Initial Accommodations Centres are hostels or lodgings for people who have asked for asylum and do not have funds to support themselves. In 2012 the Government, through the Home Office, awarded a 5 year contract to Serco and G4S to provide accommodation, dispersal housing and transportation to accommodation for asylum seekers. This contract is called the COMPASS – Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support – contract. G4S operates the contract in Yorkshire, Humberside and the North East and runs two Initial Accommodation Centres, one in Birmingham and one in Wakefield. In 2017 a two-year extension to the contract was approved by the Home Office.
In Wakefield, the Initial Accommodation Centre (IAC) is called Urban House. The company Urban Housing owns Urban House and is contracted by G4S to accommodate 300 asylum seekers. Asylum seekers stay at Urban House for about 21days whilst the legal aspects of their asylum claim are sorted out.
Urban Housing provides family rooms for families and shared rooms for individuals. Men’s and women’s rooms are on separate corridors; each of the corridors has toilets and showers. Urban Housing provides bedding, towels, basic toiletries, washing facilities for clothes, and all meals. Meals are cooked on the premises by catering staff.
At Urban House, there is a communal dining hall, individual social rooms for men and women, a family TV room, a classroom, a quiet room and a playroom. The classroom, quiet room and playroom are opened on a sessional basis. Outside groups run various social sessions at Urban House and there is a Volunteer Coordinator who programmes sessions.
Whilst staying at Urban House asylum seekers have access to Asylum Help, which has an office and caseworkers at Urban House, and is a part of Migrant Help. Migrant Help has the Home Office contract to provide information on the asylum process to asylum seekers. People outside of the IAC can contact Migrant Help through a Freephone helpline. The helpline offers information in a wide range of languages – however, there is often a long wait for calls to be dealt with.
South West Yorkshire Trust (SWYT) NHS has a nurse’s office at Urban House, and is open Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm. The service includes nursing staff and a prescribing nurse. Whilst at Urban House asylum seekers are offered health checks and basic medical needs are dealt with. People are only at the IAC for a short time and are not registered with a GP in Wakefield. Once people are dispersed to other areas they are registered with GP; their medical information is sent to the GP, and if they need specialist treatment or to see a consultant, the GP will make arrangements. If there is a medical emergency whilst people are at Urban House, normal procedures apply.
Whilst at Urban House asylum seekers do not receive cash benefits. When asylum seekers are dispersed to accommodation procured by G4S, it is referred to as NASS (National Asylum Seekers Support) accommodation. When people are dispersed, they start to receive NASS benefits, which is currently £36.95 per week, per person. These benefits are to cover food, toiletries, clothes and basic necessities, and can be collected from the Post Office using an identity card called an ARC card; the card act like a debit card. Asylum seekers are not permitted to open bank accounts; they can only open bank accounts once they have leave to remain in the country – when they become Refugees.
The Urban Housing, Asylum Help and the Health staff do everything they can to be welcoming and supportive. However, though the Home Office offers asylum, at times state policies creates a hostile environment.