We must stand against the UK's anti-refugee bill and create a system with people at its heart - Sabir Zazai

The city of Glasgow has a long history of welcoming and supporting refugees. The city’s communities, institutions and most importantly, its people have offered sanctuary to families fleeing conflicts in Bosnia, Syria and Afghanistan, and many more around the world.

Demonstrations were held in Glasgow this summer against asylum seeker evictions in the city following a change in the housing contract. PIC: John Devlin.
Demonstrations were held in Glasgow this summer against asylum seeker evictions in the city following a change in the housing contract. PIC: John Devlin.

The reality of how many of these people came to be in Glasgow is complex, even beyond the many reasons somebody may be forced to flee their homes.

The majority of people seeking asylum are dispersed by the Home Office around the UK. Most people have their asylum claims registered in the south east of England and are then sent to accommodation run by large private firms in cities and towns across the UK, including Glasgow, which has accommodated on average 10% of the UK asylum population over the last 20 years.

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People gather in Glasgow to stand against the UK Government’s anti-refugee bill. PIC: Paul Chappells

People have no control over where they are accommodated and local authorities receive little or no money from the Home Office.

Dispersal to Glasgow has been paused due to accommodation pressures. But this does not mean that people seeking protection are not in Glasgow and in need of support. Spontaneous arrivals, a term used to describe people who make an asylum claim in Glasgow or Scotland without having been dispersed from England, are still happening. These people are not left without support or help from Glasgow and Scotland. It is important to note that only formal dispersal has been paused.

But while this support is there, the truth is that there are gaps in support at nearly all points of the asylum system. We need to see meaningful investment in people.

Increasingly, people are being housed in what we call institutional accommodation by the Home Office, like hotel rooms. The use of hotel rooms, or even army barracks, can have devastating consequences for a person’s mental health and chances to settle into their new communities.

Sabir Zazai, Chief Executive, Scottish Refugee Council, says we need an asylum system that makes true investment in people. PIC: I. Tajik.

People seeking protection must be housed in flats or homes within communities where meaningful integration can happen naturally. It is far easier to integrate into a community when you have the chance to meet people at the local shop, on the school run or at a library.

Leaving people in isolation in hotel rooms for unknown period is bad for the local authority, the community, and most of all, can have devastating consequences for the person seeking protection.

Worryingly, this shift to institutional accommodation is part of the UK Government’s plan for how our asylum system should work. Their Nationality & Borders Bill, what we call the anti-refugee bill, is currently going through the UK Parliament. It proposes to hold people seeking protection in so called ‘reception centres’ where they will be isolated from communities and unable to make lasting connections in their new homes.

The anti-refugee bill will also criminalise people for arriving in the UK to seek asylum without prior permission. This breaks the UN Refugee Convention which recognises that it is impossible for a person to obtain the ‘correct’ paperwork to claim asylum before they arrive in a safe country.

The bill will create a two-tier system of refugee and discriminate between the very small number of people who are able to access organised programmes like a resettlement scheme and the vast majority of people who are forced to seek protection via whichever route they possibly can. We must stand together and reject this cruel and inhumane bill.

We need to see a well-resourced asylum system that treats people with dignity, respect and humanity from the moment they arrive in the UK. We need an asylum system that invests in people.

This means a rights-based integration process which begins on day one to help people settle in to their new homes successfully. This process should include language programmes, employability and welfare support, and help to access cultural and community events in their local area.

Welcoming people seeking protection into an area enriches a community. We have seen so many moving success stories across Scotland in recent years, from people from Syria opening bakeries on Scottish islands to grassroots arts projects run by New Scots in our biggest cities.

But successful integration doesn’t happen overnight. It is a two-way process which requires appropriate resources and support from national and local governments. We need to see real action and leadership on this at every level.

We need to see real, meaningful engagement with these issues at a senior government level, at Westminster and Holyrood. It is not enough for politicians and decision makers to make statements when tragedies occur.

Condolences are not enough. We need ongoing practical action to build an asylum system of which we can all be proud.

The eyes of the world were on Glasgow this month as it played host to complex negotiations at COP26. Scotland could be a key player again, and potentially a leader, in the global issue of refugee protection. It is up to all of us, voluntary organisations, local authorities and national government, to act now to show the world that Scotland welcomes refugees.

Sabir Zazai is the Chief Executive, Scottish Refugee Council.

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