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Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th December 2013.

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Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I express my thanks to Jackie Baillie for bringing to the chamber her motion for debate. I express my dismay that one member has chosen to describe the reaction against this despicable campaign as “synthetic”. It is very clear that the reaction comprised very genuine and sincerely felt anger, disgust and dismay at the nature of the campaign.

There is, of course, a distinction between the mechanisms of asylum and immigration, but there is an overlap in the way that those issues are politically debated. Why is that? It is because among the most powerful forces in both debates are racism and xenophobia, and the way in which those forces are manipulated and whipped up by certain elements of our political culture and media in the UK. We need to recognise that. I will concentrate my remarks on the asylum system, because of the particular viciousness of the use in Brand Street of images of homelessness to intimidate asylum applicants and their families.

We need to address what the asylum system is for, because that is what is challenged by this campaign and the years of policy that preceded it under the current and previous UK Governments. An asylum system should be founded on compassion. Its purpose should be to give asylum to those who need it, not to refuse it to everyone for whom an excuse can be found to give a refusal. The latter, I am afraid, is what we have in this country. We have an asylum system that has morphed into what is little better than a human stock-taking exercise, in which individuals who work in the system are under constant pressure to say no at every opportunity and in which applicants are forced to get over absurd hurdles. There are barriers to justice that a Scottish person—a UK citizen—who sought justice in our courts would never have to experience, such as issues around stress, translation and representation. There are things to which they should have access but to which they do not, which creates a lack of justice in the system.

There should be justice as well as compassion for the same reason that we say in our criminal courts that it is better that a guilty person occasionally goes free than that innocent people be convicted. On the same principle, it is better that some people who might not have a well-founded claim end up being given leave to remain than that people who face genuine fear of persecution be sent back to face it.

If we rebalanced that, we would have an asylum system that was based on compassion and justice rather than one that is based on shallow, self-defeating principles, which those who whip up racism and xenophobia in the debate have managed to achieve. I repeat that they have managed to achieve that. Let us acknowledge what has been done to the asylum system over the years.

The images of homelessness that are being used to intimidate applicants are vicious not only because they cause fear or are distressing but because they recall the fact that destitution—the reality of destitution, not just the image of it—has been a deliberate act of asylum policy in the UK for years. Those images are so capable of causing fear because the reality exists on our streets. It has existed for years and will exist this Christmas as it has done for Christmases past.

Whether in the context of the UK or, perhaps more easily, a Scottish asylum system, that must be reversed. Years of racism and xenophobia in the asylum system must come to an end.