Insight: Eleventh hour bid to avert mass eviction of asylum seekers

For Mourad Khelfane Serco's lock change threat is like putting him under house arrest. Picture: John Devlin
For Mourad Khelfane Serco's lock change threat is like putting him under house arrest. Picture: John Devlin
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Mourad Khelfane is sitting anxiously in his lawyer’s office. Ever since he received a letter threatening to evict him from his home in Shettleston, Glasgow, he has been scared to go out in case the locks are changed in his absence. Today, he has asked his neighbour to sit in his flat so he can talk to me.

Khelfane, 28, is one of 300 asylum seekers who face being made homeless after Serco, the company in charge of accommodating those sent up to Glasgow, announced it was restarting its programme of mass evictions in June.

Protesters march on Serco offices in Glasgow last month where they put up a symbolic chain with padlocks. Picture: John Devlin

Protesters march on Serco offices in Glasgow last month where they put up a symbolic chain with padlocks. Picture: John Devlin

A qualified solar and hydro electrical engineer, he left Algeria in 2015 when his support for independence for Kaybilia – a region in the north of the country – put him in danger. For the past seven months – since the Home Office rejected his first application for leave to remain – he has had no state support; in order to survive, he has had to depend on food banks, churches and hand-outs from friends and strangers.

As an asylum seeker, he cannot work or take up the offer he has received to study for a Masters degree at Strathclyde University, so most days he just stays in his room thinking about the life he’d hoped to lead.

With no regard for his privacy, he says, Serco representatives come and go as they please; one time, he says, he awoke to find a woman at the foot of his bed. They open the doors of his fridge, then ask him why he has no food.

Now, the threat of eviction has added to his trauma. “I have nowhere to go. I have no family here. No-one,” he tells me through an interpreter. “I will end up on the streets. Just now that might not be so bad – but in the winter, how would I survive?

“Still I cannot go back to Algeria – do you think I would be here if I could? With all my family still living there? It is too dangerous for me to go back.”

Like many of the threatened asylum seekers, Khelfane is applying for an interim interdict to prevent eviction until a landmark court case challenging the lock change policy is heard at the Court of Session later this month. But that will take at least a week. His lawyer, Euan MacKay, of McGlashan MacKay, is also ready to lodge a fresh asylum claim on his behalf, which ought to entitle Khelfane to Section 4 support, but the first available appointment to do so is 10 December; as he waits, Khelfane is destitute and plagued by uncertainty, which the eviction letter has exacerbated.

“I cannot stop worrying,” he says. “I cannot sleep. I left Algeria when I was 24. Now I am nearly 29. I keep thinking it will be too late for me to live my life.”

Khelfane’s experience is the tip of the iceberg; according to campaigners, Serco, which was awarded the contract when the Home Office privatised the provision of housing in 2012, has been evicting asylum seekers on an ad hoc basis for several years.

“Often it has forced people out through a campaign of harassment – visits, phone calls and so forth,” says Anna Pearce, who works with Asylum Seeker Housing’s (ASH) Preventing Asylum Seeker Evictions (PACE) project. The project aims to support those threatened with eviction in their homes until they can lodge a fresh claim and re-enter the asylum system.

“Serco really does create a hostile environment. One technique it uses is electricity restriction. Once government support has stopped, the asylum seekers will be given low-value vouchers for the meters so they have to keep returning to Serco’s offices [in Cessnock] to pick up more.

“We had one client who was doing a 14-mile journey on foot every couple of days. Sometimes, the property is so cold they go to stay at friends for a few nights. Then Serco says the property has been abandoned and changes the locks.”

Serco first announced its plans for a mass eviction of 300 “failed” asylum seekers a year ago on the grounds that the government was no longer paying for their accommodation. Govan Law Centre challenged this in the Court of Session and the lock change programme was put on hold.

