THE multi-national corporation Serco, which provides housing to asylum seekers, has been accused of trying to force refused refugees – including families with children – out of their homes using harassment and bullying rather than the eviction process laid down by Scottish law.
The claims come from leading Scottish refugee and migrant charity, Positive Action in Housing. Charity director, Robina Qureshi, has written to Serco to outline her concerns after refused refugees said they were being “intimidated” and “harassed” through unannounced visits by housing officers, and demands for them to leave properties despite them having nowhere else to go. Cases included that of a single mother with daughters aged six and nine, who were both born in the UK. Serco denies Qureshi’s claims.
Serco has a Home Office contract to provide housing to asylum seekers in Glasgow. It initially outsourced work worth £60m to housing provider Orchard & Shipman. In 2016, Serco took over direct control of the contract after the accommodation was branded “a disgrace” by politicians and campaigners. The company – overseen by Winston Churchill’s grandson Rupert Soames – has signed a contract with the Home Office until 2019.
There are long-running concerns over what happens to refused asylum seekers. The Home Office stops support and says they should return to their country of origin. Many say they fear being killed, tortured or imprisoned on return to their home country. Campaigners claim Home Office decision-making is often poor with up to 47 percent of asylum seekers eventually winning appeals.
Previous providers Orchard & Shipman, under Serco’s management, were condemned for changing door locks on the flats of refused asylum seekers to remove them. In November this year charities believed they had reached agreement with Serco to follow Scottish housing law in attempts to evict residents no longer being supported by the Home Office.
However, Qureshi claims new tactics to remove them include repeated unannounced visits – only allowed in the contract Serco has with the Home Office in “emergency situations” – during which housing officers and maintenance staff have sometimes used their own keys to gain entry. Several people said they had been sleeping or in the bath at the time leaving them feeling vulnerable and scared.
Two couples recently refused said Serco officers told them to pack and leave with immediate effect leaving them deeply distressed. A spokesman for Serco refuted this, claiming that they would already have received notice to quit 21 days in advance. “The suggestion that our housing officers tell people to leave immediately is untrue,” he added. Both couples appealed their asylum decision making them eligible for housing and support once more.
Others were told they would have to leave by housing officers or were left handwritten notes by officers though no official paperwork was provided. Copies were seen by the Sunday Herald but Serco said it would need time to investigate.
One woman was told by her flatmate a Serco housing officer came while she was out and went through personal belongings including her underwear drawer and private papers. Another man said housing officers inspected all his possessions including food cupboards questioning the amount of chicken, donated by the Mosque, in his freezer. All said it felt intimidating and unsettling.
Qureshi said: “From the reports we have received, we are concerned that Serco may be attempting to coerce or intimidate people into leaving their accommodation without following due process or seeking court orders.
“Serco residents who are about to be evicted are amongst the most vulnerable of our client groups. They may be completely isolated or on their own with young children, and they face the prospect of street destitution because they are not entitled to homelessness support or to seek work or claim benefits. It is having a damaging effect on people’s mental health with some people telling us they have considered suicide as an alternative to having to leave their accommodation for the street. People feel there is no protection when they are that frightened.”
Shafiq Mohammed, of the Asylum Seeker Housing (ASH) project, said it was currently supporting 60 refused asylum seekers who it believed Serco was trying to “illegally” evict from its accommodation. Details shared with the Sunday Herald included cases of repeated and unannounced visits made by housing officers and “aggressive” demands to leave which in one case it described as “orchestrated harassment”. Serco refutes such claims.
“Serco is attempting to intimidate and bully people out of flats,” he added. “Recent examples include a service user being shouted and bawled by a Serco Housing Officer for 30 minutes and told to leave the property immediately, others receiving numerous calls and visits from Serco staff, properties being entered with keys and notes being left in the flat instructing service users to leave the property. We believe that these tactics are illegal … under the terms of the Rent (Scotland) Act.”
The Scottish Refugee Council also confirmed that it was aware of similar reports. Graham O’Neill, policy officer, said: “These reports of intrusive conduct are very worrying. There is nothing in the contract between the Home Office and Serco to deliver this public service that permits such invasions of privacy. Unless there is a genuine emergency, there needs to be very good reasons and appropriate notice given before entry to someone’s home. In November last year, Serco assured the refugee sector in Scotland that they would adhere to a new and clear process for repossession of asylum accommodation.”
MP Stuart McDonald, SNP spokesman on immigration, said: “It is disturbing to hear yet further reports of very poor treatment of people and families by the companies paid to provide asylum accommodation. It is absolutely clear that the whole asylum accommodation system is not fit for purpose.” He said the UK government should halt its current tendering process on future asylum housing contracts.
