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Before I set out the committee’s main findings, I will say something that I hope will set the tone for this debate: destitution is first and foremost a humanitarian issue. People who are destitute are one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and they deserve our compassion and support. A human response—one that seeks to protect them—treats them with dignity, fairness and respect.
In truth, we found the subject matter of our inquiry difficult. Much of the evidence that we heard was harrowing. We visited Shakti Women’s Aid and heard from Hemat Gryffe Women’s Aid and were deeply affected by the harrowing stories from the women there. Our report concerns lives that have been shattered through torture, exploitation, abuse and fear—hidden lives, but they are no less valuable than our own. We seek a new preventative approach—one that focuses on new beginnings.
Our report, “Hidden Lives - New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland”, asks a lot of the Scottish Government; it also calls on the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments to work together. We want a better life for those who come to the UK seeking protection and sanctuary but who instead become destitute, fighting at the very least for existence and, at the very worst, for survival.
Our report is wide ranging, as the particular aspect of destitution that our inquiry considered had not been looked at before by a Scottish Parliament committee.
We have made a large number of recommendations. Time will not permit me to cover them all, but I am sure that members of the committee will highlight other aspects of our work. I will focus my contribution on some specific findings: the harmful impact of destitution; destitution as a by-product of the asylum process and as a result of fleeing domestic abuse; no recourse to public funds and women escaping from domestic abuse; the importance of independent advocacy to address destitution; and the need for a national anti-destitution strategy.
First, I take the opportunity to thank the British Red Cross in Scotland, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, the Scottish Refugee Council, Scottish Women’s Aid, Positive Action in Housing and Engender, which made an impassioned and well-evidenced plea for the committee to consider the issue.
As a committee, we succeeded in reaching a consensus on almost all our conclusions and recommendations, which is a great achievement, given that the subject matter covered reserved and devolved areas and diverse political views. However, on agreeing our report, a couple of members held different positions: one member dissented from the recommendation in paragraph 41 of our report that asylum seekers should be allowed to register an initial claim, or a fresh claim, in Scotland rather than have to travel to England, and wanted further background information; and two members dissented from paragraph 207, which concluded that the Immigration Act 2016 risks exposing more people to destitution, as it provides for cuts to be made to asylum seekers’ support and gives power to compel local authorities to participate in wider dispersal.
In conducting our inquiry, we were keen to hear from those who had experienced destitution, which is why we enlisted the assistance of the organisations that I mentioned. Notably, individual testimony represented a significant proportion of the 107 responses that we received. We express our gratitude, in particular, to those who shared their real-life stories, the organisations that worked hard to help us gather that valuable information and everyone who provided written and oral evidence. I pay special tribute and say a special thank you to Olivia Ndoti, who courageously gave oral evidence to us, sharing her personal experience of destitution and her fight to gain accommodation and financial support for her and her son.
News of our inquiry was far reaching, so much so that we received correspondence—heartbreaking correspondence—from an asylum seeker in Turkey whose family were facing destitution. The evidence gathered for the inquiry provided an unequivocal insight into the issues associated with destitution. A key theme to emerge was the significant detrimental impact that destitution has on the individual in terms of their mental health; their ability to access healthcare, including maternity services; and their ability to maintain prescribed treatments. Health practitioners also face difficulties in treating those suffering. The Glasgow psychological trauma service told us:
“When clients are destitute, or at risk of destitution, the impact on mental health is significant. Clinicians and service users described worsening mental health problems ... Destitution also increased clients vulnerability to further trauma and re-victimisation and interfered with clients getting the health treatments they needed.”
It was also important for us to understand why destitution occurs. The risk of destitution is present at numerous points in the asylum and refugee system: at the pre-asylum application stage, during the asylum process; and post decision, irrespective of whether a decision is positive or negative. Other reasons were linked to issues of domestic slavery, domestic abuse and threat of retribution from wider family members—women who had entered the country on a spousal or student visa and, on fleeing from their partner, found their immigration status was insecure.
During our visit to the British Red Cross, we heard from parents who feared that their children would be taken away. Some recounted being told by social work staff that the only way that staff could help was to take their children into care—a terrifying thought for any family. On a personal level, as a former social care worker, I found those accounts deeply concerning.
We found inconsistency in the interpretation and application of child protection legislation, and we have asked for local authorities to review their training and guidance to ensure that there is no room for ambiguity. Destitute people are less able to access their rights and then to challenge any decisions.
We heard about gate-keeping practices by public authorities and, worryingly, about efforts to gain support being described as a “gruelling fight”. The Scottish Refugee Council advised that, of the 60 per cent of initial claims that are refused, 20 per cent go on to be successful. Being destitute makes it more difficult for people to re-engage with the asylum system to make a fresh claim, thus prolonging their destitution.
Kirsty Thomson from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association told us that the complexity of the legislation and processes and the ability to access specialist legal advice mean that there is a deficit in access to justice. Advocacy is crucial in helping people to access support to address their destitution, so we have asked the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and our third-sector partners to provide a fully-funded, independent advocacy service for those who are destitute. I know that that is a huge commitment, but if we help people at the earliest stages, we will not have to pick up the pieces in the later stages.
We feel strongly that women who are fleeing domestic abuse who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status should be given access to safe refuge accommodation and provided with the financial assistance that they need to survive. We should be ashamed that abused women have to use pillowcases as nappies for their children because they have no access to funds. We have asked for the Scottish Government to negotiate with the UK Government on this issue in particular and, in the meantime, we have asked for a crisis fund to help those who are most at risk.
Core to addressing the issues that are set out in our report will be the development of a Scottish anti-destitution strategy to inform a national approach to mitigating destitution. I am not sure whether the cabinet secretary is in a position to offer a commitment on that today; I will understand if she is not, but we hope that she will agree that that would be a positive step forward.
The committee calls on the Scottish Government to embrace a preventative approach to destitution. We all know that prevention is better than cure and that, when we are there early enough and we help people at the earliest stages of their destitution, they do not take out from the service as much as they would need in the later stages.
A preventative approach will benefit Scotland. People will be spared the harmful effects of being trapped in a cycle of trauma—we must remember that we are talking about people who have come from trauma and are seeking sanctuary here. Opportunities to exploit people for domestic slavery or criminality will be reduced. We released our new strategy on human trafficking today and a preventative approach will help with that, because people will not be forced into dangerous situations. Public services will not have the same demand on them to pick up the pieces at later stages, and non-governmental organisations will be able to return their focus to core business. Ultimately, those who have had a positive experience of Scotland will integrate better, and so will their children.
It is my pleasure to move, on behalf of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee,
That the Parliament recognises that destitution has a detrimental impact on people, affecting their mental health, their ability to access health care, and also increases their risk of exploitation and abuse; thanks those who shared their personal experience of being destitute with the Equalities and Human Rights Committee; notes that destitution can also impact on families, communities and on the provision of support from non-governmental organisations and public authorities, and notes the findings and recommendations of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s 3rd Report 2017 (Session 5),
Hidden Lives New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland
(SP Paper 147).
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I thank the convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee for her opening remarks. I am pleased that the committee was able to secure the debate.
The Scottish Government has welcomed the committee’s inquiry, which has given a much-needed focus to the issues of destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland. The committee’s report is aptly named. Too many people are leading lives hidden from view and suffering the consequences of immigration and asylum policies that are built on hostility, when they should be able to make a new beginning and a new life.
We should be in no doubt that the cause of the destitution, as examined by the committee, is the asylum and immigration system itself, which, as we all know, is reserved to the UK Government. I am therefore disappointed that the Minister of State for Immigration declined the committee’s invitation to give oral evidence, although I note that he provided written evidence.
I firmly believe that it is better to prevent destitution in the first place, rather than apply a sticking plaster once the damage has been done.
The committee made a number of recommendations to the Scottish Government to try to mitigate the impact of destitution caused by the immigration and asylum systems. We will consider those recommendations carefully and fully and we will respond formally to the committee in July, to meet its timescales. In doing so, we will adopt a sympathetic, can-do approach, while being clear about the challenges where recommendations either cover areas that are reserved or are impacted by reserved issues. We will be equally open to the opportunities, where we have devolved powers, that could make a real difference to people facing destitution.
