On Sunday afternoon, private asylum accommodation provider, Serco, announced that with one day’s notice, they would be changing the locks on up 300 residences occupied by asylum seekers whose applications had been refused by the Home Office. The decision has been met with shock and anger by Glasgow City Council, Glasgow MPs, the third sector and community networks that support refugees in Glasgow. Should the decision be implemented, there is potential for 300 vulnerable people to be both destitute and homeless on Glasgow’s streets this week.
The situation – in which the decisions of a private company has so much impact on displaced people as well as the public and third sector – has been enabled as much by recent approaches to asylum accommodation governance as it has been by local operational matters. In 2012, the Home Office made the decision to move asylum accommodation contracts away from the public and third sector and instead award them to private contractors. The COMPASS contract – awarded in Glasgow to multinational Serco – required that contractors cut asylum accommodation costs by £140 million over a period of 7 years. The requirements of the deal – which incentivised the companies bidding for the contract to undercut each other in terms of housing stock and management costs – placed emphasis on money-saving and efficient service provision.
Meanwhile, the terms of the contract were tightly limited. The Home Office would fund Serco to provide accommodation to asylum seekers for the period in which an asylum application was under consideration. In the event of a decision on the application by the Home Office (positive or negative), an asylum seeker would no longer fall under the COMPASS remit, and would be required to leave Serco accommodation. Should an asylum seeker – or new refugee – continue to reside in Serco accommodation, Serco would be liable to cover the costs. As the COMPASS contract incentivises cost-saving measures, and Serco is a profit-seeking company, this situation was seen as undesirable for both the Home Office and Serco. Third sector organisations working with refused asylum seekers report residents experiencing harassment and intimidation by Serco officials, including threats to evict and change the locks of properties.
For asylum seekers whose applications have been refused by the Home Office, the threat of eviction is deeply serious. Once an asylum application has been refused, and even if they seek to appeal the decision, an asylum seeker has very limited access to public funds. Many end up with ‘no recourse to public funds’, a status which means they are not eligible for accommodation support by the public sector and are at risk of street level homelessness, with no access to shelter, food or sanitation. There are some anti-destitution organisations in Glasgow that seek to alleviate this – for instance, the Refugee Survival Trust has a very limited number of properties that they can offer to people at most risk, whilst Positive Action in Housing runs a ‘Room for Refugees’ scheme; however, these facilities rely on donations and volunteers. As a result, when Serco evicts asylum seekers from its properties, it puts additional pressure on the already-limited support provided by the third sector, and increases the risk of more people being destitute in Glasgow.
More recently however, the situation had appeared to improve. During GLIMER research, NGO representatives had reported that Serco officials had begun to work with anti-destitution networks to hold back on evicting asylum seekers who were represented by the third sector. This had reduced the number of evictions from Serco accommodation and had allowed anti-destitution organisations to work with asylum seekers to resolve their cases. However, with Serco’s announcement on Sunday, this agreement appears to have come to an end, with a day’s notice.
The privatised nature of the asylum accommodation contract in Glasgow has enabled Serco to do this. Accountable neither to the residents of their accommodation nor to local services and networks, Serco’s concerns are with the contract providers (the Home Office) and their own shareholders. In the meantime, the manner in which the COMPASS contract has enabled the Home Office to distance itself from the business of asylum accommodation provision – and the operational and political consequences of its administration – means that Serco rather than the Home Office that has attracted the majority of local and national anger. Whilst Serco’s actions in this situation should certainly continue to be subject to scrutiny and critique, attention also needs to be given to how the model of governance on which the COMPASS contract operates has impacted asylum accommodation provision in Scotland. By ’dispersing’ responsibility away from the Home Office to private contractors and by focussing on efficiency and cost-reduction, the Home Office (1) disempowers local actors in the public and third sector (2) deflects any criticism -and any initial political fallout – to its contractors and (3) continues to achieve its goal to create a hostile environment for asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.
The full results of the GLIMER team’s research into the impact of governance on asylum and refugee accommodation in Scotland will be published shortly.