By Stuart McDonald
Last week, when thousands of children in the UK nervously opened envelopes to find out exam results that bear on their futures, a Sudanese youth, desperate to have his own better future, got on a makeshift boat to cross the Channel. He did not make it. Another death.
This young man felt he had to risk it all. As the Bishop of Dover, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, said, "this young man will never see his hoped-for future". He should never have had to be on that boat. He needed a safe and legal route to a better future in the UK. He was denied that.
However, those that do make it are frequently – in Home office-speak – "routed" like traffic into an asylum institutional accommodation and detention regime. Only last month, the UK Home affairs committee, of which I am a member, published the first report into this system.
There are over 5,000 asylum seekers stuck in hotel rooms tonight across the UK. People seeking protection, in rooms indefinitely, with no money and no hope.
We should ask ourselves: What is really going on here? We cannot sleepwalk to the scandalous Direct Provision (DP) system in the Republic of Ireland. We may wake up and see yesterday’s "hotels" are today's DP centres.
In Glasgow, institutional "hotel" accommodation persists. Mears, a private firm with a government contract to provide asylum housing, placed trafficking victims and pregnant women in hotels where social distancing was impossible. This week, it emerged they were planning to use them until New Year. That is unacceptable.
Our committee devoted a chunk of its report to what has happened in this city. It gives the tragedies a context: 321 people moved, en masse, with little notice. This was a "blanket decision" with Home Office support. It unfolded at the start of a lockdown with strict rules against non-essential travel, from settled one or two bedroom accommodations, to hotels occupied by scores of people.
I urge the immigration minister to investigate this entire hotels debacle in Glasgow, independently and thoroughly, involving those directly affected. The ensuing report must be published and acted on, swiftly. It must not be put on a Home Office shelf to gather dust. People have suffered. We need to learn lessons.
The minister should also read what our committee concluded about these en masse moves. "Asylum seekers should not have been moved to new accommodation during the pandemic without justified and urgent reasons for doing so or without a vulnerability assessment demonstrating that the move could be made safely," we found. These assessments are not jargon or add-ons, they are about real people, about their health, about helping them.
In a matter of weeks, the National Audit Office and our committee have expressed the gravest concerns about if and how vulnerability is handled in asylum accommodation. Both censured the refusal by the Home Office to publish how they do "safeguarding". The Home Office must now deal with this, but also institute a safeguarding key performance indicator (KPI). It is instructive of priorities that vulnerability is not already a KPI.
More broadly, our committee recommended that the "Home Office urgently review the way Mears has been operating during the pandemic, to consider its poor management of service users' welfare, and the wider public health consequences of its approach". I could not agree more. Such a review must be published and nothing should be off the table by way of sanction.
Our committee welcomed the pause at lockdown on asylum support cessations and evictions. However, the truth is that refugee destitution should never have been part of the system in the first place. I fear it is about to rear its ugly head again.
No-one should be made homeless in a pandemic – least of all asylum seekers. To do so is inhumane, endangering individual safety and public health recovery. The health of all really does depend on the health of the most vulnerable.
Covid is still with us, as local lockdowns and the re-emergence of the virus in the UK and Europe attest. This is no time to cut off support and housing from anyone. The Home Office needs to follow the evidence from its own public health experts and its Foreign and Commonwealth colleagues on covid-related international travel restrictions and act responsibly against refugee homelessness.
Our committee therefore called on the Home Office to agree a "fair extension"of the no-cessations and evictions protection policy with local and devolved governments. Sadly, this month, when Scotland's first minister signalled an extension until March 2021 against social and private housing evictions in Scotland, the Home office effectively ignored our committee’s report, sending – initially in England – 28 day eviction notices for new refugees. Experience suggests that many will end up destitute.
Most worrying of all is the deafening silence from the Home Office on its plans for those refused asylum. We fear the Home Office evictions machine operated by pliant contractors is back and ready to try and repossess housing. The result? Fellow human beings being made immediately homeless, into a world of coronavirus. More deaths could ensue, each one of them a foreseeable tragedy.
We cannot bend to Home office obsessions to get back to business-as-usual when that leads to refugee destitution. It was bad enough before covid. It is intolerable now. But then, this is the department responsible for Windrush. Refugee evictions into homelessness and covid may provide the next example of its moral failure. This is about to unfold right before our eyes across the UK, unless we can stop it. The least we can do is try. This is no time for passive acceptance.
Stuart McDonald is the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. He is shadow SNP spokesperson for immigration and asylum.
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