Refugee charities have warned that a dangerous precedent has been set for the state to avoid human-rights obligations after Scotland’s highest court ruled that the evictions of refused asylum seekers by the housing provider Serco were lawful.
Appeal judges at Edinburgh’s court of session refused to overturn a decision made earlier this year by the court’s outer house that Serco’s policy of changing the locks on the homes of refused asylum seekers did not contravene Scottish housing law or human rights legislation.
Judith Robertson, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, warned that the court’s finding that Serco was not acting as a public authority, and therefore not bound by human rights obligations, had “profound consequences for how people’s rights are protected when public services are delivered by private providers”.
“Governments should not be able to divest themselves of their human rights obligations by outsourcing the provision of public services,” said Robertson.
Fiona McPhail, principal solicitor of Shelter Scotland, which secured interim interdicts for many of those under threat of eviction, expressed similar concerns: “It’s the state that has the statutory obligation to accommodate asylum seekers – if by privatising those services, the state can avoid its obligations under human rights law, this sets a dangerous precedent.”
McPhail added: “We now face a situation where around 300 people will be at risk of summary eviction, with no right to homeless assistance or no right to work to earn their own income to cover rent, meaning there is a high risk they will end up on the streets of Glasgow”.
Serco, which handed over its asylum housing contract in Scotland to Mears Group in September, started to implement controversial plans to change the locks on the accommodation of around 300 of asylum seekers living in Glasgow who had been told they could not stay in the UK.
Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said that hundreds of men and women across the city were now facing immediate street homelessness in wintry conditions, as the ruling confirmed that evictions without a court order, which are unlawful in Scotland, can now be carried out by Serco against people in the asylum system.
“The people we work with do not have family networks in Scotland or friends with spare bedrooms where they can stay in a crisis. People have no options. On top of this, there is already a homelessness crisis in Glasgow that this decision will only contribute to”.
Last month, Shelter Scotland launched a judicial review against Glasgow city council, with the charity claiming it has illegally denied temporary accommodation to homeless applicants thousands of times over the past two years.
Govan Law Centre had brought the original test case in the name of two asylum seekers who had been issued with lock-change notices, but it was dismissed by the Court of Session in April. Pending the appeal, more than 100 interim interdicts were granted by Glasgow Sheriff Court to delay the removal of asylum seekers until the outcome of the appeal was known.
But in the judgement issued on Wednesday, Lady Dorrian, who is Scotland’s second most senior judge, ruled that the court’s earlier findings were correct.
Serco said it would now proceed with returning the occupied properties to their owners “in a considered and sensitive manner”.