Just somewhere to sleep

Arecent article in The Herald by Archbishop Mario Conti started with these words:

Just occasionally a story emerges, which initially sounds too unlikely, too horrendous, to be true. “I must have missed something,” I thought, as I read, with growing disbelief, the details of a human rights scandal likely to occur later this summer, not in a far-off dictatorship, but in Glasgow.

He was talking about his discovery that around 100 asylum seeking families will, this summer, be thrown into (UK) state sanctioned destitution in Glasgow when the current service provider Y People (formerly YMCA) hands over to its successor, the multinational Serco.

I will never forget the day I discovered what we do to so called ‘failed’ asylum seekers in the UK. Like Archbishop Conti I was stunned. In fact I was speechless. But I had no choice. I had to speak and quickly. I had someone sitting in my office waiting for me to tell him that it was all going to be alright. In fact I had already done that. What he was waiting for was to find out where he would be sleeping that night. And I now had to find a way of telling him that. in fact, I had got it completely wrong.

I was a newly elected MSP and in the few months since finding myself unexpectedly representing the people of Glasgow after the sudden death of my friend and colleague Bashir Ahmed MSP, I was used to having to get to grips with the many things I didn’t know. I was learning fast but when my constituent, a young asylum seeking man from the Sudan told me he’d received a letter saying he had to leave his accommodation, I smiled reassuringly and told him not to worry. Nobody is simply discarded onto the streets in this country I informed him with absolute confidence. I got him to take a seat whilst I made a few calls that would sort it all out.

I remember even more clearly the shock after half a dozen calls left me re-educated in that respect. I will never forget how awful I felt as I sank back behind the filing cabinet so he wouldn’t see my tears as I tried to compose myself before telling him that unfortunately he was right and there was nowhere he could go for help. Not for shelter, not for food. Nothing and nowhere.

I remember I smiled reassuringly and told him not to worry. Nobody is simply discarded onto the streets in this country. I remember even more clearly the shock after half a dozen calls left me re-educated

This guy, a young man who’d been kidnapped and tortured by rebels, escaped then was recaptured and tortured some more, was one of those ‘failed’ asylum seekers. Incidentally, the physical torture only came after the mental torment of seeing his village and his family exterminated by the rebels. He has two siblings who may have escaped that day and may still be alive and he checks for news with the British Red Cross regularly. Does the UK Government not think he might have enough on his mind without having to sleep on the street and find a way not to starve? Apparently not.

It’s important to know how easy it is to become a ‘failed’ asylum seeker. Some might be wondering right now if he was telling the truth about his life being in danger. Many will assume he was lying, otherwise why would he have ‘failed’?

So it’s useful for me to tell you that six months after his state sanctioned destitution began, he was given leave to remain in the UK. Why? Because the latest country report from the Sudan showed that all non-Arab Darfuri men were in mortal danger in the Sudan. Exactly what his solicitor and supporters including myself had argued. The whole asylum process can be very arbitrary and we would do well to remember that when we hear talk of ‘failed’ asylum seekers.

My Sudanese friend is just one man. I have since met and become involved with many others. A recent survey carried out by Glasgow Caledonian University showed that as many as one in four asylum seekers in Glasgow are currently destitute with the average length of destitution being 18 months. It’s clearly a growing problem as the charities working with asylum seekers will tell you.

Now, the growing numbers are about to get a spike and these charities are going to be in danger of collapsing under the pressure as more than 100 families are evicted over the summer by another much larger, publicly funded charity. You can see why Archbishop Conti refers to it as a “human rights scandal”.

Positive Action in Housing has been supporting destitute asylum seekers since 2004 but with very little funding, it can only do so much. To cope with the growing need, the Glasgow Destitution Network opened a night shelter at a church in the West End of Glasgow. Intended only to run for the winter months, the need to keep it open year-round soon became clear. They are completely reliant on public donations of goods as well as money to stay open. I can’t begin to imagine the strain these forthcoming evictions will put on this volunteer-led organisation.

I recently had a bit of a spat with Y People, the current service providers, in the pages of The Herald. I stand by every word but they are not the real culprits here. The main protagonist in all of this is the British Government and its twin objectives to privatise anything that moves and to drive out asylum seekers by making life so unbearable for them that they volunteer to go back to their country of origin.

That is as naïve as it is wrong. There is a world of difference between being treated with no respect, thus feeling miserable most of the time, and actually being in constant fear for your life or the lives of your children. Nobody, given the choice, will take the former but it’s human instinct to do whatever is in your power to fight the latter.

And yes, I believe it does follow that privatising support services for asylum seekers will lead to misery. The primary motivation of a private company is not people, it’s profit. Before Serco was awarded the contract to house Glasgow’s asylum seekers, all I knew of this multinational was that it ran prisons, used to lock up children in Dungavel and that it made a massive profit out of the PFI contract at Wishaw General.

Now that I’ve read up a bit, I know it has fingers in many pies (including nuclear weapons) and none of those pies are about providing support to vulnerable or traumatised people. Serco has already said it is not obligated to house ‘failed’ asylum seekers. And this is correct. It is not legally obligated. They are, however, morally obligated. Unfortunately whilst you can appeal on humanitarian grounds to the public and voluntary sectors, it’s almost pointless trying with big conglomerates. Let’s face it, their shareholders would not be best pleased if they were to plough some of their profits back into projects that reaped no financial reward, simply because it was the humane thing to do. They certainly couldn’t give a business case for housing ‘failed’ asylum seekers.

Perhaps the aim of the UKBA and the British Government is a long term one. Perhaps they think treating people like this will get the message out to potential asylum seekers that the UK is not a good place to be. It’s not a message I would want to put across but in any case, the chances of it making any difference to the number of people seeking asylum here are low.

They would know that had they paid more attention to the 2009 Refugee Council commissioned report Chance or Choice (http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/Resources/Refugee%20Council/downloads/chancechoice.pdf) which found that more than two thirds of asylum seekers did not specifically choose the UK, they just had to get away. The same report completely debunked the myth that asylum seekers think the UK is the place that will pay the highest benefits. More than three quarters of them didn’t know we had a welfare system and most had no expectation of financial support, they fully expected to have to work to support themselves, not realising that they would be banned from paid work. Of the third who did set out to reach the UK, all they’d expected was not to be tortured and not to be murdered so whatever they found here, it was always going to be an improvement.

One man who no doubt is thankful to have somewhere to sleep, told a reporter that he often walks around Glasgow during the day crying like a baby.

Given that any asylum seeker volunteering to go home is given financial assistance to start again in their home country, and still they’d rather put up with this than take the assistance, isn’t it self evident that they really can’t go home and that their claim really is genuine? And can we agree that humanity and compassion are far more important than hard cash? If the answer to that is yes, we need to start again with the asylum system. We need to rebuild it and the new structure needs to be based on one underpinning principle – that we are all human beings with a responsibility to each other, regardless of where in the world that other was born and that people must come before profit in everything we do.

If you feel able to support people in this situation and can perhaps offer a room for emergency accommodation, short or long term, please contact Positive Action in Housing by emailing home@paih.org.uk and take time to find out more here http://www.paih.org/Latest-News-Appeals/Glasgow-Refugee-Evictions.html

If you can donate money, sleeping bags or time to the night shelter visit here http://destitutionaction.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/winter-night-shelter/ or donate straight into their bank account “Glasgow Destitute Asylum Seeker Night Drop In” at any Lloyds TSB branch, account No: 75140563 and sort Code: 87-37-51.