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Inside the Underground Network Fighting for Asylum Seekers in Scotland

The movement is led by people who have experienced the violence of the U.K. immigration system firsthand.

Activists in Scotland hold a demonstration outside the Glasgow Immigration Enforcement Reporting Centre to demand an end to the hotel detention of refugees.

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

Every Sunday for the past six weeks, far-right protesters have been gathering in the small Scottish town of Erskine to complain about plans to house some 200 asylum seekers in a local hotel. However, they are not alone. Asylum seekers in Scotland and their local allies have also been protesting the use of these hotels, and for a much longer time.

Scotland takes in thousands of asylum seekers each year: 4,000 in 2019. Normally Scotland is not the first stop for asylum seekers. The Home Office — the arm of the U.K. government that deals with immigration — processes most asylum seekers in England, and spreads people out around the U.K. Since the pandemic, it has become harder to ascertain exactly how many asylum seekers are in Scotland at the moment, likely because local governments are given less control in the matter.

The pandemic also marked the start of hotel detention, the practice of putting asylum seekers into hotels in Glasgow for an indefinite period of time. Whereas conservatives protested that these hotels were an extravagant waste of taxpayer money, the reality of poor, cramped conditions led to the June 2020 George Square protest against hotel detention. It was interrupted by counter-protesters who feared the statues in George Square were at risk, after a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol. The Park Inn tragedy also happened in June 2020, when a man in hotel detention stabbed several other residents and was then shot dead by police.

In May 2021, the community peacefully stopped an immigration van from deporting two men in the Kenmure Street raid. An older English man named Nick was one of three people who first blocked off an immigration van set to deport two men on Kenmure street. (Nick and the other activists I spoke to for this story preferred to go by their first names only.) Like many Glasgow locals, Nick speaks about the action, which received significant mainstream attention in Scotland, with a pride for his community.

Along with the current protests in Erskine, these major events have dominated the media coverage of asylum seekers in Glasgow. However, the media has overlooked an overarching narrative. Starting with the Home Office’s decision to send asylum seekers from other parts of the U.K. to Glasgow, conditions and policies have gotten progressively worse, especially following the introduction of lock-change evictions and the use of hotels as long-term accommodation. Speaking to three grassroots groups in Glasgow revealed insidious and consistent patterns of abuse and injustice of asylum seekers by the Home Office and its subcontractors. It also revealed an underground network of support that is having a tremendous positive effect within Glasgow’s immigrant community.

In May 2012, the Home Secretary Theresa May declared to The Telegraph that she wanted to create a “really hostile environment” for irregular migrants in the U.K. With a majority of the resulting policies approved in law, hostility towards immigrants has become an integral piece of the architecture of the U.K. immigration system as it stands today.

Asylum seekers arrive here in the clothes they left home with — normally thinner, lighter clothes than what is needed to live in Scotland, sometimes wearing flip-flops. If you were sent by the Home Office to Glasgow from another part of the U.K., you might not even know where you are headed until the doors of your transport open.

The person who brought up the flip-flops was Nick, who is involved with No Evictions Glasgow and has been an activist for nearly 50 years. As its name suggests, No Evictions has a core aim, which has shifted and expanded over time. It is led by people with lived experience of the asylum and immigration system.

No Evictions started in 2018 in response to the Serco lock-change evictions. Serco, a housing company on-hire from the Home Office, was doing the dirty work of changing the locks on evicted asylum seekers, leaving many homeless with little notice. “They would come back from a doctor’s appointment or shopping or signing at the Home Office, to find that their stuff was gone, the locks were changed, they couldn’t get back in,” Nick said.

Asylum seekers are not legally allowed to claim benefits and housing assistance, like a U.K. national faced with sudden homelessness. This means that if you aren’t granted asylum status, you can end up on the street with no support overnight.

At first, members of No Evictions would respond by volunteering to sit in peoples’ homes while they were out. Soon No Evictions began instead to place emphasis on building community awareness on the issue. Nick explained that if the housing community showed up when the locksmiths came, “just the very fact of our presence was preventing people being evicted.” Beyond evictions, housing was often in very poor condition, with leaks, mold or a total lack of insulation, posing health risks. Group members would assist in submitting complaints to Serco, and connect them with organizations for housing help.

At the start of the pandemic, in an apparent victory, the lock-change evictions were paused. This was after repeated appeals from Glasgow City Council to the Home Office, citing health concerns and the council’s inability to offer support. Failed asylum seekers, along with any new arrivals, were then moved en masse into local budget hotels. Some people were also forced from apartments they had lived in for several years into hotels. “They said that was because of COVID, and that they couldn’t source enough apartments,” Nick explained. “I don’t think it really added up.”

