A leading human rights law firm has claimed that the legal position on whether Serco can evict asylum seekers in Glasgow by changing locks on their homes “is not yet settled”.
Latta Law has revealed it has been granted permission by the Court of Session to proceed with a judicial review. They are challenging Serco‘s proposals to change locks, claiming the practice is contrary to human rights law.
Last July Serco announced plans to evict refused asylum seekers, claiming they no longer had the right to stay in Home Office accommodation that it was contracted to provide. The plans – which at the time would have made about 300 asylum seekers homeless – were widely condemned and sparked protests.
After a legal challenge was lodged by Govan Law, the multi-national firm agreed to halt evictions until a Court of Session decision had been reached.
On 12 April 2019 Lord Tyre heard the cases of two women seeking asylum who were facing eviction, brought by Govan Law Centre to the Court of Session. He ruled that he was “not persuaded” by the arguments that eviction was unlawful and ruled in favour of Serco’s right to evict.
In a 29-page opinion Lord Tyre rejected Govan Law’s claims including arguments that eviction would constitute a breach of the occupant’s rights and that it was unlawful under common Scots law.
Serco welcomed the judgment and said it was consulting on next steps.
However, Jalal Chaudry, the associate solicitor instructing on further challenges by Latta Law, said the issue was far from closed and claimed the firm’s fresh proceedings – on different grounds – represented a second chance to have the policy found unlawful.
The new legal challenge by Latta will look to judicially review the eviction policy, which does not comply with equality and human rights law, the legal firm argues. It will be heard in the Court of Session.
The law firm believes the case is strengthened by Lord Tyre’s finding that Serco is acting as a “hybrid public authority”, essentially performing a public function. This means it must comply with equalities and human rights law.
Serco previously argued it was merely acting on Home Office orders to carry out a commercial contract.
“It is quite a significant petition,” Chaudry told The Ferret. “This is a different type of challenge from those raised by Govan Law Centre in that it is concerned with judicial review proceedings of the lock-change policy.”
He added: “The proceedings are pending, permission having been granted by the Court of Session.
“Whilst we do not wish to go into specific detail at this stage, we consider it to be appropriate to be open about the proceedings because we realise that there are a significant number of vulnerable people affected, and it is important to assure the individuals concerned that the legal challenge is not over.
“The final determination of these proceedings will have a profound impact.”
The proceedings are of interest to both the Equalities and Humans Rights and Scottish Human Rights Commissions.
In a joint statement the organisations said: “We remain extremely concerned about Serco’s policy of locking people out of their homes without proper processes or safeguards, and the harsh impact this has on the people affected, leaving them with nowhere to go and in a vulnerable situation on Scotland’s streets.
“We continue to have concerns that the policy fails to comply with people’s human rights including their right to a private and family life. We will now consider the most appropriate next course of action, including possible legal intervention in another relevant case.”
Asylum seekers, campaigners and charities have spoken out on their shock and distress following the legal decision on the Govan Law case, which found in Serco’s favour.
Though Serco said it would not act immediately, it left some 280 refused asylum seekers facing street homelessness – a crisis now made less likely by Latta Law’s action.
Charities warned that evicted asylum seekers would have nowhere to go. Glasgow Night Shelter for Destitute Asylum has only 22 spaces and does not accept women, while a refugee hosting scheme, run by charity Positive Action in Housing is heavily subscribed.
Campaigners from Living Rent said it was time to evoke the spirit of protests against dawn raids in the early 2000’s, which saw working class communities set up neighbourhood watch and warning systems to look out for Home Office vans, in order to protect people from deportation.
The tenants union, which has been working with Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment (MORE), also called on landlords and housing associations not to cooperate with the eviction process.
It is also amongst organisations calling for more action from Glasgow City Council which has been unable to come up with a plan for additional emergency accommodation. This is despite the council forming a task force following Serco’s announcement that it planned to evict up to 300 asylum seekers who no longer had a right to housing last July.
A spokesman for Living Rent said: “Though the council made suggestions through its task force for changes to the system, these will not provide the safeguards needed to protect vulnerable tenants.
“Our Union will stand ready to resist these actions by Serco. We are calling on tenants to come out and support their neighbours and we urge asylum seekers to come forward with their voices. Our collective power is strong.”
A Glasgow council spokesman claimed that its task force had made “real progress” adding: “It is not realistic to expect it would reverse government policy.”
Glasgow SNP Councillor Jennifer Layden, convenor of the equality and human rights committee, said UK legislation allowing for evictions was “not fit for purpose” and ran contrary to Glasgow’s “principles of compassion and community integration”.
She added: “Asylum seekers in the city should know that we will continue to press the Home Office for a firm commitment that we will not see a repeat of the kind of threats made by Serco last summer. ”
Last December emails released under a freedom of information request showed that Serco had sent advance warning of plans to evict using lock changes to Layden – who claims she was on holiday – and two council officials.
Serco last week welcomed the judgement on the Govan Law case and said it would enter talks with stakeholders about “how best to proceed”.
