This is my full contribution to the Covid-19 Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow Adjournment Debate that I secured after hearing and reading some horrific stories of asylum seekers and their treatment by the Home Office contractor in our great city during this pandemic.
I pay tribute to the campaigning ability of organisations such as Living Rent and the No Evictions! campaign, who have done stellar work organising to help their friends and neighbours.
In my contribution I spoke of the woefully inadequate asylum support rates, however during a pandemic the harsh reality of that is borne out. But even with the pitiful starting point of £39 a week, the Home Office only raised the old rate by 26 pence per day. This increase was an insult to desperate people and children.
As my constituent Saffie put it:
“Even before coronavirus I was barely surviving on around £5 per day. We have to travel to the bigger shops that have lower prices, but now with lockdown we can’t travel and the small shops have hiked their prices. Things like soap and hand sanitiser are very expensive and leave only a few pence for food and other essentials. Since lockdown, essential support services…have closed their doors, so you have to have phone credit or data to even contact them for help. This means deciding to eat or to get phone credit. The recent increase of 26p per day to asylum support is heart breaking. I just want to live in dignity, afford the most basic things and to be safe.”
My office has also been contacted by many asylum seekers to tell of their horrific experience of being bundled into vans in mid-March with no social distancing and transported to hotels – not quality hotels by any manner of means either.
In the first week of lockdown, a decision was taken by Mears to quickly uproot over 300 asylum seekers from single-occupancy or two-bedroom serviced apartments in the city—de facto households—into hotels.
In some of these hotels, the food provided has been mouldy and unfit for consumption, and in some, it is culturally inappropriate, to the extent that around 20 asylum seekers are currently on hunger strike.
Asylum seekers have said the food provided has made them unwell. That is not acceptable. It has become so intolerable that charities have had no other choice than to step in and provide food.
The decision to place asylum seekers into hotels has also resulted in those individuals losing that state financial support. The argument that this is not a cost-cutting exercise just does not wash, and sadly, there has been one tragic death.
Furthermore, in the hotels, social distancing and health concerns are too often being ignored or met with a dismissive attitude. Claims made in ministerial correspondence that organisations such as the Red Cross and the Scottish Refugee Council have inspected the site and raised no concerns are denied by those organisations.
As the Red Cross put it:
“I have confirmed with our operational staff that the offer of a visit to hotel accommodation was not taken up by our staff due to public health guidelines advising against all non-essential travel, this, however, may change as we transition out of lockdown”.
The Scottish Refugee Council said:
“We declined the first invite to a hotel for lockdown public health reasons. We accepted the second invite to visit one of seven hotels in use, which we did, but we said to Mears before then, during it and after that visit, that there is not much we can meaningfully say on conditions and how people feel, on the basis of one short visit to one location. Mears accepted this was the case.”
The coronavirus is a public health crisis, but it is also a humanitarian crisis for people in the asylum process.
When the lockdown was announced. It was stated that asylum seekers would not have their financial support and accommodation cut off—that they would not be evicted—and that that would last until, at the very least, the end of June.
I welcomed the pause in evictions, as did Glasgow City Council and many other asylum local authorities, who for years have demanded that the Home Office take responsibility for the care of vulnerable asylum seekers, rather than shunt them heartlessly onto the streets.
Asylum evictions policy has, way before COVID-19, blighted the lives of women and men thrown into homelessness on to the streets of Glasgow.
That why I was furious to learn that the Government seems to have decided to restart support cessations and, by implication, the imminent eviction in July of asylum seekers, both those who have been granted refugee status and those who are being refused asylum.
That could mean hundreds and thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers rendered street homeless during an ongoing life-threatening pandemic.
We are in a fragile recovery phase out of lockdown. The virus is still out there, and the R rate varies by locality, and we know it attacks the most vulnerable disproportionately.
The evidence is now overwhelming that BAME communities living in areas of deprivation and often higher population density are at an acutely high risk of contracting COVID-19 or of dying from it, this already high risk will escalate if BAME communities are made homelessness.
The Government are getting back to the Home Office’s “business as usual” while everyone else in society is grappling with the new normal. Why is the Home Office different? This “business as usual” will make people street homeless during a public health emergency. This is to happen while all other evictions are rightly postponed.
By cutting off support and making people homeless, the Government are not only placing them at acute health risk, including from COVID-19 but are undermining the wider community and the local government and devolved Government recovery out of COVID-19 which is deeply irresponsible. .
Asylum Seekers just want to live in dignity, afford the most basic things and to be safe. I am calling on the UK Government to act now, stop the evictions, address fundamental issues being faced by asylum seekers and treat our neighbours, our fellow Glaswegians with respect, because that is what they deserve.
You can also find the full reply by the Minister below: