Glasgow City Council should restart the asylum dispersal programme and make the case for an alternative to policies offered by the UK Government’s “brutal” and “anti-refugee” Nationality and Borders Bill, according to campaigners.
The government’s dispersal programme – which sees those claiming asylum in the UK sent to Home Office-provided accommodation in cities across the country – has welcomed thousands to Glasgow since 2000.
However in July 2020 Glasgow City Council placed a “temporary” ban on it to “ease pressures” on accommodation in the city. The Home Office agreed “at their request and the request of the Scottish Government” and no asylum seekers have come to Glasgow through dispersal since.
Concerns about the widespread use of hotels – where asylum seekers were confined for months without any financial support – were heightened last June when Badreddin Abadlla Adam stabbed six people at the Park Inn hotel. He was being accommodated there with other asylum seekers and had reported struggling with his mental health.
Syrian Adnan Olbeh, who died in Mclays Guest House last May, had also seen his mental health deteriorate while in the asylum system.
Glasgow City Council confirmed to The Ferret that dispersal remains on hold, though it still believes in its value. However, ahead of evidence sessions on the UK Nationality and Borders Bill to be heard in the UK Parliament next week, some refugee organisations and opposition politicians said it was important that Scotland restarts the Home Office scheme.
It is understood that Mears Group, which provides accommodation in the city for asylum seekers already in the system, as well as for between 70-100 making claims in Scotland, is now only using hotels for a ten-day quarantine period. Last September council leader Susan Aitken said the ban would be in place until the Home Office provider stopped using hotels.
Paul Sweeney, Labour MSP for Glasgow has also written to First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, The Ferret has learned, urging her not only to restart the asylum dispersal programme in Glasgow, but expand it to other parts of Scotland.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, introduced in the UK Parliament by Home Secretary Priti Patel this July, includes what campaigners say is a “brutal” “two-tier approach”. Those who do not arrive under limited resettlement scheme places will have their asylum claims judged “inadmissible” by the Home Office for at least six months.
Under proposals in the “anti-refugee” bill, as it has been dubbed by campaigners, those who arrive on boats or in lorries will be considered to have broken the law and could be criminalised, despite clear stipulations in the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees that no-one claiming asylum should be penalised for the way they arrived in the country.
Institutional accommodation, such as that offered in Napier Barracks near Dover, and offshore processing are both proposals under discussion.
Sabir Zazai, chief executive of Scottish Refugee Council, who fled to the UK from Afghanistan in 1999 when the Taliban was in power, said it was more important than ever that Glasgow demonstrate a humane alternative to plans for “asylum camps”.
He told The Ferret: “I think dispersal should restart. I know we got to a critical point in terms of numbers but now we need to work in collaboration with a multi-agency task force to make sure people that are arriving have the support and resources that they need.
“My fear is that if they leave it like this, institutional accommodation could pop up in somewhere like a disused oil rig or army barracks and Scottish ministers have no oversight. People like me, if they are arriving after this bill, could be locked away in that disused oil rig.”
Zazai, who arrived by lorry, said he would not have qualified for resettlement and so would have been branded a criminal for fleeing conflict in his home country. He fears that if his father, still in Afghanistan, had to flee in the future, would also be treated as a criminal.
He added: “But I came here with a dream, with hope. I was surrounded by community compassion in the UK that restored my dignity and my confidence, and allowed me to find a way to give back. This bill seeks to lock people away from communities and to kill that hope.”
Glasgow, he claimed, could offer a better way forward. He added: “We have had 20 years of welcoming people and 20 years of people bringing their talents and skills to enrich us – we don’t want to give that up at this really critical time.
“If we are challenging that bill we need to have an alternative model. We need to hold on to that, promote it, sell it and challenge this bill.”
Dylan Foohti, director of Refugees for Justice, which has been campaigning for an inquiry into the deaths of asylum seekers in Glasgow hotels, said he was deeply concerned about the implications of the UK Government bill in Scotland. He said: “Everything that has happened in hotels was like a pilot for the use of institutional accommodation here. And it was the cause of so much tragedy.”
A report published on 17 September by academics at Edinburgh Napier University in partnership with grassroots organisation Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment, found conditions in hotels used by the Home Office to accommodate asylum seekers during the pandemic were “akin to detention centres”.
Mears Group, which housed people across the city during the pandemic restrictions, said it recognised “that living in hotel accommodation for an extended period has been difficult for our service users” and confirmed it was now only using hotels for quarantine purposes.
Foohti said it was time to look again at whether to restart dispersal. He added: “Simply shutting the door to dispersal when there are problems is not the answer. We need to ensure that Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government does not simply step away, but instead puts pressure on Mears to do its job here in the city.
“We need scrutiny on what happens next and clarity on how decisions are made.” This, he claimed, was critical due to the potential impact of the UK Government’s immigration proposals on asylum seekers in Scotland.
He added: “Who has to be consulted and how would asylum accommodation centres be implemented? I am personally very concerned.”
Paul Sweeney MSP said the UK Government plan to criminalise “vulnerable people often fleeing war and persecution” was “shameful”.
“The UK Government have invented a system that is rotten to its core,” he said. But he urged the Scottish Government to find ways of making things better in Scotland and implement them.
He added: “Ensuring that the dispersal programme is fit for purpose is just the first step, and I have written to the First Minister urging her to commit to extending that to other cities in Scotland and to restart the programme in Glasgow.”
Glasgow Councillor Jen Layden, convenor on equalities and human rights, said: “Although most dispersal to Glasgow from other parts of the UK is currently on pause until the provision of appropriate asylum accommodation in the city can be assured, Glasgow remains the biggest asylum dispersal city in the UK by some distance.”
She claimed that though the council had “significant concerns about the impact of underfunding and private operators in the system” it believed dispersal was still a successful way of ensuring refugees were integrated into Scottish communities.
“The Nationality and Borders Bill threatens to destroy all of that progress by replacing dispersal with a model that herds traumatised and vulnerable people into utterly unsuitable accommodation like the Napier Barracks,” she added.
“It is a Bill driven by right wing ideology, with no regard for the best interests of either asylum seekers or receiving communities and it will lead to more tragedies.”
Social justice secretary, Shona Robison, wrote to Patel about the bill on 2 September, setting out the Scottish Government’s wide range of concerns. “The Bill’s proposals are deeply flawed and will fail to create an immigration system which is effective, efficient and delivers for the most vulnerable,” she wrote.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK Government will always stand by those fleeing persecution or oppression in their hour of need. As part of our New Plan for Immigration, we are establishing safe and legal routes to enable the most vulnerable people to start a new life in safety in the UK. People should not make life-threatening journeys to the UK and should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.
“We’ve paused the use of Glasgow at their request, and at the request of the Scottish Government.” They urged other Scottish local authorities to step forward to ease Glasgow’s “burden”.