Asylum seekers allegedly locked out of homes

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Media captionAsylum seekers have allegedly been locked out of their homes in breach of agreed eviction guidelines, it is claimed

Asylum seekers in Scotland have allegedly been locked out of their homes in breach of agreed eviction guidelines.

An ex-employee of housing provider Orchard & Shipman (O&S) said this "brutal" practice can leave them destitute and homeless.

BBC Scotland has also seen company emails instructing staff to "remove individuals" from specific addresses.

The housing company has strongly denied breaching guidelines.

O&S has managed the £221m Home Office contract for asylum seeker accommodation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, on behalf of international service company Serco, since September 2012.

The number of asylum seekers being accommodated in Glasgow alone has risen dramatically from 1,668 in 2012 when the contracts began, to 2,769 in September last year - an increase of 66%.

Asylum seekers in Scotland come from all over the world including Somalia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Eritrea - the vast majority have fled war, torture or persecution.

'Absolute priority'

The lock change allegations are the latest in a string of recent controversies which revealed other Home Office housing contractors in England and Wales may have stigmatised asylum seekers through easily identifiable red-doored properties and coloured food wristbands.

And the Scottish Refugee Council wants the Home Office to commission an independent inquiry into recent claims of substandard housing and dehumanising treatment of refugees in Glasgow by O&S.

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Media captionKeith Vaz: "I think it is absolutely essential that we make sure we are able to get a proper well organised well resourced but humane system for the asylum seekers who are in Scotland."

Emails obtained by BBC Scotland suggest that O&S staff were provided with lists of properties that needed to be cleared of "overstayers" by certain dates.

Asylum seekers may be asked to leave their accommodation if their application to remain in the UK is refused by the Home Office.

At that point financial and housing support will likely be discontinued, though those decisions are subject to appeal and challenge through the court system.

One email, written by an operations manager in July 2013, informs staff that notice has been served to the occupants of the following ten properties.

The manager then informs staff to first "advise" the asylum seeker in advance of the date listed beside each address, but "if they do not move, perform a lock change at the first available opportunity...please ensure this is given absolute priority".

Image caption Many asylum seekers live in Orchard & Shipman housing in Glasgow's Govan area

An O&S spokesperson said none of the occupants at the 10 addresses were evicted on the dates listed, or left in the following three-month period.

They said: "Some residents still live in the same properties; a number have moved into different properties within our estate; and some have moved out after being granted asylum.

"Only one tenant left the addresses identified following a negative decision.

"We also confirmed that no resident left any of these properties without being given the appropriate notice plus an additional seven days at our own expense".

The company said it routinely changed locks only after "the vacation of both granted and refused asylum seeker departures".

'Out on the street'

The same O&S manager sent two further emails in December 2013, under the heading "Lock Changes", which listed a further six properties.

One of the emails reads: "Please ensure that we bag/tag belongings at the same time as performing the lock change."

Shafiq Mohammed - who worked as a housing procurement officer at the company between February 2012 and August 2014 and has now talked to BBC Scotland - said that staff would sometimes "look at a time to catch them [the asylum seeker] when they're out to just change the locks.

"It's as simple as and as brutal as that."

And Mr Mohammed said the changing of locks could mean a "person will be literally out on the street".

He said: "They want to have that flat cleared, so they can move that next paying customer in."

Image caption Shafiq Mohammed, an ex-Orchard & Shipman employee, says lock changes can leave "extremely vulnerable " asylum seekers destitute and homeless

The Home Office confirmed to BBC Scotland that "it is the responsibility of the provider to ensure that the individual leaves the property after this period and payment to the provider is discontinued".

Mr Mohammed said: "So [the changing of locks] does lead to these horrendous situations where people that are extremely vulnerable are getting evicted.

"If they don't get themselves some form of support they can get themselves into, to put it euphemistically, difficult situations."

The company claimed that it, at its own expense, "often continues to provide support for both failed and successful asylum seekers following receipt of their decision letter from the Home Office and the relevant notice period".

A spokesperson added: "We are currently housing around 40 refused asylum seekers - the most vulnerable - including elderly, disabled and families with children."

'Worrying allegations'

Mr Mohammed also alleged that the changing of locks flouts Serco's own operating procedures which staff are required to follow.

In a confidential company document shared with BBC Scotland, Serco protocol outlines how, upon being denied asylum, an occupant should be given 21 days to vacate the property.

The same document dictates that in cases where the occupant refuses to leave, "O&S will follow due legal process to evict the service user" and "begin legal proceedings to secure [an] eviction order".

The Home Office also sent BBC Scotland a series of guidelines which confirmed the procedure they expect housing providers like O&S to follow.

The guidance stated: "If there is a requirement to do so and all other avenues have been exhausted, it is the responsibility of the [housing] provider to undertake legal proceedings to evict the individual from the property.

"We expect providers to follow the correct procedures and where this is found not to be the case, we would take action."

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Image caption There are have been recent claims that some refugees are being housed in sub-standard accommodation by Orchard & Shipman

BBC Scotland has found that neither Serco, nor O&S, has ever successfully applied for an eviction order in the Glasgow Sheriff Court.

The latter company made one application in late 2012 - just months after Serco subcontracted the provision of asylum housing to O&S - which was subsequently dismissed.

However an O&S spokesperson said the internal Serco document was out of date.

They added: "There is no legal requirement for the company to go through the courts as amendments to "the Asylum and Immigration Act 1999...removes the right to any form of tenancy agreement for asylum seekers".

Labour MP Keith Vaz, who is chair of the UK Parliament's Home Affairs Committee, told Good Morning Scotland the evidence that had been received so far "will require us to look at this whole matter again in much more detail".

The committee is due to release a report on housing provision for asylum seekers, in England and Wales, on Friday.

Mr Vaz added: "I think that the information you've provided is very serious and it needs to be looked at very carefully and we will, of course, want to find more information about what exactly has happened."

SNP MP Stuart McDonald, who also sits on the committee, called for "urgent and close independent scrutiny" into the performance of O&S.

"This is the latest in a list of very worrying allegations about how the [Home Office] contract is being operated in Glasgow.

"The whole issue of whether contracts with private housing companies is the best way to get a good deal for tax payers and a fair deal for asylum seekers is now very much open to question."

A Home Office spokesman said: "We take every effort to inspect all asylum accommodation on a regular basis to ensure that it meets the required standard and asylum seekers are treated with respect.

"We will investigate any complaint we receive that a contractor is falling short of these standards.

"Where there is evidence that this is the case, we work with providers to ensure issues are quickly addressed and when they are not we can and do impose sanctions."

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