We will shortly engage on developing the next new Scots refugee integration strategy. The new Scots strategy takes a multi-agency partnership approach and I want to see which recommendations could be pursued through it, bearing it in mind that that does not cover the immigration aspect of the committee’s inquiries. There are some aspects of an anti-destitution strategy that could be pursued as part of the new Scots strategy.
Destitution is built into the asylum system. It is in the rates that are set for asylum support. How many of us could live on £36.95 a week? It is in the length of time that people have to wait to receive the support. It is in the ending of support to many of those who have been refused asylum. It is also in the mismatch between the 28 days that people have to leave their asylum accommodation and support, and the length of time that it takes for benefits to be paid when people are eventually granted refugee status. That is at a time when people should be able to get on with their new lives in Scotland.
I have met families who are suffering the devastating impacts of destitution that is a consequence of the system. Those are families with young children who have faced the terrifying reality of being homeless and penniless, not knowing how they would get by from day to day—and all after seeking a place of safety and refuge to escape the trauma of their previous lives.
Destitution does not just impact on the individual; it impacts on our communities. We believe that asylum seekers and refugees should be welcomed and supported to integrate into our communities from day 1. That is the key principle of our new Scots refugee integration strategy. If people have to spend all their time fighting off destitution and are susceptible to exploitation, integration is impossible. That is devastating for them, first and foremost, but it is also a loss to our communities—a loss of culture, skills and friendship.
The Scottish Government and our partners among the third sector, charities and local government are literally paying the price of the UK Government’s policies on asylum and immigration. We are all paying for services and support that would not be required if people were not being left destitute in the first place.
The success of the Syrian resettlement programme shows what can be achieved when programmes are sufficiently funded. Scotland has now welcomed around 1,700 Syrian refugees into 31 local authority areas. The committee has rightly said that that is the standard that we should be aiming for, regarding both the asylum system and resettlement.
The tailored support that forms part of the resettlement programme comes in stark contrast to the complete lack of support provided to people in the asylum system, including those who receive refugee status. That is the driving force that is creating a two-tier system and that risks division between communities.
The Scottish Government will absolutely do what it can to take a holistic approach to all refugees and asylum seekers, but we cannot tackle the root cause while asylum and resettlement remain reserved.
The Scottish Government is playing its part by supporting organisations working with asylum seekers through the promoting equality and cohesion fund, which includes the British Red Cross, Positive Action in Housing and the Scottish Refugee Council, with more than £800,000 of investment. That includes £39,000 specifically for the British Red Cross’s short-term asylum response project, which provides emergency humanitarian assistance.
I am particularly concerned about the needs of asylum seeking children. The interests of the child must always be paramount. Consequently, unaccompanied children in Scotland are looked-after children and have the right to be supported by an independent guardian.
I will continue to work for the reinstatement of the Dubs amendment for the most vulnerable unaccompanied children in Europe. The Dubs amendment has provided the only safe legal route for unaccompanied children, outwith the middle east and north Africa, to reach the UK. Without that process, thousands of children will be condemned to an uncertain future.
Destitution should never be an outcome of the asylum process. It is unacceptable that people fleeing war and terror should end up destitute or homeless in a country where they have sought refuge. While people are living in Scotland, no matter what their immigration status is, they should be treated as part of our community and be able to live fulfilling lives. Our asylum and immigration systems should support that simple objective, not hinder it.
First, I thank all those who gave evidence to the inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Committee, of which I am a member. I look forward to this afternoon’s debate. The Scottish Conservatives will support the motion in Christina McKelvie’s name.
The evidence that we heard in committee highlighted areas where improvements can be made to ensure that vulnerable people are not at risk of destitution. We need a system that is more accessible and flexible, whatever stage of the process an asylum seeker is at. The Scottish Refugee Council told us that people must travel to Croydon to make an initial asylum claim, and if they are refused they must travel to Liverpool to make a fresh claim. They therefore raised concerns over accessibility, which must be looked at closely and quickly.
When people cannot access the asylum system they can be left in a vulnerable position and with no recourse to public funds. A cause for even greater concern is that, as the report says:
“people with insecure immigration status find themselves destitute for a combination of reasons but mainly linked to human trafficking or abusive relationships.”
Human trafficking is a serious problem in the region that I represent. Two weeks ago, BBC Scotland broadcast a shocking documentary on that despicable trade. It provided clear evidence that young girls are being trafficked from Slovakia to Glasgow, where they are forced into sham marriages with local men. That scandal is going on right under our noses, right now. It is essential that we keep the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 under review to ensure that our police officers have the powers that they need to tackle the problem and to save those young girls from that horrific violation and exploitation. I will continue to hold the Scottish Government to account on the matter.
The committee recently visited Shakti Women’s Aid in Edinburgh, where we heard from a number of women who found it challenging to access the support that they needed. Again, they had often come from abusive relationships or had been victims of human trafficking; others had sought refuge to avoid their young daughters being forced to travel abroad to undergo the inhumane female genital mutilation procedure. Hearing about the experiences of those women was truly emotional for all of us who were on the visit.
We heard concerns—I have mentioned these already—about whether it is realistic to expect that people who are struggling will travel hundreds of miles to make an asylum claim. Although the Home Office needs to maintain an efficient service that can cope with the number of claims that it receives each year, it must work to ensure that services are accessible. I recognise the Scottish Refugee Council’s call for the Home Office to make use of the SRC’s network of regional and local offices, including the one in Glasgow, to aim for a more accessible system. Therefore, this morning, I wrote to the Home Office minister, Robert Goodwill, to ask that the feasibility of allowing refugees to lodge their claims—and any fresh claims—in Scotland be considered.
The evidence that we heard in committee was effective in not only identifying problems, but suggesting how we can begin to make the system work better. In particular, the SRC, although it supported the report’s overall recommendations, asked us to consider three recommendations.
It is clear from the evidence that we heard that we need a Scottish anti-destitution strategy and I am pleased that the cabinet secretary said that that will be looked into. Such a strategy could bring to preventing destitution in the first place the focus that it deserves. That would, of course, require leadership from and co-operation between the Scottish and UK ministers.
A Scottish anti-destitution strategy should be developed in partnership with a national practitioners network that would involve people with experience of providing services to at-risk groups and who can share best practice to deliver a better quality of service. That network should continue to work in partnership with the Scottish Government once the strategy has been developed, in order to ensure that it works effectively.
I strongly echo the SRC’s calls for the Scottish Government, COSLA and third sector partners to consider funding an independent advocacy service for destitute asylum seekers and people with insecure immigration status. That would allow them to begin the process of integration into UK society as quickly as possible and allow signposting to key services to begin at an earlier stage.
In conclusion, the Conservatives are determined to build an asylum and immigration system that ensures fairness and offers support to vulnerable people and which has the confidence of people who are already in the UK. The UK has a proud history of helping those who are most in need. We are committed to the UK remaining a sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers, and we will be better able to make that ambition a reality by understanding the concerns that the report raises and acting on many of its recommendations.
I urge the Scottish Government and the UK Government to consider the report’s findings carefully and address the concerns that the motion identifies. I will support the motion at decision time.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. You are very kind. I will take more than six minutes.
I thank everyone who assisted the Equalities and Human Rights Committee in producing “Hidden Lives—New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland”. On behalf of all members of the committee, I thank all the witnesses who gave evidence, all the individuals who contributed written submissions, and all the individuals and organisations that assisted the committee’s research on destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status. I also thank the committee clerks, who provided expertise and assistance to all members throughout the process.
It is only right and just to commend the strength and courage of the people whom the committee met who were seeking asylum and refuge and living in destitution. Their personal accounts of fleeing persecution, warfare and suffering in their home nations for the refuge of Britain and of their individual struggles for survival while continuing to live a life of extreme destitution in the land that they once hoped could offer them safety and comfort were harrowing and inspiring in equal measure.
