The new frontline for the hostile environment is Glasgow. The city is on the verge of a “humanitarian crisis” after outsourcing giant Serco announced an unprecedented eviction programme, which could eventually force up to 300 asylum seekers onto the streets with nowhere to go. It plans to do this by changing the locks on the doors of the asylum seekers’ homes, starting with 18 people served with 21-days’ notice.
Strict Home Office rules have left the local council paralysed to intervene. Locals are scrambling to find emergency solutions to the crisis so the “refuweegees” at risk can be protected by the city they have sought safety in.
Serco manages a variety of government contracts from defence to health care, and also houses thousands of asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow and across the UK on behalf of the Home Office. In a dramatic change of policy, it has now said it will no longer provide assistance for “failed asylum seekers” and is set to undertake a programme of evictions.
The justification for this mass eviction provided by Serco is that the Home Office doesn’t fund it to provide for those who are no longer considered asylum seekers. As a result, the company pays for the accommodation of failed asylum seekers out of its own pocket, which it says amounts to more than a million pounds a year. In a letter to politicians, Serco CEO Rupert Soames said: “We are put into the impossible position of having to make the choice of paying for people’s accommodation ourselves, or making them homeless and destitute.”
The letter states that Serco will change the locks of up to ten people a week, whom the Home Office has said no longer have the right to remain in the country.
Politicians and activists close to the asylum seeker community in Glasgow are battling against this decision.
First, they argue, evictions on this scale will only swell the homeless population of the city, and trigger a spiral of destitution and depression.
But secondly, campaigners maintain that despite what the Home Office thinks, many of these people are too desperate to return to their home country. Lots of those identified as “failed” asylum seekers are very vulnerable people who have fallen victim to a catalogue of Home Office errors. Indeed, while the Home Office grants 37 per cent of applications for asylum at the initial stage, this rises to 52 per cent after appeal, according to 2017 government figures. Those rejected include applicants from countries like Iraq, which the Foreign Office regards as too dangerous to travel to, but the Home Office judges safe: the UK initially rejects 88 per cent of cases from this country.
Asylum seekers can then go on to appeal to higher courts, such as the Court of Appeal in England and Wales, or the Court of Session in Scotland. When appeals are heard in higher courts, judges commonly overturn Home Office decisions on human rights grounds: in 2017, for example, UK courts granted 87 per cent of the appeals it heard from those fleeing torture and repression in Eritrea. Refugee charities in Glasgow have said that many asylum seekers are forced to navigate the complex system with poor legal advice, and many simply miss strict appeal deadlines or struggle to prepare to effectively prepare their case for proper review.
In a newsletter update about the Serco evictions, Robina Qureshi of Positive Action in Housing wrote: “Today’s refused asylum seeker could be granted leave to remain tomorrow.” She pointed to the example of a Glasgow-based Iraqi family forced to wait 18 years to have their asylum claim resolved. The charity says many of those affected are still pursuing legal cases.
It is the Home Office that tells Serco that an asylum application has been unsuccessful, and that funding will stop. It says it continues to fund asylum seekers until they have exhausted all options in the courts. In practice, though, it has disregarded court judgements and illegally deported asylum seekers, and deported asylum seekers while their claim was ongoing.
In short, the difference between a failed asylum seeker and a refugee can often be narrow, and the system that determines the difference is structured against the applicant. A recent Glasgow-based case underlines how narrow the difference between an asylum seeker and a failed asylum seeker can be. Vietnamese Duc Kein was trafficked to work on an illegal cannabis farm, and was discovered during a police raid. While serving time in prison, Kein applied for asylum on the basis that he needed protection from the gangs. A Home Office competent authority also concluded that there were reasonable grounds to think he was a victim of trafficking.
The Home Office nevertheless tried to deport Kein, and it was only public pressure that forced the department to accept an appeal from his legal team before he could be boarded on a flight to Vietnam. Although he is no longer detained at Dungavel, the Scottish equivalent of the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, Kein still faces an uncertain future.
A Home Office spokesman said that asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute were provided wtih free accommodation while their applications were considered. “While an asylum claim or an appeal is outstanding, we would not be seeking removal,” he said. “If the courts have decided that someone has no right to remain in the United Kingdom, it is right that they should leave the UK.
“However if an asylum claim has failed, we will still provide accommodation for those who would otherwise be destitute and who are temporarily unable to leave the UK because of a practical or legal obstacle.”
Council officials say they received only a last-minute warning about Serco’s decision to evict the failed asylum seekers (Serco disputes this, and says it agreed protocols with Glasgow Council). Strict asylum rules mean those who seek refuge have “no recourse to public funds”, and the local authority say it means they are completely unable to provide even basic emergency shelter for those who could be displaced by the eviction programme.
The company’s policy change in Glasgow could also be replicated across the rest of the UK: Serco’s own literature boasts that it houses some 5,000 asylum seekers in the north west of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
After the announcement was made public, a cross-party coalition quickly formed to condemn the decision, and councils officials briefed the media that the city was on the verge of a “humanitarian crisis” because even Glasgow’s unusually large network of asylum support groups would be unable to find emergency accommodation for those displaced.
Immigrant rights campaigners, though, believe Serco and the Home Office have picked the wrong city to do battle with. Glasgow once famously renamed the street home to the South African embassy as Nelson Mandela Place, effectively forcing all apartheid-era mail to the embassy to bear the name of the imprisoned African freedom fighter.
Glasgow North East MP and shadow Scotland minister Paul Sweeney drew comparisons to the legendary housing justice campaigner Mary Barbour, who led the UK’s best-known rent strikes in Glasgow in 1915 and organised tenant resistance groups, comprised mainly of women, which forcefully prevented evictions by “any means necessary”.
“My office is working to find out if any of my constituents will be affected, and we would be prepared to occupy and stop these evictions,” he said. “It reminds me of that old Mary Barbour slogan, ‘God help the sheriff officer who enters here.’
“We need to take this to the next level and challenge the government’s hostile environment.”
As the scandal of the Windrush generation slips out of the public consciousness, the spirit reflected by Glasgow may present an opportunity for the next chapter to be written in the fight against the government’s brutal immigration policies.