Insight: Operation welcome Syria’s refugees

Hundreds of people gather in George Square for the Glasgow Sees Syria event. Picture: PA
Hundreds of people gather in George Square for the Glasgow Sees Syria event. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

IN THE fortnight or so since the image of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi caused a shift in attitudes towards the refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of Scots have found ways to express their support for those fleeing Syria. They have donated food and clothing for those in Calais, they have signed petitions calling on Westminster to do more, and last weekend they turned out to rallies holding candles and banners reading: “We welcome refugees.”

It’s a stance that has been endorsed by all the party leaders at Holyrood; days after Aylan’s photograph was published, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced Scotland would take at least 1,000 refugees and established a task force to examine the logistics of resettling these war-weary people. The website, Scotland Welcomes Refugees, set up as a focal point for anyone wanting to contribute to the humanitarian effort, received 10,000 views in its first 48 hours and more than 700 people offered shelter, befriending services and language support.

The event was to show solidarity with refugees fleeing persecution and conflict. Picture: PA

The event was to show solidarity with refugees fleeing persecution and conflict. Picture: PA

Soon, this outpouring of public sympathy will have to be translated into action. Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to take in 20,000 of the worst affected Syrian refugees from camps in the Middle East over the next five years (with Scotland’s share estimated at 2,000) and there is likely to be continued pressure on the Prime Minister to accept more of those refugees already in ­Europe.

So how is it going to work in practice? With Home Secretary Theresa May confirming the first new refugees will arrive within days, is Scotland ready? Will it be possible to resettle refugees across the country (as opposed to just the central belt)? And with many online commentators still opposed to the whole idea, are we in danger of overestimating the amount of goodwill that will be extended to our new ­residents?

If the prospect of integrating traumatised Syrians into our communities seems daunting, we should remember: we have done it all before. Glasgow was the first city in the UK to rehouse asylum seekers under the Westminster government’s dispersal programme in 2000 and, although mistakes were made, the city soon developed the services and expertise to help ease resettlement. Glasgow now has the highest population of asylum seekers outside London.

Prior to that, the Scottish Refugee Council worked with three local authorities to provide accommodation and support services for Kosovan refugees and, in 2007, 77 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo were given secure tenancies in social housing in Motherwell as part of the Gateway Protection Programme. The Syrian refugees will be brought in through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS) which is modelled on the Gateway programme. Last year, the UK government pledged to resettle 500 Syrians under VPRS, but only managed 216. Clearly, the process will need to speed up if Cameron is to keep his promise.

Glasgow was the first city in the UK to rehouse asylum seekers in 2000

Since the Scottish Government’s task force was set up, frenzied activity has been taking place behind the scenes: while the housing of asylum seekers is now subcontracted to a private property firm, those refugees brought in through the VPRS will be placed in social housing, so housing associations across the country have been drawing up inventories of empty properties and local authorities have been assessing what is likely to be required in terms of extra healthcare, education and language provision. Some local authorities have already come up with figures: Edinburgh has agreed to take 100 people, Argyll and Bute, 20. Glasgow will take 55-60 Syrian families over and above the 50 it has already resettled.

The task of resettling refugees is complex; ideally they would be placed in areas with a history of immigration, where acceptance is high and grassroots organisations already exist, but local authorities are constrained by access to accommodation and other services. In Glasgow, for example, many of the high-rises used to house asylum seekers in the past (most famously the Red Road flats in Sighthill) have been, or are about to be, demolished. Current planning is not being made any easier by a dearth of information on numbers, timescales and the status of the refugees; resettling single men presents a very different challenges to resettling families or a growing number of unaccompanied children.

Most people on the front line seem confident the country can cope with the small number of refugees likely to arrive in next few weeks. “I don’t think any of this is insurmountable,” says Robina Qureshi, executive director of Positive Action In Housing, which has contacted every housing association in the country and is helping to coordinate the meetings of the Scottish Registered Social Landlords Syrian Crisis Response Group. “It’s just about linking up housing – which is the critical thing – with support services,” she says.

But what will happen when the numbers start to swell? Having looked at other countries, the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) has proposed the setting up of short-term reception centres where new arrivals would be needs-assessed. It also wants the present system, whereby the Home Office makes deals with individual local authorities to be replaced by an operation overseen and coordinated by the Scottish Government.

Refugees rest in the shade as they wait to board buses in a marshalling yard near Zagreb, Croatia. Picture: AFP/Getty

Refugees rest in the shade as they wait to board buses in a marshalling yard near Zagreb, Croatia. Picture: AFP/Getty

The idea of reception centres, as opposed to immediate integration into communities, is contentious, but Gary Christie, head of policy and communications at the SRC, believes it would make it easier to disperse refugees across the country. “Lots of local authorities have expressed an interest in being involved, which is fantastic, but very few of them will have experience of handling refugees,” he says. “With this approach, new arrivals would spend a couple of weeks in these reception centres; some services could be centralised so they could get access to benefits and healthcare, and a proper assessment could be carried out so they could be matched to a suitable local authority.

