The Fight for Asylum Seeker Rights Behind Glasgow’s Protests

While far-right violence claimed the headlines in Glasgow this week, the cause behind the original peaceful protest endures – the inhumane living conditions facing asylum seekers in the city.

While this week’s far-right violence in George Square, Glasgow, received plenty of press attention, less has been written and spoken about the circumstances behind it. Wednesday’s loyalist gathering was in fact a counter-demonstration to another event – a protest over the living conditions of asylum seekers organised by the No Evictions Network.

The background to that campaign sheds some light on why the fight against racism remains so important in Scotland. In July 2018, the private outsourcing firm Serco announced plans to evict over 300 people from the asylum accommodation it operated across Glasgow. The firm argued that they were still paying to house people who were “no longer receiving [asylum] support from the Home Office.”

The method proposed? Changing the locks on a person’s house, so that they can no longer enter the property, and gathering any personal belongings for collection at a later date. This would be preceded by an escalating countdown of letters explaining that the occupier had a ‘notice to quit’ the accommodation, a set of measures that Serco called its ‘move on protocol.’ Of course, it remained unclear where people should ‘move on’ to.

Is It a Home?

As various NGOs and campaigning groups around the city attempted to organise against the evictions, a number of legal challenges were also put forward, with Govan Law Centre bringing a case to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, challenging the legality of the lock change practice. The trial and subsequent appeals focused on key questions around the legal status of this housing: in what sense was it ‘temporary’? Is there rent or a lease? Was Serco carrying out coercive functions that should be performed by the state or a public body?

Underlying these was a broader question, summarised at one point during the trial by Mike Dailly from Govan Law Centre, “what kind of accommodation is this, is it a home?” While people seeking asylum in the UK have often been blamed for a ‘lack’ of homes, they have rarely been factored in discussions of housing provision.

The evictions exposed this, alongside how what counts as a ‘home’ has been legally and politically partitioned over the last three decades. Since the late 1990s, people seeking asylum in Britain have been dispersed and housed in some of the most under-resourced parts of the country, and in badly maintained housing stock. Meanwhile, investment and provision in housing has halted across the board, and the pool of such ‘cheap’ stock has narrowed to almost nothing.

Tracing the legal and physical architecture that formed a backdrop to the evictions requires going back to the key catalyst for these changes, New Labour’s 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, which inaugurated this dispersal scheme and what many have called a ‘two tier’ social welfare system. It also requires looking at the local adoption of dispersal, and how this links to the privatisation of public housing in Britain. These histories were somewhat missing in coverage of the evictions over 2018-19, along with the experiences of those who lived in and were now threatened with losing these uncertain homes.

Fresh Claims

Mariam was one such person. A young woman who became involved in the campaign against the evictions, she attended a series of meetings with the new No Evictions Network in Glasgow over the summers of 2018 and 2019, where we talked regularly.

Mariam had lived in the city for a number of years already, during which time she had been navigating the complexities of the UK asylum system: its labyrinth of stops, starts, pauses and appeals. She was also in touch with a large range of NGOs and legal organisations, many of whom had combined to form the ‘Stop Lock Change Evictions Coalition,’ hosting legal surgeries for affected tenants, coordinating media and policy work, and spearheading the wider legal challenges.

Mariam explained to me one day how she, like many others, was stuck in a particularly sticky part of the asylum system: trying to submit what is called a ‘fresh claim’ after her initial one had been rejected. She had managed to access some important new evidence about the situation she had fled in her country of origin, information unavailable to her at the time of her first claim, but was now waiting to be given a date to submit this. 

Making a fresh claim requires travelling in person to Liverpool, with waiting times to do this often stretching into weeks and months. Her asylum support hinged on this wider claim, and like many people she was caught between the two main forms of this support: Section 95 and Section 4. Both require demonstrating ‘destitution’ – the inability to house oneself and/or meet ‘essential living needs’ – but while the former is for people with an ongoing claim, the latter is supposed to support those who have been refused but still have further legal options, or cannot leave the country on health or other grounds.

In the often long delays between these two kinds of support Mariam’s weekly payments of £37.75 could be stopped, and the flat she lived in repossessed. In the aftermath of that first Serco announcement, Mariam’s everyday life was folded into this complex and uncertain timeline of personal and wider legal wrangling.

