Asylum housing, Scotland (Jenny Wicks)Sarah had fled persecution in Africa to make a safer life for herself and her son in Glasgow. It can be hard for people who have applied for asylum to build a life while they are still waiting for a decision that will determine their whole future – but Sarah had managed it. Her five-year-old son was settling into the local school, and she was attending college. They had been placed in a flat in a pleasant part of town, and while it was a bit dilapidated, they made it their own.
Then came the bombshell. The housing provider called to say they would have to share the tiny flat with some strangers, who were going to be moving in the same day.
“Where do I even begin?” says Sarah. “With only ten minutes’ notice they brought another family, a woman with a three-year-old, to share our flat, which is only two-bedroomed, more like one and a half. It was totally disturbing, it disturbed my college and it disturbed my son’s school routine. We had to share private spaces like the kitchen and bathroom. It was so complicated that sometimes my son ended up going hungry.”
“I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like that again. I don’t trust them.”
Across the UK, the Home Office has contracted three services giants – Serco, G4S and Clearel – to provide housing for people who are applying for asylum. The horror stories are legion, from tales like Sarah’s about having to share with total strangers to people with no keys to get into their buildings. Housing officers were reported to be entering flats with no warning, and people were being put in flats with problems from infestations to a lack of hot water or heating.
image: Jenny WicksIn Scotland, Serco is responsible for providing accommodation and in turn has subcontracted the work to private letting company Orchard and Shipman. Scottish Refugee Council has just published an extensive report detailing our research into asylum housing in Scotland, and the results make disheartening reading for anyone who rightly believes that people fleeing persecution deserve protection rather than punishment.
The case studies in the report include a pregnant mother with a baby whose bedroom ceiling was leaking for months; a mother with a child with special needs who was housed in a part of Glasgow far away from the child’s nursery and doctor; another mother forced to live in shared housing whose requests to move due to racist abuse were ignored; and a man who was called a ‘criminal’ by his housing officer and was locked out of his accommodation and his few possessions confiscated.
Time and time again we have been told that the housing conditions experienced by our clients, who have often experienced severe trauma, are not only grim, but also add to their stress and suffering. Imagine that you have been tortured or experienced sexual violence and you have no lock on your door… What’s more, often when people complain to the housing provider, they are ignored, or even on occasion faced with abusive responses.
The case studies in our report speak for themselves, and we are calling for a review of asylum housing provision in Scotland, a call that has been backed by the Scottish Government as well as the Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter Scotland and the Scottish Association of Landlords, which represents private landlords in Scotland.
While asylum is an issue reserved to Westminster, housing is devolved, and our report highlights an urgent need for the Home Office to apply Scottish housing standards to the accommodation for the asylum seekers they disperse to Scotland.
But we also recognise that many of the problems we were told about in Scotland are symptomatic of wider malaise in UK asylum housing provision. From the extensive work of John Grayson uncovering the woeful housing provision by G4S in Yorkshire to an investigation of asylum housing in Liverpool earlier this year, it’s abundantly clear that the way in which asylum housing is provided across the UK as a whole is flawed and needs to be addressed urgently.
The sector's commercialisation has meant the move away from providers who understand the particular needs of this group – in Scotland accommodation previously was provided by Glasgow City Council and YPeople, not always perfectly, but with far better insight into a fragile group of people. Companies such as Serco and G4S tend to lack both empathy and specialism in this area, and the results are dire.
G4S staff, in fact, have been shown to be responsible globally for the deaths of at least two people seeking asylum – AngolanJimmy Mubenga in the UK, and Iranian Reza Barati, who was trying to get to Australia. With accusations also of sexual abuse at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre by Serco staff, it seems astonishing that the UK Government deems these companies suitable to look after the ultra-vulnerable.
The money motive seems to have become so accepted that the merest hint of a saving (and Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee has made it quite clear that the Home Office has failed to make anything like the savings that the new contracts were intended to make) is enough for our Government to ditch mercy and compassion.
If anything, it suits them to have “asylum seekers” as a group regarded as the lowest of the low and deny them of their humanity, as this ‘othering’ allows them to treat them in a way that they would not attempt to treat British citizens.
But as our report shows, these people are not an abstract other. They are real people, who have been through more than most of us will ever know, being treated unacceptably. Their treatment is morally unacceptable, but it’s also unacceptable when measured against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and European human rights and asylum legislation and guidance.
As well as a Scottish review of asylum accommodation, we are urging a UK-wide look at the commercialisation and non-specialisation of asylum housing provision as a whole, and believe that there is a pressing need to overhaul a system that is not fit for purpose.