“It may be appropriate, for example, for families who are resilient and have no major health issues to be moved into a rural community, but somebody who has got serious medical problems might be better off in the city.”

Belgium has around 50 open reception centres for asylum seekers, all of which offer shelter, food, and access to medical and psychological support, education and legal expertise. “We need to remember that these people will have been through hell. Many women in refugee camps have experienced rape and sexual violence. These people need care, help and time,” says Christie.

Though cynics have accused ordinary people of “virtue signalling”, concrete pledges of help abound. PAIH says 1,500 people have now signed up to its hosting scheme. “If a small charity can amass that amount of goodwill from every single part of the UK, imagine what capacity there is in our society,” says Qureshi. “The question is, can the fact so many people are willing to offer up their homes, and the availability of social housing, be used to exert more pressure on Cameron?”

Elsewhere, faith groups have offered help, with the Catholic Church in Scotland putting the resources of its 450 parishes at the service of “those most in need”. And Glasgow University has introduced a series of measures to support refugee students, including fee waivers and the extension of the institution’s talent scholarship scheme to support refugee undergraduate and postgraduate students.

During the Second World War, the Glasgow University Settlement offered accommodation to refugees from the Nazi regime, while special education arrangements were put in place for Austrian and Czech doctors and Polish lawyers. Today, the university is home to GRAMNet – the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network.

GRAMNet’s co-convener Professor Alison Phipps and her partner have themselves hosted refugees from China, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Eritrea and Somalia. She believes Scotland’s history of immigration, its demographics and its post-devolution politics mean it does have a more positive attitude towards refugees than many other parts of the UK. As evidence, she cites the fact that Glasgow – a city with the kind of social inequalities that tend to breed racism – has been able to absorb a large number of asylum-seekers and eastern European migrants with remarkably little social unrest.

“Scotland has traditionally been a country of diaspora. There is written into our history a kind of pattern of journey and understanding of what it means to live in other countries,” she says.

This empathy has been fostered by a cross-party consensus in the Scottish Parliament that it will not tolerate xenophobia, or inflammatory language and a policy – promoted by the SRC – of integration from day one.

Though prejudice exists in most communities, Phipps says grassroots ­campaigners have proved adept at en­couraging a sense of common cause, which manifested itself most clearly in the Glasgow Girls’ demonstrations against the dawn raids on refugees in Drumchapel. This kind of story resonates with the city’s conceit of itself as a place of struggle, solidarity and open-mindedness.

It would be a mistake, however, to think the city’s success in resettling refugees was inevitable. Rather, it was the product of hard work and a willingness to adapt. The very earliest days of the dispersal programme were little short of disastrous, with public services ill-equipped to deal with refugees who had experienced violence and torture. Glasgow University sociology lecturer, Dr Teresa Piacentini, had just started working as a French interpreter when asylum seekers began arriving in 2000 and had no idea she would be working with psychologically scarred people dropped into an alien environment.

Those early asylum seekers were housed in some of the city’s most deprived areas: Sighthill, Royston, Toryglen, Drumchapel. Neither they nor the indigenous communities were prepared for the culture shock they experienced.

“At the beginning, I was working mainly with French-speaking Africans. I found myself in parts of Glasgow I had never visited facing desperate, traumatised people. Bus-loads were arriving late at night and being told “here’s the keys, this is where you are going to be housed”.

For a while, there were community tensions, culminating in the murder of Firsat Dag in Sighthill in 2001; but soon service providers rose to the challenge. “There were some very progressive GPs, some maternity services that recognised the need for specialist services,” says Piacentini. “Glasgow City Council interpreting services went from providing Urdu, Punjabi, Cantonese and Mandarin to delivering 100 languages and handling 1,000 requests a day.” Third sector organisations such as the SRC and PAIH also set up projects aimed at engendering community spirit.

No-one should underestimate the challenge that lies ahead this time round; despite the groundswell of support, you don’t have to look to far to encounter resentment and hostility. So long as indigenous people remain homeless, the prospect of Syrians being given shelter will jar for some.

And while local authorities and the Scottish Government are united in their support for refugees, there are already some tensions over the approach being taken. There are those in Glasgow City Council, for example, who feel too much external pressure on housing associations could impact on relationships it has nurtured over a number of years. Other local authorities fear the Scottish Government’s trumpeting of its pro-refugee stance could prevent them from resettling Syrian families discreetly and with minimum fuss

Broadly, however, they are all sending out the same message: we are happy to take in refugees. Phipps embraces this stance as she believes the country will gain economically, culturally and even spiritually. Our demographic – lots of pensioners and a low birth rate – means we need new people with skills to keep our economy growing; and refugees expose us to new ideas and languages. We also benefit from the very process of opening up our lives up to other people. “We learn compassion and something new about what it means to be human,” she says.

Phipps believes the success or otherwise of the attempt to resettle Syrian refugees depends largely on how much freedom Scotland is given to get on with it. “If we are allowed to organise on a local level, with coordinating strategies from the Scottish Government and Cosla, I think we will do a good job,” she says.

“But if there’s an insistence we do it all through the Home Office, I think it will be a very different story.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1