From the outset, it should be made clear that the Equalities and Human Rights Committee fully recognises and accepts that immigration is a reserved issue. However, the UK Government’s immigration policy has a profound impact on Scotland, and the majority of committee members believe that, fundamentally, the Immigration Act 2016 risks exposing more people to destitution, which could further traumatise them or make them vulnerable to exploitation.
The committee’s report outlines a plethora of recommendations and points for consideration by the UK Government, the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities. The current UK immigration and asylum system fails to treat our fellow human beings with dignity and respect and fails to appreciate and understand the extensive variety of complex circumstances that help to explain why individuals seek refuge and asylum in the UK.
I will specifically focus on the experience of women who are seeking refuge and asylum in Scotland—they are most at risk of destitution. Destitution is linked to marginalisation and oppression. The truth is that women who seek refuge or asylum in the UK are often survivors of domestic abuse, genital mutilation or rape. Their insecure immigration status leads to further exploitation and is linked to their experience of abuse, violence and having their liberty and autonomy severely restricted. In its written evidence to the committee, Scottish Women’s Aid articulated:
“Women with insecure immigration status experience specific patterns of abuse”.
Destitution is built into the system because there are only a few locations in England where asylum claims can be dealt with. The only place where people are able to register their claim for asylum is in Croydon. The only place where people who have been refused asylum can make a fresh claim is in Liverpool. That results in the indefensible situation in which individuals who have fled from conflict, human rights abuses and humanitarian crises and have travelled a treacherous journey of many thousands of miles across continents to arrive in Scotland are then expected to make an eight-hour bus journey to Croydon to register their claim for asylum.
The immigration system lacks compassion. It fails to treat our fellow human beings as fellow human beings. Instead of offering support and an inviting welcome to vulnerable and marginalised people who have travelled to our country to seek safety, the system appears to add to their suffering and increase the likelihood of destitution. The committee supports the Scottish Refugee Council’s recommendation that the Home Office use the SRC’s local and regional offices to make the system more accessible to newly arrived women, men and children.
In Scotland, we need a more collective approach. The Scottish Government should work with local authorities and third sector partners to identity the number of individuals in destitution and those with insecure immigration status. Meaningful data will help to inform policy and enable a more coordinated approach to tackling destitution. “Establishing Migrants’ Access to Benefits and Local Authority Services in Scotland: A Guide for Local Authorities” should be updated as a matter of urgency. It is vital that that guidance is a living document that makes a meaningful difference to individuals in need.
The Conservatives’ defence of the UK’s immigration system is unsustainable. It is inefficient, illogical and lacks any sense of compassion or understanding. There is hope of a better future. There is hope that our immigration system can change and treat people with compassion and understanding. However, change will not come with the election of another callous Conservative Government that is hell-bent on achieving arbitrary immigration targets by dehumanising our fellow human beings. It is time for Conservative MSPs, for once, to do the right thing and call on their colleagues at Westminster to radically review the Immigration Act 2016.
Anyone who reads the report will conclude that the UK Government and the Scottish Government can do more to address destitution. The report is a hugely complex piece of work and I thank everyone who contributed to evidence-taking sessions or welcomed the committee on visits, and I than the clerks for all their hard work.
Under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, a person is defined as destitute if they do not
“have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it (whether or not … essential living needs are met); or” if they have
“adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it, but cannot meet … other essential living needs.”
The report that has been prepared by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee examines the impact of destitution on asylum seekers and people with insecure immigration status. People who have fled their countries and lodged an application for protection, people who have had their claims for asylum granted, and people with insecure immigration status who are waiting on a response from the Home Office are the real subjects of the report.
We can and must improve the situation that those people find themselves in. I sincerely hope that, in this debate and the work that follows, we all focus on the humanity of the situation and do not get bogged down in statistics. Although I joined the committee only after the Easter recess, it is not difficult to see, from reading the report and
Official Reports of meetings, and from hearing feedback from other committee members, that the evidence sessions were emotionally draining.
As we went over the report, one of the huge injustices that struck me was the part about destitution and insecure immigration status. All the previous speeches have touched on that. Paragraph 37 of the report says that the reasons given
“seemed more linked to issues of domestic abuse, domestic slavery and threat of retribution from wider family members, for example:
It was clear to us that the asylum and immigration system is peppered with points at which the risk of destitution becomes more likely. The sheer complexity and inaccessibility of the process makes it unnecessarily difficult, in practical terms, for someone who is new to the UK and is destitute to initiate the process. Destitution is further built into the system by there being only certain geographical locations in England where parts of the process can be accessed. People who arrive in Northern Ireland do not have to travel to Croydon to make an initial claim, and it is unacceptable that destitute vulnerable people are forced to continue, in the UK, what will already have been a very difficult journey.
We are in no doubt that destitution should not happen as a result of failings in the system, as we heard about in respect of refugees moving from asylum accommodation. I contend, sadly, that people are being made destitute because of the complicated and onerous system that confronts them when they arrive on our shores. Vulnerable, poor, frightened and disadvantaged people must be protected and offered sanctuary, and not regarded as statistics.
So what can we do? The recommendation that has been made by the majority of the committee in paragraph 41 asks the Scottish Government to intensify its negotiations with the Home Office to ensure that people who arrive in Scotland and wish to make a claim for asylum are able to do so here in Scotland, and do not have to travel to Croydon. We have also recommended that we stop forcing people who wish to make a fresh claim to make the journey to Liverpool to complete that claim. We need to establish why those journeys are being forced on vulnerable people and whether there is a way to change that.
The message from the report is as damning as it is clear that destitution is built into the UK asylum process. Positive Action in Housing’s director, Robina Qureshi, has said that the report
“is a stark reminder that the UK asylum process, instead of sheltering vulnerable refugees while they try to build new lives, is fast-tracking men, women and children into a deeper humanitarian crisis of absolute destitution.”
Scottish Refugee Council policy officer Graham O’Neill has said that
“Today’s report is an important wake-up call to a severe human rights problem—often called ‘destitution’.”
He went on to say that
“The simple truth is that UK governments have sanctioned destitution as a policy lever and it has failed completely” and that the report
“is a blueprint for Scotland to develop a humane, preventative and more effective model against destitution.”
The report calls for several things, including the creation of a Scottish anti-destitution strategy. The Government and other agencies, including those in the third sector, need to work together across all sectors with the aim of mitigating the negative effects that destitution has on asylum seekers.
More needs to be done to identify how widespread destitution is among asylum seekers and insecure immigrants. Asylum seekers should be allowed to work, paid or unpaid, in order that they can give themselves the means not to become exploited or destitute and to help their physical health, mental health and self-esteem. A destitution fund should be created by the Scottish Government to help women who are suffering domestic abuse and cannot find other help. The Government should consider extending free bus travel to asylum seekers so that they can travel to hospital and other appointments. There should also be a national co-ordinated practitioners network, which would comprise several agencies, including the Scottish Government, health boards, local authorities, NGOs, the third sector and the legal sector. Finally, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities guidance for local authorities should be updated to let people know what help is available to them.
No one who flees war and persecution in their own country should come to the UK or Scotland and face destitution. We are asking the UK Government and the Scottish Government to make changes to ensure that those people—who are already weak, scared and vulnerable—are helped when they need it most, and are not forced into more unimaginable situations because help is not available. There are many good examples out there of organisations and individuals that are doing excellent work in the field, but the report shines a light on a problem that is quite often hidden in plain sight.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate the report. As a committee member, I thank those who have given us oral and written evidence over the past few months. Without their openness in their evidence, we would not have before us the report that we have today. I also thank the clerks for pulling the report together and for keeping us moving in the right direction.
The report shows us that there are many issues around the area. It is simplistic to think that if we do one or two things, everything will improve. We need closer working between the Scottish Government and the UK Government, between the Scottish Government and local authorities, and between local authorities and the third sector. It became clear to me—and, I think, to other committee members—that although there are good practices out there, and lots of good ways that we should do things are written down, often they do not reach the grass roots. Too often, policies are written but then left on the shelf. Too often, people’s first contact with a social worker or someone else is not a good and positive experience.
