Timeline of Glasgow’s deadly accommodation crisis

24 June 2021

More refugees die here in the UK, in Home Office accommodation, than in Calais or trying to cross the Channel. Refugees are the world’s most resilient people. Many have crossed the Sahara desert and made it through the hell of Libya, facing unimaginable hardship to get this far. But the way we treat them in this country is cruel.

Here is a timeline of the deadly accommodation crisis in Glasgow since March 2020. It raises questions about how safe refugees and asylum seekers are under the Home Office and the Mears Group, a Gloucester based housing repairs outsourcing company subcontracted by the Home Office to provide them with accommodation.

March 2020

At the height of the Lockdown, the Mears Group uprooted hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers, including victims of trafficking, women, unaccompanied young people, from settled homes at very short notice and moved them into hotels that were emptied because of the Lockdown.

People had their daily allowance of £5.39 removed from them compulsorily. Mears said this was to avoid asylum seekers catching a virus from coins. Everyone else in Scotland and across the UK was still given the option to use cash during the pandemic, as virus transmission on coins was not thought to be a serious risk, but yet it was enforced for asylum seekers.

Questions need to be answered.

Why were the lives of refugees and asylum seekers put at risk? Why were people moved out of private dwellings during a global pandemic when non-essential travel was forbidden? Why were they forced to live in hotels with hundreds of others traumatised by their asylum journeys, where social distancing became impossible and hygiene can be maintained? Why was their daily allowance removed?

April 2020

Ersan*, an academic and his wife from Turkey, are seeking asylum in Glasgow. He described the treatment that he and his wife were subjected to:

“On an April morning, I had hardly put all the plates on our breakfast table when our phone rang. A MEARS employee uttered some words meaning we had 15 minutes to pack our stuff. She hanged up the phone. How could I tell that to my wife? I swallowed several drops of my own bitter tears without letting them out. I told to my wife as I watched her doing the same; dripping her tears down to her heart. It was the saltiest breakfast we ever had. Not because we sprinkled salt on the food. We didn’t even take a bite from anything… After 10 minutes, two MEARS employees knocked the door wearing masks, gloves, and goggles. We were given none. They asked us to bin all of the food. We did. Then we became luggages being dragged to a hostel where we would stay for “an indefinite time”. Our home was taken from us in the most needed time, in a pandemic, when the government was saying “stay home”. 5 months passed. We are still too scared to prepare breakfast. We never put breakfast on our table… We are never hungry in mornings. We had enough breakfast on that April morning. Those April tears made us only thirsty. 2020 has been full of MEARS and tears for Glasgow’s asylum seekers like us.
Every morning, we wake up with that thirst drying our lungs and hearts. No fluid can ever quench our thirst. Maybe, freedom and dignity can…”

Ersan then goes onto describe how their mental health deteriorated after their home was taken away and they were placed indefinitely in a hotel:

“A small room with a bed… Windows that do not open fully. Poor quality food being dispersed on a time table over which we had no choice… Only two washing machines for 100 people. Leaking roofs… Being left penniless in a country where we are not even allowed to work. I didn’t know for how long we would be tangled in that hostel room. On our first day in the hostel, the MEARS officer told that we would be there for an indefinite time. Is it possible for a human-being to get his head around “no certainty”? The day becomes the month becomes the year becomes the decade… Our mental faculties started to break down. Because the system, maybe unintentionally, was designed to break people as vulnerable as us. Our sense of self and identity started to fragment. Even though we stayed strong, we declined. We went from fit and capable to talking about suicide ideation. When your life is the only thing that you have choice over in the end, you’d probably contemplate it, too. Locking a traumatized person up in a hostel for an indefinite time… It just cuts through everybody’s emotional and psychological state. It just diminishes…”

May 6, 2020

Adnan Walid Elbi, a suicidal 30 year old Syrian refugee, died in Room 50 of the Maclays Hotel, Glasgow. Post-mortem results are still awaited. Documentation provided to us showed that he had been begging for help due to his deteriorating mental health after being into a hotel and suffering stomach problems because of the food in hotel and not being able to cook for himself. Why was someone in such a vulnerable state uprooted at all? Was a vulnerability assessment carried out? Why was a vulnerability assessment not carried out? Why was he left without money for essentials like bus fares and mobile data?

June 26, 2020

Six Scottish MPs walked out of a meeting with John Taylor, Chief Operating Officer of the Mears Group, citing “trust issues”. If politicians are saying they can’t trust the words of Mears, what hope do asylum seekers and their representatives have?

