Glasgow campaigners have halted the attempted eviction of hundreds of asylum seekers, reports Mark Porciani
A Glasgow united has successfully postponed the attempted eviction of over 300 asylum seekers by Serco. The planned evictions were due to start on Monday 6th of August. Serco’s aim was to evict 10 homes a week. It’s chilling to think what this process would have looked like and the impact this could have had for our communities in Glasgow. The institutionally racist undertones of this are clearly an indictment on Theresa May’s hard immigration policy.
News of Serco’s plans rumbled into George Square at a refugee event on the last Saturday in July. Two people impacted by this announced they would be protesting and going on hunger strike outside the Brand Street Immigration Office. This started on the Wednesday and lasted until the earlier hours of Friday morning. They were arrested by police, and both sadly ended up in hospital due to the stress of the situation.
The night before the hunger strike outside Brand Street, up to five hundred activists attended an open air rally at Donald Dewar’s Statue aka the Buchanan Steps. The following evening Momentum organised a meeting at Unite the Union’s John Smith House in the City. Pressure was well and truly on, ranging from the City Council right through to legal challenges from Shelter. In our communities MPs and Living Rent handed in letters to housing associations demanding they would not evict people.
By the first Saturday in August the smell of victory was in the air. On the news that morning, Parkhead Housing Association announced they had written to Serco informing them they “would be in violation of rental agreement if they attempted to change locks on property”. At lunchtime there was another protest outside the Home Office Building in Glasgow. Eviction notices were rightfully burned. Speeches were made by representatives of refugee communities, Aamer Anwar the human rights lawyer, Paul Sweeney MP for Labour and Chris Stephens for the SNP. There was also a protest organised in solidarity outside the Home Office in London
After a weekend of protests, on the Monday, up to 75 activists gathered in the Royston area of Glasgow. We walked up to the street where one of asylum seekers stayed. Already present were members of Living Rents neighbourhood resistance team to ensure there was no untoward activity from Serco. An emotional ten minutes was to follow when we was greeted and thanked by asylum seekers impacted by Serco threats. Clearly explaining the heartlessness of the whole system. While they may be provided with a place to stay by Serco and the Home Office, any other basic rights like to work and so on are not allowed. At the same time they are demonised as a problem. In this part of the city groups like Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees have been providing support to asylum seekers for nearly two decades.
God damn Serco
Serco is run by the grandson of Winston Churchill - Rupert Soames - not to be confused with his brother Sir Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP who had a meeting with Robert Mugabe while on visit to Zimbabwe last October. Ironically, we have a significant number of asylum seekers in Glasgow fleeing from Mugabe’s reign. Rupert Soames took over running Serco in 2014. Prior to this, Soames was well known in the West of Scotland as the boss of the highly successful portable generator company Agrekko. Upon joining it he invested £1 million in the failing Serco company. Today his shares are worth 240p less than his initial investment. Soames’ investment in the failing governmental-outsourcing-contract company is more about an investment in a failing political ideology than a sound business investment. According to the FT, he has
a ‘shit-o-meter’ on his desk, a toilet brush to remind him of the gravity of the problems that any group focused on public-sector contracts covering defence, justice, immigration and healthcare could face.
Well, the shit certainly hit the fan for Rupert Soames over his failed attempt to evict asylum seekers in Glasgow. Soames is a regular traveller on the Serco-controlled franchise, the Caledonian Sleeper- a train with beds that leaves Glasgow Central on a nightly basis. This is handy for us to know in the event of any future attempts of eviction by Serco.
This time last year, financial news sources were reporting that Serco was as likely to go bankrupt as Carillion. In the first 6 months of this year, four-fifths of new investments were made in outsourcing contracts abroad. Soames claimed recently:
Our strategy is to weather as safely as we can the current storm…dipping our net in the water if we see opportunity, so we will be well positioned when we reach calmer waters
Serco is cash poor while its profit rate soars at the same time. According to Serco, housing asylum seekers costs them £1 million a year. And according to Rupert Soames on a BBC Radio Scotland interview, Serco have made a loss of £80 million in their housing asylum seekers contract over the last five years.
This whole process by his quasi-governmental organisation is about trying to save money, racially stigmatising refugees in the process. One elected member in the Glasgow City Council spoke to Soames on the phone last week and is rumoured that Soames said about refugees: “if they disappear we all know they will just end up working in a takeaway.”
