If we want to maintain Scotland’s reputation as a welcoming nation, we can’t just shake our fists at anti-immigrant Tories
I had an unexpected Guiser this week - my wee neighbour, a bundle of giggles dressed as a Disney villain. She’d had a great time at her school Halloween party, and rattled off the copious amounts of sugar they had inhaled. Interspersed with this sweetie monologue, however, was her dad’s quiet news that they’d received a Home Office letter - their claim for asylum has been refused.
We were braced for this - many asylum seekers are refused first time - but the news still chilled me more than any carved pumpkin could. This family has been living in limbo for over a year - not allowed to work, not eligible for benefits, just waiting for letters and scraping together basic provisions. I see the Dad most mornings, his face gaunter with each passing month, and he tells me sometimes it’s like living in a house on fire.
And yet this family is far from alone. There are around three thousand asylum seekers in Glasgow, many living lives of quiet desperation. The architect of their misery is the Hostile Environment, built over the past two decades by successive Westminster governments. Glasgow, like other dispersal local authorities across the UK, is housing, schooling, trying to care for people who have fled unthinkable trauma and instability, but is hampered by a regime that means the trauma and instability continues.
This summer my constituent, who’d been a victim of human trafficking, was detained and told he would be on a plane regardless of the threat from the traffickers he escaped. I put out a plea for help and the #DucMakesGlasgow campaign was born - suddenly, people I’d never met were calling the airline, tweeting, and turning up to court in solidarity. We got him off the plane at the eleventh hour, and though the fight continues for his asylum status, I was blown away by the response of ordinary Glaswegians who know injustice when they see it.
A couple of weeks later I found myself supporting a single mum with four kids who received a Home Office letter saying she would be evicted from her flat the following day. After some frantic phone calls, local organisation Govan Community Project started her appeal process, got her a crisis grant and sent her home with a food parcel. I wrote about my day on twitter, and next day found a pile of letters sitting on my desk. People from all over the country had sent me cards to pass on to the family with gifts, books for the kids, kindness and love.
In Scotland we have a long history of solidarity with marginalised people, and it was in this proud tradition that at the turn of the century Glasgow signed up to a dispersal scheme to provide a home for people seeking asylum from all over the world. And it was this tradition of that mobilised thousands of people this summer when Serco, the Home Office’s private landlord, decided to suddenly evict hundreds of asylum seekers. Thanks to that cacophony of protest, the evictions are currently on pause, but the bigger problem is that homelessness is inevitable in an asylum system that has destitution built in.
So the question is how can we in Glasgow and Scotland best resist Westminster’s hostile environment? Glasgow City Council set up a taskforce to respond to the summer evictions - now that needs to become a permanent and accountable working group, bringing together everyone supporting asylum seekers to work together at a strategic level. I called for this at our Full Council meeting this week - I’m delighted to hear the City Government are on the same page so we can push forward with this urgent work.
This week Holyrood also debated asylum issues. Funding is key, of course - as the Scottish Refugee Council have argued, we need a redesign of asylum dispersal contracts so councils and communities are properly funded to support our most vulnerable new citizens. But there is more that Scotland can do. If we want to maintain Scotland’s reputation as a welcoming nation, we can’t just shake our fists at anti-immigrant Tories - we have to act to repair the damage and prevent fresh injustices. As my Green MSP colleague Patrick Harvie raised at First Minister’s Questions, we need to act strategically to combat the high risk of asylum seekers becoming homeless - a risk that will apply to other vulnerable migrants as Brexit intensifies. And the Scottish Government should pilot a new approach in Glasgow with a one-stop shop for asylum seekers to bring together housing, legal and advocacy services.
I’ll see my neighbour today. I would like to be able to tell this family that this city, and this government, has his back. Westminster is waging this war, but I know Scotland and Glasgow won’t condemn families to a life on fire.