After Govan Law Centre lodged their Court of Session case in August 2018, Serco agreed to suspend the evictions, with tenants and campaigners waiting anxiously for an outcome from the court, which met in February 2019. 

The Trial

The court case sat at a messy legal intersection of Scottish housing law, community care law and social work legislation, asylum support regulations, as well as wider asylum and immigration law. Govan Law Centre, the pursuers, argued that people in asylum accommodation were essentially tenants, with housing agreements that offered the same protection as a lease. But they also argued that Serco was operating a public or governmental service, involving a kind of coercion that was analogous to prison services.

Serco and the Home Office disputed all points: these people were simply ‘residential occupiers’, they claimed, with a temporary occupancy agreement rather than a lease or rent, meaning that mainstream housing rights did not apply. Additionally, Serco, as a private company, was simply providing a commercial service for the Home Office, with any ‘coercive’ responsibilities left to them. 

When Lord Tyre made his decision on the case in April 2019 he sided with Serco and the Home Office on the two most important points: the use of lock-change evictions was lawful and this was temporary housing not covered by mainstream housing law. But interestingly, Tyre sided with Govan Law Centre on the two other key parts of the legal battle, stating:

“Serco is exercising a function of a public nature. The implementation by the UK of its international obligations to receive and provide essential services to destitute people seeking asylum is clearly, in my view, a function which is governmental in nature.”


“Provision of accommodation to destitute asylum seekers or former asylum seekers […] has more in common with the exercise of coercive functions […] than with the mere contracting out of a service by a public authority.”

So, is it a home? According to Lord Tyre, not really. These were governmental, ‘coercive’ spaces, and there were enough existing legal avenues for the onus to be on the individual asylum seeker to advance their main claim and make sure their support, always tied to this claim, didn’t stop. Lock changes were lawful, meaning Serco shouldn’t have to take each individual eviction to court, as Govan Law Centre had hoped, and had previously been the case.

The minor panic that spread across Glasgow following the court’s announcement subsided slightly when, in May 2019, Govan Law Centre stated that they would lodge an appeal. A month later, Serco put out a statement making it clear that the company would recommence with evictions regardless.

Mariam received a flurry of letters from the Home Office and Serco, informing her that her asylum support payments would be stopped and that her ‘entitlement to accommodation’ was ending imminently. Mariam’s options were limited: the one night shelter for destitute asylum seekers in Glasgow was only for men (and at capacity anyway), the local council leadership and mainstream homeless shelters claimed they were legally unable to support people with ‘no recourse to public funds,’ and a new women’s night shelter in the city was not yet operational.

The government wanted Mariam to ‘go home,’ as Theresa May’s vans infamously stated, and was using the threat of homelessness and destitution to push her towards this end. On the date stated for her possible eviction Mariam called for a protest outside her flat, helpfully anonymised in the large tower block in which she lived.

Campaigners stayed outside throughout the day, leafletting and chatting with other residents, but in the end Serco and their locksmiths didn’t show up. The threat, of course, persisted. As she told me that day,

“The letters [from Serco] made me unwell, any sounds would wake me up, I don’t have sleep. I’m scared people are going to come and look at me, take me. I am afraid.”

New Labour’s Legacy

Though Serco’s actions and the legal rulings around them provide the immediate context for Mariam’s situation, the roots go far deeper. If she had been seeking asylum as recently as the early 1990s, Mariam would have been able to access mainstream benefits, social housing and homelessness support from her Local Authority, and have some choice in which part of the country to live in whilst she waited for her asylum claim to be processed. She would have also had the right to work if this took more than 6 months.

Such rights were peeled away through the 1990s by both Conservative and Labour governments, but it was under Jack Straw’s tenure as Home Secretary in the 1997 Blair cabinet that the division between ‘asylum’ and ‘mainstream’ social provision was fundamentally cemented. Straw’s Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, launched after a rabid press campaign about ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, initiated a system of ‘no choice’ dispersal for people seeking asylum in the UK, making any offer of housing conditional on moving to a designated dispersal area.

For the first time, the 1999 Act centralised responsibility for supporting asylum seekers with the Home Office, through a new National Asylum Support Service (NASS), setting up ten new regional ‘consortia’ to deliver this, each given dedicated funding of £100,000 a year. Glasgow became the only local authority in Scotland to join the scheme, leading to around 3,000 people being dispersed to the city by 2001. 