In January, the company lost the contract to the Mears Group. And in June, it restarted its lock change programme, issuing a fresh round of letters and pledging to evict 30 people a week until the end of August when the handover is due. Last week, the Scottish Refugee Council announced three asylum seekers, from Iran and Iraq, who lacked legal representation, had been evicted as a result of lock changes.

“Serco has said it would not target women or those with particular vulnerabilities, but several of those who have received letters are victims of torture, at least one is a survivor of domestic abuse,” says Pearce.

If the company pushes ahead with its plans it will be devastating not only for the individuals involved, but for the whole of Glasgow. The city is already in the grip of a housing crisis; the most recent Scottish government statistics revealed people were refused access to homelessness services more than 3,000 times in the year to March 2019. The number of rough sleepers is rising too.

Even if it wasn’t struggling, Glasgow City Council couldn’t rehouse the evicted asylum seekers as immigration is reserved and to do so would break Home Office rules. But the Glasgow Night Shelter for Destitute Asylum Seekers, which has just 22 beds, is already operating at close to capacity and is men-only.

“Serco’s threatened mass eviction coincides with cuts to homelessness services for the British citizen population, so we are going to see more and more people on the streets and Serco are very knowingly contributing to that problem,” says Pearce. “We should be trying to eradicate homelessness for everyone: British citizens and asylum seekers alike.”

The situation is bleak; but amidst the poverty and the frustration, there is some hope. Glasgow is the city of Mary Barbour and the rent strikes. It is the city of Jimmy Reid and the ship workers. It is the city of the Glasgow Girls, who rallied round to stop their friends from being deported. It was never likely to accept these threatened evictions without a fight.

In the past year, there has been an almost unparalleled galvanising of forces; with legal and human rights lawyers joining charities, trade unions and grassroots organisations to challenge the action in the courts and on the streets.

Their efforts were given a boost last week when the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) was given leave to intervene in the on-going legal challenge. This is the first time the SHRC has used its powers to intervene in civil litigation.

Its principal argument will revolve around article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantees the right to a private and family life. If that right is to be removed by eviction, it will insist, then it should be done with a court order and the asylum seeker involved should have the right to appeal.

The original legal challenge involving two asylum seekers threatened with eviction was launched by Govan Law Centre shortly after Serco announced its plans in July last year.

Serco agreed to press pause until the case could be heard at the Court of Session. In April, Lord Tyre ruled that he was “not persuaded” by the arguments that eviction was unlawful and ruled in favour of Serco, although he did agree it was a public body for the purpose of the Human Rights Act 1998 – something that both Serco and the Home Office had resisted.

Govan Law Centre has been given leave to appeal, with the case due to be heard on 28 August, but Serco seems determined to carry on regardless.

As a result, four law firms/housing charities – Govan Law Centre, Latta & Co, the Legal Services Agency and Shelter – have been pursuing interim interdicts preventing Serco from taking action until the court case.

So far, collectively, they have won 41 out of 44. The key argument being made in these cases is similar to that being made by the SHRC: that decisions to evict should be tested by a court or tribunal.

However, interim interdicts can only be sought if eviction letters are brought to the attention of the firms. None of those trying to protect the potential evictees has access to a list and some of the asylum seekers involved have no legal representation or engagement with charities. This was the case with the three asylum seekers evicted last week.

To try to combat this, immigration lawyers are doing outreach work free of charge while grassroots campaigners from Living Rent and No Eviction – a loose affiliation of community groups – are trying to raise awareness in Govan, Springburn and the East End, the areas in which most asylum seekers are housed.

Handing out leaflets at a stall outside Govan subway station, campaigners emphasise the commonality between the plight of the asylum seekers and the indigenous residents facing increased hardship as a result of austerity policies.

At meetings across the city, they have also been preparing for direct action, creating “first response” teams which could be ready at short notice if word was to come through of a lock change being carried out at a particular property, and possible acts of civil disobedience.

