Over 100 asylum seekers are facing eviction in Glasgow, after Serco was contracted to manage their accommodation.
In January 2011, immigration minister Damien Green apologised for the ‘inappropriateness’ of government proposals to evict hundreds of asylum seekers from Glasgow, turfing them onto the streets if they refused to accept accommodation outside the city. Fast forward just over a year a later and similar proposals are becoming reality. The difference, though, is that this time there is no offer of alternative housing, and it is global giant Serco doing the evicting.
A few weeks ago, Serco was selected by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to accommodate asylum seekers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north west of England. At £175 million, this contract might be small change to a company which boasted an order book of £17.9 billion and £4,646.4 million revenue at the end of 2011, but it is set to have a massive impact.
Providing housing for asylum seekers is an incredibly lucrative business. (G4S and Reliance Security Task Management won the other contracts, worth £620 million overall, across the UK.) Competition between providers is fierce and Serco secured the contract in Glasgow as it was seen as more cost effective than the existing provider, Ypeople (formerly the YMCA) – a charity which itself had only been providing accommodation in the city for about a year, after the city council lost the contract. What it has led to is an instant change. People seeking asylum, whose claims have been refused, are been forced onto the streets.
It has long been government policy to impose destitution on refused asylum seekers. In most cases, this takes place within a month of the claim reaching a negative decision (unless certain stringent criteria for ‘Section 4’ support can be met). However, in Glasgow, Ypeople took the decision not to enforce this provision, allowing people to remain in their homes instead. Not so, Serco. Serco aims to follow the law to the letter and within a few days of announcing that it was going to be accommodating asylum seekers, people who had been refused began receiving instructions to vacate their houses and that their locks would be changed. Already, asylum support agencies in the city are being inundated with requests for support. Jamie O’Neill, of Positive Action in Housing, for example, put it bluntly: ‘We’ve had people in our office saying they’ll commit suicide as they see no answer to their action’.
The UKBA and the government’s stock explanation of a policy, which has forced hundreds of thousands of refused asylum seekers into homelessness, is that destitution is the fault of the individual in question. Asylum seekers are supported whilst their claim is ongoing, the argument goes. And according to Damien Green, ‘However, when the independent courts have decided that an asylum seeker does not need international protection, support is discontinued and we expect them to return home voluntarily.’ This, though, is entirely misleading. Report after report has highlighted that many destitute asylum seekers are entitled to support but have been made homeless as a result of administrative failures; that initial decision making on asylum claims is often so poor that it leads to refusals that are later overturned on appeal and that savage cut-backs in legal aid have left many asylum seekers without sufficient legal support. Report after report, too, has highlighted the depth of human suffering that destitution causes: from malnutrition and severe illness to life as an invisible undocumented worker.
The reality is that controlling, managing, deporting, housing and detaining asylum seekers is big business in the UK – and its raw material is people. Almost every aspect of their lives, as soon as they submit a claim for protection, represents a lucrative opportunity for profit in an asylum system which operates through an alliance of political and corporate interests. Serco’s mantra is that it is ‘bringing service to life’. In Glasgow though, it is human life which is set to suffer.