The housing company charged with accommodating asylum seekers in Scotland has been accused of “re-traumatising” the people it is meant to be supporting by forcing them to move with as little as ten minutes notice.
Mears Group – which will be paid £1.1bn by the Home Office over ten years to provide asylum accommodation – is contractually obliged to provide five days’ notice before moving people.
But the Asylum Seeker Housing project, a support service run by Glasgow charity Community Infosource, says it is routinely failing to do this, leading to unnecessary stress and suffering.
The charity claims it creates anxiety for people who think they could be moved at any time, and means they have no time to refuse a property that is unsuitable for them.
In a survey it undertook late last year of 31 people who had been moved from hotels, 25 had not been provided with five days’ notice before being moved. Ten had three hours’ notice or less. At least one was given just ten minutes’ notice, causing panic and anxiety.
All of those surveyed had been moved from hotels – where people usually spend several months or more – to flats, known as dispersal accommodation.
The Ferret is aware of two complaints that have been lodged with Migrant Help on the issue. But several other asylum seekers said they were concerned about reprisals if they spoke out or complained.
Mears told The Ferret that its standard approach was to provide five days’ notice, with shorter notice periods being given where there are health, wellbeing or safeguarding reasons.
However, Community Infosource refutes this, claiming that the majority of those it is supporting are not given this notice period. The charity claims it has seen no evidence of these reasons being provided to an asylum seeker.
It says it has repeatedly raised the issue with the housing provider and called on it to take action to address it.
But Mears said most people were happy to move out of hotels and into the community.
One man, who is still in the asylum system and did not want to be identified, said he was moved from McLays Guest House last summer with just ten minutes’ notice. He said the hotel receptionist phoned him to tell him a taxi was on its way to take him to his dispersal accommodation.
The man, who had previously fled a war zone and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said he had asked if he could have two days’ notice of when he would be moved, to reduce his anxiety. But he claims this request was refused.
It was only later that he discovered the clause in Mears contract which says five days’ notice should be provided.
He told The Ferret: “I got a call from reception without warning and I was told your taxi will be here in ten minutes. I had been living at the hotel for several months – this wasn’t just a situation where I was sitting ready to check-out. I quickly had to try to pack everything in my bags. While I was doing it another call came telling me to hurry up.”
In the waiting vehicle, he asked where he was going but was given no information. He said he felt overwhelming panic as he watched the location on the map and saw the driver was taking the motorway.
Though he was satisfied with the basic accommodation on arrival, he remains angry at the unnecessary stress caused.
“I realised that experience was a trigger for my PTSD because of the very bad memories I have of fleeing from a war zone,” he explained. “Myself and my wife had to flee from advancing forces, packing very quickly and then leaving without knowing where we were going.
“It is a situation that I still have nightmares about – of those forces trying to capture me. I think that is a reality for a lot of people in the asylum system. Mears need to be more considerate of vulnerable people. They should not be allowed to violate people’s rights.”
He decided not to put in a complaint, he said, because he was worried that the Home Office might view this unfavourably while his asylum claim was ongoing.
Community Infosource shared details of other cases with The Ferret, including one of a “very vulnerable person” who was woken up and told to pack. They were not informed where they were going and ended up in a shared property, although they had been told they would be placed in their own flat.
Gillian Wilson, chief executive of Community Infosource, said: “Mears has taken on a contract for which it is paid a considerable amount, to deliver a service with minimum quality standards, which include providing five days’ notice of being moved into a different property.
“This is not a favour – it is a contractual obligation Mears have signed up to, a minimum requirement which the Home Office has felt is important enough to include in the contract.
“We are very concerned at the frequency with which this minimum standard is not being met – with so many people being moved with less than 24 hours’ notice.
“By ignoring this contractual obligation, Mears is causing unnecessary stress, anxiety and trauma for folk who already have suffered considerable trauma in their lives. Having information on when and where they are moving to is essential to avoid re-traumatisation and to ensure a dignified transition to a new home.”
‘Five days notice as standard’
But a Mears spokesperson insisted its “standard approach is to provide at least five days’ notice to service users in writing before a move to different accommodation”.
The spokesperson added: “A shorter notice move may be offered in circumstances where there are health, wellbeing or safeguarding reasons. This would be in agreement with the Home Office and the service user. There are also occasions when accommodation becomes available and a move can be offered more quickly if the service user wishes and confirms this in writing.”
The spokesperson said they had “not received any complaints directly from service users about notice periods”, adding: “our experience is that people are usually happy to move on from hotel accommodation and keen to do so quickly.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office continues to provide safe accommodation for destitute asylum seekers who need it, as we work to end the use of hotels which are costing UK taxpayers almost £6m a day.
“While our contractors aim to provide at least five days’ notice before moving asylum seekers to other accommodation, a shorter notice move may be offered in specific circumstances, for example where there are safeguarding reasons or accommodation becomes available and can be offered more quickly.”
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