The hotels, thought to be temporary, came with myriad problems. Like the apartments before, rooms were kept in poor conditions with very slow or no response to maintenance issues. The food provided tended to lack nutrition or be culturally inappropriate. Layout and organization of hotels made social distancing difficult or impossible. And most things a person might need besides food — like toiletries, clothing, phone top-ups and child-care necessities — were not provided.

Whereas the weekly allowance for an asylum seeker staying in an apartment was over $40, once they were moved to a hotel it dropped to less than $9. For context, a day’s bus pass, which costs more than $5 is out of reach — as are shoes that aren’t flip-flops. “I think some people, the [right-wing] Daily Mail readers, have got this idea that asylum seekers are living in the lap of luxury in hotels with … room service,” Nick said.

People in hotel detention are also kept ill-informed of their rights. Many are not told how to access health care, or that they can access health care. Several people mentioned having to ask permission to even leave the building. Nick described one call No Evictions Glasgow got from a man having serious chest pains. He had been told by hotel staff to just lie down, and that a nurse would be called after the weekend. He was not aware that he was within his rights to call an ambulance.

Migrants Organizing for Rights and Empowerment, or MORE, another prominent grassroots group in Glasgow, responded quickly to hotel conditions at the start of the pandemic. Yvonne Blake, one of MORE’s founding members, describes it jokingly as a “military operation.” She is hard to pin down, good-humored and deadly serious at the same time. Along with other MORE founders and members, Yvonne has lived experience of the asylum system.

Yvonne explains how MORE was the first on the ground, quickly setting up a fundraiser that raised roughly $37,000. They then gave people staying in the hotels $30 each. They also arranged dignified access to food, topped up phones, shopped for people in quarantine and distributed funds. There was an incoming call handler and a befriending team. MORE also quickly set up cycling groups that would visit the hotels, and a bike library so that anyone could access a bicycle. This was done with speed and efficiency, involving as many people as possible to provide a holistic network of meaningful support.

Times were also dark. People were growing desperate with their situations. Some families crowded into single rooms, with low morale and no word on how long anyone might be stuck there. “People would call us and say that they’re on the verge of committing suicide,” Yvonne said. She told one story of having to stay on the phone with a person who had sent a photo of himself with a rope around his neck, while a colleague took a taxi to intervene. Looking at the tragedies in the hotels during that time period, it is easy to imagine how it could have been much worse without a network of support.

On June 17, 2020, MORE planned a protest with No Evictions in Glasgow’s George Square. Word spread that a far-right group was planning to attend, but demonstrations went ahead as planned. According to Nick, police did not keep the “fascists” down on one end, and were more concerned about protecting the statues in the square. Bottles were being thrown by the far-right group at protesters, and scuffles broke out. What had been intended as peaceful protest quickly became dangerous. Police marched through the crowd, separating the groups and drawing the protest to a premature end.

On June 26, 2020, a man named Badruddin Abdalla Adam stabbed six people in the Park Inn Hotel in Glasgow, and was shot dead by police. He had sought help with his mental health 72 times. The night prior to the attack, Adam had told another resident that he wanted to stab people, and the resident reported this to hotel management, who took no action.

After the attack at 12:50 p.m., residents were evacuated onto the streets, many in thin clothing. At 10:30 p.m. that evening, MORE reported on their Facebook page that people were still waiting outside, with no food or water, and no word on where they would be sleeping that night. Support fell again to grassroots groups, who gathered donations of food and warmer clothing. Although it was widely described as an “avoidable tragedy,” the Home Office and the housing company Mears did not implement any significant changes.

With the Glasgow City Council seeking to distance itself from the scandals and misery of the hotels, routine dispersal was halted in 2021. In practice, this meant that the city no longer had plans to accommodate asylum seekers who continued to arrive. Mears was supposed to halt the use of hotels. However, MORE, Unity Sisters, No Evictions and other voluntary organizations are still providing support to asylum seekers being kept in hotels long-term in Glasgow.

Although the Home Office states that asylum requests are normally granted within six months, independent inquiry by the Refugee Council shows requests are taking an average of one to three years to be processed. It is not unheard of to wait upwards of a decade. I spoke to Virginie, one of the founding members of Unity Sisters, a group of women going through the asylum and immigration system. The group is both a support group and a campaigning group. By holding workshops on public speaking, guiding members to ESL classes, facilitating translation and funding peer research, Unity Sisters are aiming to speed up the asylum process for those in hotel detention.

Unity Sisters is often welcoming new arrivals, as well as saying goodbye to those who have had their status approved. As a community group, they hold sewing groups and collect donations for specific cases. Group meetings serve as a kind of therapy, and also a way of spreading important information — from where to buy food or learn English, to explaining legal rights. New asylum seekers are not given much information, although there are serious repercussions for things like working illegally. For issues with Mears or Serco, they often refer members to No Evictions, which might then refer women-specific issues to Unity Sisters. Children are a common concern.

