Image: Leslie Cunningham

Covid-19 and social equality: the situation for asylum seekers

Covid-19 has had devastating effects on social equality. In one of a series of linked articles, Graham Checkley reports on how Covid-19, plus a hostile immigration environment, produced a lethal combination.

Not a terrorist incident

“I still believe we should scrap the Human Rights Act altogether – but for now, we’re doing everything we can to stop human rights laws getting in the way of immigration controls.”, Theresa May, 2012. [1]

On 26th June 2020, a suspect was shot dead by police after six people, including one police officer and two hotel staff, were stabbed at the Park Inn Hotel in Glasgow. Three of the people stabbed were asylum seekers, as was the suspect himself, Badreddin Abadlla Adam. The police declared that it was “not being treated as a terrorist incident”. [2]

The reality was that seven bitter fruits of the plant that Theresa May, sowed in 2012, watered by the social inequality of Covid-19, ripened that day. But what led up to it?

The hostile environment

“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity.”, UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, 2015. [3]

The UK government has a bad history regarding refugees. In 2011 the UN Human Rights Liaison Unit published a review criticising the lack of protection for victims of indiscriminate violence, along with an approach that “may fail to recognise that war and violence are frequently the means chosen by persecutors to repress or eliminate whole groups targeted on account of their ethnicity, religious beliefs or other affiliations.”. The UN report also stated that the detention of asylum seekers was inherently undesirable, that the UK Borders Agency could act in an arbitrary manner, that there was a lack of protection for stateless people, and that the UK was enforcing the return of people to dangerous war zones. [4]

Considering this criticism, the speech by Theresa May in 2012 could have been made on another planet. “Uncontrolled, mass immigration undermines social cohesion.”, schools “where almost half of all primary children speak English as a second language.”, “… immigration can displace local workers and undercut wages.”, “… abuse of student visas …”, “… terror suspects …”. [1] An inflammatory speech to an inflammable Tory audience; a speech that gave birth to the hostile environment.

The law that came from this enshrined a deadly principle; the onus of proof had passed from the accuser to the accused. When every migrant was considered illegal until they could prove otherwise, all migrants were considered illegal, no matter how long they had resided in the UK. It is perhaps not too surprising that the UK government were accused of stoking racism and xenophobia, according to a special report prepared for the UN. Austerity was also stated to be a contributary factor. [5]

In one way the hostile environment was epitomised by the Windrush scandal, when people previously invited to settle in the UK found themselves declared illegal immigrants, were threatened with deportation, lost their jobs, and were denied access to the NHS, their pensions and benefits. [6] It was a scandal that cost a Home Secretary their job, and produced an apology from Theresa May [7], but also a refusal to apologise about the hostile environment. [8]

Covid-19. Profits before people?

“… we have to understand that a nation is more than a market, and human beings are more than economic units.”, Theresa May, 2012. [1]

When all migrants are considered illegal, you must control every aspect of their life and access to services, and this is where big business can make big money.

With the onset of Covid-19, the situation for many asylum seekers sent to Glasgow rapidly became even more abominable, as the private sector Mears Group moved hundreds from their initial accommodation into hotels as soon as lockdown was imposed. In May 2020 one asylum seeker, Adnan Walid Elbi a refugee from Syria, died in a hotel, with clear evidence that the Home Office was aware he was suicidal. [9] The Scottish Refugee Council expressed repeated concerns about the use of hotels for people in the asylum system, stating that “People were moved into hotels without formally assessing people’s individual needs and vulnerabilities.” [10] This was on the day before the stabbings, and the Mears Group issued mixed messages about their processes after that. [11]

The Mears Group declared a £940m revenue in 2016 [12] and had recently been awarded a £1bn contract by the UK government [13] after their predecessor in Scotland, the contentious Serco group, had been repeatedly fined [14]; nonetheless there have now been calls for Mears to be sacked. [15]

Mears took the approach that rather than having their staff travel around Glasgow, visiting asylum seekers in their new homes, the safest thing would be to concentrate the asylum seekers in one place and provide them there with the services they need. Perhaps the rapid recruitment and training of more staff would have been a better approach, but Mears had begun to make an operational loss. [12]

It is perhaps worth contrasting what was happening at the Park Inn Hotel to the approach taken by the world’s billionaires, riding out the pandemic on private islands
[16] and watching their wealth rise by $1.9tn. [17] “Covid-19 has not been an equal opportunity virus”, as the IMF so memorably put it. [18]

