By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Asylum seekers in the northern English town of Middlesbrough are suffering abuse because they have been housed in properties that almost all have red front doors, making them easy targets for racists, the Times newspaper reported on Wednesday.
The houses are owned by a subcontractor of G4S, the outsourcing giant which has been embroiled in a series of scandals over alleged incompetence and abuses. A spokesman for G4S said the subcontractor, Jomast, would repaint the doors.
Asylum seekers living in the Middlesbrough houses described having eggs and stones thrown at their windows, dog excrement smeared on their doors and racist jibes shouted at them, the Times said in its report.
Britain has not received migrants in the same huge numbers that arrived in other European countries last year, but public concerns over immigration are running high and tensions have risen in many communities with high concentrations of migrants.
Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said he had ordered an urgent audit of housing for asylum seekers in northeast England, which is provided by G4S under a government contract.
"If we find any evidence of discrimination against asylum seekers it will be dealt with immediately as any such behavior will not be tolerated," Brokenshire said in a statement.
The Times quoted Ahmad Zubair, from Afghanistan, as saying he had repainted his front door white to stop the abuse, but a Jomast worker had repainted it red citing company policy.
"Asylum houses have red doors. Everyone knows that," Zubair was quoted as saying. "People were shouting outside the house, calling us hate words, throwing things at our windows."
Andy McDonald, the member of parliament representing Middlesbrough, told the newspaper the red doors were "a way of marking people out that is reprehensible", while his predecessor Ian Swales said they reminded him of "Germany in the 1930s".
Stuart Monk, owner and managing director of Jomast, said paint was bought in bulk for use at all its properties as was common practice among landlords.
STRING OF SCANDALS
"It is ludicrous to suggest that this constitutes any form of discrimination, and offensive to make comparisons to a policy of apartheid in Nazi Germany," he said in a statement.
Local police declined to comment because they are not required to keep statistics that break out hate crime as a separate category.
The Times said it had identified 168 houses owned by Jomast of which 155 had red doors. Reporters spoke to people living at 66 of the properties with red doors and found that 62 of them housed asylum seekers of 22 nationalities.
The G4S spokesman said Jomast accepted that the majority of houses where asylum seekers lived had red doors, and had agreed to repaint them so that there would be no dominant color.
The Times said Middlesbrough had one asylum seeker for every 173 residents, the highest concentration anywhere in Britain.
The Home Office, or interior ministry, said its guidelines were that no area should have more than one asylum seeker for every 200 residents and it was "working closely with G4S to implement a reduction program" in Middlesbrough.
G4S is one of the largest private employers in the world, with around 611,000 employees in more than 100 countries. It is the world's largest security company and has annual revenues of 6.8 billion pounds ($9.63 billion).
The firm failed to provide enough security guards for the London 2012 Olympics and the army had to fill the gap. In 2013, it admitted overcharging on a British government contract to tag criminals by billing for some who were dead or not tagged.
Earlier this month it said it had fired four workers over alleged use of unnecessary force and improper language at a British training center for young offenders.
In Australia, officials slammed G4S over staff's handling of a deadly riot at an immigration detention center in 2014.
With criticism mounting, then CEO Nick Buckles stood down in 2013 after eight years. He was replaced by Ashley Almanza, who was relatively new to G4S and has kept a lower profile.
Shares in the firm were down 2.8 percent in mid morning trading on Wednesday, giving it a market valuation of 3.3 billion pounds.
(Additional reporting by Li-mei Hoang and Kate Holton; Editing by Toby Chopra and Giles Elgood)