Families are often given one room for everyone to share, making it difficult for children to nap or parents to get time apart. Food is an issue — with three meals at set times, it is hard to accommodate for a child that might need snacks or milk in between meals or during the night. Schooling becomes difficult as well, Virginie explains. She described to me how one of the Unity Sisters was moved into a hotel, after the apartment she was living in had become flooded and full of mold. The hotel was very far away from her childrens’ school, and without money for transport it became a major issue to get them there and back every day. Asylum seekers are also not allowed to pursue higher education, something Unity Sisters are actively campaigning about through social media, educational videos and protests, together with MORE.

From her work at Unity Sisters, Virginie seems most worried about the amount of time people are spending in limbo, something Nick and Yvonne echoed as well. They have all seen first-hand how years of waiting to be granted asylum can impact people. “Sometimes I’ve noticed that after people get granted [asylum], you wouldn’t believe that these are the strong resilient people that you knew previously,” Yvonne said. She describes how people become withdrawn and can take years to recover from the physical and emotional toll of the process. “So people’s lives have kind of evaporated in front of them, because it’s not something that you can claim back.”

Issues with hotel detention cannot be chalked up simply to an overloaded system, as the Home Office often claims. They reflect a more sinister mechanism, designed to dissuade people from coming to, or staying in the U.K., and whose cost is human lives. Lives lost in tragedy, like in the Park Inn case, and lives lost in endless waiting.

Following Glasgow City Council’s withdrawal from the dispersal system, the Home Office began to open up hotels outside of the city, without notifying local authorities as is customary. That means that local doctors, schools and other public services are not prepared for a large influx of people. A letter from a member of the Scottish parliament to the Home Secretary in October 2021 complained that Scottish Ministers had not been informed of the plans, and were only informed by local authorities concerned about essential services like health care. Clandestine hotels have been confirmed by members of MORE and No Evictions in East Kilbride, Falkirk, Aberdeen, Paisley and Greenock.

The practice of clandestine hotels makes it harder for asylum seekers to access already limited support. MORE’s biking volunteers for example cannot make it much further than Paisley. Isolation from immigrant communities also means new arrivals are less likely to hear about groups that provide support. Nick didn’t even know there were hotels outside of Glasgow until he got a call from a young man looking for medical help in East Kilbride. He added that it becomes a lot harder to find a sense of belonging, to use the bus, or participate in social events, meetings and community meals when you’re in East Kilbride.

The ineffectiveness of the new system casts suspicion on the intentions behind it. The small towns and cities opening clandestine hotels have strained resources and infrastructures compared to Glasgow, and are likely to be facing their own challenges. Yvonne feels this makes inhabitants less likely to be sympathetic to refugees and asylum seekers. “So for me, that’s just a technique from the home office to isolate and further dehumanize the community, instead of ensuring that they’re in places where they can be supported to participate fully in the society.”

On top of moving new arrivals to clandestine hotels, a MORE Facebook post from September 2022 notes that many people in hotel detention “are afraid to complain formally or submit a relocation [request] because they say ‘it is the practice of [Mears] to transfer people who complain to hotels outside of Glasgow.’” Just the presence of these new hotels then could be enough to discourage people in unsafe housing to reach out for help.

Despite the mounting difficulties for asylum seekers in Glasgow, grassroots groups here seem to be just as busy as the Home Office is. Unity Sisters is launching their Community Peer Advocacy project which aims to empower women who are refugees and asylum seekers to communicate their experiences with their wider community. They also plan on continuing their sewing meetups, as well as campaigning for faster asylum processing, for including refugee topics in school curriculums and for access to higher education for asylum seekers. After various initiatives aimed at helping members communicate more confidently, the hope is that members’ protests, social media and raising awareness by word-of-mouth start to affect change in these areas.

Bolstered by donations, No Evictions is also continuing their work as before. Their presence at the Kenmure Street raid has increased their visibility, although they are currently fighting legal implications for some protesters involved. Instead of simply changing locks, the group is concerned that Mears plans to un-pause evictions, now with police and court orders, and they are currently arranging an urgent action plan.

Yvonne’s plans with MORE in the coming year include starting a blog with weekly stories told by asylum seekers on their experiences to ensure a paper trail. “I feel like these stories are lost — they are being told, but they’re not being recorded,” she explained. MORE is also planning a demonstration at the August 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow, to raise visibility on the issue of freedom of movement. After learning to cycle out of necessity during the pandemic, Yvonne has discovered a love of long-cycle.

“I think the beautiful thing is sometimes you stop and just listen to the birds. And it’s really an empowering thing that you are making your own decision,” she said. “Sometimes we talk about resistance as chaining ourselves outside the Home Office. But resistance is having the mindset that I’m going to be free, in spite of the barriers that you erect around me. So I’m still going to cycle and enjoy this beautiful landscape in spite of what is happening. That is one of the greatest forms of resistance.”

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