Life in limbo
Their lives are fraught with anxiety and their destiny is in someone else’s hands. Emily Twinch finds out what life is like for asylum seekers living in Glasgow’s notorious Red Road flats.
High-rise flats dominate the skyline as you head into the Red Road area of Glasgow. From a distance they are brightly colour-ed but, as you get nearer, the peeling paint, griminess and general feeling of deprivation of the eight 30-storey tower blocks becomes more apparent.
Three weeks ago the area was thrust into the headlines when three failed Russian asylum seekers threw themselves from the 15th floor of one of the blocks of flats. Today the only reminder of the tragedy are the wilting bunches of flowers that mark the spot at the base of block 63 in Petershill Drive where they died.
The family’s desperate jump was driven by a unique set of circumstances, including the suggestion they had long-term mental health problems. But it does raise questions about the stresses placed upon failed asylum seekers and how those with mental health issues are treated.
Glasgow Housing Association owns the eight Red Road blocks, which are earmarked for demolition by 2016 to make way for more modern housing. YMCA Glasgow uses 65 flats in block 63 to provide temporary accommodation for asylum seekers while the UK Border Agency deals with their claims. Glasgow Council also houses asylum seekers in 18 flats in the Red Road area and has 22 temporary flats for homeless people in block 63.
For those awaiting their fate, living in the block is a stressful and anxiety-filled experience.
Concillia Musoli, a 25-year-old from Zimbabwe, has been living in block 63 since October last year. Her claim for asylum was recently rejected leaving Ms Musoli counting the days until she is forced to leave.
‘I am expecting them [the government] to turn up anytime now,’ she says. ‘The pain is too much you can’t even cry. Everyone here is scared of the Home Office. You can’t live a normal life thinking about it.’
GHA has 31 filled flats in block 63 and Ms Musoli says its tenants are also a cause for concern. She claims they often drink and take drugs, making so much noise that she is kept awake at night. She feels she has little recourse because of her status.
A spokesperson for GHA says Ms Musoli can make a complaint but it has had no reports of problems: ‘GHA does not tolerate anti-social behaviour in and around our homes. We would urge anyone who has suffered from anti-social behaviour to contact the local housing organisation.’
Passing the days without work and just £35 a week from the Home Office is a source of frustration and monotony for Meysam Cohan, a 27-year-old Iranian who also lives in block 63. Mr Cohan has been waiting for a year for a decision to be made on his asylum claim. He says he came to the UK because of persecution of Christians in Iran, where five of his friends have been killed.
‘My days just pass,’ he says. ‘I don’t even think about the days any more. I don’t like living here. Every day is the same as before.’
The monotony of life in the Red Road tower blocks is sometimes punctuated by sudden, traumatic events, as on the day the Russian family took their own lives.
Charity Positive Action in Housing claims YMCA Glasgow removed the belongings of a young Afghan man while he attended a vigil for the family.
Joe Connelly, chief executive of YMCA Glasgow, emphatically denies the claim, saying that neither his organisation nor the UK Border Agency turns up at properties unannounced to evict people.
‘That does not happen,’ he states. Mr Connelly explains that the UKBA tells the YMCA if someone has to leave, but not why. The charity then writes to people to say they must move. If an asylum claim has failed the YMCA allows them to stay until they have arranged alternative accommodation with the Scottish Refugee Council. If a claim is approved, Glasgow Council’s homelessness department rehouses them.
‘If someone doesn’t have anywhere to go we don’t put them out on the street,’ Mr Connelly insists. ‘We work hard at being good landlords, even though the Red Road flats would not be our first choice.’
Mr Connelly says YMCA Glasgow is sourcing alternative accommodation across the city to replace the flats it uses at Red Road as soon as it can.
Questions over the suitability of the 30-storey block to house the distressed Russian family have been raised by the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees. Group member Margaret Woods asks why, if the family had mental health problems, were they housed on the 15th floor?
Mr Connelly says he was not aware of any longstanding mental health issues. Under the current system, the UKBA and other agencies working with asylum seekers are not obliged to provide such information. However, he believes it is essential for their own safety and that of the other tower block tenants.
‘We didn’t know [the family] had mental health issues,’ he says. ‘We should be told in these cases. If they had set fire to the flat they could have killed a whole block of people.’
Criticism of the UK’s asylum system is increasingly vocal. On 13 March around 1,000 people, including asylum seekers, marched through Glasgow’s streets from the Red Road area to the city centre in memory of the Russian family and to protest against alleged enforced removals.
A spokesperson for the UKBA backs the YMCA statement that enforced removals do not and did not take place in this case. ‘We had advised the family that we were making arrangements to return them to Canada — where they had been granted protection. However no imminent action to remove them from the UK had been planned. No UK Border Agency officers were in the vicinity when these events took place.’
Mandy Todd, a case worker at the Unity Centre, which supports asylum seekers in Glasgow, says there are likely to be more problems because of the delays and uncertainty inherent in the present system.
A number of her clients have suicidal thoughts, she says. ‘They are not treated as people who have been through horrible experiences such as torture and persecution. The stress builds up and then they are put in these really horrible places.’
Unless the way asylum applications are processed is changed and until YMCA Glasgow finds alternative accommodation, asylum seekers like Concillia Musoli and Meysam Cohan will continue to live their lives in limbo - if they decide to live them at all.