The Unity Centre sits on the corner of Ibrox Street in Cessnock, two or three hundred yards from the gates of the Home Office immigration compound that its volunteers picket weekly. The peeling pale-blue paint of its facade suggests a decades old residence, but in fact it was established just three years ago, as a means to providing asylum seekers and refugees with support, legal advice and ‘solidarity’.
Of the approximately 20,000 people who were granted temporary political and humanitarian sanctuary in the UK last year, around two or three thousand have settled in Glasgow, and of those only thirty to forty percent will be allowed to remain permanently. Although that number may seem negligible, according to Phill Jones – a senior staff member at the Unity Centre – it represents the highest concentration of new, non-economic, migrants in any British city outside London.
Mr. Jones speaks warmly of Glasgow’s attitude to immigration: “It is one of the most welcoming places in Britain for asylum seekers, partly because the families who come here have a profound impact on local communities, and the local people see that. There is a life-boat mentality with these families. The kids are keen to work and do well at school because they want to help out their parents. The parents are often involved with churches and community projects because they want to integrate and prove they can be successful.”
But recent projections have anticipated that Scotland, and specifically Glasgow, will suffer heavily as a result of the current economic crisis. It is expected that upwards of 180,000 Scots will be on the unemployment register by the start of 2010. This will leave little space in an over-saturated jobs market and will stretch the limits of an already strained benefits system. As we lurch further into the depths of recession, what will be the fate of those who are already exposed and susceptible? Is there a risk that native Scots will scapegoat asylum seekers in the way that some in the north of England have?
Jones insists, “It is worth remembering England and Scotland have contrasting attitudes on this issue. The atmosphere south of the border is much more hostile. Whereas here, the SNP government have put a lot of time into promoting the idea of a tolerant and multicultural Scotland – which is at odds with almost every other nationalist party in Europe. Also, there is a tradition of internationalism in Glasgow’s politics and history which still means something today.”
The debate concerning asylum and immigration in the UK has long been warped by a litany of half-truths and false impressions – some of which have been promoted by the far-right, some by the state. Perhaps the most pernicious misconception is that Britain is a ‘soft-touch’; a magnet for foreign free-riders, welfare-cheats and scroungers. On average, however, a single asylum seeker is expected to live on little more than £30 a week; barely enough for basic amenities.
In the midst of the most severe economic slump of recent times, the conditions of the poorest are only going to worsen. It is conceivable that an individual, with three ten pound notes in his pocket, might previously have been able to scratch together the very minimum necessary to sustain a tolerable standard of existence. But today, with rising food and fuel prices and government plans to cut £15bn from public finances, surviving on such a meagre amount no longer seems possible.
In addition, the UK Border Agency – the body that processes asylum claims – is a monolithic, impersonal bureaucracy that forces applicants through a series of degrading procedures. Officials at the immigration compound in Cessnock, for instance, subject new arrivals to five separate searches before they will consider specific requests.
A Kenyan asylum seeker sitting with her infant daughter amongst the clutter of the Unity Centre’s tiny, single-room office explains, “You come and they don’t seem to know or care what you have been through. The authorities make it as difficult as possible. They don’t treat you as an individual with particular difficulties, but as just another foreigner. They make you feel like a criminal.”
Jones argues that British immigration policy is not only unfair and inefficient, but chaotic too. He offers this example as illustration of systemic disarray, “Through the Gateway Project (a UN funded programme), the United Kingdom takes in around 500 refugees a year – that’s from a global total of twenty-three million, by the way. Two years ago the UK offered accommodation in Motherwell to two hundred men, women and children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, whilst at the same time conducting dawn raids on dozens of Congolese families in Glasgow. Sometimes it seems such confusion is deliberate.”
The Kenyan asylum seeker – who wished to remain unnamed – confirms Jones’ view. She describes how the Home Office has kept her in legal purgatory; unable to get a job, or an education, or even a bank account because her status has yet to be resolved – a full eighteen months after she first arrived in Scotland. “I’m not allowed to possess any identification. I can’t enrol at a college or get an education. I wanted to study childcare. I can’t work because I don’t really have an official place here.”
Evidently, this disorder benefits no one. Refusing asylum seekers and refugees the right to work and to learn serves only to marginalise and isolate groups who need extra support during this period of extreme economic uncertainty. It also discourages them from following the available legal avenues to citizenship, as Jones points out, “The reality is that asylum seekers can be imprisoned if they work. But because they can’t get work many of them are made homeless. Once National Asylum Support Service (NASS) payments are stopped, they can’t afford to keep up payments and their things are repossessed; sometimes without any warning. This can give them the impression they are about to be deported and drives them underground, out of the reach of the authorities.”
The volunteers at the Unity Centre do what they can to ensure that some support exists. They operate in a dark, cramped space with the full weight of the British state pressed against them. On the dirty walls, pictures drawn by the clients’ children hang next to a board with a list of the names of recently deported failed applicants. Nonetheless, it seems like gratifying work. Phill Jones grins, leans forward with his hands clasped on his desk, and says, “It’s a good thing to be a race traitor.”