A few hours later, Police Scotland cited a major incident at the Park Inn Hotel, just a few doors down from our office on the same street where 91 asylum seekers were accommodated.

A Sudanese asylum seeker had been shot dead after stabbing six people in the Glasgow hotel. There was an immediate public outcry. 

How could a system that is supposed to protect the vulnerable have allowed a man with obvious mental health difficulties to be put in a situation where his problems were sure to escalate? Why were so many people, who had mainly suffered trauma as a result of their asylum journeys, been crowded into a hotel setting where social distancing was impossible?

We’ve had many concerns raised about people who were suffering mentally inside these hotel rooms. There were reports of people drinking water from the tap in the toilets and desperate for bottled water but they couldn’t buy it. They were terrified of breathing hotel air and catching a virus because the windows did not open. 

We were also told by asylum seekers that they were frightened of complaining in case Mears reported them to the Home Office and jeopardise their asylum claim. Unlike in previous years, it has been almost impossible to get asylum seekers to come forward to speak to the press about how they are being treated on the record. We were told, for example, that Mears had informed a lady that “We can phone the Home Office at any time”. What did that statement mean? At McLay’s Hotel, and the Hallmark Hotel, we were told that asylum seekers were discouraged from speaking to “outside organisations” by Mears. That asylum seekers should not ask for help outside of hotels. There appeared to be attempts to cut asylum seekers off and systematically silence people via coded words that would frighten someone trying to get their status.

June 27 2020

Positive Action in Housing formally called for an independent public inquiry into the death of Adnan Walid Elbi and the Park Inn Tragedy.

June 29, 2020

In the aftermath of Park Inn, Chris Philp, the immigration minister informed parliament that:

“the contractor, Mears, moved … 321 people from the serviced apartments into hotels because it was judged that, as the coronavirus epidemic took hold, the serviced apartments were not appropriate and not safe.”

He did not explain how the serviced apartment were more unsafe than hotels where social distancing was impossible and hygiene difficult to maintain, nor did he attempt to explain why the policy on Covid 19 was different for the rest of the population who were told the hotels would close. He went onto say:

“It was done for safety reasons, and that has been entirely borne out by the subsequent statistics. Glasgow accommodates slightly over 5,000 asylum seekers, … and during the coronavirus epidemic over the last three months or so, of those over 5,000 service users, only two have tested positive for coronavirus, and both, I am pleased to say, have fully recovered. Among those people accommodated in hotels there has not been a single confirmed case of coronavirus. So the steps being taken to safeguard the public, and to safeguard the asylum seekers in particular, have been successful.”

Again Mr Philip failed to explain how the policy of moving asylum seekers from private accommodation into hotels was safer, when the rest of the population were told hotels were too unsafe. Nor did he address the fact that there had been no mass testing of asylum seekers to ascertain who had Covid 19 or not.

(within months of this statement the Home Office confirmed that at least 122 asylum seekers caught COVID-19 – 29 in hotels. They were in 16 hotels in Leicester, Birmingham, Didsbury, Hackney, York, Wakefield, Glasgow, Newcastle, Redbridge, Hammersmith and Fulham, South Croydon, Croydon, Hounslow and Hertsmere.)

July 2020

A further humanitarian crisis was created following Park Inn as Mears staff moved people into residential homes that were often dirty or uninhabitable with very few resources to sustain themselves, little or no food, no Wi-fi and little or no money, leaving charities and volunteers and organisations to step in to pick up the pieces. Shocking not least because we are a small charity and Mears contract is worth £1.2B.

And then we came across 30 refugees and asylum seekers in the Tartan Lodge, Dennistoun who had been basically enduring what looked like slops in reused cartons for breakfast, lunch and dinner. People complained of bed bugs, of having to wash their clothes in the showers, of there being no kitchen facilities, having to drink water from the taps in the toilets, of having no money at all for basics, dirty rooms that had not been cleaned for months. People were worried about speaking out, one man told me he was told that if he complained about conditions he would be detained and then deported back to a country he is terrified of. We arranged beautiful food to be delivered twice a day after that with the help of Umran Amin, but it’s wasn’t our contract. We ran a press conference right on the door step of Tartan Lodge and the staff ridiculously tried to stop people inside from joining the press conference. But they had no choice. To think people had endured that for several months was heartbreaking. Why was this allowed to happen? 

We came across a Vietnamese asylum seeker and then others who had no mobile phone, could not speak English, and had not seen an interpreter or communicated with anyone in months. Human trafficking victims are the most vulnerable.

