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Watchdog: Placing asylum-seeking mothers in ‘prison’ unit threatens human rights

The Children’s Commissioner criticised the standard of accommodation for asylum-seeking mothers (Lipinski/PA)
The Children’s Commissioner criticised the standard of accommodation for asylum-seeking mothers (Lipinski/PA)

Housing asylum-seeking mothers and their babies at a cramped and unsafe bedsit in Glasgow’s southside risks violating their human rights, the Children’s Commissioner has said.

Despite Home Office contractor Mears Group giving assurances they would be taken to more suitable accommodation, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said many women and their youngsters still have not been moved out of the unit, which has been compared to a “prison”.

The commissioner said there was no space for mothers to feed their babies at the unit, limited washing and cooking facilities, and little support.

And, in the damning report, it found that cookers and heaters in the rooms are close to babies’ cots and it’s not safe to let them play, crawl, or stand.

A mother, who is not named in the report, said: “The worst part is knowing my child isn’t safe.

“I’m in a new country, a new mum, and I don’t have support. I worry about my child more than I worry about myself.”

The unit had once been used as temporary accommodation for single homeless men, the report said, before Glasgow City Council deemed it “inadequate to house that particular vulnerable group”.

The 26-page report, released on Thursday, listed a series of concerns about conditions at the 38-flat unit, but said by far the biggest issue was the size of the rooms.

They had been redecorated before the mothers moved in, but the “decor and furnishings cannot mitigate from the limitations of the property”.

Windows would only open a few inches at the bottom, and some mothers told report authors that the “size of the windows and lack of natural light as making the already cramped rooms feel like a prison”.

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Women at the unit complained the beds were too small to easily breastfeed their babies (Antony Devlin/PA).

The flats had only single beds, with no room for anything larger, and the report said a number of mothers said the beds were “uncomfortable” and “led to back and joint pain”.

“The single beds are too small to allow a mother to easily comfort a crying child in the night, or to breastfeed comfortably”, the report said.

“The rooms we saw varied in size but, in each case, floor space was extremely limited, meaning there was no room for the babies to play, explore, learn to crawl, or stand.

“These are critical developmental activities and milestones for young children. The largest area of empty space was often in front of the cooker, making it unsafe for play.”

The commission said these conditions pose a significant risk of violating the children’s human rights, including: the right to safety and development; an adequate standard of living; the best possible health; family life, and the right to play.

Nick Hobbs, head of advice and investigations at the commissioner, said he was “shocked” when he saw the conditions the mothers were living in with their babies and said he wanted the Mears Group to “urgently relocate all the mothers and babies in this unit to suitable accommodation in Glasgow”.

“This accommodation is totally unsuitable for mothers and babies, particularly those who have the added vulnerability of seeking asylum,” he said.

“We must make sure all refugee and asylum-seeking children are treated with dignity and respect for their human rights.

“No child should live in conditions that violate their human rights and the Scottish Government should legislate urgently to create human rights-based, statutory minimum, housing standards for children.”

Mr Hobbs added that while asylum accommodation is reserved for Westminster, the use of the unit had been approved by Glasgow City Council and the health board.

“Scottish public bodies have human rights obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and must ensure that all their decisions are consistent with the UNCRC,” he said.

“They could have withheld or withdrawn support and advocated for more suitable accommodation.”

The report said the Children’s Commission remained “concerned that the significant risk of human rights violations inherent in requiring children to live in this kinds of accommodation have not been properly accepted by the Mears Group or by Glasgow City Council, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, or the Glasgow Heath and Social Care Partnership”.

A Mears spokesman said the “mother and baby unit was purpose-designed with the advice of the local authority and NHS at a time when we had a significant number of mothers and babies to support and did not have suitable accommodation”.

“Our aim was to provide a good standard of accommodation and enhanced wraparound support for mothers and their children,” the spokesman said.

“There are now less service users with babies or who are pregnant and this has enabled us to reduce the use of the facility. We will move the remaining service users to suitable alternative accommodation over the next month and will then review the future use of the facility.

“We acknowledge the concerns raised by the Children’s Commissioner’s report, however, these findings do not reflect our intentions around the use of the facility, or the feedback we have had from statutory bodies, which has generally been positive.