A housing provider has announced it will resume a controversial policy to evict hundreds of asylum seekers in Glasgow, in a move charities say will leave scores of vulnerable people street homeless.
Serco, which until recently held the government contract to house asylum seekers in the Scottish city, first announced plans to evict people denied the right to remain in the UK a year ago. It had to stop implementing the new ‘lock change’ policy when a court case challenged the lawfulness of the mass evictions, which charities, campaigners and local politicians said would have disastrous consequences for asylum seekers who have nowhere else to go.
However, emboldened by a recent judgement in its favour, Serco says it can now change over locks on the homes of more than 300 people. The public service provider, which also runs detention centres including Yarl’s Wood, has stated that evictions will take place in “a phased manner” – this means that every week it will make up to 30 people street homeless until everyone has been removed in three or four months time. The first notices to this end have already been issued, hand delivered and by post on 21 June and 22 June, coinciding with the weekend when charitable organisations and law firms were closed. Serco believe it is acting in “legal certainty”, despite an appeal by Govan Law Centre and further cases brought by solicitors firm Latta & Co and by housing charity Shelter.
Glasgow already has the most acute homelessness problem in Scotland, with over 5,000 homelessness applications made in 2017-2018 – 2,000 more than in nearby Edinburgh. Worse still, those threatened with eviction by Serco are legally prevented from making homelessness applications or accessing local authority shelters due to their immigration status.
Currently the one shelter for asylum seekers in Glasgow hosts only men and has just over 20 beds. Serco has said it will give evictees 21 days notice and has made £150,000 available to local charities to help people who have nowhere else to go, but with this dividing down to just £500 a head it seems unlikely to have a significant impact. People who work directly with asylum seekers and homeless people in Glasgow believe Serco is effectively condemning 300 people to the streets, in what many say is likely to become a new ‘humanitarian crisis’.
The Asylum Seeker Housing Project (ASH) was set up in 2014 to support asylum seekers facing accommodation issues in Scotland and has run a dedicated preventing evictions service since January 2018. Director Sheila Arthur said the current crisis was ultimately the result of asylum seekers not having the same housing rights as other people in the UK, leaving them at the mercy of a private company.
“Until the law is changed, we are going to keep seeing brutal and inhumane actions such as these – no matter who holds the contract,” she said. “We call on Serco to halt the evictions with immediate effect until a solution is found – one that doesn’t involve throwing people on the streets. The Home Office should also return to financially supporting any asylum seeker who is working with a lawyer on their case to remain in UK to prevent destitution.”
Serco presided over a regime of shocking standards in the seven years it held the Home Office housing provision contract, which it finally lost in January following backlash over the lock change policy.
Charity workers say the company has shown no regard for the city as a whole by routinely placing asylum seekers in areas with the highest deprivation, higher levels of racist hate crime, the cheapest housing stock and the most pressure on statutory services. Flats can be dirty and infested, with missing or broken white goods. Serco housing officers routinely enter homes of asylum seekers with keys and without notice.
ASH volunteers spoke to one pregnant female asylum seeker, who heard men enter her home shouting while she was in the shower. The woman told ASH she could not believe the lack of concern a male Serco employee had shown for her wellbeing. “I couldn’t believe that he didn’t think: maybe this is her fear, maybe this is her trauma – a man just walking into my house,” she said. “Because of my trauma and my experiences in the past, this is what I am seeking psychological treatment for, and then this man just walks straight in.”
Towns and cities in the Midlands, North West and East of England can expect to see similar scenarios in coming years – in January, at the same time it lost the Glasgow contract, Serco won 10 years of contracts for housing provision for asylum seekers in these regions.
Against this backdrop, the immediate brutality of the evictions starts to make more sense. Serco is supported by the fact that destitution and eviction are written into Asylum Support legislation, which cuts off the right to accommodation and financial support with the refusal of the asylum claim – refusals which happen only too frequently, given the Home Office’s notoriously poor track record.
When a claim is refused, asylum seekers still have the right to make further claims but the Home Office will not consider any evidence submitted in previous claims. This means that with each refusal, the specificity of the evidence required increases. People fleeing war-torn countries, without surviving family or friends to contact (or none who can be contracted without exposing them to danger) cannot produce evidence in the 21 days’ notice given to leave their accommodation. Sometimes the evidence doesn’t exist: but that doesn’t mean that the claim is false.
Critically, the ability to gather evidence is severely constrained by enforced destitution and the threat of eviction. Destitution means no money to buy a bus ticket to attend a lawyer or doctor’s appointment. Destitution means being unable to contact people because you cannot top up your phone. Destitution means relying on low quality foodbank donations and occasional soup kitchen hand outs for months or years. If you are on medication, you take it on an empty stomach. Your physical and mental health will deteriorate rapidly. It is in these circumstances that you are expected to ‘gather evidence’, whilst Serco sends you ‘Notice to Quits’, sometimes every week. An ASH caseworker said many people had reported that the roof over their heads is the only thing that keeps them together.
None of this is the fault of the individual asylum seeker, nor is it because they don’t have a valid claim. One woman ASH spoke to was destitute and threatened with eviction for more than two years before the Home Office ultimately accepted that they had new, relevant evidence that required consideration. She said, “being threatened with eviction made me feel very insecure, and so stressed that it affected my physical and mental well being”. This is Home Office policy, enforced by Serco as the designated housing provider.
The practicalities of Serco’s operation remain unclear, but some level of surveillance will be required to ensure that asylum seekers have left their homes so that locks can be changed. Police Scotland have confirmed that they will not assist with evictions as these are a civil matter, but whether they can or will be held to this is another matter.
This is practice of which Serco has form – lock change evictions have been taking place on a much smaller, ad-hoc scale for years. This history tells us the Serco functions most efficiently when its processes are left vague. Exactly who is carrying out these evictions, how they will remove people who refuse to leave and exactly when they will come is unclear. Doubtless, if Serco wants to evict over 300 people before September, then it must have a clear and forceful plan of how it will do so. What cannot and should never be forgotten is the immense pain and stress that those who are threatened with lock change are undergoing – that these are people’s lives.
When Serco announced is would resume the policy, ASH called everyone it was supporting to tell them about the announcement. According to a case worker, one man simply said: “If I lose my home, I’ll kill myself”.
You can support and follow Living Rent’s campaign against the evictions here.