August/September 2021

Case Study: Three People Complained To Mears and the Home Office About Aggressive Occupants – No Action Taken

We wrote to the Home Office on August 3, about two unrelated individuals, who were each moved into the same shared accommodation in Glasgow on 30 and 31 July respectively. Each man subsequently complained about being forced to share with an in-situ occupant Y who appeared to be aggressive with a disturbing mental state. On 30 July, F refused to accept the accommodation because the other occupant Y was extremely hostile. The Mears Housing Officer acceded to his request. We lodged a complaint, but this was dismissed. On 31 July, K was moved into the same accommodation with the same occupant. He stayed one night, but was terrified that the man would attack him, and slept with a chair wedged under the door handle. He fled the flat early the next morning to return to Tartan Lodge. He was never advised by Mears that there was an outstanding complaint against Y, and it would appear that the matter was not investigated, no risk assessment had taken place. On August 3rd, 2020, we wrote to Chris Philp, the immigration minister, and the Home Office to lodge a formal complaint regarding the transfers by Mears on 30 & 31 July 2020. We wanted to know why Mears moved someone into a shared flat without checking the mental state of the other occupant, especially as we had raised concerns. Amarjit Bains, AASC Contract Delivery Director for the Mears Group, replied to us on 14 August, stating: “We don’t accept that people are being transferred in an unreasonable way … The asylum seeker mentioned in your letter, who was in situ at prior to your clients’ moves, was assessed by a Mears Housing Manager and gave no indication that he suffered from mental health problems as suggested … If Mears staff were given any indication that the resident posed a threat to any fellow residents, we would not have placed asylum seekers in the household”.

After this correspondence, a third unrelated man contacted us in September 2020, in a distressed state, saying that he was suffering from domestic violence from the man he was forced to share with. We recognised that this was the same address with the same aggressive flatmate. M says he endured 5 weeks of terror and was in a constant state of fear inside the accommodation. He says he endured bullying, physical threats, was spat upon and sworn at by the other occupant, Y. He further states that Y ordered him to clean the flat and not to leave. M became convinced the man would kill him and he was traumatised at having to stay there with him 24/7 throughout the Lockdown.

According to M’s testimony, he told Mears his concerns, but the housing officer S dismissed his concerns. M says that Migrant Help and Mears each told him there was nothing they could do. He says he felt isolated and alone. On September 19, 2020, M called the Police after a particularly vicious incident where he says he was threatened, spat upon and sworn at. The police interviewed M and advised him not to return to the property for his own safety. M stayed with another asylum seeker for three nights, who himself was jeopardising his occupancy by allowing him to stay. He returned out of desperation around 22 September. The man was not there, and he was terrified of him returning. After a week or so, Mears Housing Staff told M the man would not return, without giving any apology or explanation.

The police arrested and charged the occupant, Y. M had bad memories from the flat and requested a move.

When we advised M that he was the third occupant to have been terrified in this flat, he was shocked and asked why Mears did not inform him before moving. He was unaware, until we advised him, that there had been previous issues with the occupant Y. This matter had been raised by the service users and Positive Action in Housing with the Home Office and Mears but dismissed out of hand.

He sought an explanation as to why he was moved to an address where Mears was alerted not once, but twice before, to concerns about aggressive behaviour from the other occupant. M suffered sleepless nights and anxiety because of the fear and bullying at the address by the other occupant. The Home Office in response dismissed our concerns rather than investigate the complaint.

In light of the Park Inn tragedy, where mental illness was believed to be a factor, the cavalier attitude of Mears’ Housing Management towards people under its duty of care , and the failure of the Hone Office to make Mears accountable, is of continuing cause for concern to this charity.

August 21

GLASGOW’S seven MPs quit Home Office talks, saying they have “no confidence” in the department and its handling of a review into asylum seeker accommodation.

They urged the Home Office to launch an open investigation into the issues and share the findings with Glasgow City Council as well as the Scottish Government. They withdrew their engagement with the Home Office, saying the department would not discuss its own internal review into the matter or confirm if they could see the final report.

