'Hunger strike' over refugee evictions

Image caption,
Irwais Ahmadzai (left) and Rahman Shah say they will remain outside the Home Office building until officials agree to look again at their case

Two Afghan men have gone on hunger strike outside the Home Office in Glasgow after being told they are to be evicted from their homes.

Rahman Shah and Irwais Ahmadzai are among 300 asylum seekers in the city facing eviction by contractor Serco after being refused refugee status.

Mr Shah and Mr Ahmadzi say Afghanistan is not a safe place to return to.

And they say they will continue their protest until the Home Office agrees to look again at their cases.

Serco is employed by the Home Office to provide accommodation for about 5,000 asylum seekers in Glasgow, but says it often has to provide housing without recompense, sometimes for months, for failed former asylum seekers who have no right to stay in the UK.

On Monday, it issued notices to six of those affected warning that their locks will be changed within seven days.

Historically, lock changes have not been used for those who remain in asylum accommodation despite the Home Office ruling they will not be granted refugee status and withdrawing their funding and support.

Image caption,
Mr Shah received a letter from Serco saying he must leave his accommodation, which he says will leave him homeless

Serco insists it is "sympathetic" to those affected, but the company has been heavily criticised by politicians and refugee charities, who accuse it of putting profit before people.

Mr Shah and Mr Ahmadzi have both been told by Serco that they are to be evicted, which they say will leave them homeless, but are not among the six who have been given lock change notices.

Mr Shah told BBC Scotland that he had been born in a refugee camp in Pakistan 32 years ago, and had been a refugee his entire life.

He said he had been "so happy" when he came to the UK because he had been told there was "lots of freedom, lots of opportunities here" but he now believe that "they don't have human rights here".

'Start a new life'

He added: "We are stuck here, no house and not allowed to work - where is the human rights?

"If they give to us status we will start a new life. In the UK a dog has a passport, a cat has a passport but I don't have any passport".

Mr Shah, who says he arrived in the UK last year, also says he has hepatitis, and needs weekly injections in his stomach.

His companion, Mr Ahmadzi, says he came to Scotland 12 years ago after fleeing Afghanistan, which he said was still too dangerous to return to despite claims to the contrary from the Home Office.

Mr Shah and Mr Ahmadzi are being supported by the Scottish Afghan Society who said the two men will continue their hunger strike "until someone comes out from the Home Office and meets them and agrees to look at their case again."

Image caption,
A protest against the Serco evictions was held in the centre of Glasgow on Tuesday evening

Serco insists that it is acting "fully within the law" by serving eviction notices on people who have not been granted refugee status, but solicitors at the Govan Law Centre have said they will mount legal challenges on behalf of those affected.

About 500 people gathered in the city centre on Tuesday evening to protest against Serco's move and to show solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers, with further protests held on Wednesday.

Glasgow City Council says it is in the process of establishing a task force to respond to the "emerging humanitarian crisis" and has written to Home Secretary Sajid Javid urging him to instruct Serco to pause its plans.

A spokesman for the Home Office said asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with free, fully furnished accommodation while applications are considered.

He added: "We also cover utility costs and provide a cash allowance to cover other essential living needs.

"While an asylum claim or an appeal is outstanding, we would not be seeking removal.

"If the courts have decided that someone has no right to remain in the United Kingdom it is right that they should leave the UK.

"However if an asylum claim has failed, we will still provide accommodation for those who would otherwise be destitute and who are temporarily unable to leave the UK because of a practical or legal obstacle."

Families pledge

Meanwhile, on Wednesday Serco pledged families will not be put at risk over the next month.

The firm also denied claims it has failed to engage with local authorities and it said it is saving the council a bill in excess of £1m a year for 330 people who are no longer receiving support from the Home Office.

In response to the Glasgow City Council letter Serco chief executive Rupert Soames wrote: "We are giving financial and welfare support to vulnerable people for many months, and in some cases more than a year, after their asylum claims have been refused.

"This is currently costing Serco over a million pounds a year, which costs would have to be borne by the Council if we were not doing it."

He also welcomed the fact the the issue is now being debated.

The letter continued: "The one positive outcome of the events of recent days is that it has put very firmly on people's agenda the nature of the crisis.

"This is that the local arrangements once Home Office support has ceased are inadequate, and we are put into the impossible position of having to make the choice of paying for people's accommodation ourselves, or making them homeless and destitute."

Single males

Serco said its reluctance to evict people has resulted in the number of people whose housing it is paying for increasing from 167 to 330 in the year.

And it claimed many of these people are single males who no longer have the right to remain in the UK.

At the same time Serco said it has to find housing for around 180 new asylum seekers, including families with children, who arrive in Glasgow each month.

The company said it is no longer willing to provide "unlimited free accommodation to over-stayers".

But while a long term solution is devised it has made three pledges for the next four weeks.

Serco said it will restrict the number of people issued with lock-change notices to no more than 10 a week.

It vowed none of these will be families with children.

And it said only people who have exhausted the Home Office appeal process and no longer have the right to remain in the country will be targeted.