The key decisions around Glasgow becoming a dispersal city in 1999 were made at a council level by the city’s Housing Department, at that time one of the biggest social landlords in Europe. The Director of Housing at the time, David Comley, wrote several reports recommending joining the dispersal scheme to the requisite policy and resources committee of the council throughout 1999. John Mason, now an SNP MSP, sat on that committee at the time and remembers there being broad agreement about dispersal, unusual at a time when his party where still an insurgent force against decades of Labour dominance.

“It fitted with the image of Glasgow as a welcoming city,” he tells me over the phone, “I think we felt that we were making a statement: ‘Yes OK, we’ve got problems with poverty, with poor housing, but we can help with this.’ It was a Westminster decision, but it seemed fair to share this out.” 

I asked him whether there was any consultation with those communities earmarked for dispersal within the city, or the people who would be dispersed: “I don’t think there was anything like that, no. And there were problems of course, the asylum seekers mostly got poorer housing. There were some totally unrealistic ideas about what they were given, there still are. Things bubbled up. And though the housing was in place, and there was a bit of cash, a lot of other stuff wasn’t in place. The Home Office was not refunding all the costs.”

Though central government funding was just about covering housing the new arrivals, there was little left for other infrastructure: educational support, outreach to established residents, the city social work department, or healthcare services. Comley himself told the BBC in 2000 that, “the rents that are paid to us by the Home Office reflect the fact that we are letting furnished [flats], so the council won’t make a profit out of this.”

Despite this, a report by the Scottish Executive from 2003 states that, “Glasgow City Council has benefited financially from the arrival of asylum seekers, principally in terms of new capital becoming available for old void housing stock, which would otherwise have deteriorated.” 

This misses just how deteriorated a lot of the stock already was by that point, after years of chronic under-investment that had left it officially ‘hard to let.’ The city was struggling under £900 million of historic housing debt, and key parts of ‘higher revenue’ stock had been sold off over the preceding decade as part of Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy.

Comley was in prime position to identify unused and ‘void’ stock for dispersal, much of it in modernist high flats built during the massive demolition and construction waves of the 1950s and 60s. The two main initial areas marked for dispersal were the Red Road flats and Sighthill, both areas in the North East of the city and marked by chronic underinvestment. 

Bring on the Future

At the same time as attempting to fill ‘void’ properties through the new dispersal contracts, Comley and the Glasgow City Council housing department were also overseeing another huge shift in the urban makeup of the city: the stock transfer of Glasgow’s council housing.

As the housing activist and writer Neil Gray explained to me, “Glasgow was early in bringing the private sector into the local economy, and it was a big municipal city with a lot of ‘assets’, so then there was this question: what do we do with these assets?” Clearly, housing became a key locus for such a question – and stock transfer was presented as the answer. An article Gray helped write with the Living Rent tenants’ union (who also played a key role in the No Evictions Network) explains the impact this had:

“Stock transfer left Glasgow — the ‘shock city’ of the modernist housing revolution — with precisely zero public housing by the early 21st century. Considering that only two decades previously, in 1981, fully 63.2% of the city’s population lived in council homes, stock transfer has entailed a fundamental change in Glasgow’s housing tenure and culture.”

The transfer was presented to balloted tenants as a Hobson’s choice between investment after transfer, or managed decline without it – indeed, Gordon Brown at the Treasury famously promised to write-off the city’s housing debts if it was approved. When the vote passed in April 2002, Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) took over the entire stock, along with those parts used in the new asylum dispersal arrangements. GHA quickly began embarking on a high-rise demolition programme across the city: since 2003 GHA’s stock of ‘affordable homes’ has decreased from 81,000 homes to around 39,000. 

Sighthill was one area quickly marked for demolitions, with a ‘Sighthill Save Our Homes’ group set up in 2005 to oppose the move. Residents on the group’s blog argued that many blocks in the area had been “run down deliberately in order to ‘facilitate’ demolition” after the transfer. A similar situation at the Red Road flats came to a bizarre, repugnant head in 2014, with plans to demolish five of the remaining blocks live as the climax to the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow that year.

According to the games’ artistic director David Zolkwer, the demolition would be “a bold and confident statement that says: bring on the future.” But as many pointed out at the time, the demolition not only felt deeply misguided, it would also leave a single block standing over the rubble: the one still used to house people in the asylum system. Presumably their place in such a ‘future’ was harder to grasp, but in the end this potentially brutal visual manifestation of British asylum and housing policy never came to pass – a public outcry halted the plans, and the flats were less ceremoniously demolished in 2015.  

