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‘It’s not safe’: Inside the dedicated mum and baby units for asylum seekers

Women in a mother and babies unit for asylum seekers in Glasgow “want to give up” after months living in hazardous one-room housing

Mothers seeking asylum in the UK with their babies are given just a few feet of space to live, cook, play, learn and sleep. With ovens next to beds and windows that barely open, conditions in at least one single-room housing unit mean they’re struggling to keep their babies safe, and face having to cope in the bedsits for up to a year. In the mother and baby unit in Glasgow, nearly 30 women live in these conditions with their kids.

“I’m sleeping with the bin beside my bed,” one woman living in the mother and baby unit, run by Mears Group, told The Big Issue. “Sometimes I can’t sleep with the smell of it.”

“It’s not safe,” another woman said. “You would not [understand] it until you lived it. It’s not like a house where human beings can be, especially with babies.” The mothers speaking to The Big Issue chose to stay anonymous.

Recent reports suggest the UK government is planning to send asylum seekers abroad, to be processed in Australia-style offshore immigration centres. The potential legislation was condemned by charities and human rights experts, adding more weight to questions around how the UK treats people fleeing danger for safety. 

“I step out the bed and am in the kitchen,” one mother said. “It’s very dangerous for babies crawling because the cooker is right there.” Using the oven in such a cramped space heats up the whole room to uncomfortable temperatures, she said, but the windows don’t open enough to ventilate her home. “It’s very bad and seems really unfair.”

Women were first moved into the new mother and baby unit in January. For some it’s their first housing in the UK while some came from temporary accommodation in hotels. Others were living independently in flats, then forced to leave their communities behind. 

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“They weren’t given a choice,” said Amanda Purdie, head of public affairs at Amma, a Glasgow charity supporting vulnerable people during pregnancy and birth. “There were a lot of threats and intimidation used to get them into the unit.”

The building itself was previously used to house young homeless people. When it closed, Glasgow City Council called the space “outdated” and said it no longer provided “suitable accommodation”.

Amma is one of the organisations forming the Roof Coalition, fighting for the housing rights of asylum seekers in Scotland. Through their Freedom to Crawl campaign, they’re putting pressure on Mears and the Home Office to end the use of institutional housing for people seeking asylum, and for the people in the mother and baby unit to be moved to somewhere their children can play and thrive.

Some of the women in the unit previously lived in one or two bedroom flats, with double beds and strong links to local support services. Now they are confined to bedsits and sleep in single beds, difficult for mothers whose children sleep with them at times, some told The Big Issue.

“We were told the unit is designed to help women feel more supported and give them greater access to support,” Purdie said. “I don’t really know what they mean by that. We’ve certainly not seen any good new services for them. They face the exact same barriers that they would have faced if they were living outside the unit. We’re not seeing anyone feel any better connected.”

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The women previously had to get together in a “sort of corridor with some couches,” Purdie said, though a TV room was added very recently. 

“But what about the babies?” she added. “They very recently put in a little outdoor play area, but that’s only within the last week or two. There’s nothing inside the unit for babies to do, no sensory rooms, no books, nothing. It’s really, really basic accommodation.” 

The women living in the unit are facing security concerns too, Purdie said, after people with no links to the housing entered the building.

A Mears Group 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.”

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Another woman in the unit said the people living there had all but given up on fighting for somewhere more suitable to live after feeling their complaints were ignored. “We have been talking and talking,” she said. “If you have any feedback, they just tell you it’s fine. They say the council is okay with the space. 

“Sometimes it makes you want to give up,” she added. “We can complain and complain and complain, but nothing. We just pray that they give us somewhere else.”

The Mears spokesperson added: “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.”

“The Home Office has worked closely with our providers and Glasgow City Council to develop a dedicated facility to support mothers and babies,” a UK government spokesperson said. “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.”

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