home.

People should be able to feel safe in their homes. Groups like SAAE have been a product of the pandemic, to fill the gap in the protection of asylum seekers. And even though they may not have been around for very long, they’re already providing vital support and action to those who need it most.