The first thing that I want is local authorities sharing information more professionally, through COSLA and through other ways, so that everyone understands what the law is and how it should be applied to individual cases.
I do not accept that statement. COSLA has failed in its work by not properly distributing information to the 32 local authorities. As I was about to say, distributing information will become more and more important if the system is to be rolled out across Scotland. At the moment it is, predominantly, in place in Glasgow and Lanarkshire, and, to some extent, Edinburgh, but if it is going to go to other parts of the country, there needs to be much greater access to information.
We heard evidence from local authorities that different practices are being followed in neighbouring local authorities, which is not acceptable.
The other area that I want to pick up on is independent advocacy for the people who go through the system. Those who arrive in this country have a raft of different stories and experiences, but almost all of them have had a negative experience of their Government or of someone who is in a position of authority over them. I think that there is a slight danger that people will not use advocacy that is provided by people here who are seen to be part of the system. Independent advocacy should be independent, and we should consider the possibility of such advocacy being directly funded by the Scottish Government. Whether it is provided by citizens advice bureaux, advice hubs or other third-party organisations, there needs to be a distinction between the provider of advocacy and the state so that people feel that they are getting absolutely independent advice.
Sometimes, the advice will be offered by lawyers. There is an issue with that, in that the legal people who deal with immigration law in Scotland are based predominantly in the central belt. How do individuals who need advice in the north of Scotland or other remote parts of the country get it? Paragraph 63 of the committee’s report raises the issue of legal aid, which the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and other ministers need to be quick to consider in order to ensure that people are not losing out.
I agree with Gail Ross—we need to look at the issue from the points of view of the individual people who are affected rather than at statistics. We need to do so in a way that takes us away from cheap political point scoring and looks at what the Scottish Government, the UK Government and local authorities can do together to help these very vulnerable individuals.
I hope that the committee’s report will shed light on current practices. We have challenged the UK Government and the Scottish Government by asking that progress be made in a fairly short time. We have done so because the issue is so urgent that we need answers quickly. I hope that, in a year’s time, the committee will have seen genuine progress and that people’s lives will have been made easier.
The work of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee on destitution, asylum and immigration status has been fantastic, and I am extremely grateful to it for its report, and for having the opportunity to debate it in Parliament.
Asylum and the issues around it are, of course, significantly reserved to the Westminster Parliament, but the report recommends a range of initiatives that could be undertaken in Scotland and which would be of tangible benefit to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
In December last year, we held a debate in which we welcomed the 1,000th Syrian refugee to Scotland. Since that debate, the Westminster Government has ended the Dubs scheme, as the cabinet secretary mentioned. The Dubs scheme was designed to take in unaccompanied child refugees—many such children are destitute in the rest of Europe—who are at huge risk. Named after Lord Alf Dubs, who was a child refugee from the Holocaust and someone whom I am very proud to know, the scheme was meant to take in 3,000 children, but it took in barely a tenth of that number, thereby abandoning thousands of the children on this planet who are most in need.
The Westminster Government claimed that councils across the country did not have capacity, but it was immediately contradicted by councils in Scotland and the rest of the UK, which offered places. Quite frankly, the Westminster Government was lying. I know—as, I am sure, all members know—what efforts councils across Scotland and the rest of the country have gone to in securing accommodation for unaccompanied children who seek asylum, as well as for families who have come to the UK through the Syrian resettlement scheme.
The Green MSPs sent a letter to the Home Secretary and the Minister of State for Immigration requesting that the scheme be reinstated. That is the second time that we have formally written to the UK Government to express concerns about support for refugees and asylum seekers, but it has not had the courtesy to respond to either of our letters. If Annie Wells manages to receive a response from the UK ministers, she should let us know what the trick is.
In Government, the Conservatives have consistently contributed to the instability around the world that forces millions of people to claim asylum. They even brought arms manufacturers into this Parliament: the very company whose weapons turn innocent people into refugees by destroying their homes, schools and hospitals. However, when a very few people dare to come to the UK to claim asylum, the Westminster Government does everything that it can to turn them away, offering them as little support as possible and making the task of getting residency difficult and gruelling. The committee’s report highlights the distances that refugees need to travel to Croydon or Liverpool to make initial claims and to reapply if they are rejected. As I mentioned to Jeremy Balfour, Andrew Morrison from COSLA told the committee that
“destitution was an inevitable consequence of the United Kingdom immigration system” as it sought to create a
“hostile environment ... for those” who do not
“have a legal right to be in the UK”.—[
Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee,
23 March 2017; c 2.]
I have seen the reality of the refugee crisis; I know exactly how much those people need some basic compassion when they arrive in Europe. Last month, I was on Lampedusa, which is the small Italian island that has been at the centre of the refugee crisis since the European Union’s deal with Turkey closed the routes through the Balkans. We know that, in 2016, at least 6,000 people drowned trying to reach Lampedusa, although the real number will be far higher than that. Just before we arrived on Lampedusa, another boat sank. As Patrick Harvie mentioned at First Minister’s questions, 34 people—almost all of them babies and toddlers—drowned last Wednesday. The horrors that survivors experience are beyond what any of us can comprehend.
We met Vivien, a 17-year-old from central Africa. She was pregnant by rape and had been kidnapped twice and forced into prostitution, and her best friend had drowned in the Mediterranean. We saw the grave of Walala, an 18-year-old from Eritrea who had suffered terrible burns when gas canisters had exploded in the Libyan warehouse that she was held in. Rather than take her to hospital, the people smugglers put her on a boat to die in agony at sea. We also saw the unmarked graves for those whose names, ages and stories we will never know.
They are desperate people who are asking for nothing more than safety and security, but even if refugees make it to the UK, their struggle does not end. The current Westminster Government and previous Governments have constructed an asylum and refugee system that is heartless and immoral and that does not offer the safety, security or dignity to which asylum seekers are entitled. We have a system that lines the pockets of multinational providers such as Serco and G4S and their subcontractors, and which puts profit and cost savings before basic rights and dignity.
In January, the UK Home Affairs Select Committee published a report on COMPASS—commercial and operating managers procuring asylum support—contracts and the provision of asylum accommodation in the UK. What it found is simply sickening. It included infestations of rats, mice, and bedbugs; rotten sofas and dirty carpets; women in the late stages of pregnancy being forced to share rooms; and accommodation that was without locks and completely unfit for habitation.
We have heard of atrocious living conditions in Glasgow in substandard housing that is provided by, for example, Orchard and Shipman. The company has been the subject of numerous allegations that it is putting vulnerable people in slum-like conditions. Health professionals and charities say that the health of refugees, and children in particular, has suffered as a result. What kind of society can tolerate such treatment of people who have come here to seek refuge? It is essential that responsibility for asylum support services here be entirely devolved to Scotland, as this Parliament voted on and agreed a number of months ago. If the UK Government will not operate on the basis of dignity and respect, we will.
As I mentioned, there is plenty that the Scottish Government could take a lead on right now. For example, the provision of free bus passes for people who are in destitution is an excellent recommendation from the committee. That could be extended to all refugees and asylum seekers, although I acknowledge the identification issues that might arise in a wider roll-out.
As recommended, an advocacy service for people in destitution whose immigration status is insecure is an excellent idea, but it should not be limited to people who are destitute. Many people whose residency here is insecure would benefit immensely from such a service, and it would likely head off large numbers of cases of destitution.
The committee’s report is excellent, and Parliament should be very proud of it. The UK Government, on the other hand, should be ashamed of its findings—not that they are anything new, or anything that people here, in other Parliaments and devolved assemblies in these islands, and in charities and NGOs have not said before. Even the United Nations has had much to say about how the UK Government treats refugees and asylum seekers.
The Scottish Government should take on the committee’s recommendations and show that, when powers lie with this Parliament, we can create a dignified and just society for all those who need it.
I thank the committee’s clerking team for their help and effort during the evidence sessions, and for bringing the report to its final conclusion. I also thank all the organisations and individuals who submitted evidence, or came before the committee to give evidence. However, I stress my disappointment at the lack of engagement by the UK Government, which refused to contribute any evidence, either in person or by video conference.