A spokeswoman for Police Scotland confirmed that it had been contacted in regard to claims. She added: “If a criminal act has been committed people can be assured it will be investigated fairly and in accordance with Scottish Law. Harassment which constitutes a criminal offence will be investigated irrespective of whether you are an asylum seeker or not.”
A spokesman for Serco said: “Any suggestion that ‘Serco is trying to “illegally” evict people from the accommodation by “intimidating” people to leave is completely untrue. By definition they have all been refused the right to remain in this country and with that refusal their rights to free accommodation are also ended. Serco has continued to house them at our expense until they leave of their own volition or we gain a Court Order to evict them. All of this process is completely legal.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “These allegations are deeply concerning and that is why Scottish Ministers have repeatedly called on the Home Office to investigate any complaints of harassment. Asylum seekers, many of whom have endured great hardship and are particularly vulnerable, should be treated with dignity and respect at all stages of the asylum process.”
The spokeswoman from the Home Office said support and housing was available for all those with active asylum claims who would otherwise be destitute.
‘THEY CAME INTO THE HOUSE WHILE I WAS BATHING’
NAHLA Hamad, 35, lives in a Serco flat in Glasgow with her two daughters, aged six and nine, who were both born in Scotland. Her application for asylum has been refused but she is waiting the result of her husband’s claim, on which she and her daughters are listed as dependents. Her lawyer claims that as her oldest daughter has lived in the UK for over 7 years she meets immigration requirements.
The couple separated last year, in part due to stress from both their asylum claims being refused. An application for support was terminated by the Home Office in August 2016. The Home Office offered emergency support on the condition that she take steps to leave the country but she says cannot do so as she fears violence if she returns to Jordan. Though authorities claim she must leave the flat, she says she has nowhere else to go. In October last year she was so depressed she attempted suicide.
Since 2016, she claims, Serco has harassed the family to leave the flat with housing officers and maintenance staff turning up without appointments, sometimes entering the house while she is in, and noting down her possessions which feels intimidating. She claims repair men have repeatedly entered using copies of keys and has audio recordings to back up her complaints. Last year she raised concerns and said she was reassured it would not happen again. “A couple of weeks later I was having my bath and someone came in,” she said. “I thought it was my husband. But after five minutes I heard the door opening and closing again and the person going away. I called my husband. He said it wasn’t him.”
Frightened, she changed the locks and added a chain. Serco said this is not allowed. In February they visited her when she was napping. Serco claims she was notified by a letter that they were coming, she insists she did not receive one. “They screamed ‘open the door, open the door’,” she said. “My stomach dropped. I thought it was a dawn raid. When I opened the door [my housing officer] said: ‘why do you have a chain on the door?’ She had a screwdriver and she took it off and came into the flat, very arrogant and started taking note of all my things.”
Days later she was out volunteering when she received an urgent call to meet her housing officer. She returned home and had a meeting during which she was told her she would have to leave the flat while her oldest daughter was a home. Though the child was in her bedroom she heard everything and was left crying and afraid.
Last week Hamad returned home with her youngest daughter to find locks had been changed by NG Homes who own the property, which due to a lack of information she initially thought had been carried out by Serco. When she contacted housing officers she claims she was told that this had been done because she had been evicted, which later emerged to be untrue.
NG Homes said it had to enter the property to carry out emergency work but would have acted with more sensitivity had it understood the background. Lynn Cooper, assistant director of housing services, said: “We have had discussions with Serco regarding this particular case and made it clear that we expect anyone living in an NG homes property should be treated fairly and respectfully and we have asked that they investigate these claims fully.”
Robina Qureshi wrote to complain to Serco and received replies from chief executive Rupert Soames who expressed “surprise” that Hamad had not said “thank-you to Serco” for allowing her to stay in the accommodation. Qureshi added: “Nahla’s daughters have become insecure and slept with their mother since [finding out they must leave]. Serco is harassing her out without seeking legal recourse which means she has no protection.”
Jenni Halliday, Serco’s contract director, said: “In August 2016, this family was given notice by the Home Office that their application for asylum had been refused. Accordingly, they no longer had the right to stay in the UK, and the Home Office stopped paying Serco to provide them with their accommodation.
“However, rather than immediately telling the family to leave the property, Serco wanted to give the family every chance to make alternative arrangements, and for the last 18 months we have allowed them to stay on in their flat, and during this time we have been paying for their rent, rates, electricity, heating, insurance and other services. Whilst we are sympathetic to this family’s plight, we would point out that there are many thousands of people in Glasgow who would like someone else to pay for their housing and utilities; we believe we have been more than supportive of this family, but cannot go on paying for their housing forever.
“We have investigated the allegations of unprofessional behaviour and believe they are not true. We also note that this lady has without our permission changed the locks on the property, which she has no right to do, and this makes it difficult for us to inspect and ensure the safety of the property.”