Outsourcing is a critical source of income for all aspects of the public sector. The properties that Serco rent are often from cash-stripped housing associations. Normally they will rent out substandard flats awaiting grants for refurbishment or demolition. Year on year housing waiting lists go up. Renting these properties is not only a vital source of income, it is also used as a convenient excuse by the housing associations to cover for their inability to address the real housing problems in our communities. Serco will pay three times as much a week than a tenant will to a housing association for these properties. Other agencies involved in drug/alcohol rehab and homelessness will outsource public sector properties in a similar manner. The madness of the market and private companies commodifying services is a waste of resources.
Rather than evicting vulnerable people from their homes, we should be evicting Serco and their like from public sector provision. In Glasgow, we have been welcoming asylum seekers for nearly twenty years. Many are victims of the British Government’s war disasters. At the height of this dispute the Home Office stated:
Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with free, fully-furnished accommodation while applications are considered...However it is right that we prepare for someone’s removal if they do not have a lawful basis to stay in the UK and they are not pursuing an appeal.
According to Serco a number of the people facing eviction will not be evicted because they have a positive decision. 80 have negative decisions but despite this are unable to return home. Surely if they are unable to return that is a positive case for asylum?
Evict Theresa May
Most of the properties the early asylum seekers in Glasgow lived in have been demolished without any proper replacement of housing stock. All statements from both Serco and the Home Office have presented these vulnerable members of our communities as “failed asylum seekers”. The only failure here is clearly at the door of the Government and Serco - a failure to treat them with compassion and human decency. Thankfully any attempt to whip up the usual racism regarding housing asylum seekers has failed. It is clear that for many under the constant cosh of welfare reforms that the treatment of asylum seekers is the testing ground for what is to come for everybody else requiring welfare. If Serco had managed to come up with a successful mass eviction of asylum seekers, then the Tories would have a blueprint to do this to people in housing debt arrears as a consequence of Universal Credit.
The decision-making process does indeed sound a lot like what people go through daily in relationship to welfare. Serco is blaming the asylum seekers currently who cannot move on for this issue. It’s also blamed other areas in Scotland for not assisting by taking in asylum seekers. This is not true. Serco has also stated that Home Office rules are to blame but will not make a challenge of this. At least 6 times on Radio Scotland interview the CEO of Serco said "these failed asylum seekers need to move on". Where to?
This all shameful situation just proves that Home Office is not fit for purpose and is unable to manage immigration without racial prejudice.
The Scottish Parliament is on holiday and not due back for a fortnight. There should be an emergency recall of Parliament and pass legalisation to enhance our laws regarding evictions. The Scottish Parliament is responsible for policing we could easily be making legalisation to ensure the police Scotland have powers to stop Serco and the Home Office in their tracks. Susan Aitken, the leader of the SNP Government in Glasgow City Council has stated she has a task force in place to assist. How effective this would be considering the recent handling of aftermath Art School fire on Sauchiehall Street is an issue of concern. In June, Shelter was trying to meet with Susan Aitken to discuss that in the first year of office her administration broke the law 3000 times regarding providing provision for homeless people in the city.
While I welcome the change to immigration policy allowing Local Authorities to access the same information as Serco and the Home Office, I do not welcome the opportunity for Susan Aitken to access this information. In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland, she informed Gary Robertson “if the Home Office deem these Asylum Seekers as unfit to stay. Rather than evicting on to the streets they should deport them.” What confidence can asylum seekers have in the City Council when the leader goes on national radio regarding gaining access to their information; and invites the Home Office to deport them!
Defend asylum seekers, decent housing for all
Serco confirmed last week that it would be postponing actions for at least 21 days. The success of this campaign has to be a testimony to the recent successful protests against Trump’s visit to Scotland. To not follow that up that by ensuring Scotland was welcoming to refugees would have being a tragedy. All elected members for the Green Party, Labour Party and SNP rightfully put partisan self-interest aside to ensure that the interest of the weak and vulnerable came first. Ruth Davidson, the so called friendly Tory with a big heart, remained silent. Her backbench in Parliament remained silent as well. Recently at First Minister’s Questions a discussion regarding the right of an asylum seeker to stay in Scotland was disrupted by one of the Tory MSPs shouting “send them back”.
The role played by many NGOs and housing campaign groups has been critical. This included the radical united front housing campaign Living Rent. Many us who were involved in the Bedroom Tax campaign were preparing our anti-eviction armies for battle. We have won the battle to ensure no evictions happened in the last week. Now, demands need to be made that the Scottish Parliament and our local authorities look after the rights of asylum seekers to stay in Scotland.
The ghost of Mary Barbour the leader of the 1915 rent strikes in this city breathed through our campaign. The words she famously cried “God damn the sheriff officer who enters here...” was clearly heard by all. Like with the 1915 Rent Strike this is a benchmark of the campaigns to come to ensure we have decent housing for all!
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