Dani Garavelli: Glasgow will not allow its own to be turfed out without a fight
NEXT week [17 September] marks the deadline for Serco, the company that houses thousands of asylum seekers in Glasgow, to lodge its defence against Govan Law Centre.
The law centre is challenging Serco’s plan to summarily evict 331 residents by changing their locks; the Home Office claims two-thirds of the residents have exhausted the appeals process, although many are still pursuing applications.
The rest have refugee status or leave to remain. Serco argues they are now the responsibility of Glasgow City Council.
Such evictions are not new; asylum seekers have been thrown out on the street as a result of the Home Office withdrawing its funding since the provision of accommodation to those applying for leave to remain was privatised in 2012.
But in July, Serco announced a rolling plan of lock changes, sparking panic amongst those who fear destitution and piling pressure on the third sector organisations who will be left to pick up the pieces.
It seems strange that Serco CEO Rupert Soames should have chosen Glasgow – the city of Mary Barbour – as the frontline in the crackdown. Channelling the spirit of the 1915 rent strikers, campaigners mobilised themselves into an effective force, staging a succession of demonstrations. When Govan Law Centre announced its court action, Serco agreed to halt the evictions until their legality was tested.
When the case is heard at Edinburgh’s Court of Session, the law centre is expected to cite key principles in Scots contract law, Scots common law and the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984, as well as the Human Rights Act. Serco is expected to pass the buck to Glasgow City Council and the Home Office.
If the company loses, it will doubtless look for another route to eviction but if it wins, the evictions will still be challenged. Activists have already pledged to turn up en masse to oppose the bailiffs.
The court case, then, though putatively precedent-setting, is largely symbolic: a show of defiance from a city that does not believe in punishing the dispossessed. But – with a clash between Home Office policy and Scots law at its core – it is a microcosm of the wider conflict caused by the division of powers, with those over asylum reserved to Westminster, but the provision of healthcare, education and legal services for those who end up here devolved to Holyrood.
This means the Scottish Government, which has no control over the speed with which cases are dealt or the eventual results, is left mitigating the impact of Westminster’s often arbitrary edicts.
Talking to various third sector organisations for a recent feature, there was a consensus it is preferable to be dispersed to Glasgow than south of the border. This is partly because the Scottish Government appears more positively disposed towards those who seek a safe haven. For example, it has directed the NHS to continue to provide care for asylum applicants whose claim has been refused (this is not always the case in England).
The key principle of its New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy is that new arrivals should be supported to integrate into communities from day one, not wait until they have been granted leave to remain.
Organisations such as Positive Action for Housing work hard to ensure no one ends up sleeping rough, liaising with a network of host families who offer them a room as a stop-gap.
Still, there is much about the policy on asylum seekers the Scottish Government cannot customise even though it is detrimental to itself and to those living within our borders.
It cannot stop those fleeing persecution being left in limbo for years, or being questioned in rooms that trigger memories of previous interrogations, or being held in Dungavel, although it did successfully push for an end to the detention of children there in 2010.
As the name ‘hostile environment’ suggests, the existing system is designed to compound the trauma asylum seekers have suffered. The fact that – other than in exceptional circumstances – they cannot work or study means they have nothing to keep themselves from becoming depressed. This means increased pressure on mental health services already struggling to cope with the indigenous population. But it also means Scotland misses out both on their skills and their tax receipts, while the alt-right continues to peddle the stereotype of asylum seekers as scroungers.
Last month, Amal Azzudin, Equality and Human Rights Officer for the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, told me she warns those she works with that the asylum process will not change; the best they can do is to learn how to manage the stress it induces.
Govan Law Centre’s challenge against Serco is important. Like the protests against the dawn raids, it is a show of solidarity that demonstrates Glasgow will not allow those it regards as its own to be turfed out without a fight; but the overall plight of asylum seekers is unlikely to improve dramatically unless the Scottish Government wins a much bigger battle: for policy on asylum and immigration to be devolved.