Molly Gilmour (University of Glasgow), Pinar Aksu (Maryhill Integration Network), Teresa Piacentini (University of Glasgow), Annika Joy (Safe In Scotland)

Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city and has, since 1999, also been the UK Home Office’s largest and only Scottish dispersal area. Dispersal is a system of accommodation that distributes people seeking asylum across the UK on a no-choice basis. When people seeking asylum are dispersed, they are provided with basic accommodation and meagre financial support while their claims are assessed. Combined with the removal of the right to work and to access mainstream welfare, as well as an extended decision-making process on asylum claims, this set-up produces isolation and perpetuates poverty.

This has created a unique situation in the city where over the past two decades, the strong communities of New Scots (the term used by the Scottish government to express their vision for a welcoming Scotland where refugees and  people seeking asylum are able to rebuild their lives from the day they arrive) alongside a concentration of grass roots organisations and third sector services have evolved to form a powerful activist scene. This collective action draws on lived and learned experiences of immigration control and is in direct response to the failures of the statutory system and public bodies. 

The Scottish Government has many devolved powers, including housing, yet Scotland is largely constrained from intervening on asylum-related homelessness as immigration remains reserved for Westminster. Whilst the current SNP Scottish Government has no power in shaping Scotland’s immigration law, it has repeatedly criticised the UK Government’s approach to refugee support and has called on the Government to improve their coordinated response in both supporting refugees overseas and in the UK. For example, most recently First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused the UK Government of using “despicable” plans to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda.

Destitution designed-in

UK government support for people who claim asylum is a complex and challenging terrain to navigate. The 1999 Immigration Act was particularly distinctive in its corrosive nature of rights and entitlements and its creation of multi-tiered asylum provision system. It states that a person ‘subject to immigration control’ shall have ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF). Government support for people seeking asylum is characterised by its exclusionary nature: people are provided with a segregated welfare system that sits apart from mainstream welfare and benefits. People are given housing on a no-choice basis and currently £40.85 per person on a weekly prepaid cashless card. This tends to be either section 95 support (for people seeking asylum) or section 4 support (for those who have become appeal rights exhausted (ARE) when their asylum claim is unsuccessful).

The relationship between immigration controls and access to welfare has a long history and can be traced back to the Aliens Act 1905, Britain’s first modern immigration act (see Nadine El-Enany’s ‘B/ordering Britain’ (2020)). Destitution is legally defined within Immigration Law as circumstances wherein a person does not have adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it, or does have adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it but can’t meet other essential living needs. However, the UK government has created an asylum system where people are rendered destitute by the State through removing access to housing and benefits through the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ condition.  The New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy and the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities & Human Rights Committee’s ‘Hidden Lives, New Beginnings’ inquiry report have described how the asylum process is replete with risks of abject poverty and destitution. It is worth noting here that the appalling human and socialcosts of the policy of forced destitution are long evidenced. From the period 2003- 2021 there have been thirty-seven UK-based reports from the third sector on the human impact of destitution upon those in the asylum process, with nine research reports since 2005 on the situation in Scotland. These reports convey not only the devastating effect of destitution on people directly affected, but also the ways and degrees in which the third sector, voluntary groups, local authorities, health, and homelessness services seek to fill the void left by the withdrawal of UK Government support. What is clear from this evidence is that destitution is “designed-in” to the UK’s asylum system and used as a form of deterrence and punishment.

Hotel detention and institutional asylum accommodation

For those already marginalised and made vulnerable by the State, Covid-19 marked a notable change in the housing of people in the asylum process. In March 2020, the UK Home Office, working with the private housing provider MEARS, introduced a contingency housing ‘solution’; the use of hotels in Glasgow as a form of temporary accommodation for people already in the asylum system on s95, s98 and s4 support. This ‘contingency model’ has now been rolled out as accommodation for people newly arrived in the UK.

When hotels were first introduced as a form of asylum accommodation at the beginning of the pandemic, people were moved  from communities where they had made friends and tried to build a life for themselves into hotels at short notice, with sometimes as little as 30 minutes. They were told to pack their belongings without being told where they would be going, nor how long they would be there.  They were provided with ‘full board’, which meant reliance on basic hotel food. Meagre financial support (approximately £5/day) was removed, directly shaping people’s experience of surviving asylum and the pandemic in any dignified way. Life in hotel accommodation is characteristic of what has been called institutional asylum accommodation:  people reside together in a group setting, the setting is staffed and managed and people must use shared dining, bathroom or sleeping facilities. Perhaps most significantly, moving people from communities meant removing them from all the locally based social networks and supports that helped them survive asylum in Glasgow. It is crucial for people to feel safe and welcomed and when they are placed in accommodation within communities, they can connect with others, share their stories, take part in projects and activities, as well as advocate for a better system. Removed from their communities and moved into hotels they experienced a double isolation. Even though such  concerns were raised with the relevant authorities, this policy has had devastating effects in Glasgow: Adnan Olbeh tragically took his own life whilst in hotel accommodation; the tragedy at Park Inn Hotel, where Badreddin Abadlla Adam was killed and six people including a police officer were injured.

Glasgow retains a strong network of community activists mobilising against the cruelty and lack of dignity embedded in the asylum system, and challenging the destitution that is designed in by the Home Office. Maryhill Integration Network (MIN) is one of the central refugee advocacy grassroots organisations in Glasgow, and during the pandemic immediately recognised the importance of staying connected for the most vulnerable as people experienced layers of concerns. Keeping connected to supports via online platforms was crucial but digital poverty meant this was not possible for everyone. Throughout lockdown, MIN provided support to some of the people in hotels and bore witness to the different kinds of violence people experienced there of institutionalisation, daily poverty, exclusion and being subject to racism and discrimination from some hotel staff. The physical relocation to hotels also worked to socially disconnect people from established community supports, with immediate and long-term impacts for settlement and community engagement, and a real risk of creating new pathways to destitution. MIN has been a key player not only in supporting people in hotels, but in campaigning for change to this policy of hotel accommodation as part of a wider network of activists and campaigners. This work reveals the situation on the ground and how the pandemic has amplified the ongoing housing crisis facing those seeking asylum.

The future of institutional asylum accommodation?

Despite these efforts, hotel accommodation is a housing policy model that looks set to stay. It has been extended to accommodating resettlement pathway Afghans with estimates of around 28,000 people stuck in hotels as of June 2022. In May 2022, an amendment to homelessness laws removed the six-week limit homeless families can spend in Bed and Breakfast accommodation in the cases of refugees who have fled Ukraine and Afghanistan, when such accommodation is used to “help local authorities manage an increase in homelessness pressures as a result of two new humanitarian crises”.  Concerningly, hotel accommodation has become another normalised approach of institutional asylum accommodation in the UK, alongside hostels, accommodation centres, barracks and other institutional settings used on an ‘emergency’ basis for the purpose of accommodating people seeking asylum.  All types of institutional asylum accommodation cause harm, blurring the lines between freedom and detention. The UK government is determined to pursue such housing ‘solutions’ as it dismantles the right to asylum in the new Nationality and Borders Act 2022.  This means that the work of organisations like MIN who are part of the wider anti-racist, pro-rights movement in cities like Glasgow face what can feel at times like a Sisyphean task. But what we are also seeing in Glasgow, and elsewhere, is an emerging recommitment to forms of direct action, of interventions against immigration, bodies being placed on the lines, and as a result the closure of some institutional asylum accommodation, offering, we believe, pockets of hope and connections being made that will be essential to the growing campaign to stop the use of hotel accommodation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.