Leader: Scotland must rise to refugee challenge

A man helps a girl to disembark on the Greek island of Lesbos after arriving on a boat from the Turkish coast. Picture: AP

A man helps a girl to disembark on the Greek island of Lesbos after arriving on a boat from the Turkish coast. Picture: AP

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Sceptical Scots must pass test of compassion and broad-mindedness posed by 2,000 new neighbours

We Scots like to tell ourselves­ that we’re ­welcoming, open-minded and compassionate; it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns. That collective belief is about to be put to the test as Scotland welcomes 2,000 refugees. Make no mistake, there are challenges ahead.

Scottish medical worker Shehraz Afzal with his 12-year-old son Shahbazz. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Scottish medical worker Shehraz Afzal with his 12-year-old son Shahbazz. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

There is, of course, the matter of there being some resentment about those arriving from Syria. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that some feel refugees should go elsewhere. A strand of public opinion that would gladly see asylum seekers settle closer to their homeland means we must be alert to the potential for tension.

Perhaps more important than this is our requirement to be prepared for the arrival of people who will have suffered real psychological trauma of the sort few of us can imagine. This will take patience.

Scottish medical worker Shehraz Afzal used the recent school holidays to take his 12-year-old son Shahbazz to Istanbul to help refugees. And, having spent time with people whose lives have been torn apart by war and the need to flee their homes, Afzal warns that Scotland must know how to deal with these traumatised people.

We do not know much about the people who are about to come into our country and our lives but what we can say for certain is that experience will have shaped them.

The trauma they have suffered may manifest itself in ways we can’t imagine. Do we have the patience and tolerance to cope with those whose experience may have damaged them severely?

Of course, we must have. And we must challenge any view that says otherwise.

It is not in the interests of the refugees alone for Scotland to be as welcoming as possible to them; it is in all of our interests. How these people are received will be crucial to how they settle in Scotland. If we alienate these 2,000 refugees, then we are asking for trouble. We all have a part to play in this process but most will be completely unprepared for what lies ahead.

We have made mistakes in the past when it comes to treatment of asylum-seekers. The decision, for example, to house families fleeing for safety in Glasgow’s decrepit and depressing Red Road flats was a huge error. It isolated people when they should have been integrated. It marked refugees down as second-class citizens.

We may reassure ourselves that Scotland is a welcoming place but that is to complacently ignore the fact that there are many among us who view incomers with suspicion. Cultural differences may be illuminated and then distorted.

So how can Scotland ensure it is best prepared for the arrival of new neighbours and classmates?

Holyrood has an important role to play. Having made much of our door being open to those in the most desperate need, the Scottish Government must not only provide safe and clean accommodation, it must educate us all about those coming to our country.

This will require ministers to speak clearly and often about the circumstances which have led so many people to have to leave the country of their birth for their own safety. Those working in pastoral roles will have much to do, too, in ensuring refugees understand their new home and in seeing that Scots with concerns are fully informed about their new neighbours.

Scotland can be the most welcoming of countries. During last year’s Commonwealth Games, the people of Glasgow proved to be wonderful hosts to people from all around the world.

But we are not, as a nation, always so open to new ideas and different cultures.

Perhaps by accepting this uncomfortable truth, we can ensure we do not fall victim to the tensions that will undoubtedly arise in the weeks to come.

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