Since January, the committee has worked hard to understand the challenges that are faced by asylum seekers and refugees, and what the Scottish Government, the UK Government, local authorities and the third sector can do to effectively tackle the risk of destitution for each and every person fleeing persecution and seeking a safer and fairer life here in Scotland.
Scotland has a proud history of inclusivity and our approach to helping asylum seekers and refugees to integrate into mainstream society has been praised by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee of the National Assembly of Wales. That is in stark contrast to the approach being taken by the UK Government. Evidence received by the committee showed that destitution is built into its harmful process, which creates a two-tier system of protection, forces far too many people into hardship, and has a detrimental impact on their integration into our communities. Individuals who have fled from dreadful circumstances find themselves trapped in destitution and homelessness, often for years, as a direct result of the asylum process.
The system places on claimants unfair stresses and constraints that impact on the whole of our society. We need a more inclusive and fairer approach to the assessment process. Andrew Morrison from COSLA summed up that view when he stated that destitution is
“an inevitable consequence of the United Kingdom immigration system” —[
Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee,
23 March 2017; c 2.]
as it seeks to create a “hostile environment” for those who do not have a legal right to be in the UK.
Graham O’Neill of the Scottish Refugee Council described the UK Government’s policy as “inhumane and senseless” and advised there was a significant risk of exploitation, including sexual, to newly arrived asylum applicants who are seeking to fund their travel to Croydon. That includes individuals who have been refused asylum and are required to travel to Liverpool to submit a fresh claim. The Scottish Refugee Council has called for the Home Office to make use of its extensive network of local and regional offices to make the system more accessible for newly arrived destitute women, men and children to register their claim.
The committee recognises that the UK Government and Parliament have the power to legislate on asylum and immigration. It has asked the Scottish Government to continue its negotiations with the Home Office to allow people who arrive in Scotland to be allowed to register their claim in Scotland, and to allow fresh claims for asylum to be submitted in Scotland. National and local government and the third sector are paying the price for the failure of the UK Government’s policies and an ineffective asylum process and immigration system, and this cannot go on.
In particular, Glasgow City Council and its third sector organisations cannot sustain the level of services that they are providing without additional funding help. Local authorities are cautious about becoming involved because of the lack of funding, but the success of the Syrian resettlement programme highlights what can be achieved when programmes are sufficiently funded and more local authorities become involved.
Many third sector organisations have played a tremendous part in helping to meet the needs of destitute asylum seekers and those with insecure immigration status but, without the necessary backing, they will simply be unable to continue providing such vital assistance.
I welcome the report’s recommendations, which ask the Scottish Government, COSLA and third sector partners to consider providing a fully funded independent advocacy service for destitute asylum seekers and people with insecure immigration status, and the creation of a national co-ordinated practitioners network. I firmly believe that early advocacy would result in long-term savings for health and social services while providing people with the best opportunity to start the integration process. A national co-ordinated practitioners network comprised of representatives from a number of sectors would enable all parties to share best practice and highlight concerns about legislation and practice.
We need to better understand and address the issues that are faced by those who seek asylum in Scotland. We must strive to combat the misperception, often attached to asylum seekers, that they do not need to be destitute in this country because they can simply choose to return to their country of origin. That is unfair and unjust. Given the choice, most people would choose to continue living in their home country, but because of devastating situations and events outwith their control, they find themselves with no choice but to seek asylum and a safer life for their family in a different country. Many claimants have fled from terrible violence and hardships.
We need to ensure the provision and successful delivery of the help and support that those who are seeking asylum need in order to continue learning, thriving and developing both mentally and socially. However, research shows that many barriers continue to impact on a daily basis, ranging from difficulty with travel costs to the emotional strain that day-to-day uncertainty brings. Isolation and a feeling of disconnection to wider society can also hamper opportunities and, in turn, create further barriers.
Too many asylum seekers are left with no legitimate means of securing a livelihood. Denied access to financial support or the right to work, they are often forced to adopt strategies to cope with having no income and no home while dealing with extreme levels of despair at the long periods they spend in the uncertainty of the asylum process. A high proportion of claimants report mental health issues, but the issue is substantially underreported in asylum seeker and refugee populations.
A determined response is required to ensure that the appropriate support is given at every stage of the asylum process to all asylum seekers living in Scotland who have been forced into destitution because of delays in the administration of a complex and inefficient asylum system. We must all work together to find solutions to the causes of the destitution that is experienced by asylum claimants and make efficiency a matter of priority.
The 2016 act and subsequent changes to support have the potential to exacerbate the issue of destitution for many who come here for a safer environment and risk exposing even more people to further trauma. I urge the Scottish Government to consider the report’s key findings and recommendations and to undertake a Scotland-wide consultation. I look forward to a Scottish Government report being submitted to the committee in one year’s time.
I welcome today’s debate following the publication of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s report into destitution, asylum and insecure immigration.
My colleagues from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee have told me of some of the moving evidence they heard on this issue and we have heard more this afternoon. The issues that are raised in the report are serious and many of the solutions are sensible. I support the call for the creation of a Scottish anti-destitution strategy. If we want to create policies that mitigate destitution, it is vital that we have more information on the scale and nature of the issue.
I would also welcome the creation of an independent advocacy service for destitute asylum seekers. Skilled advocacy can help to mitigate the issue of destitution and exploitation as asylum seekers are directed to the right financial support and accommodation.
Finally, the creation of a national co-ordinated practitioners network would enable best practice to be shared among health boards, local authorities, Government officials and third sector organisations.
However, I have some concerns about aspects of this latest report from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. Although its domestic focus brings to the fore some significant issues, we must also consider the international picture, as the international response informs the domestic response. To put into context the actions of the UK Government, the Scottish Government and local authorities, we have to look at domestic policy and international policy in equal measure.
The report mentions little about the humanitarian efforts of the UK Government in its response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The UK is the second largest donor and has committed more than £2.46 billion to helping Syrian refugees in the region surrounding the war-torn country. If we break down that figure, we find that the UK has provided about 20 million food rations, 4.5 million relief packages, 2.5 million medical consultations and 400,000 shelters. British aid offers the greatest amount of help to the greatest number of Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries.
As Rob Williams, chief executive of War Child UK, estimated:
“Caring for the basic needs of a refugee in Europe costs at least ten times as much as in countries neighbouring Syria.”
In 2016, the House of Commons International Development Committee praised the UK Government’s response, as it discourages refugees from risking their lives on long perilous journeys into Europe, sometimes on unseaworthy boats and often at the mercy of human traffickers. We hear almost daily, if not weekly, about tragedies in the Mediterranean and we must recognise the UK Government’s attempt to find an alternative system that provides refugees with safer and more secure passage to Britain.
2014, the vulnerable persons resettlement programme works in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The programme is aimed at those refugees who cannot be supported in the regions surrounding Syria, prioritising victims of sexual violence and torture, older people and disabled people. Under the programme, almost 5,500 Syrians were resettled in the UK between October 2015 and December 2016. Most important, refugee status is granted to individuals before they arrive in the UK.
Upon arrival, the refugees should have immediate rights to work, to access welfare, and to access public services such as health and education. As a result, the risk of destitution and insecure immigration is reduced. That is the major advantage of the vulnerable persons resettlement programme. The European Union is mirroring the UK’s actions by taking steps to establish a system that supports targeted refugee settlement.
The European Commission stated in April 2016:
“The overall objective is to move from a system which by design or poor implementation places a disproportionate responsibility on certain Member States and encourages uncontrolled and irregular migratory flows to a fairer system which provides orderly and safe pathways to the EU”.
Together, the UK and the EU are moving towards a more competent and co-ordinated international response. With international effort transitioning from an asylum-seeking programme towards a refuge-resettlement programme, it is hoped that the risk of destitution and insecure immigration will be lessened.