A decade on from the first dispersals, in 2010, Glasgow City Council lost the Home Office contract to accommodate asylum seekers in the city, with Serco taking this over in 2011. At the same time David Comley moved from Director of Housing to Social Work as, in the aftermath of stock transfer, there was no longer a housing department to direct.

A Home Office Audit Report from the time explains how Serco faced an immediate problem with the quality of the properties they now managed: “Serco took on housing stock without inspecting it, and subsequently found that many of the properties they had taken on did not meet the contractual quality standards.” But the new providers did very little to address this.

The Home Office’s own contract compliance officers found that only 24% of properties inspected between March 2016 and January 2018 were compliant with standards expected. Serco also faced the problem of procuring cheap properties in a city no longer marked by narratives of ‘depopulation,’ with very little ‘hard to let’ housing, as investment and new building had halted, while rents spiralled.

The properties they did manage to procure were often scattered around the edges of the city, cut off from existing communities, and predominately owned by private landlords. Glasgow’s Asylum Seeker Housing Project estimate that 79% of asylum housing in Glasgow is now in the private rental sector.

It’s reasonable to expect that much of the private stock being rented by Serco would have once been council-run, sold through right-to-buy or stock transfer, and now rented back by private landlords to a private company, who are in turn funded by the Home Office. The state rents back, at a couple of steps removed, the property it once owned.

Locked Out

These are some of the factors that framed the 2018-’19 evictions struggle: a steady reduction in available housing stock, especially at the cut-price rates required by consecutive contracts; a set of private companies managing such properties for profit; a slow erosion of Local Authority responsibility and expertise on asylum matters; a punitive asylum support system of only marginally withheld destitution; and two decades of ‘no choice’ dispersal to some of the most deprived parts of the country.

This, alongside a carousel of contract changes, each experienced as flashpoints of stress and uncertainty for asylum accommodation tenants, culminating in January 2019 with Serco losing their contract to a new accommodation provider in Scotland, Mears Group.

Throughout this time, NGOs, campaigners and people facing eviction like Mariam waited for an outcome from Govan Law Centre’s appeal against Lord Tyre’s Court of Sessions decision. In November 2019, this arrived, in a new judgement delivered by Lady Dorrian, the lord Justice Clerk of that same Court.

While campaigners had hoped the appeal might reverse the idea that the evictions were ‘lawful,’ it firmly upheld this. Also, with a ‘cross appeal’ from Serco and the Home Office, the new decision went back on the two parts of Tyre’s judgement that had given the campaign against the evictions some hope. Lady Dorrian argued that Tyre had been ‘unsound’ in arguing that coercion was in place, instead stating:

“No coercion applies to someone in the position of the appellant [and all those in a similar position] It remained open to her to refuse the accommodation offered. That may involve a stark choice between the accommodation offered and homelessness but it did not follow that the Secretary of State was exercising a coercive power in providing the accommodation.”

There was choice, the choice of having no home at all, and thus, no ‘coercion’. Tyre was also ‘unsound’ according to this new judgment, in finding Serco to a be functioning in ways that were ‘governmental’, like a ‘public body’:

“Under section 95 of the 1999 Act the obligation is to provide support for asylum seekers, and that obligation remains incumbent on the Home Secretary and does not pass to parties such as Serco who contract with the Home Secretary to provide services for asylum seekers.”

These were not ‘homes’ in any legal sense then, and the ultimate responsibilities for provision lie with the Home Office, rather than accommodation providers themselves, leaving Serco and Mears considerable discretion in how to evict. 

Yet, as is often the case, the judgements offered very little clarity for people on the ground. The question of who could make someone like Mariam homeless still felt painfully ambiguous: was it the Serco Housing Officer who came to deliver her eviction notice; the bailiffs, locksmiths and police who would carry it out; the City Council who (though they had once run the whole dispersal scheme) were consistently unclear about their responsibilities towards her; the Home Office case worker who suspended her support; the buck passing between them all? Or was it the underlying implication, informing all this, that you can’t make someone homeless, if you deny them the very right to a home?

