Afghan asylum seekers on hunger-strike protest against eviction

Anger and concern as private contractor Serco plans to evict 330 people from their Glasgow homes by changing the locks.

afghan asylum seekers scotland
Shah, left, and Ahmadzai, right, are among 330 asylum seekers in Glasgow that have been threatened with eviction [Simon Jones/Al Jazeera]

Glasgow, Scotland – Rahman Shah was born in a refugee camp in Peshawar 32 years ago and has never been to Afghanistan.

But because Pakistan does not grant citizenship to children born in camps, he had no passport for travel.

He came to Scotland to seek asylum 12 years ago by an arduous overland route.

On Wednesday, along with 23-year-old Afghan Mirwais Ahmadzai, he started a hunger strike on a Glasgow street to protest the treatment and eviction of asylum seekers by the UK Home Office and its private contractor, Serco.

Shah has been denied asylum and claims the Home Office wants to deport him to Afghanistan.

“I have never been in Afghanistan. I have never seen Afghanistan. I am, my whole life, in Pakistan,” he says, under a makeshift shelter donated by local community groups, opposite Home Office buildings in the Ibrox district.

“When I arrived in the UK I went straight to the police station. They said, ‘Show me your passport,’ but I said, ‘I have no passport, I came by truck.'” 

The letter he received from Serco detailing the terms of his eviction was in English.

“I can speak [English] but I cannot write or read – I was born in a refugee camp, I could not go to college.”

Shah, who has hepatitis, is one of 330 asylum seekers in Glasgow that Serco plans to evict.

Under UK law, people claiming asylum can receive $49 a week – around half the minimum amount guaranteed to UK citizens who can claim social security benefits – and this support is withdrawn if an asylum claim is denied.

“If they cut the money and the support, what will we do?” says Shah.

Local authorities only give support in specific cases, usually where a person has a disability or medical condition. Otherwise, people rely on handouts to survive.

It is not only about Serco, it is about the process of asylum claims - they are doing this for the 300. If Afghanistan is safe, why are there still 37 countries' armies there?

by Muhammad Asif, head of Scottish Afghan Society

Shah and Ahmadzai are Pashtuns, whose ethnic heritage traces back to the region Britain and other colonial powers carved up in the 1800s. 

The Scottish Afghan Society and its 2,000 members, which is run by Muhammad Asif, support the hunger strikers.

“It is not only about Serco, it is about the process of asylum claims – they are doing this for the 300,” Asif told Al Jazeera.

“If Afghanistan is safe, why are there still 37 countries’ armies there?” he said, recalling an announcement by the UK’s defence secretary, in advance of last month’s NATO summit, that a further 440 non-combat troops would be sent to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s safety is also disputed by other UK government departments: the Foreign Office advises UK citizens against travel to most of the country, which saw at least 10,000 civilian casualties in 2017. Attacks have continued across Afghanistan in 2018.

Serco plans to remove 10 people a week from their homes over the next four weeks.

Local organisations which support refugees and asylum seekers are concerned that people are being evicted with no more than a letter from Serco and a change of locks on their rooms. 

Serco’s action threatens “over-stayers”, those whose asylum claims have been denied and have no current right to remain in the UK.

Hundreds of people have come out in support of 23-year-old Afghan Mirwais Ahmadzai, pictured, and Rahman Shah [Simon Jones/Al Jazeera]
Hundreds of people have come out in support of 23-year-old Afghan Mirwais Ahmadzai, pictured, and Rahman Shah [Simon Jones/Al Jazeera]

It is difficult to identify who is at risk as Serco has not provided this information to local organisations.

Activists told Al Jazeera that Home Office policy cuts financial support to people who have exhausted their appeal rights, which they say amounts to state-enforced destitution.

Serco says a person must be currently seeking asylum in order to qualify for accommodation.

Those facing eviction do appear to have attempted several rights of appeal, for whom Serco receives no money under its Home Office contract.

However, their appeal process could go on longer.

Each asylum seeker must be deported on one particular reason, and in a typical case, there may be many. If one claim of asylum is rejected, then a person may still lodge another in a process which generally takes years.

Evicting someone from their house and bombing somebody's house is not very different.

by Sabir Zazai, head of the Scottish Refugee Council

Activists say these evictions are a change in policy, not law. 

Glasgow City Council alleges that Serco did not tell them of their plans to evict anyone.

The company says the cost of housing the people it plans to evict is more than $1.3m. Serco’s profit in 2017 was almost $91m.

On Thursday, the Govan Law Centre lodged papers at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, in the hope of challenging the legality of the eviction notices. 

A task force has been set up by Glasgow Council to co-ordinate support for those affected.

“Serco is talking about ‘able-bodied, single men,’ but we all have vulnerabilities – especially in the asylum system,” said Sabir Zazai, head of the Scottish Refugee Council. “This will put pressure on our advice and advocacy services, and on the practical and operational support we provide.”

Zazai himself came to the UK as a refugee in 1999.

“Evicting someone from their house and bombing somebody’s house is not very different,” he said. 

By working with a range of organisations, he says he hopes the Home Office could “change the system instead of changing the locks.”

Source: Al Jazeera