The asylum and refugee crisis that we face across Europe is one of the biggest challenges of our time. We cannot help but be moved by the personal tragedies that have been experienced by those fleeing conflict and persecution. To find a way forward, all levels of government must co-operate with one another, and domestic policies should align with the international response.
In closing, I want to recognise the efforts of those individuals who have offered their homes to those fleeing war zones or persecution. I also want to recognise the work of dedicated refugee and asylum organisations in Scotland that have provided food, money, shelter and skilled advocacy support, such as Massive Outpouring of Love and Cafe DG2 in my constituency.
I hoped that this would be a consensual debate. I think that most people’s speeches have been consensual, but I honestly cannot take the hypocrisy from the Tory side, as the Tories have caused pain, suffering and destitution with their cuts to help for asylum seekers. Perhaps if they had taken interventions from members, we could have asked questions and got some answers from them. I cannot praise them, given that they support a Government that goes about with a big white van telling refugees that they should go home. All that I can do is highlight their hypocrisy.
I want to thank the many people who have helped on this issue over the years, including you, Deputy Presiding Officer, if you do not mind me saying so. It was in the late 1990s that we saw the first tranche of refugees coming to Glasgow and Lanarkshire. You and I, and many others, were instrumental in closing down Dungavel, but that took a number of years. I also want to thank the many groups and organisations that demonstrated, fought and cajoled to ensure that the people who came to this country were treated with dignity and respect. That was particularly the case with the first tranche, when people arrived in Sighthill and other areas of Glasgow. They were quite frightened and did not know what was happening, and people were there to work with them. Integration came about and now we have the fantastic Glasgow girls, and others as well. That approach, which treats people with respect and dignity, can work. That is why I want to thank the committee for its report, which is fantastic. This debate has also been great, and the contributions—apart from those of the Tories—have been excellent.
I feel particularly strongly about the recommendation that people should not have to go down to Croydon or Liverpool. For years, I, along with many other individuals and groups, have been calling for that requirement to end, and I sincerely hope that that recommendation will be delivered. I understand that we cannot deliver it ourselves, as immigration and asylum are reserved to Westminster, unfortunately. However, if the two Governments can work together, we can look forward to that recommendation being delivered. I thank Mary Fee for her speech, which talked about what happens to people when they come here. For people who are in that traumatic situation, arriving here and then being told that they have to go to Croydon or Liverpool must be frightening, because they do not know those areas. I want to make sure that that recommendation will be delivered.
A number of members, including Christina McKelvie and David Torrance, mentioned the impact that destitution can have on people with mental health problems, not necessarily when they arrive here but because of the trauma that they go through. I will give one example of that; I am sure that other members hear about such cases through their postbag or by phone. A college lecturer—I will not name them or the college; I will just call them “he”—contacted me and asked for my advice regarding one of the college’s students of English for speakers of other languages, who has been in the UK for almost six years. He says:
“He is an asylum seeker but during the entire time he has been here, he has not received any support from the home office. No accommodation or financial assistance, nor the right to work to support himself.”
I support what the committee’s report says about that. He admits:
“This is indeed rather unusual, but it seems that some asylum seekers qualify ... while others do not.”
It depends on whether their claim has been accepted via the Home Office. The person was involved in a trafficking case
“and was given 48 hours to leave his temporary accommodation provided for by a charity named Migrant Help. This has rendered him completely homeless and again without any financial support. Meanwhile, his lawyer is planning to make a fresh claim for his asylum but during this entire time his mental health is in rapid decline. He has barely eaten in the last three weeks, barely slept and in his own words he has ‘given up on life’. ... I don’t know if there is anything that you can do under these circumstances but I find it appalling that there is absolutely no safety net for vulnerable people under his circumstances. The Red Cross and Positive Action in Housing”— which has been mentioned—
“were helpful in terms of support, but do not have the resources to provide accommodation for him whilst his asylum case is re-opened. I genuinely fear that he will take his own life as a result of being trapped in the system for so many years and unable to help himself in any way. Please can you bring it to the attention of others that it is inhumane and unfair to expect someone to live off nothing, and if there is any way”— he—
“could be assisted, I would be very grateful.”
I recently received another email from the lecturer, after I had contacted a lawyer and various organisations. It says:
“Thank you for your help.”
“was admitted to Levendale hospital ... I am not sure how long he will have to stay there, but he is still very stressed and as far as I can see, without hope.”
That is the reality of being a destitute asylum seeker not just in Scotland but in the UK. I sincerely thank the committee for its report, and I am sure that we, in Scotland, can do something about the situation.
I whole-heartedly welcome the excellent report from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. The recommendations that it has made and the oral evidence that it took will make a significant contribution to the Parliament’s work in an area that many of us care deeply about.
More than that, I do not think that the report could have come at a more crucial time. Its call for an anti-destitution strategy, which many of the recommendations refer to, could not be more timely.
As other members have said, the world that we live in now is one that we are perhaps not proud of but one that we helped to create. It is one in which 65 million people have been forced from their homes and 21 million people are refugees. Staggeringly, half those refugees are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who are denied a nationality. We know that 53 per cent of the refugees come from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, where we have had involvement, as well as Somalia.
Until recently, the Palestinian refugee population was the largest refugee population in the world. Tragically, many Palestinian refugees who fled to Syria in 1948 and 1967 have now been displaced two or three times because of the Syrian conflict.
As others have eloquently discussed, there are many reasons, such as domestic violence and persecution on the ground of sexuality, why people flee their countries and seek sanctuary in a foreign country with which they have no connection. Such people are so desperate that they brave it all, including risking their lives, to arrive in a foreign country with nothing. There must be a lot of darkness in the life of any person who is prepared to do that to get a better life.
As the report says, destitution is built into the UK asylum process. It is inevitable, because the immigration system is designed to be hostile to those who do not have a legal right to be here. There has been consensus among some speakers this afternoon that a human approach is not built into the system, which lacks humanity. Once a person is destitute, they are much harder to find.
The report refers to the evidence from Graham O’Neill of the Scottish Refugee Council, who said that
“there was significant risk of exploitation” of any new person who arrives in a country. Annie Wells talked about young girls who have been human trafficked from other countries and who are extremely vulnerable. We have a moral obligation to those young women.
Graham O’Neill also said:
“they go into a twilight world and we do not know how they get to Croydon”.—[
Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee
, 16 March 2017; c 17.]
Neither do we know how they fund travel. When we think about it, the question arises of how a person who has never been to the UK before and who has no friends or connections finds Croydon in the first place—I could not tell members where it is without looking on a map. How do they find the funds, travel there and make their application? The system is designed to put such a person off.
I am fully behind the committee’s recommendation of registration in Scotland; that is a basic human requirement. Whether someone’s legal claim for asylum meets the test is what really matters; where they turn up to make the claim should not matter. The law will decide whether, under our rules, someone is an asylum seeker and should be treated as a refugee.
The report explains really well the important issues of age-disputed children and children travelling alone. When a young person arrives here, they have an age assessment. As the report says, many children fear telling their stories. We have to get the conditions right to get that information out of a young person or child. Being designated a child asylum seeker affects the type and level of support that someone gets, so it matters that we have a system that can determine that.
I have talked before about a young eight-year-old boy called Najim whom I met in the Calais refugee camp two years ago. I was asked to help to find his family in London and he is now safely with them, not particularly because of my efforts but because the system actually worked. Children are being reunited with their families and I am so pleased about that. However, the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeker children requires more attention.
There is no one who is more passionate or compassionate on that subject than Lord Dubs, as the cabinet secretary said. The scheme that he helped to create means that even more children are coming to Britain, although not enough, as far as I am concerned. I believe that Britain can take many more child refugees, and while I welcome the 480 we have agreed to take, I would prefer that number to increase dramatically.
I will mention three of the committee’s recommendations. The advocacy service is a superb idea that I whole-heartedly support. I have already talked about the right to make an application in Scotland. The right to do paid or unpaid work has long been an outstanding issue that needs to be addressed.
An advocacy service is important when we are trying to prevent destitution in an asylum system, because it would give every person access to guidance, distinct from legal representation, to help them through the system. That would play an essential role in preventing more people from becoming lost or hidden and from becoming destitute, because they would be signposted along the way in the process and shown how it works.