Chris Stephens, Alison Thewliss, Carol Monaghan, Anne McLaughlin, Stewart McDonald, Patrick Grady and David Linden said: 

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage with the Home Office in good faith. To be blunt, we have no confidence in the UK Government to take action for asylum seekers if they won’t even properly investigate what the problems are or publish their evaluation. Asylum seekers are already reporting that they feel intimidated to speak out without a representative present. Measures must be taken so they have confidence that their individual cases are not jeopardised. Offering piecemeal internal assessments completely misses the mark – and does a huge disservice to those who need constructive and meaningful action. The Home Office has cannot continue to dodge scrutiny on this. UK Government departments have a habit of hiding behind corporate language rather than taking decisive action. At the heart of this matter is people – and the Tory Government simply cannot ignore the devastating impact that this virus has had on asylum seekers in particular. We call on the Home Office to see sense and commit to a full, independent investigation, outline their process and to ensure their findings are shared with Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office said the department takes the wellbeing of those in the asylum system “extremely seriously” and added they have taken measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission during the crisis.They went on:

“We regret that these MPs have not taken the opportunity to engage with this process despite us asking to meet with them in good faith. The review has not yet concluded and we would encourage the MPs to engage constructively to help us make any necessary improvements, which we are committed to do.”

August 22

Had we not broken this story, no one would know Mercy Baguma’s name today. Neither the Home Office, Mears nor Police Scotland had issued a statement about her death. We had to piece bare information together.

Mercy Baguma was found dead by Police Scotland in the hallway of her flat in 24 Kennedar Drive in Govan, while her baby son was discovered in his cot clutching an empty milk bottle, malnourished as a result of having not eaten for several days between 18 and 22 August. Mercy and her baby were under the care of the Home Office.

We continue to be concerned about the failure of risk checks by Mears when moving human beings into shared accommodation.

September 2020

A Palestinian refugee Mohammad Al Massari contacted us. He claimed he was assaulted and intimidated by his new roommate after being moved there by Mears. He made complaints and lodged police reports, and the man was eventually moved. Mohammad says he is now too traumatised to stay there.

After he told us what happened, it became apparent that two other asylum seekers had also fled terrified from the same flat because the in situ occupant was reported to be intimidating each man. We highlighted their cases in August 2020, they were two asylum seekers who complained about being placed in accommodation with the same aggressive “flatmate”.

On 30 July, one of the asylum seekers informed their “housing officer” that he could not stay in the flat and left. Instead of investigating further, Mears moved another man to the accommodation the very next day.

That young man contacted us terrified that the occupant would attack him. He fled the flat early the next morning terrified and refused to return.

We complained about both these two incidents. On August 3rd, 2020, we wrote to the Home Office Immigration Minister Chris Philp on behalf of F and K, to lodge a formal complaint regarding the two transfers by Mears on 30 & 31 July 2020. On 8 August, We received a holding reply from Anne Kinghorn, Partnership Manager at Mears and on 14 August, we received a reply from Amarjit Bains, AASC Contract Delivery Director At Mears Group basically refuting our complaint on every level. She replied:

“We don’t accept that people are being transferred in an unreasonable way … Mears staff source suitable asylum accommodation that is safe, habitable and fit for purpose and will meet all contractual requirement and regulatory standards. I do want to reassure you that if service users raise any issues with their accommodation, either with Mears directly, or through Migrant Help, or indeed if you pass these on to us, we will always work to address these.

“The asylum seeker mentioned in your letter, who was in situ at 76 H* Street prior to your clients’ moves, was assessed by a Mears Housing Manager and gave no indication that he suffered from mental health problems as suggested. … If Mears staff were given any indication that the resident posed a threat to any fellow residents we would not have placed asylum seekers in the household. … We have now arranged alternative accommodation“

But the story does not end there.

On 28 September, a Palestinian refugee called Mohammad* contacted us for help, saying:

“My roommate … constantly terrifies me and tries to hit me. I am experiencing domestic violence from this person, but no one helped me. One of my friends advised me to call you. I’ve told the police and migrant help.”

Mohammad said Mears had moved him to a shared flat and he had been assaulted and intimidated by his new “flatmate”.

This was the third time that Mears staff had moved an unsuspecting asylum seeker into the same flat with the same aggressive “flat mate” and done nothing to deal with the situation. This was the third time that we advised them of their failure to risk assess each move.

When we informed him that two other men had already been moved into the same flat but were too terrified to stay, Mohammad was shocked. Here is his testimony, which he has asked us to highlight:

“I moved to the apartment mentioned in the above address on 14/9/2020. I received a letter from MEARS stating that I will move from the hostel on 14/8/20 without mentioning any other details. For example, the apartment’s address was not mentioned. They only provided me with the post code saying that I’d be moving to G22 while I boarded the taxi.

“I got home and found S, the Housing Officer, waiting for me. I felt very anxious and suspicious of the other man, and told S about my concerns but he reassured me that the man was good and that he had known him for a while and asked me to sign the contract and then left.

“Immediately after S left, I went to collect my own stuff of kitchen tools, duvet, etc., but I was surprised that this person wanted to take everything for himself. I asked him to leave my belongings and not enter my room.