In August 2020, a month and a half after the stabbings, the Mears Group Chairman reported “Service quality levels to our local and central government clients, and to our many vulnerable service users, have remained at their traditionally high levels throughout the period.”. Mears’ outlook is for “Levels of demand to remain strong, with some easing in the operational challenges”. [12]

This was the same month that the BBC reported that Glasgow asylum seekers were likely to be in hotels until the end of 2020. [19] It has since been reported that the number of asylum seekers in Glasgow hotels has climbed back to 300 due to difficulties finding other accommodation within the city. Other local authorities in Scotland could find accommodation, but according to the Scottish local authorities organisation the UK government has steadfastly refused to fund this. [20] Following the tragic death of a third Glasgow asylum seeker, Mercy Baguma from Uganda, the local campaign, Positive Action in Housing, has called for a public inquiry into the Home Office and Mears group handling of asylum seekers during the pandemic [21], while Glasgow’s MPs in the Westminster Parliament have initiated legal action in the Scottish court system for an inquiry there. [22]

Badreddin Abadlla Adam

“Kettling so many vulnerable people together was a recipe for disaster”, Shafiq Mohammed, 2020. [19]

Mr Adam was a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan, and perhaps he would never have left his home but for the Darfur conflict.

The conflict started in 2003, when he was 11 years old. Like many such conflicts, the roots are in oil; in this case, the potentially rich oil fields of southern Darfur, with China and the US competing for influence, and the US, sniffing after regime change, prolonging the conflict with troop training and cash. [23]

17 years on, there have been an estimated 300,000 deaths from combat, ethnic cleansing, starvation, disease, mass displacements and coercive migrations. [24]

Perhaps it is no surprise that Mr Adam sought a better life abroad, but due the hostile environment he was not to find one in the UK.

Mr Adam arrived in Glasgow in early 2020. The beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown saw him moved, by the Mears Group, into the Park Inn Hotel. The rest, as they say, is history.

References

[1] Theresa May, Speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Politics, 2012.
[2] Glasgow stabbings, BBC News, 2020.
[3] Statement by Ambassador Matthew Rycroft of the UK Mission to the UN at the Security Council Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict, UK Government, 2015.
[4] Submission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Compilation Report – Universal Periodic Review: United Kingdom, UNHCR, 2011.
[5] Austerity measures and hostile environment ‘entrenching racism’ in UK, says UN, Independent, 2020.
[6] Windrush generation: Who are they and why are they facing problems?, BBC News, 2020.
[7] Theresa May apologizes for treatment of Windrush generation, Guardian, 2018.
[8] Theresa May refuses to apologize over ‘hostile environment’ scandal, Guardian, 2018.
[9] Adnan’s Journey, Positive Action in Housing Blog, 14th June 2020
[10] Glasgow stabbings: Concerns over asylum hotel plan ahead of incident, BBC News, 2020.
[11] Home Office contractor admits putting vulnerable asylum seekers at risk – then backtracks hours later, Independent, 2020.
[12] Mears Group, 2021.
[13] Mears Secures £1bn Home Office Contract, Insider Media Limited, 2019.
[14] Serco given new asylum housing contracts despite £6.8m fines, The Guardian, 2019.
[15] ‘Mears must be sacked from asylum housing contract’ demands Sheffield’s housing chair, Institute of Race Relations, 2020.
[16] How coronavirus is affecting the super-rich; billionaires search for country estates and islands to avoid Covid-19, Homes & Property, 2020.
[17] The World’s Billionaires Have Gotten $1.9 Trillion Richer in 2020, Forbes, 2020.
[18] Conquering the great divide, IMF, 2020.
[19] Coronavirus: Asylum Seekers in Glasgow may be in hotels until end of year, BBC, 2020.
[20] Fury as Home office blames councils for rise in asylum seekers in Glasgow Hotels, Sunday National, 2021.
[21] Positive Action in Housing blog “Renewed call for independent public inquiry into treatment of Glasgow asylum seekers”, 2021.
[22] Glasgow MPs call for inquiry into deaths of three asylum seekers, BBC, 2020.
[23] Darfur: Forget Genocide, There’s Oil, Global Policy Forum, 2007.
[24] War in Darfur, Wikipedia, 2021.


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