LAST week, like many others, I travelled the length of this small, uncharacteristically mild island to visit my family over the festive break. Edinburgh to London, a five-hour train journey with a cache of presents that would be half the price in about 48 hours and my two-year-old son, who proved the ideal travelling companion (apart from when he pressed the disabled passenger alarm. Twice). So far, so Christmassy.
At King’s Cross, exhausted and yearning for home, we got a taxi. Halfway home, we got stuck in traffic on a flyover. Proper London gridlock. Road rage and All I Want For Christmas Is You on the car radio: does it get more festive than that?
We were on that flyover for about a week in toddler terms. Police motorbikes whizzed past. Drivers craned their necks out of windows because that was all they could do. My son passed out. And the taxi driver and I got talking.
He told me he understood that we had come a long way and wanted to get home because he also had children to whom he wanted to return. Three of them, the youngest just six months old and already sleeping through the night. Not that he got to see them much. He told me he was driving his cab from 5am to 8pm six days a week in order to support his family and send money home. He told me he hadn’t seen his mother in years. She was ill and in Afghanistan, and every time they spoke she wept and begged him to come home. There was little chance of that. He was a refugee who had arrived in Britain in 2001, when so many Afghans were forced to flee their homes in the wake of decades-long war, the terror of daily life under the Taleban, and the American invasion of Afghanistan weeks after 9/11.
His life was hard, though he never said so. His eyes, in the rearview mirror of the car, were bloodshot. Still, he told me he was one of the lucky ones. “If I was coming here now,” he said, our eyes briefly meeting in his rear-view mirror, “I would not make it.”
Last week the International Organisation for Migration announced that the number of refugees arriving in Europe this year has passed one million. It is a fourfold increase on the previous year and is virtually unprecedented in the history of human migration from south to north. Though no one year can be distilled into a single moment, event or mood, the story that has dominated the past 12 months, that has changed Europe, Britain, and Scotland already, and that will continue to do so long after the bells on Hogmanay, is the refugee crisis. It is a humanitarian emergency that never ends, the like of which we haven’t seen since the aftermath of the second world war.
The facts, as ever in this inflammatory and often inhumane debate, should be stated but will continue to be misconstrued by politicians, press, and electorate alike. The vast majority of refugees arrived by sea in Greece. Half were Syrians fleeing the country’s civil war, indisputably refuting the claim made by Theresa May earlier this year that most migrants to Europe are Africans travelling for economic reasons. Twenty per cent were Afghans and a further seven per cent were from Iraq. These people, in other words, are refugees: desperate, traumatised women, men and children who are willing to risk their lives because they have nothing left to lose. Often the stakes prove too high. This year 3,695 people died or went missing while trying to make the crossing, although this figure will have risen by the New Year.
Some of the ones who made it have wound up here in Scotland. In November, days after the Paris attacks and a month after a photo of the body of a Syrian toddler called Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach and broke all our hearts, the first charter flight carrying mainly Syrian families touched down in Glasgow. Since then, more than 300 people have been settled across the country. No matter what else the SNP government has failed to achieve or prevent this year, we should all be proud that in 2015 this small nation welcomed one in three of the 1,000 refugees David Cameron agreed to take by the end of the year. It may be a small number in the face of a crisis of such magnitude, but these are people, not numbers, so every single one counts.
It hasn’t been straightforward. The refugees are traumatised, many don’t speak the language, and they face a Scottish winter that will surely turn up sooner or later. They also face discrimination, the stresses and strains of an often cruel and insensitive asylum process, and poverty, living on just £36.95 per week and usually unable to work. On the other hand, like my taxi driver, they are the lucky ones. They will be safe in their homes and their children will be able to go to school. And the fact is the vast majority of Scots have welcomed them and will continue to do so.
On Bute, now home to 12 refugee families, Rothesay council has hired two translators to work with the refugee community and there is talk of arranging for a travelling imam in the new year.
In Glasgow a “Refuweegee” project has been set up to provide a welcome pack for any refugee arriving in the city. It contains essentials, a Glasgow welcome and letters from locals. The project’s tagline says it all, really: “We’re all fae somewhere.”
There is no question that the people seeing in their first New Year on this foreign island will be changed by Scotland. But it’s equally important to recognise and celebrate the fact that as the world continues to shrink and people continue to cross its borders to preserve their lives, Scotland will be changed by them too.