Beyond ‘buck passing’: Who should be taking responsibility for the housing rights of asylum seekers?

26/06/2019
Mark Stern

As part of CommonSpace’s special week of coverage on refugees and asylum seekers, Mark Stern looks at the complicated system of responsibilities that is meant to ensure the housing rights of asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow but is instead forcing families toward destitution

THE on-going Refugee Festival is a celebration of the variety of contributions refugee communities make to life in Scotland. But the eviction of 300 refugees and asylum seekers from their homes across Glasgow by outsourcing giant SERCO this month demonstrates the extreme precariousness of life in Scotland for refugee communities. 

Underneath the SERCO evictions lies a confused structure of delegated responsibilities shared between national government, private companies and local councils for upholding the housing rights of persons in need of international protection. The SERCO evictions are a case study in how the breakdown of these responsibilities inflicts dire consequences on those in most need of social support.

Who is ultimately responsible for the housing needs of asylum seekers? And how can we ensure no one lives in fear of destitution in the future? 

Anna Pearce is project worker for the Asylum Seeker Housing Project (ASH), and is working with up to 60 people at risk of eviction in Glasgow. What she sees on the ground is families being deprived of their final layer of security, evicted from homes where they have stayed for up to seven years.

“What SERCO [have] tried to do is make a lot of hay out of this idea that this is temporary accommodation so it doesn’t constitute a dwelling,” she says. “From what we see, people are at least in their accommodation for a few years. And given the considerable delays that happen in people claiming asylum – either for the Home Office to make a decision [or] for people to go through multiple fresh claims – people are in the system for years, therefore people are in SERCO accommodation for years.”

Claiming asylum is a human right guaranteed by the UN for any signatory nation of the UN Convention of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, and in the United Kingdom asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to housing while making a claim to stay. This asylum support accommodation is funded by the Home Office, who often outsource provision of the accommodation to  private companies, like SERCO. 

The housing rights of asylum seekers whose claim has been refused by the Home Office is contentious. Housing rights are withdrawn under UK law once an Asylum claim has been refused. In 2015, 65 per cent of all applications were refused. However, recent guidance published by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) found that over two thirds of households requiring support following a refused claim are successful on appeal.

For Pearce, it is the Home Office and not SERCO who are ultimately accountable for families facing destitution while they remain within the British asylum claim process. 

“To a large degree the reason that this situation has happened is that there has been a huge amount of buck passing,” she says. “The Home Office and SERCO in particular have never taken responsibility for this as an issue, and it’s written into the contract between them that there is no provision for people when they get refused. And there is no guidance or provision for what the housing provider should do with people once they are refused. So they have made this problem for themselves. 

“The Home Office has contracted this to SERCO, so ultimately the responsibility lies with…the body that created that contract.”

READ MORE: Exclusive: Serco apologises for sending asylum seeker false eviction letter

Comprehending the relevant authorities’ responsibilities for supporting asylum seekers and refugees is further complicated by the support offered by the local council. Jennifer Ang, director and co-founder of human rights law firm Just Right Scotland, explains that asylum seeking families are entitled to receive support from local councils as well as the Home Office.

“Initially the responsibility to house asylum seekers lies with the Home Office,” Ang says. “The problem is that there are overlapping responsibilities. So where individuals are particularly vulnerable it could be that an asylum seeker also triggers the threshold for local social support. 

“It could be that the Home Office is providing housing and weekly financial support, but because there is a disability in the family or someone is exceptionally vulnerable the local authority, in this case Glasgow City Council, also has an obligation regardless of someone’s migration status to asses and meet that need. And in these circumstances that is where you get both authorities pointing to the other as responsible for meeting the same needs.

“The problem is, what happens in practice, they don’t get any additional support from either authority because each will maintain that it is the other that is responsible.”

In February of this year COSLA issued guidance to local councils that it can provide funding to asylum seekers and refugees for emergency accommodation. The current view from inside Glasgow City Council, however, is that the Home Office remains chiefly responsible. 

Kim Long, Green councillor in Dennistoun, Glasgow, argues that “destitution is built into the UK asylum system”. 

READ MORE: ‘On the offensive’: Tenants’ union to target Serco ‘business interests’ as evictions set to begin

Long does accept that Glasgow City Council should be doing more. 

“While the Home Office must be pressured into changing the system, we still have a crisis in Glasgow that requires action – we must ensure human rights are upheld and people aren’t tossed out onto the street. In December, I got a council agreement to work out how to support the third sector to provide emergency accommodation. That is legal – public funds can be given to charities for the relief of destitution, for example –  and it’s what those working on the ground are crying out for. 

“The Home Office is the architect of this crisis, and they absolutely must be forced to reform the system, but the council and the Scottish Government have to do more to live up to their own decisions.”

While the finger pointing between the Home Office, SERCO and Glasgow City Council continues, asylum seekers and refugees continue to face destitution. Yet from a legal perspective there are a range of practicable solutions to the problem of overlapping responsibilities. 

Ang says that the public attention to this issue demonstrates the appetite for a solution.

“There was a huge amount of public and political interest or outcry following the commencement of the SERCO lock changes last year,” she says. “The positive thing about that is that it started a conversation about the authorities’ wider responsibilities of ensuring the rights of this group and also about the need for greater co-ordination.

“I think that better processes and actually a broader approach to thinking about how this is funded is very achievable this year because of the urgency of, as Glasgow City Council said, this potential humanitarian crisis.

Ang suggests part of that long-term thinking should be to prepare for the new Home Office contractor, Mears Group, which is currently replacing Serco.

“If you think about it, what we are looking at is the outcome of two systems that are not working well together.  You can resolve it for the 300 who SERCO are trying to evict, but the same systems operating will operate under the Mears Group contract. What would be better is to use this moment to achieve a better approach in Scotland.”

The multiple and overlapping layers of responsibility should add up to a hierarchy of protection and delivery of housing rights for persons in need of international protection. But the reality of the SERCO case looks more like a safety net carelessly and loosely woven together causing whole families within the asylum claim process to fall into destitution. 

With climate catastrophe, war and political upheaval generating over 65 million displaced people around the world, Britain, as one of the richest countries in the world, has an obligation to ensure a full and proper system of support for asylum seekers.

Picture coutsedy of Steve Rhodes