I have talked about the right to make an application in Scotland, and I have believed for some time that there should be the right to do paid or unpaid work. Anyone who has had an insight into the life of someone who is seeking asylum will know how despairing they feel about being unproductive and will understand how important the committee’s recommendation on the right to do paid or unpaid work is.
I see that my seven minutes are up, so I will conclude, Presiding Officer. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention met members of the Scottish Parliament earlier this year and it convinced me that we have a poor record on how we detain people. In that regard, I, like Sandra White, have campaigned for Dungavel to be closed. I believe that every democratically elected member has the fundamental right to inspect conditions in any prison or place of detention. I have written to David Mundell about that, but I have not had a reply. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that that is because of the general election. However, following that election, I expect, as an elected member of the Scottish Parliament, to be able to inspect the conditions in which people are being detained in our country.
I am pleased to close the debate for the Scottish Conservatives. I echo other members’ comments about our shared commitment to doing whatever we can to support reasonable and workable actions that support some of the most vulnerable people in our society. As Annie Wells said, we will support the motion. We recognise that, in this area above all, it is essential for the Scottish Government and the UK Government to work together. I entirely support what Christina McKelvie said in that regard and I thank her for the tone with which she opened the debate.
Such debates are often—rightly—peppered with passions. The debate is about a sensitive and highly important matter and it should be treated as such. I was struck by the individual stories of hardship and struggle in the committee’s report, which we should take into account. Some of those stories are incredibly moving and, as Gail Ross said, it is right that we think of people rather than statistics. We also need to balance those stories with the evidence that is at hand, which I will do in my closing remarks.
Many elements of the report are worth while and should be taken forward. One issue that is dear to my heart is the proposal for a new advocacy service, which the report asks the Scottish Government to consider. Many members have mentioned that recommendation. One of the most formative experiences of my professional life was during my early years practising as an advocate, when I appeared at the asylum and immigration tribunal, as it was then called, in Bothwell Street in Glasgow, to represent asylum seekers. My first observation is that the rules and regulations that surround immigration law are formidable, hugely complicated and very difficult for anyone, even a lawyer, to navigate. My second observation from representing asylum seekers is about how difficult it is for applicants to argue their cases successfully and how much more that is the case if an asylum seeker meets the legal definition of “destitute”. The proposal for an independent advocacy service is therefore to be welcomed.
I will focus the rest of my comments on healthcare, which is a significant area in considering how we support refugees and asylum seekers, and particularly those who find themselves destitute. The committee’s report notes that some people who have come to the UK carry transmittable diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS. Plainly, that poses a serious health issue for the individuals who carry such diseases. The report notes many of the barriers and issues that people with such conditions face to receiving treatment, which concern the distance to health centres, access to a general practitioner, contact between the patient and health workers and, crucially, patients’ willingness to seek treatment.
Treating HIV and AIDS is particularly difficult because of the cultural perceptions and stigma that continue to exist around the conditions. Although that is true of general society to an extent, the stigma is exacerbated in migrant communities, and particularly in migrant sub-Saharan communities. Many who have the conditions are embarrassed about it and worried about others in their community finding out. As the HIV and hepatitis C charity Waverley Care noted, those with such conditions who find themselves living with friends or accessing shelters have less privacy and are at greater risk of refusing to take medications as a result.
Like other members, I note the impact on mental health of destitution. The committee’s report gives a variety of examples of serious things that contribute to diminished mental health, such as young female asylum seekers being trafficked and individuals suffering from domestic servitude. The report quotes the Glasgow psychological trauma service, which said that
“Mental health gets worse because of destitution” and that that exacerbates pre-existing mental health issues.
It is also pertinent to raise in the debate the final substantial healthcare concern that the report documents, which is about maternity services for those who find themselves destitute. As the report notes, many pregnant women feel reluctant to talk about their pregnancy and some feel shame about it for various reasons. That poses a set of serious risks to women, including an increased incidence of maternal death because of an underlying condition and complexities during birth because of undisclosed conditions. The report also focuses on FGM, which the Parliament has—properly—discussed at length.
If the Scottish Government intends to take forward the report’s recommendation that a Scottish anti-destitution strategy should be created, methods of tackling the stigma that can exist in some migrant communities in relation to mental health, the treatment of transmittable diseases and pregnancy should be further examined and included.
I will quickly touch on remarks that various members around the chamber made. I welcome the fact that Annie Wells has today written to the UK Government to ask it to consider whether it is possible for claims to be lodged in Scotland. Finlay Carson discussed the context and the dimensions of what is happening internationally and—rightly—he put on the record what the UK Government has done in its efforts there. Pauline McNeill spoke with great passion and sympathy about a migrant arriving here, the destitution that they face and the complexity of the system that meets them. I was struck by her contribution.
It is clear that, as we continue to live in an uncertain world with many unstable regions, the United Kingdom and Scotland will continue to be a beacon of hope for many people who are looking for a better life. We need to use the powers that this Parliament possesses to support people who choose to make Scotland their home, and I reiterate the importance of having a suitable and specific strategy that deals with issues such as mental and public health in order to achieve that.
We cannot always solve or eliminate every cause and circumstance that leads to destitution, but we can employ measures that help to get people into a more stable environment, for their benefit and for the benefit of Scotland as a whole.
In opening the debate, the convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee said that, first and foremost, we should approach the issue that is at hand—destitution in the immigration and asylum system—with humanity in our hearts and our minds. I agree with the sentiment that, first and foremost, we are dealing with a humanitarian issue and, in many cases, as Pauline McNeill outlined, a humanitarian crisis. Around the world, we are seeing the biggest displacement of people since world war two.
Mary Fee spoke aptly about how destitution is built into the immigration and asylum system, and I agree. The statistics that the British Red Cross provides show that, in 2013, 72 of the 539 people that it dealt with, or 13 per cent, were living in destitution. By 2016, the number of destitute individuals had increased to 870 out of the 1,600 individuals that it worked with, or 49 per cent. The figures show that the British Red Cross is dealing with an increasing number of people who are in need but also with an increasing proportion who face dire destitution.
Annie Wells said that she would hold the Scottish Government to account on the human trafficking strategy and other matters. That is fair enough and it is quite right, but I stress that that will be reciprocated with regard to members on her side of the chamber and the UK Government.
Jeremy Balfour made the really interesting comment that we cannot take a simplistic approach and that we should not focus on just one or two issues. I agree, as it is clear that the asylum system needs wholesale change.
We in the Scottish Government are not shy in seeking out the UK Government, but it has to reciprocate. We need to get out of the situation where the Scottish Government is always chasing up the UK Government to meet or chasing up replies to our correspondence. I hope that Ms Wells gets a speedy reply to her letter.
The Scottish Government will continue to do what it can to support people who face destitution, and we will continue to work for an approach that is based on fairness, dignity, partnership and prevention.
I heard the glib remark that, if the Scottish Government wants to mitigate, we can. We can and do mitigate, with our support to the Scottish Refugee Council, Positive Action in Housing and others but, throughout our partnership working, we should be preventing destitution in the first place. There should be a holistic, end-to-end system of support to ensure that people who are seeking asylum do not end up penniless on our streets.
The Scottish Government, local government and the third sector are already being left to pick up the pieces of the current system. Of course we want to do what we can—as someone said earlier, there is a moral imperative. However, we pay our taxes to the UK Government and we have a right to expect fairness, dignity, respect and prevention to be part of the services that are currently reserved. We also have the right to demand and expect that preventing destitution at source is what we are all aiming for.
As Mary Fee outlined, the situation will only get worse when the asylum support provisions in the Immigration Act 2016 are implemented and when support—including support to families—is cut further still. We will also see increasing criminalisation.
I do not have time to go through all 28 recommendations from the committee’s report, but I reiterate what I said in my opening speech—that we will look at all the recommendations sympathetically and with a can-do approach, while recognising the legal limitation of our powers. I note that six or seven of the recommendations are on areas that are reserved to the UK Government. The committee has asked the Scottish Government to negotiate and to work in partnership with the UK Government on matters such as extending the destitute domestic violence concession and the right to work.