Also involved in the campaign are many asylum seekers who have not been served eviction notices. “They cannot go on the protests because that would cause them trouble,” says one woman, who is originally from Nigeria. “But if the plans are to work their voices must be heard so people will understand what is going on in their minds and what they need.”

“I think there’s an opportunity today more than there has ever been to gather collectively and change what the [British government] does and how it does it,” says campaigner Paul Wardrop.

As the grassroots protesters mobilise, charities such as Positive Action for Housing and ASH are stepping up their support to those directly affected.

PACE is currently supporting 51 people at threat of having their locks changed (58 people who they have worked with previously have lodged fresh claims and are now back on support).

“We call everyone on our list every week or fortnight depending on their level of vulnerability. If someone is suffering harassment we might phone them every day,” says Pearce.

“We have people with mental health difficulties, people who have had prior experience of homelessness and are terrified of being homeless again, people with very traumatic histories that require far more help than they are able to get.”

In the past, some of those evicted have been accommodated through Positive Action for Housing’s hosting programme, lodging fresh claims while living with volunteers who have opened up their homes.

“These cases demonstrate that when someone has been given stability and safety they can get back into the asylum system, but if they become street homeless that is no longer a possibility.”

At the night shelter, the atmosphere is becoming tense. “There are people with tricky asylum cases who more or less live here,” says project director Annika Joy. “However there are also people who stay with pals two or three nights a week, but come to the shelter when they have nowhere else to go.

“They are the ones that are getting anxious – they are wondering: if they stay with friends for a couple of nights, will their bed still be there for them when they get back?

“It creates a difficult situation for staff as well because the worst thing for those working on the front line of this is to have to turn someone away. It’s awful in the winter when it happens as a matter of course, but to imagine having to do it en masse is worrying for the staff and for the board. If the numbers were to rise dramatically, we would be struggling even in terms of taking people inside for a few hours and offering them food.”

The shelter does its best to cater for the needs of its guests, but it is difficult for an organisation with minimal resources always to operate in a trauma-informed way. Last month, it won a £150,000 grant from the National Lottery Community Fund to build capacity and develop a new accommodation pathway for destitute asylum seekers.

“What we are trying to do is bring all the partners together to say: ‘You are doing amazing work in advocacy, but none of this is effective if asylum seekers are living day to day in emergency accommodation that doesn’t address their needs’,” says Joy. “We need to increase the quantity and quality of accommodation and to shift away from an over-reliance on the night shelter.”

The research project, however, will take 15 months, so, in the short-term, evicted asylum seekers will have to compete for a place in accommodation which fails to cater for their profound needs and vulnerabilities.

Take Jamal Khiyazi, 22, from Morocco, who received an eviction letter last week. He is autistic and has mental health problems. A few minutes in his company is all it takes to realise he wouldn’t cope on the streets. He is panicky as he talks about the future. “When my support stopped I was feeling very depressed,” he says.

“I was thinking, every door is shutting in front of me. I got evidence from Morocco for my fresh claim and started to feeling better, but this letter has set me back.

“For seven months, I have been milking my friends – someone gives you a fiver here, someone gives you a tenner there. If I get evicted they will look at me and say: ‘There is nothing more we can do for you’.”

Yet – as isolated as Khelfane and Khiyazi feel – civil society does seem to be marshalling itself into a powerful resistance.

On Thursday night, more than 50 representatives from a range of groups gathered at Glasgow Autonomous Space in Tradeston for a brainstorming strategy session. Against a backdrop of a mural showing the Red Road flats, old and young, professionals and radicals, activists and tenants – a vibrant mix of demographics and ethnicities – pledged to do what they could to stop Serco.

A couple of miles away at the Kelvingrove bandstand, punk goddess Patti Smith was belting out a call to arms: “People have the power to redeem the work of fools,” she sang as if she was privy both to the Tradeston plotting and the iniquities of the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. As she exhorted the fired-up fans to: “Use your voice”, her words drifted out of the park and into a city ready and willing to rise to the challenge.