Conditions at a Home Office housing unit deny mums and babies a ‘sense of safety’

Mother and baby
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An expectant mother staying at a mother and baby unit in Glasgow spoke to The Canary about living conditions there. This mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been living in this unit since March 2021. She said it’s “very stressful” living in such cramped conditions where “there is no community”.

Various campaigners in Glasgow, coming together as “the Roof Coalition”, are demanding the Home Office closes this unit that accommodates over 20 women and their babies. The Roof Coalition’s #FreedomToCrawl campaign calls on the public:

to take action to ensure that every baby and child in Glasgow has access to safe, suitable housing—including those in the asylum process.

Because:

everyday life for these mothers and babies is confined to one small room, with the cot just steps away from the cooker and a window that barely opens.

So the baby or toddler doesn’t have much space to crawl around the living space.

No longer “suitable accommodation”

The Mears Group, which took over housing provision from Serco, runs this Glasgow unit. The #FreedomToCrawl campaign:

Read on...

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condemns the increasing use of this type of institutional setting to house people in the asylum process. Institutional accommodation denies asylum seekers the stability, privacy, and sense of safety they need to rebuild their lives. Children living in this environment are denied freedom of movement and the right to play.

The Canary also spoke with two campaigners. Meghan O’Neill is senior community organiser at homelessness charity Shelter Scotland, and Amanda Purdie is head of strategy at Amma Birth Companions. They’re both part of the Roof Coalition.

Purdie said mothers moved into this unit in January 2021. Beforehand, the mothers were told they were moving to a one bedroom flat in a community with other mothers. Instead, according to Purdie, they moved into one-room bedsits:

in a very institutional style accommodation. This was done on a very no choice basis with a lot of intimidation and threats around… if they refused to move what would happen

She added that they were only allowed bring two bags with them:

and to leave the rest of them… so it all came about very abruptly.

O’Neill added that this unit was previously for young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. And when that homelessness project closed down, Glasgow City Council described the unit as “outdated and no longer providing suitable accommodation”. Below is an example of the layout of one of the rooms in this unit from the #FreedomToCrawl campaign.

Example room layout
Example room layout
An expectant mother

The mother who spoke to The Canary said before moving here, she was told the accommodation was suitable for pregnant women. But since her arrival she said “it’s very stressful”. In her previous accommodation she had access to counselling services, but now she’s “back to square one again”. She feels this will negatively affect her level of depression.

She added that there’s:

none to talk to, all the mum’s are stressed, the kids are crying

So the accommodation is:

not even a community at all… literally we are just dumped in a place on our own.

She says she can’t even visit other mothers as they “are already stressed”. Furthermore, it’s extremely difficult to cook in the unit as it could disturb the baby’s sleep.

And despite contacting MPs, the Home Office, and Mears, she said nothing has changed. She’d simply like suitable accommodation for her, her child, and the other mothers and children.

Safety hazards

O’Neill believes this unit:

stops people being able to live a life of dignity.

She said there are several safety hazards such as an unprotected cooker right next to the baby’s cot. Additionally, despite only bringing two bags, there’s little space to store belongings. This limits a baby’s freedom to crawl around this living space. So the confinement of a cot is the only safe place for a baby.

It’s also difficult for mothers who’ve recently given birth to wash as there’s no support in the shower. Additionally, this shower is too small for a baby wash unit so the baby could also go without getting a wash. And the more than 20 women living here have only two working washing machines to share.

Impact on mothers and babies

Purdie elaborated on the physical and mental impact on mothers and their babies. She said babies don’t have the opportunity to:

safely venture away from their mothers in the ways that we’d expect babies of this age to do.

So they’ve become very reliant on their mothers because they don’t have the freedom to explore. Purdie also said babies aren’t able to get into a healthy sleep pattern due to the lack of privacy.

The children’s commissioner responds

Bruce Adamson, the children and young people’s commissioner Scotland, wrote to the Mears Group about these and other concerns. He said:

In light of these concerns, I would strongly encourage you to urgently review the suitability of this accommodation for children, and to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that they are provided with a safe and supportive environment in which their human rights and dignity are respected.

Response from Home Office and Mears Group

The Canary contacted the Mears Group for comment. A spokesperson said:

The mother and baby unit provides accommodation that is purpose designed to best meet the needs of mothers and babies, up to one year old, and provide access to healthcare and other support services. It has been developed working closely with Glasgow City Council and Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS who are supportive of the facility.

All room sizes meet Glasgow City Council guidelines and Home Office guidelines and there are communal areas on site which provide space for socialising and play.

We are continually reviewing provision and working with health professionals to make sure that we accommodate and support service users only where they advise this is the best provision and in rooms appropriate to their needs.

We would be pleased to host visits by charities and NGOs to discuss the provision and to show them first hand why this facility is strongly supported by the social workers, midwives and others who support mothers and babies in asylum accommodation.

Meanwhile a Home Office spokesperson replied:

The Home Office has worked closely with our providers and Glasgow City Council to develop a dedicated facility to support mothers and babies. It has been purposely designed to meet their needs and complies with all regulatory and statutory requirements, providing access to healthcare and other support services so to suggest otherwise is completely false. There is also a dedicated welfare manager on site, who is in close contact with each resident.

The Government is fulfilling its legal duty to provide asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute with safe and secure accommodation. We are bringing forward a new immigration plan which will make our asylum system fair but firm, supporting vulnerable asylum seekers in need through safe and legal routes.

It’s completely unsuitable

Despite claims from the Home Office and Mears on the unit’s design, O’Neill said:

The size of the rooms has not changed. And so the suitability of it being used as housing has not changed.

O’Neill said they’ve “four key and quite immediate asks”. She said “the overarching theme is, we fundamentally object to institutional style accommodation”. So they want:

  • Mears to immediately commit in writing to implementing vulnerability assessments for the women and children in the accommodation. And they want a family support specialist agency to conduct these. Additionally they want children’s rights impact assessments to examine the effect of living in institutional accommodation.
  • Mears to commit to not moving anyone else in the wider asylum network into the accommodation because it’s not fit for purpose.
  • Mears to commit to moving all the women out of the accommodation into communities in Glasgow with the right support.
  • An equality and impact assessment to show transparency around the policy decision to open and run this unit.

Purdie added that she’d encourage people within Glasgow City Council and the health and social care board:

to really take a look at this unit and to make sure that they’ve been fully engaged.

And she’d like to know that this whole process involves:

people who really understand perinatal infant mental health and mother’s well being.

The Roof Coalition is calling on members of the public to support this campaign. The public can do so by sharing this story online or by contacting their MSP in Scotland. They’re also planning a virtual demonstration for 12 July. If the public can put further pressure on authorities, then it could help these women and their children live with the dignity they deserve.

Featured image via Pixabay – OmarMedianFilms

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