The Home Office has been accused of breaching a high court order that halts the eviction of asylum seekers during the pandemic lockdown, the Guardian has learned.
During the first lockdown in March, the eviction of refused asylum seekers from Home Office accommodation was paused for public health reasons to protect asylum seekers and the general public from Covid-19.
Asylum seekers who are made street homeless could be at risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus if left outside or sofa surfing, which would involve going from one household to another, which is banned during the lockdown.
After the government’s lockdown announcement on Saturday, the Guardian asked the Home Office if it would pause evictions of asylum seekers once again. A government statement was provided on Tuesday, Home Office sources said, saying that while the policy was under review and would be determined by local circumstances, it was business as usual: those whose asylum claims had failed were expected to leave the country within 21 days and cessations of support had resumed in September.
What the statement did not mention was that 24 hours earlier, on Monday, a high court judge, Mr. Justice Fordham, had issued a court order instructing the Home Office to halt evictions because of public health concerns. The order was an interim measure until the matter could be more fully investigated at another court hearing.
In his ruling, the judge said: “I have been given no reason and shown no reasoned document which addresses a basis for continuing with evictions in the circumstances. I cannot currently see a justification for continuing with evictions in the circumstances where the harm and risk cannot readily be reversed.”
A Nigerian refused asylum seeker who received an eviction notice from the Home Office brought the case that resulted in the court order. But despite this order, the eviction process continued. On Tuesday, lawyers sought an urgent out-of-hours court hearing at 11.30 pm to halt another threatened eviction that appeared to be going ahead despite the court order issued the previous day.
The Guardian spoke to a 30-year-old woman from the Caribbean whose asylum claim based on gender identity was refused. The Home Office cut off her financial support on 19 October, and on Wednesday an official from the Home Office housing subcontractor Mears arrived at her door and handed her a pro forma eviction letter with the date she needed to leave the property – 11 November – handwritten into it.
“I can see myself ending up on the streets,” she said. ”I have nowhere to go. My friends are asylum seekers and I’m not allowed to stay at their accommodation. I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression and have previously made two suicide attempts. I feel like an outcast.”
The eviction letter seen by the Guardian states: “You need to leave this property by 11 November 2020. We understand it is a key step in your asylum journey.”
The letter suggests contacting the Home Office contractor Migrant Help for post-eviction support. “I did that but all they could offer me was a list of food banks,” said the woman.
Kathy Cosgrove, a solicitor at Greater Manchester Law Centre who secured the court order on behalf of the Nigerian asylum seeker, welcomed the order but expressed concern about the Home Office’s failure to commit to halting evictions.
“The home secretary has failed to promise to cease evictions and protect not only former asylum seekers but the communities in which they live. The government claims to follow the science but appears to have not considered the public health impact of making hundreds of former asylum seekers destitute.”
Anna Lewis, the chief executive of Open Door North East, which has been supporting asylum seekers issued with eviction notices, said: “Over the last seven weeks, the Home Office has sought to dehumanize these individuals further by seeking to remove food and shelter from those who do not agree to return to their country of origin – a process which has created intense anxiety among the people we serve. We have supported people who were told they had to leave their home on the day of the lockdown or in the next few days and we were unable to give them any certainty that they would be made safe.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair. We will seek to stop the abuse of the system while ensuring it is compassionate towards those who need our help, welcoming people through safe and legal routes.
“There is no court order stopping all cessations of asylum support, but an interim order to pause decisions on support for failed asylum seekers. We have instructed contractors to pause cases that were being implemented at the time that this order came into effect.”