“For the whole time, he treated me very badly, he used to order me not to leave the apartment and not to bring anyone to the apartment. He was ordering me to clean the apartment and the kitchen even after his personal use. He also used to bang on my bedroom door hysterically several times in the day, and this is all documented in the police report.

“I had been talking to S on the phone many times complaining about that guy and Stevie was defending him as if he was a member of his own family, telling me that he had known him for a long time and that I was exaggerating. Then he told me that there was no other place they could move me to.

“On 19/9/20 I called the police. I was with my friends that day, when I returned home, I found that he had used kitchen utensils to cook for himself and he did not clean them, the kitchen was in a whole mess. So, I went to his room and politely asked him to clean the kitchen so that I could cook for myself. He shouted at me saying, “Clean it up yourself” and raised his hand threatening me that he would beat me. He didn’t hit me but he started swearing at me, saying “fuck off – fuck you”. I got really scared and started to shiver with fear.

“I called the police and told them what had happened and that I was very afraid. They told me that someone would come to the apartment, and indeed they came after half an hour. After I told them that I was afraid of that man and that I feared he would kill me. They asked me if I’m OK to go with them to the police station and that they would provide an interpreter there, I agreed. I went with them and there I repeated that he verbally attacked me and threatened to hit me, and about my fear that he might hit me or even kill me. I told them that he affected me psychologically.

“They asked me at the police station if I had any friend I could go to that night. I called a friend of mine who agreed to host me for two nights. The police took me to the apartment in which I live first to bring some of my clothes, and then took me to my friend’s place.

“The following day, September 20, I called migrant help and told them about the incident. They requested me to send them the police report to be able to help me and I did. I went to the police station and brought it and sent it to MigrantHelp. They told me that someone was coming to me and he’s expected to reach me in half an hour but no one came at all while I was waiting.

The next day, September 21, I called MigrantHelp again and told them that I was going to sleep in the street because my friend could not host me for more than two days. They asked me to send them a letter from my friend stating that he is unable to host me in their place for more than two days. I did. MigrantHelp, again, told me that they would send me someone to help me after half an hour. Help NEVER arrived.

I slept at my friend’s place for the third night, then on September 22, I went to the Migrant Help office in Glasgow, with my friend who was helping me in interpretation. I explained the situation again, and their only response was that they have sent all the details to the HO, and that they cannot do anything else. They told me to go back to the apartment and in case anything happened I need to call the police. When I returned to the flat the man started moving in the apartment so suspiciously that I panicked.

“On 27/9/20, I was out with some friends, but when I returned to the flat, the flatmate refused to let me enter and kept pushing the door from the inside to prevent me from entering. Then he opened the door and spat in my face.

I called the Emergency and told them what had happened. Two of them came and asked me not to call the emergency again after they had spoken with the other man for 5 minutes. I was in despair thinking that nothing will happen to change the situation. I went into my room with fear that he would kill me or hurt me. I did not see him for two days. I was very afraid, I cannot sleep. I am beginning to be psychologically affected, anxious, tense and insomnia.”

The aggressive roommate was eventually moved, but not before terrorising Mohammad and swearing and spitting on him.

Despite being alerted to an unsafe situation, Mears carried out no risk assessment in terms of safety or Covid 19. No investigation was carried out to provide mental health support to the man or to put a stop to any further transfers. Mears staff simply went ahead and moved three unsuspecting people into a situation where they felt completely unsafe.

It’s yet another reminder of the potentially life-threatening situations that asylum seekers find themselves in, under the “care” of Mears. These cases makes a mockery of Mears “social housing” credentials. Senior staff at Mears said they would never place an asylum seeker in harms way if they had “any indication” of a threat. Mears was warned 3 times and in their usual arrogant way, refuted any wrongdoing.

Mohammad wants to know why Mears put him into a flat where two other men were already too terrified to stay and Mears knew this. Mohammad wants answers from the Home Office about the way he was treated.

Asylum seekers are being kept in the dark and are apparently dumped wherever there is a vacant room. There is no housing rights guide for people to check their entitlements. Those rights are vague and therefore it is difficult to lodge complaints.

This case – like all the others – just reinforces the call for a public inquiry. Scottish MPs have refused to engage with Mears , citing “trust issues”, therefore what hope do we have, acting on behalf of people who are barely respected or listened to, just treated with contempt, like shipping parcels to be dumped where it is convenient and most profitable. These are not one off cases. Mohammad Al Massari is brave enough to speak out but most people are too terrified in the wrong assumption that it could affect their case.

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