The Home Office’s decision to evict refused asylum seekers from emergency accommodation in areas under tier 3 coronavirus restrictions is “unreasonable” and could place communities at harm in breach of the law, a judge has ruled.
People who have been refused asylum in the UK started receiving notice to leave their state-funded housing last month, after ministers announced that a ban on evictions introduced in March would be lifted.
Asylum seekers in tier 3 areas are among those who have been served eviction notice, despite criteria set out by the Home Office stating that people should not be evicted if they are in local authorities subject to regional lockdowns.
Local council leaders in areas with tier 3 restrictions in place have called on the Home Office to halt these evictions, warning that they would lead to an increase in destitution and homelessness in their communities and pose a risk to the wider public health.
Ruling on two appeals lodged by asylum seekers on 16 October, an immigration judge said that evicting asylum seekers in tier 3 areas was “unreasonable” and “may place them and others in their communities at greater risk of harm" and breach of their human rights.
She added: “That risk to health and wellbeing applies to everyone, whatever their immigration status.”
The judge said the cases should be heard in a higher court in order that the applicants could challenge the lawfulness of the Home Office’s decision to withdraw accommodation from asylum seekers, and said they should remain in their accommodation until the case was heard. The case will now be heard at the High Court.
Laura Gibbons, a solicitor at the Greater Manchester Law Centre who represented the two refused asylum seekers appealing their evictions, said: “Despite requests for clarification on Home Office policy relating to the evictions and regarding what advice has been received to indicate that the steps being taken are safe to do so we have received none.”
Leeds City Council wrote to the home secretary last week to “urgently” request that it did not evict asylum seekers at this time, in light of the increasing Covid-19 infection rates across Leeds and the UK as a whole, in the interests of “wider public health”.
Council leader Judith Blake CBE said that, while in normal circumstances refused asylum seekers were often supported by local charities, these groups now had limited capacity due to Covid-19.
“The council is concerned if evicted without voluntary and community sector support, this could lead to an increase in destitution and homelessness in the city, as well as barriers to accessing healthcare and the likelihood of Covid-19 transmission,” she said.
“To evict people during the pandemic is a major cause for concern and I would urge you to reconsider your decision to evict these people during this time. The eviction process needs to be planned in consultation with local authorities ensuring adequate support is in place for them to access accommodation and support.”
Rosemary Pantelakis, portfolio holder for corporate services at Hull City Council, said she echoed the sentiments expressed by Ms Blake.
“In the current pandemic situation, it is clearly undesirable for anybody to be made homeless and I would urge the Home Office to reconsider their decision to evict people from asylum dispersal accommodation as this will inevitably lead to destitution,” she added.
While the government has directed that bailiff evictions should not take place in tier 2 and tier 3 areas, there currently is no equivalent policy for evictions from asylum support accommodation.
Lawyers and councils said the Home Office had not provided any evidence that their decision to resume evictions was based on advice from Public Health England, or that they had considered the concerns of the councils that house the most asylum seekers, many of which currently have high Covid restrictions in place.
Glasgow City Council wrote to the Home Office earlier this month outlining their opposition to its “dangerous” and “unconscionable” plans to withdraw accommodation and support from hundreds of asylum seekers in the city.
A spokesperson for the council told The Independent that Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken was due to meet virtually with immigration minister Chris Philp, alongside colleagues in the Scottish government, on Wednesday when she would “firmly restate this position”.
A statement signed by three elected mayors – Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Jamie Driscoll, the north of Tyne mayor, and Steve Rotherham, the mayor of the Liverpool city region – said evicted asylum seekers had “few options beyond street homelessness”.
“As a result, people in our communities are being left out of crucial measures to prevent homelessness […] At a time when Coronavirus cases are rising, the Home Office must extend protections from evictions for those living in asylum accommodation so that no-one is forced out of their homes with nowhere else to go,” they added.
Jon Beech, director at Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, said that while his organisation would under normal circumstances be able to offer evicted asylum seekers a place in their night shelters, the pandemic had meant these weren’t running, leaving them unable to offer help.
“We’re really scared in Leeds because we’re teetering on the edge of tier 3, and the Home Office is creating a situation where people are being made roofless. It’s really hard to know what to do,” he told The Independent.
“If an asylum seeker who’s been evicted has been in contact with someone who’s tested and needs to test positive, where should they go? There are zero options for them.
“We’ve got a local authority who are trying really hard to prevent evictions from happening but who are being stymied by the Home Office which isn’t wanted to turn off the rhetoric on immigration in the midst of a pandemic which is only intensifying.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Those who have received a negative asylum decision, which means they have no right to remain the UK, are given a 21 day grace period. During this time they are rightly expected to make steps to return to their country of origin while still remaining in accommodation and receiving support.
“We offer assistance to those who choose to do so by actively promoting the Home Office Voluntary Return Service.
“As the Home Secretary has said, we are determined to reform the broken asylum system to make it firm and fairer - compassionate to those fleeing oppression, persecution and tyranny but tough on those who abuse our system.”
They said the department would respond to any correspondence on the matter in due course, and that it did not comment ongoing legal proceedings.