Every time there is a backlash over some aspect of UK immigration policy, there is an equal and opposite reaction from decriers of Scottish exceptionalism reminding us that we are no better than anyone else. Irritated by the tone of sanctimony that sometimes infects the debate up here, they insist there is no evidence to support the notion that people are more tolerant of incomers north of the Border.
In truth, the picture is mixed. In the run-up to the independence referendum, a study by the Migration Observatory found attitudes towards immigration were less negative in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. On the other hand, anyone who has vox-popped Scottish voters, and heard the phrase “I’m not racist, but…” uttered many times, won’t have been surprised by No Problem Here: Understanding Racism In Scotland, a book which dismisses the country’s conceit of itself as a beacon of racial enlightenment.
Where Scotland does differ from England is that our political leaders rarely encourage, endorse or legitimise anti-migrant rhetoric. Yes, there is the odd bad apple – Tory MP Douglas Ross, for example, who expressed a desire to crack down on “gypsies and travellers” – and sometimes party leaders are not as vocal as they should be when it comes to calling out their own.
By and large, however, our politicians do not exploit populist fears on immigration to their own advantage; they do not seek to make refugees, asylum-seekers, or economic migrants scapegoats for our woes; they do not cultivate a climate of suspicion against those who seek a better life on our shores.
The SNP, in particular, has worked hard to counter the hostility towards migrants fomented before, during and after the EU referendum. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has spoken out about the contribution Europeans and others make to our economy and culture and insisted that under her stewardship Scotland will always be a country that welcomes refugees. The difference such positivity makes can be seen on Bute, where, despite efforts by right-wing papers to sow division, 24 Syrian families have been integrated into the community, with several now running successful businesses.
The Scottish Government’s contribution is not confined to positive messaging; its new Scots Refugee Integration Strategy – drawn up with the help of 700 refugees – aims to improve access to education, housing and health. But with no power to shape broader immigration policy, it will always be operating with one hand tied behind its back.
All of which brings me to Serco. The moment it emerged the private company contracted to house 5,000 asylum seekers in Glasgow was issuing lock-change orders to “overstayers” – asylum seekers whose accommodation the Home Office has ceased to fund – all civic Scotland, bar the Conservatives, was galvanised into action.
Politicians, refugee charities, churches, asylum seekers and others have been gathering at a series of highly charged protests outside the Home Office and Serco premises in Cessnock, Glasgow, with speaker after speaker emphasising that shelter is a basic human right.
Campaign groups, including the Scottish Refugee Council, have worked to counter the Home Office depiction of those being targeted as “illegal”, pointing out that 100 of the 330 people involved have been given leave to stay, while many more are still in the process of appealing against rejections. They have also challenged the contention that it is now safe for those who fled violence in Iraq and Afghanistan to return there.
Meanwhile, newspapers and online news websites have highlighted stories of individual trauma. Common Space’s Alasdair Clark interviewed Rahman Sahah, who went on hunger strike last week. Sahah, 32, was born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan. The Home Office has told him he is entitled to Pakistani citizenship; the Pakistani embassy says not. Imagine: a whole life spent in stateless limbo; and now the prospect of being forced out on to the streets.
At yesterday’s protest there was a symbolic burning of eviction notices; but most of the work that has been going on has been highly practical. Positive Action for Housing – a charity that supports destitute asylum seekers – has launched an appeal for funds and urged those with spare rooms to offer them as emergency accommodation.
Though it is prevented from housing those who have exhausted the asylum process, Glasgow City Council has set up a task force to work with the third sector to offer advocacy and support. It is also looking at ways in which its general power of welfare to help vulnerable groups might be extended to the predominantly single men involved.
Meanwhile, Govan Law Centre’s threat to challenge the legality of Serco’s actions forced the company to agree to stop issuing lock-change orders until its right to do so had been tested and clarified in court.
Though Serco’s behaviour has been shoddy – the city council insists it was “blind-sided by its sudden change of tack” – the ultimate blame for the scandal lies with the UK government.
It was the Home Office that, in 2012, decided the housing of asylum seekers should be fully privatised, a decision which led to many vulnerable people being placed in squalid conditions. It was the Home Office that decided funding should be cut off 21 days after an application is deemed to have failed. If Serco does not evict, then it is left out of pocket.
Last week, a range of MPs and councillors (both SNP and Labour) wrote to Home Secretary Sajid Javid urging him to halt the evictions, but a one-off intervention merely staves off disaster until the next piece of hostile environment insanity.
The only long-term solution is for immigration policy to be devolved to Holyrood post-Brexit. Freed from Westminster, the Scottish Government would no longer have to stand on the sidelines as asylum seekers were stripped of their dignity and their human rights.
Of course, there is no cast-iron guarantee those threatened with eviction would fare better under a devolved system. At present the Scottish Government does not appear to be on top of its existing housing problems. According to Shelter, 38 children a day became homeless across the country in 2017. Glasgow City Council too is struggling to address the housing needs of its most vulnerable. A recent Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) report said homeless people in the city spent an average of 238 days in temporary accommodation in 2016/17 and people are still being turned away from the Hamish Allan out-of-hours homelessness service.
The SNP might also find that it’s less easy to be welcoming when it is in charge of deciding who stays and who goes and how deportations should be handled.
But the only way to test if Scotland is more tolerant and enlightened is to allow the country to create its own system.
Pass immigration powers to Holyrood and we’ll soon find out if we really do have it in us to do things better up here.