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Gaslighting of refugees – Serco style

Today, Thursday 2 May 2019, Govan Law Centre will lodge its appeal against the Court of Session judgement  on lock change evictions. The City Council Taskforce Forum on asylum housing will also be meeting in Glasgow City Chambers with Serco. We hope they put Serco in the dock for their latest actions, intimidating refugees to leave their accommodation by sending out “eviction letters” and calling it an information drive to the newspapers, and then admitting these are eviction letters. We are calling on Serco to suspend these evictions pending the Court of Session appeal.

In the last few days, several asylum seekers have come into our office in Glasgow with letters from Rupert Soames’ Serco organisation, telling them to leave their accommodation immediately. We expected this course of action at some point but were still surprised given Serco’s publicly stated position: they would not take any immediate action to evict after the Court of Session judgement last month, and they would consult with “key partners”.

We circulated redacted versions of the letters that refugees and asylum seekers received. The wording was clear.

“We refer to the letter from the Home Office (UKVI) and our letter dated (redacted) confirming that the Occupancy Agreement regarding the above property was terminated as a consequence of your support being terminated by the Home Office (UKVI). The Occupancy Agreement has now ended. The date by which you were required to leave your accommodation, (redacted), is in the past. You should now leave the property. When you do so, please return all keys to either your housing officer or Compass SNI Limited and advise them that you have left. Please leave goods belonging to Compass SNI Limited in the property and take your personal belongings with you”

When two journalists contacted Serco’s press office, they were told that these letters were “part of an ongoing information drive” and “no action” was being taken. When it was pointed out that Positive Action in Housing had circulated copies of the letters to the press, Serco’s press office immediately changed its tune and admitted that these were eviction letters, and not “part of an information drive”.

This is nothing more than abuse of power and the gaslighting of refugees.

And herein lies the problem, which we hoped that Lord Tyre and the Court of Session would address and clear up once and for all. And if its not sorted it will result in misery, intimidation and harassment over the next decade for hundreds of vulnerable people turfed out of their only homes without a proper eviction process to rely on.

An ordinary eviction letter tells you your rights, gives you a time period specified by law to leave and advises sources of support. If you don’t leave, there is recourse to the law, a court order can be used to evict the person, and sheriff officers oversee the physical removal of the person and can call in police for back up if necessary.

In the absence of such a process, private asylum landlords are making it up as they go along. Serco promised to act reasonably in the Court of Session, to not evict anyone yet and to consult “key partners” about removals. Yet it did no such thing.

Instead they wrote letters to vulnerable people telling them to leave their accommodation “now”. Serco failed to tell vulnerable people what limited rights they have. They mentioned nothing about Section 4 support or recourse to a First Tier Tribunal if support was withdrawn – which could take months. And they did not consult City council “key partners” or a single refugee organisation working on the ground as promised.

Without an eviction procedure defined by law, frightened individuals are being placed in a state of fear and alarm by unannounced visits to their accommodation from Serco staff, using spare sets of keys. You have people terrified of leaving their only homes in case Serco changes their locks while they are out. You have a woman pleading for someone to donate her a locked wardrobe so Serco staff can’t rifle through her personal belongings looking for home Office letters or asking personal questions that are nothing to do with them. This is the depths we have reached. We know now from this debacle that vulnerable people cannot trust anything that their asylum landlord is telling them – of course the asylum landlord, whether Serco or Mears Group is paid by the Home Office to carry out a contract.

There are 4,800 asylum seekers in Glasgow right now. We have the biggest asylum population in the UK. By the end of the year there could be 5,000. 300 are facing immediate destitution or homelessness, and contrary to Serco-myth, they are not fully refused, they still have rights of appeal, or evidence they are trying to get from their country of origin. There is a further ten-year programme for asylum dispersal to Glasgow starting from September 2019. Mears Group, the new asylum landlord from September 2019, has confirmed that it is “obliged to conform to the requirements set out in the asylum accommodation contracts”, despite saying they would use a new approach to evictions. We are talking about a rolling programme of destitution in this city and a process of intimidation and harassment being established as the default eviction process. Two years ago I asked a senior police officer what would happen if a person felt they were being intimidated or harassed in their accommodation by their landlord without a court order. What would such an eviction process look like before the police intervened? I was told not to drag the police into a landlord matter. Whose side are the police on? Do asylum seekers in this city have any right not to be intimidate or harassed? Is this the kind of society we want?

More than 95% of all destitute cases we see are of people who are in the middle of trying to get legal resolution of their asylum case. Instead of leaving people destitute, we should be insisting that asylum seekers be allowed to work while they wait for their legal decisions from a notoriously inefficient home office. This would  release them from this enforced destitution and poverty. By working they stand on their own two feet, can rent from somewhere privately and not depend on an asylum landlord for a roof over their head. By working they can pay taxes and contribute to this country instead of feeling useless, they can regain their self-esteem and rebuild their lives.

Robina Qureshi

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