Allowing the right to work is one way to enable people not to have to face destitution at all. Is the cabinet secretary aware that, just today, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to ban refugees from working in Ireland? Perhaps we should take some lessons from Ireland and use them in our negotiations with the United Kingdom Government.
Hear, hear to the Irish Supreme Court. I am interested to know what the UK Supreme Court would make of such a challenge. The Scottish Government will look to our Irish friends and neighbours and consider that issue closely.
Fundamentally, I believe that all human beings and all citizens should have the right to work. Work is part of who we are; it is part of our identity. What comes across to me time and again when I meet refugees or asylum seekers is that they want not only to start a new life in Scotland but to contribute to their communities and to their new country. We should not hinder them from doing so.
I know that my time is running short, and I do not want to eat into the time that the committee’s deputy convener has in which to sum up, so I will end on the UK Government’s U-turn on the Dubs amendment, which is tantamount to turning our back on children who are at real risk of peril.
If Finlay Carson had taken my intervention, I would have put to him the point that, according to Interpol, 10,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have gone missing in the past two years. Where are they? How can we stand by and think that it is all right for 10,000 children to go missing? Those children face the perils of abuse, exploitation and human trafficking. Finlay Carson spoke, as did other members, about showing some love in our policies, whether in response to the current international crisis or to domestic issues. What about those 10,000 missing children? Where are they?
I note that, in its recently published manifesto, the party that forms the UK Government says that it wants to offer
“asylum and refuge to people in parts of the world affected by conflict and oppression, rather than those who have made it to Britain”.
What does that say about the people who have come here via human trafficking routes? What about the children who have come via clandestine routes? How are they fed? How are they supported? What does that say about the human trafficking strategy across the UK? What does that say in the name of humanity?
I reiterate to the committee that the Scottish Government will do what it can to come to the issue with solutions. I hope that, in seeing the evidence that the committee has painstakingly gathered, the new UK Government will consider the damage that the current asylum and immigration policies are causing to people. Those people are only trying to find what we all want and need: a safe place to live, a safe place to raise our families and a way to make a contribution to our community and to our country.
I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate in my role as deputy convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. This is the first time that I have had the privilege to undertake a summation of business led by my committee, and I am looking forward to the challenge of closing such an important and wide-ranging debate.
Given the reserved and devolved aspects of the topic of our inquiry, and the proximity of the general election, it is inevitable that the debate has generated some exchanges. However, in bringing it to a close, I thank all the parties for the conciliatory tone that I think that we can all agree has been adopted. I re-emphasise that the purpose of our inquiry was to understand why those fleeing conflict or persecution overseas can become destitute and what can be done to mitigate their plight.
I thank the convener, Christina McKelvie, the committee members, our clerks and the officials who serve us so well. We worked well together in examining the evidence before us, with each of us getting to grips with our country’s complex asylum and immigration system in order to gain a clearer understanding of the issues. We talked to a number people on the front line, as well as to those in need of support, so that we could consider what actions the Scottish Government might take to improve their situation. I was gratified to hear the cabinet secretary reflect on those in her closing speech.
I particularly want to underline what the convener said at the beginning of the debate: destitution of asylum seekers and those with insecure immigration status and no recourse to public funds represents a humanitarian issue that is being measured out in the lived experience of thousands of people in our society. Many of them are on the edge of crushing poverty and social isolation—we have heard heart-rending stories about that today. To put this into perspective, the UN’s global poverty line for developing countries is $1.25 a day, but destitute people have no access to money. That is a shocking fact in our country, which is one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
It has been heartening to listen to the consensus in the chamber, which was remarked on by Donald Cameron a few moments ago, and a variety of well-made points have been raised. Above all, there is general agreement that action must be taken to ensure that vulnerable people are not forced into destitution to become more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. We are fortunate that non-governmental, third sector and charitable organisations, alongside public services, have provided vital support to fill the gap. However, that is not sustainable. A co-ordinated national approach is required, not least because of the potential of wider dispersal of asylum seekers to compound existing issues.
I thank Christina McKelvie for her opening remarks. She rightly referred to the disparities in things such as the application of child protection legislation. I will come on to that later, particularly in respect of unaccompanied children who seek asylum and the shattering poverty that those with no recourse to public funds experience.
I also very much welcome Christina McKelvie’s intervention in the cabinet secretary’s speech, in which she brought news from the Supreme Court of Ireland. With impeccable timing, it has ruled today that asylum seekers should be able to work in the Republic of Ireland. I would like asylum seekers to be able to work in the United Kingdom, as well.
In her opening remarks, the cabinet secretary spoke eloquently about the successes of the Syrian resettlement programme and how our country integrates such refugees with compassion and friendship.
Mary Fee reminded us in harrowing terms of the plight of female asylum seekers, the great difficulties that they face, and the link between insecure immigration status and abuse. That theme was developed in an excellent speech by Gail Ross, who talked about a particular iniquity: in the current system, women have to stay with abusive partners in order to avoid that immigration trap.
I will make a number of observations on the committee’s recommendations and considerations that will, I hope, inform members still further.
On the asylum process, we were given the clear message that
“destitution is built into the UK asylum process”.
Newly arrived asylum applicants are vulnerable to exploitation, including sexual exploitation, so that they can fund travel to access the asylum process in Croydon. It was particularly gratifying to hear Annie Wells call on her Home Office to change practices so that asylum cases can be heard in Scotland. If that happened, that would answer the challenge that David Torrance outlined.
It was nice to hear Sandra White recognising Annie Wells’s call for the Home Office to change the process. We know that people who arrive in Northern Ireland do not have to travel to Croydon to make an initial claim. It is unacceptable that destitute and vulnerable people who arrive in Scotland are forced to continue within the UK what will have been already a very difficult journey.
Asylum seekers are most at risk of experiencing destitution when their asylum claim has been refused and they have no recourse to public funds. However, we were told that even those who have been granted
“refugee ... status are required to vacate their ‘asylum accommodation’ after 28 days”.
Such people have found themselves homeless and without access to support because of delays in accessing benefits.
Another significant theme was the disparity between the dispersal system and the vulnerable persons resettlement programme. Some 31 out of 32 councils were taking part in the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement programme, and many witnesses held up that programme as the “gold standard” approach. Ross Greer made the point that that gives the lie to the UK Government’s suggestion that there is a lack of capacity in UK local authorities to take vulnerable children, as per the Dubs amendment.
In contrast, local authorities were apprehensive about taking part in the wider dispersal of asylum seekers, as they do not currently have the experience, knowledge or resources to do so. Jeremy Balfour took up that point and referred to the lack of training, information and use of guidance in local authorities at the grass-roots level. He also expressed concern that legal advice for asylum seekers is still concentrated in the central belt. I very much hope that he will therefore come in behind Annie Wells in calling for their Home Office to change the rules and processes for hearing asylum cases outside Croydon so that they can perhaps be heard in Scotland.
We are concerned that a two-tier system that will seriously damage the prospect of integration for those who are left destitute is being created.
The committee also learned of the historical disparities in how various local authorities and social workers apply looked-after children status to young, unaccompanied asylum seekers who present to local authorities in Scotland. Pauline McNeill picked up on that theme in closing for Labour. We need to be absolutely clear in guidance and training that young people who appear on our shores should be immediately afforded the status of being in care and access to the aftercare that that status endows. That is particularly important in relation to victims of child trafficking who, as we know, face being retrafficked if they are not given adequate support.
My time is short, so I will conclude. The debate has shone a light on a hidden crisis in our society. I trust that members and the Scottish Government will reflect on the committee’s evidence and recommendations and see the debate as a turning point—a watershed moment. We look forward to considering the Government’s response to the committee’s report. I emphasise that we are committed to monitoring progress throughout this parliamentary session so that we can confirm that there has been a positive shift from hidden lives to new beginnings.
I commend the report and the evidence that the committee gathered to the Parliament.