Asylum seekers in areas under local lockdown are being evicted by the Home Office – despite the department’s own guidance saying they should not be forced to leave their homes while coronavirus restrictions are in place, The Independent has learnt.
Ministers are facing legal action after asylum seekers were served notice to leave their asylum accommodation in Manchester, where Covid-19 rates have been rising and local lockdown measures are being enforced.
But the move goes against criteria set out by the Home Office stating that people should not be evicted if they are in local authorities subject to regional lockdowns.
The Independent is also aware of eviction notices being issued in Liverpool, Yorkshire and the West Midlands over the past week – all areas where local restrictions have been put in place as a result of outbreaks of Covid-19.
Charities and lawyers warned that evicting people to the streets when infections were rising was dangerous for both the asylum seekers and the wider community, particularly when night shelters and support networks usually available to homeless migrants are not currently operating.
Asylum seekers who have received eviction notices told The Independent they felt “confused and scared”, saying they were having to choose between being sent back to their home countries from where they fled persecution, or become homeless in the UK when support services are limited and coronavirus is on the rise.
The Home Office announced in March that asylum seekers would not be asked to leave their accommodation once their claim or appeal had been decided, as a protective measure in response to the pandemic.
Last month, the department lifted this measure, saying that people with negative decisions would be served eviction notices “with immediate effect”. However, the Home Office’s criteria for selecting which local council areas would be subject to evictions state that action will not take place in local authorities subject to regional lockdowns.
During a meeting with the Home Office two weeks ago, local councils were told asylum seekers would not be evicted in areas with local restrictions in place.
However, The Independent has learnt that eviction letters have been issued to asylum seekers in Wigan, Skelmersdale, Halifax, Wolverhampton, Burnley and parts of Liverpool – all areas subject to local lockdowns.
It comes as coronavirus cases across the UK are rising, with the country’s coronavirus alert level now standing at 4 – the same level it was at when the measures to keep asylum seekers in their accommodation were announced in March.
Greater Manchester Law Centre, which has submitted appeals against three clients’ eviction notices in Manchester in the past week (all of which are still being contested by the government), issued a letter to the Home Office this week warning of legal action.
The letter argues that the department’s decision to pursue these evictions is unlawful on the grounds that it contradicts the government’s own guidance and may constitute a breach of asylum seekers’ human rights, while also placing the wider community at risk.
“The decision to evict does not merely create a significant risk to the homeless individual, but to everybody who may come into contact with that individual and to everyone who relies on the overstretched NHS and local authority services during a global health pandemic,” the letter states.
One of the firm’s clients, a man living in asylum accommodation in Wigan, told The Independent he felt “confused and scared” after receiving an eviction notice last Friday giving him two weeks to leave the property he shares with his partner – also an asylum seeker – and their baby son.
While his partner and son are allowed to stay at the property, he has been ordered to leave on the grounds that his asylum claim had been rejected.
The 35-year-old, who arrived in the UK from Togo in 2013 after fleeing political persecution, said: “It’s a big shock for this to happen during this pandemic, I don’t know where I’ll go. I’m so stressed – I can’t eat properly.”
He said that it was particularly frightening at a time when charities and community groups were no longer able to support asylum seekers due to coronavirus restrictions. He asked not to be named to protect his identity.
“I became homeless in 2015. I lived with a charity for a year and with a priest for another two years. The priest is elderly so I can’t go back there, and the charity is closed. I don’t know where I can go. I can’t even stay with friends now because of the rules. I don’t know what to do,” he said.
“It’s not possible for me to go back to my home country. My life is at risk if I go back. They will kill me if I go back. I’d prefer to die here than go back home.”
Liverpool City Council said a number of refused asylum seekers in the city had received evictions letters in the past week, prompting the local authority to write to the Home Office on Wednesday urging the department to cease asylum evictions. They were subsequently paused – but with no clarity as to when they would resume again.
Liz Parsons, the council’s cabinet member for communities and partnerships, said she was “deeply disappointed” that the Home Office had issued eviction notices to people in the city this week, placing them at risk of homelessness in an area already affected by rough sleeping, and at a time when Liverpool has alarmingly high Covid-19 infection rates.
“It’s unbelievably callous and flies in the face of their own commitment not to proceed in areas under local lockdown restrictions. But what really grates is that despite asking for information on when such actions were going to occur, we were kept completely in the dark on these,” she said.
“I not only instructed my officers to write to the Home Office urging them to cease these evictions, which thankfully they have – for now – but we’ve also asked that if any more are planned we are kept in the loop. This is not the way to treat people, especially during a pandemic.”
Laura Gibbons, a solicitor at the Greater Manchester Law Centre, said: “The decision to resume evictions in these areas, where the virus is rising so quickly, is not only putting the lives of the individuals at risk but the lives of people living in these communities.
“When you become homeless you move, you shelter in public places or, if you are lucky you travel from sofa to sofa staying a few days at a time. You can’t be tracked and traced. You can’t keep yourself or others safe from the virus. The risks are obvious and affect us all.”
Renae Mann, national director of NACCOM, a network of organisations supporting asylum seekers and migrants, called the evictions“ dangerous”, adding: “With new, tighter restrictions expected to be announced in many of these areas next week, this makes no sense – evictions must stop now.
“Those facing eviction are incredibly anxious and afraid. As people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, they face higher risks to their health from the coronavirus due precisely to this kind of unjust and unfair treatment by our government.
“Charities up and down the country are struggling to give people the care and support that they need to stay in safe housing. We urge the government to stop evicting people seeking asylum from their accommodation immediately.”
A Home Office spokesperson said it would not comment on legal proceedings, but added: “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.”
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