A spokesman added: “Serco will not be taking any immediate action as a consequence of this decision, but will now discuss with the Home Office, Glasgow City Council and our other partners how best to proceed, given that there continues to be a very significant number of people in Glasgow whose claim for asylum has been refused by the UK Government and who are continuing to receive the benefit of free accommodation, paid for by Serco, some for months, even years.”
Living with the threat of eviction
You can hear the clock on the wall ticking as he processes the news that the legal challenge – brought forward by Govan Law Centre and aiming to halt Serco’s plans to evict hundreds of refused asylum seekers by changing their locks – was not successful.
“The judge doesn’t see what is happening to the people?” asks this 26-year-old Kurdish Iranian man, who is nicknamed Kwexa. “He doesn’t listen to what they are going through?”
Sitting opposite him is Asylum Seeking Housing (ASH) project worker Anna Pearce. It’s Friday and since the judgement came through at noon she has been working through a list of 61 refused asylum seekers now facing even greater threat of eviction, contacting each one so they hear the news firsthand.
She is able to tell Kwexa and others that Serco – providing asylum accommodation on behalf of the Home Office – has confirmed it will not act immediately, Govan Law team may appeal, and other legal challenges now waiting in the wings. But she is visibly shaken by a sense of powerlessness this brings. “People are shocked,” she says. “If they are evicted there is nowhere for people to go.”
Kwexa, who has already spent five long hours waiting for help from Citizen’s Advice, listens as she lists reassurances – he tries to be upbeat. But he is exhausted.
He came to the UK from Iran in 2015 fleeing political persecution, spent 13 days in detention and was sent to Glasgow by the Home Office. He was terrified and traumatised, amazed to have survived, but unable to trust anyone.
When his case was refused in 2017 he appealed repeatedly and is now aiming to put in a fresh claim. But working on gathering evidence far from authorities from whom he is in hiding, and with money, is an overwhelming task.
“Since my support stopped, I often don’t have enough to eat, everything is from a can from the foodbank,” he trails off and the clock ticks while he fights with emotion. “There are so many things in my heart,” he says at last. “I would never have been in this situation in my country. I never thought this could happen to me.”
So, though he is not usually someone to fight, he claims, he has stayed in his Serco accommodation despite the continuing letters from both the Home Office and its housing contractor telling him to leave. “Where else would I go?” he asks. “If they kick me out… it would be like dying every day.” He looks at his hands. “I am so tired of all of this.”
Another man supported by ASH tells me he is so unwell he’s been admitted to hospital for blood tests but they didn’t find anything. “They say it is stress,” he says. “I am not sleeping. I just don’t know what to do. Sometimes I wonder if I should just go back – so what if I am killed?”
According to Esther Muchena, services manager of Scottish Refugee Council, these men are amongst about 280 people now facing eviction in the city. Legal surgeries hosted by the charity have seen about 40 people granted support and the threat of eviction removed as a result. But it has little effect on the numbers.
“We can get some people out of the situation but new people are being added almost every day,” she explains. “The human impact of this is huge. People are living in fear.”
Those who become destitute, she explains, say they feel hopeless and even suicidal. “Now I think there will panic.”
She worries that people may simply go underground and disappear as a result, putting themselves at real risk of exploitation and physical and sexual abuse, removing them for any potential support or hope of getting their cases resolved. “People are already struggling. This feels like the final straw.”
The charity’s advice is for people to stay put. But it is aware it is just a temporary measure. For Muchena, putting in place emergency accommodation is utterly essential, giving people the time and space to process their situation and come to terms with their next steps. “It’s very worrying,” she adds. “There are human beings in Glasgow. It really is a crisis.”
Across the city Yvonne, who came to Glasgow to seek asylum and now has leave to remain, is determined to help people fight back. One of the founder members of a voluntary grassroots group called Migrants Organisation for Rights and Empowerment (MORE), her phone pings regularly with queries about meetings and campaigns as we talk.
She asks members what it feels like to be living with the threat of eviction. “Vulnerable and saddened to the deepest degree you could imagine,” says one. “I feel life isn’t worth living due to the astronomical amount of stress in my life.” Another says: “Living with the threat of eviction makes you feel so anxious…physically, emotionally and mentally unwell.”
She knows how they feel, remembering the insecurity she faced living in a situation where she was threatened with having locks changed and lived with constant insecurity made her feel “less human”.
“When something starts stripping away all the parts of your identity,” she added, “it’s like you don’t know why you are, where you are. It’s like you are not living, you are existing. It sounds like a cliché but it’s not.”
The realities of eviction are horrendously stark, she says, especially for women who cannot access the city’s only night shelter for destitute asylum seekers.
“There are people who come to us and tell us only way for them to have a roof over their head is to engage in transaction sex. They are being forced to decide, well do I agree to sleep with this person, or do I sleep in the park and risk being raped by three people? This is what the threat of eviction is.
“You are also thinking, will the Home Office come and deport me? Sometimes the Home Office might detain you.
“Merely the threat of eviction is so great that some people will just leave the house. The threat can be worse than the act – you are constantly on that edge. The threats are not just about removing you, it’s about demoralising you, it’s about dehumanising you. For me that is the hostile environment at work.”
Part of this story was published in the Sunday National on 14 April 2019.