Glasgow city council is setting up a task force to deal with a potential humanitarian crisis if the private housing provider Serco goes ahead with plans to lock hundreds of asylum seekers whose claims have been initially rejected by the Home Office out of their homes, leaving them destitute.
The council’s leader, Susan Aitken, wrote to the home secretary, Sajid Javid, for the second time on Tuesday, asking him to intervene, after Serco – which provides accommodation for asylum seekers on behalf of the Home Office – notified the first six of those affected that their locks would be changed within seven days.
In a strongly-worded response late on Wednesday, Serco denied that it planned to make 300 people immediately homeless, saying that it planned to give notice to “no more than six single adult males this week and 12 the next”.
However, it acknowledged that was currently paying for accommodation for 330 people who were no longer receiving support from the Home Office.
Charities dismissed this as damage limitation and argue that many are pursuing legal cases that could overturn the initial decisions.
Hundreds joined a protest against the plans in Glasgow city centre on Tuesday evening. Homemade placards saying “hospitality not hostility” and “Scotland welcomes refugees” were raised.
As condemnation of Serco’s eviction plan gathered cross-party and cross-sector support, a lawyer representing the asylum seekers questioned whether the company was acting within the law. Eviction without a court order is illegal in Scotland.
Aitken’s letter pointed out that Glasgow, which has one of the largest populations of asylum seekers in the UK, receives no funding from the Westminster government’s dispersal programme.
“Glasgow has always been, and will continue to be, a willing and active partner in the resettlement of asylum seekers in Scotland,” Aitken says. “We firmly believe that the dispersal programme over the past 20 years has had a positive impact on our city. However, the scale of the proposed evictions will have a severe, and detrimental, impact on the city.”
A previous letter, signed by city council officials and Glasgow MPs from all political parties except the Scottish Conservatives, said the council was legally prevented from housing failed asylum seekers, and that local housing charities did not have the capacity to assist so many people.
Serco has said it believes its actions are legal and that it has worked closely with the council. However, the council said there had been no “meaningful engagement” with Serco about its eviction policy, something Serco denies.
Responding to the criticism in a letter on Wednesday afternoon, Rupert Soames, the Serco chief executive, wrote: “The one positive outcome of the events of recent days is that is has put very firmly on people’s agenda the nature of the crisis.
“This is that the local arrangements once Home Office support has ceased are inadequate, and 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.”
He went to to commit to giving lock-change notices to no more than 10 people a week for the next four weeks, and that none of these noticed would be served to families with children.
Robina Qureshi, of Positive Action on Housing Glasgow, a homelessness charity for refugees, said the Serco letter amounted to “little more than damage limitation”. “Nothing has changed; this was always going to be a rolling programme and it’s not going to stop after four weeks. They’ll just wait until the publicity has died down.”
She said: “Many of the asylum seekers whom Serco intends to evict are pursuing their legal cases and will have their decisions overturned on appeal. They are not failed asylum seekers – the majority are war refugees whose cases have been dragged out by the Home Office.”
Qureshi added: “Currently we are the lead agency offering crisis prevention work. We are already taking care of a residual destitute population and if we are hit with a mass eviction there will be chaos for our already over-stretched services and also frustration and anger from refugees.”
The charity said it had already been told by a number of distraught Serco residents that they had considered killing themselves. In 2010, an asylum-seeking couple and their son died at Glasgow’s Red Road flats in what was believed to have been a suicide pact, the day they were told to leave their Home Office flat.
Mike Dailly of Govan Law Centre said his solicitors were working with MPs, the local authority and charities to identify those affected, with a view to raising legal proceedings to prevent what he considers to be summary evictions.
“These are very vulnerable families living in our city and they deserve full legal protection to ensure that due process is being followed,” he said.
“We are convinced that Serco are proposing to act unlawfully. And we will be taking cases before the Scottish courts. This is a complex area of law and its very unlikely vulnerable people can just be summarily evicted in the way Serco propose. Scots common law has long since prohibited eviction without due process of law against residential occupiers.”
Since the announcement of the planned evictions, two Afghan asylum seekers who were refused refugee status have mounted a hunger strike outside the Home Office base in Glasgow. Rahman Shah, 32, and Mirwais Ahmadzai, 27, told that Guardian that they were taking such extreme action “so that the public and the Home Office hear our voices”. Shah has already received a Serco eviction notice after his asylum claim was rejected on the basis that he was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan and should be able to apply to for asylum there. But the Pakistan embassy has told him that this is not the case. Ahmadzai arrived in the UK at the age of 15 as an unaccompanied minor and has struggled with mental ill-health since. He is currently appealing his claim.
Karzan Khwarahm, 39, who has been living in Glasgow for four years after fleeing religious violence in Kurdistan, is one of those expecting to be made destitute if Serco goes ahead with its controversial plans. “I heard about it on the news, and now I am very worried. I don’t want to go outside in case people come to change the locks. If that happens, where would I go?” he said.
Although Khwarahm’s initial asylum claim was rejected, he has been working on a more comprehensive submission with his lawyer, which he will take to the Home Office centre in Liverpool on Friday. According to asylum charities, many of those Serco defines as failed asylum seekers and no longer entitled to accommodation are in a similar position, with ongoing claims and legal cases.
Khwarahm was sent to Scotland via the Home Office dispersal system, after entering the UK on a lorry from Turkey. “I would have been happy anywhere that was safe, but this situation now makes me unhappy. I still hope that one day I will find a better life. I just want to work and earn money instead of asking people for money.”
He says that he finds the empty days difficult, with time to dwell on the past, including his brother’s murder at the hands of Isis. In Kurdistan, he ran his family’s clothing business. He speaks six languages, and has volunteered for the Red Cross and the Scottish Refugee Council since living in Glasgow. “I just want to live like a human being,” he says.
- In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic violence helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org