The issues of territory, class, income and citizenship come higher up the agenda for everyone when we decide on how we accommodate new Scots, journalist Lesley Riddoch told a British Future/Scottish Refugee Council session at the Scottish Festival of Politics.
Riddoch was one of the panellists at the session at the Scottish Parliament along with John Wilkes, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, and Alieu Cissay, refugee journalist debating who is Scottish and what being Scottish means. They were joined by more than 40 members of the public for the debate titled Who are Jock Tamson’s Bairns? The session was chaired by British Future’s Angie Starn.
The discussion kicked off with each member of the panel briefly presenting their views, followed by discussion and questions from the floor. They also found time to agree ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns’, meaning we’re all the same under the skin.
John Wilkes started by reading an extract from The Scotsman describing the arrival of Belgian refugees in Glasgow in 1914, illustrating that refugees are not a new phenomenon. Most recently, Scotland has seen greater number of asylum seekers following changes to the dispersal process, which Glasgow City Council was the first, and remains the only, local authority in the UK to be engaged in. According to UN figures, there are 20,000 seeking asylum, equivalent to a town the size of Dunbarton.
Politicians and the media set the tone for public attitude, John said: “Strong cross-party support since devolution has made a real difference to a more positive attitude than seen in England.” Campaigns such as Fresh Talent: Working in Scotland and One Scotland Many Cultures have helped public understanding of the positive impact of migration.
“We’re not suggesting Scotland is a paradise, asylum is often not disentangled from issues around immigration, race and security,” he concluded.
Born in Gambia, Alieu Cissay spoke of his experience arriving in Springburn, Glasgow, as an asylum seeker in 2008 and subsequently his work as a volunteer journalist for, amongst others, the British Red Cross. His campaign for human rights in Gambia, has received cross-party support in Scotland. He spoke of the challenges refugees face trying to integrate when there are few opportunities for work. Few with refugee status get employment, and those who do, earn less than £15K.
This point was brought up later by a member of the audience who shared her experience of working in a community where fears are being expressed of people having unfair access to services and jobs, particularly by the economic immigrants from Eastern Europe.
In response, Wilkes stressed the importance of busting myths. He argued that it was necessary to differentiate between asylum seekers who are not allowed to work, and those, who because of the EU freedom of movement, have the right to come and work in the UK and vice versa. Wilkes recalled an example in history when “a whole wave of British builders went out to Germany in the 1990s.”
There was a tension, he suggested, between UK Government efforts to control immigration and asylum and Scotland’s aim to grow immigration to combat an ageing population.
Journalist Lesley Riddoch observed that the larger question is “why is there a queue?” There are bigger issues to be addressed, she said, such as land ownership, house prices, and scarcity of resources including jobs. “All the nasties come out of the woodwork when you haven’t got enough. The issues of territory, class, income and citizenship come higher up the agenda for everyone when we decide on how we accommodate new Scots.”
Picking up on the idea of new Scots, a questioner asked Cissay when he would become a British citizen. The way the process would work in an independent Scotland was then discussed, with agreement that more detail was required in the run-up to the referendum.
The lively debate closed with Riddoch suggesting that, perhaps, it was time for the ‘tail to wag the dog’ with Scotland taking control over what happens to its borders with other countries – England and the wider European Union.
By Gill Booles