Housing in a Hostile Environment

Note1-

On the 27th of July 2018, Serco Group, a private landlord subcontracted by the UK Home Office, announced plans to evict some 330 newly granted refugees and refused asylum seekers in Glasgow. This was to happen by means of a seven-day Notice to Quit, after which time locks on the properties would be changed. An email announcing this plan was sent out to charitable organizations and statutory agencies on the 27th, with the roll-out due to commence Monday 30th and the first locks to be changed a week later. Following public outcry and demonstrations, Serco has climbed down from this position, giving twenty-one days before continuing any action to allow for hearings for interim interdicts brought at the Sheriff’s Court. Despite there being no homeless shelters in Glasgow for asylum seekers from the 30th of August in Glasgow, CEO Rupert Soames has claimed that this doesn’t represent a humanitarian crisis for the city, as if staggering evictions somehow mitigates their overall effect.[1]

The problem has been brewing for a long time. When asylum seekers are refused, they are no longer eligible for any support under the Immigration Act 1999. Appeals or fresh claims can be lodged but these can take months or years to process, during which time asylum seekers are not entitled to financial help (£36.95 a week) or accommodation. By the same token, Serco is ineligible for its fee of £11.71 – paid by the Home Office per head per day – for the refused asylum seekers they house. Therefore, a person who was previously a revenue stream is now a liability. If there are 330 ‘over-stayers’, as Serco refers to them, this would lead to approximately an £1,410,470 annual loss for the company.

Despite the rhetoric of ‘humanity, decency and welfare’[2], Serco needs to turn a profit. As Soames admits, the 330 ‘over-stayers’ Serco wants to clear from its books are not just loss-makers: they are also blocking profits that could be reaped from the 180 new asylum seekers arriving in the city each month. It is perhaps unsurprising that, as far as Soames is concerned, the loss-making ‘over-stayers’ are ‘bogus asylum seekers’ while the new arrivals for whom Serco will be paid are ‘genuine’ – at least until their applications are rejected. Such a blend of free-market ‘common sense’, fine-grained anti-immigrant sentiment, and corporate inhumanity is found throughout the Serco operation. One particular housing manager in Glasgow is prone to include a running count of days that a given resident has been in the property after their Home Office support has been terminated: e.g. ‘X is an ex-service user, who Serco has allowed to stay in our property for 216 days, as a gesture of goodwill.’

The Rent Scotland Act 1984 prohibits eviction of tenants without due process of law, so long as the occupier continues to reside in the premises. However, an amendment to this devolved act removes such legal protections in the case of asylum seekers and refugees, if they are supported under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This amendment is clearly designed to exclude asylum-seeking residents from due process. Therefore, ill treatment, neglect and abuses of asylum-seekers should not be seen as inadvertent side effects of the system, but rather its intended outcome. No provision was ever made for homelessness and destitution, despite the fact that around 68% of initial asylum applications are typically refused, and those 68% are automatically threatened with eviction at refusal. [3] 

The Asylum Seeker Housing Project (ASH)[4], set up in 2014, has been running a dedicated Preventing Evictions service since January 2018, which currently supports over ninety asylum seekers who have been threatened with eviction. ASH has recorded many examples of lock changes and evictions by intimidation preceding Serco’s 27th July announcement, suggesting an earlier ad hoc strategy of picking off the vulnerable one by one. Tactics used to bully people out of their homes include: restriction of electricity and gas; housing officer intimidation and harassment, including multiple unannounced visits, calls and notes; and threats to turn up with binbags to remove people’s belongings (see above image).

This is not to suggest that treatment and standards for ‘genuine’ asylum seekers are even close to acceptable. ASH has found that standards do not meet those expected of private sector housing, with clients routinely placed in the most deprived areas of Glasgow, in areas where racist violence and abuse occurs and where pressure on local statutory services is already high. Asylum seekers, some with children, can be placed in properties that are dirty, infested and in buildings where the main stairwell has no door and is frequented by drug users. Repairs can take weeks, months or even years. Housing officers can be rude, aggressive and hostile, with numerous recorded examples of Serco staff regularly entering properties with keys and without the contractually required warnings.  This has occurred in households where the ASH Project has agreed with Serco that only female housing officers should visit the property, because of traumas suffered by female residents who have survived sexual violence and/or trafficking. These agreements have been repeatedly violated, with up to three male housing officers entering properties, sometimes when a resident is showering, sometimes when she is asleep.

Although Serco’s announcement has generated shock and outrage, the plans to evict 330 asylum seekers by simply changing their locks is the direct result of the privatisation of housing provision for asylum seekers and the removal of due process, financial support and accommodation for refused asylum seekers. Because of this relentless paring back of rights, legal protections and entitlements, we have reached the stage where Serco can call its plan to throw 330 people on the streets ‘the move-on pathway’ without it catching in their throats.

The disgraceful conditions that asylum seekers must endure are not regrettable anomalies, and the cruelties they face are not the conclusions of some fair and natural justice. These are the symptoms of a toxic system explicitly designed to create a hostile, inhumane environment – at least for asylum seekers, if not for multinational corporations with lucrative government contracts.

 

[1] Aitken, Susan; O’Donnell, Anne-Marie. Letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Glasgow City Council (31 July 2018; https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=23035).

[2] Soames, Rupert. Statement by Serco on Asylum Seeker accommodation in Glasgow. Serco (4 August 2018; https://www.serco.com/news/media-releases/2018/statement-by-serco-on-asylum-seeker-accommodation-in-glasgow).

[3] It is worth noting that of these 68% who are initially refused, 42% of these are successful on appeal. Because applicants must submit entirely new evidence for appeals or fresh claims, it is essential that they should have a secure home and financial support. The UK Home Office has been found to refuse initial applications at a higher rate than the European average, rejecting large numbers in quota/lottery system. Those rejected are then forced into destitution and homeless, making it even more difficult to lodge appeals or fresh claims.

[4] ASH was set up to address the appalling standards and helps asylum-seeking residents understand their rights and responsibilities, reports repairs and harassment and supports those faced with eviction. Our evidence to EHCR can be accessed here and Room for Improvement, a video documenting standards made by asylum seeking volunteers, can be viewed here.