On the day of the ruling, sat flanked by various NGO and legal figures from campaigns against the evictions, Mike Dailly from Govan Law Centre read a statement:

“I think this is a truly sad day for human rights law in Scotland. In allowing the Home Office’s cross appeal the effect of today’s ruling is that the UK government can outsource its statutory and international legal obligations to a private company. In effect that means you can contract out of the Human Rights Act.”

He finished by announcing that Govan Law Centre would be seeking their clients’ permission to appeal the ruling at the UK Supreme Court – conclusions, and possible evictions, held off again. On April 6th 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, this further appeal was refused. 

No More Appeals

For campaigners, it felt hard not to see the victories until this point as somewhat pyrrhic. Yes, Serco lost their contract in Scotland and the vast majority of people threatened with evictions had not been forced out of their homes. But some people did come back from trips to the shops, hospital, or a coffee with friends, to find themselves locked out from their houses.

One man told me how he came back from a doctor’s appointment to find his key didn’t work in the door, and that Serco wouldn’t let him retrieve his medicine and belongings from inside until the next day – he could see the old lock through the letter box, sitting in a pile of sawdust.  

In light of Covid-19, the government announced a three-month ban on asylum evictions, and much of the campaigning shifted to supporting people through the pandemic. Mears, already deep in their own property procurement crisis, moved hundreds of people into unsanitary hotel accommodation throughout the lockdown, a physical manifestation of the ‘temporary housing’ that Serco had sought to legally clarify.

One man, Adnan Olbeh, died in early May in one of these guest houses, after repeatedly reporting issues with the accommodation and trying to seek mental health support. The structural racism that has informed higher death rates from Covid-19 amongst BAME people in Britain, also underpins people like Adnan being barred from ‘mainstream’ housing support, a devastating manifestation of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s famous definition of racism as, “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” 

While the court case seemed to strengthen the two-tier division of ‘asylum’ and ‘mainstream’ housing, it also gave new impetus to campaigns against the system. The No Evictions Network drew on a history of resistance in Glasgow around rent, migrants rights and anti-racism, making connections to the similarly punitive conditionality of Universal Credit, PIP assessments and other wider systems.

Hovering over all these was a critique of the underlying assumptions guiding dispersal and the asylum system, as an activist from the No Evictions Network told me:

“We’ve got to keep reminding people that the asylum system isn’t just broken, it’s deliberately skewed. It doesn’t respond to global conflicts, or other kinds of disasters – it puts an artificial limit on how many can gain refugee status, stretches out the waiting times, and punishes people into giving up. These are the people who are told to leave their homes, who are told they shouldn’t even think of these places as homes. And once they can do evictions through a lock change, and change the idea of who has the right to a home, a precedent is set.”

As for Mariam, she continues to wait anxiously through the unending twists of a traumatic asylum process, all the while finding hope in the friends she has made along the way. As she put it on the day of her possible eviction:

“[Despite all this] Today was nice, with people here. I was in George Square for the protests, I met lots of people. I don’t have money, but I have friends, and I thank God. I love people. There are good people in Glasgow.”

In the aftermath of the legal cases, many within the campaign are trying to re-strategize about what the anti-evictions fight will look like next. Can the campaign push past an assumption that the 1999 Act and its correlates are not fixed and timeless, but contingent, emerging at a particular moment of racist agitation against ‘asylum seekers’, and open to change? Can we imagine a world where investing in public housing is seen as a general good, for everyone? How did we get to the position where we are even asking, ‘is it a home?’ 

The answer to such questions ultimately lies, as Mariam hints, not in some reified legal sphere, but in the organising and campaigns of people directly affected by dispersal. This means people in the asylum system themselves, as a priority, but also those who live alongside them, friends and neighbours, many of whom will be facing similar problems of precarious housing, poverty and marginalisation at the hands of the political establishment.

While the legal rulings around the evictions seemed to entrench a division between an ‘us’ and ‘them’ set up to fight over a meagre housing infrastructure, the No Evictions struggles hinted at the possibility of making connections beyond this. They show that dismantling this law, and building the housing we need, requires turning the question back on those who seek to set the terms of debate. Not asking ‘is it a home?’, but demanding decent housing for everyone.  

You can find out more about the No Evictions Network in Glasgow here.

The asylum seeker ‘Mariam’ in this article is referred to by a pseudonym to protect her identity. 

About the Author

Joel White researches immigration detention at Edinburgh University and is a volunteer at The Unity Centre Glasgow.