There is very little time in hand. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14548, in the name of Aileen Campbell, on a place of safety: supporting asylum seekers in Scotland.
I remind members that, for the purposes of the standing orders rule on sub judice, no mention should be made of any live cases during the debate. I know that you are well aware of the rule, but I highlight it for you.
We all need a place of safety—a place where we are welcomed, where we feel secure, comfortable and happy, and which allows us to be ourselves but also supports us to fulfil our potential.
This Government is determined that Scotland should be a place of safety for people seeking asylum—a place that gives them the space and the peace that they need to rebuild their lives, free from the war and persecution that forced them to flee their homes.
In January, we launched the second integration strategy, “New Scots: refugee integration strategy 2018-2022”, which was developed in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Refugee Council. The strategy aims to support integration of all refugees and people seeking asylum who are living in Scotland. That is why our key principle remains that integration begins on day 1. That means that people should be welcomed and supported to integrate from the moment they arrive, not just when they have been granted refugee status and leave to remain.
Over the past three years, refugees from the conflict in Syria have settled all across Scotland. That is a fantastic achievement, and I am grateful to everyone who has worked hard to make it happen. However, we must remember that the vast majority of refugees arrived in Scotland as asylum seekers, and it is their experience on which we want to focus today.
In line with the approach of the new Scots strategy, the Scottish Government is pleased to ensure that people seeking asylum have the right to access key services that support their integration, such as health and education services. However, integration from day 1 requires not just access to services, but a fully functioning asylum system—one that treats people with dignity and respect, that makes fair decisions and which does not leave people in limbo for years on end.
People seeking asylum have to navigate a complex and often frustrating system, sometimes over many years, before they are given refugee status and are able to get on with their lives. That is often at great cost to their mental health and their future prospects. I do not think anyone could argue that we have the asylum system that we need; what we have is a flawed system that is failing the very people whom it is supposed to help. Never let anyone say that claiming asylum is an easy option. The asylum system forces people to travel the length of the United Kingdom to get to Croydon just to lodge their claim. The Scottish Government has long believed that people who are in Scotland and wish to claim asylum should be able to do so here. It is not right that people are forced into another harrowing and unaffordable journey. The third sector is picking up the cost and is reducing the risk of people falling prey to those who would exploit them.
The minister mentioned the location for lodging asylum claims, which was one of the issues that was raised in the Smith commission recommendation that my amendment references. Has the UK Government shown any willingness at all to hold discussions with the Scottish Government about implementing that recommendation?
As I speak this afternoon, it will become clear that, unfortunately, it is often difficult to engage with the Home Office and to make progress. When we decide on the motion and amendments tonight, we will all send a clear message about what we think should happen with asylum. It is difficult to get co-operation from the Home Office; nevertheless, we do what we can to work with it to make the progress that we know is needed, and needed quickly.
Glasgow has been a willing partner in asylum dispersal for nearly 20 years. It currently hosts nearly 5,000 people who are seeking asylum, which is more than any other single area in the UK, and more than Liverpool and Birmingham combined. As we all know, people make Glasgow, and Glasgow is proud to welcome people who are seeking a place of safety from persecution. The city has gained enormous benefits from the contribution that they have made.
It might surprise members to know that the Home Office does not provide any funding to Glasgow City Council for the substantial role that it plays in supporting asylum dispersal, despite the facts that asylum is a reserved matter, and that funding and support are being provided to local authorities in England. Along with my Welsh Government colleague, Julie James AM, I have made it clear to the Minister of State for Immigration that that is not an acceptable situation.
The Home Office seeks to widen asylum dispersal out into new areas. In principle, the Scottish Government supports that. However, we believe that dispersal must remain voluntary. It would be far more likely that new local authorities would agree to take people through asylum dispersal if they could see the Home Office working in equal partnership with the authorities that are already involved, and recognising their crucial role by resourcing it appropriately.
Since becoming Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, I have been incredibly concerned about the way in which accommodation is provided to people seeking asylum. A safe place to live is a basic need for everyone, and is a human right. I have already heard of too many cases of people seeking asylum being placed in accommodation that is far from satisfactory, and we are all aware of the threat of eviction that hangs over people seeking asylum. I will not comment further on that now, given that the use of lock-change notices is currently the subject of legal proceedings in the Court of Session.
The cabinet secretary mentioned that many asylum seekers are accommodated in Scotland. She might be aware that Theresa May has instructed the Home Office to look again at the case of the Bakhsh family, in my constituency. However, the Prime Minister has, unfortunately, declined to meet the family. Because of restrictions, I will not mention the particulars of the family’s case, but will the cabinet secretary accept my invitation to meet them to better understand their plight, and will she urge the Prime Minister to join us at that meeting so that she can see for herself how the UK asylum system is letting down the vulnerable families that I represent?
I am very willing to meet Bob Doris and his constituents to explore whether there are ways that the Government can help, forby the work that is already funded across the city to provide advocacy and support in cases of destitution. I hope that the member has informed his constituents of the help that is out there. I am happy to meet him and his constituents, if that would help.
Members will be aware that the Home Office is currently assessing tenders for the next asylum accommodation contract. I understand that the outcome of the exercise should be known by the end of the year. The Scottish Government had hoped that a public sector bid, which would not be motivated by profit, could be made for the new contract, and we were ready to work with partners on that, so we were extremely disappointed that the requirements and timescales of the tendering process did not support a public sector bid.
The new asylum accommodation contract is expected to run for 10 years, so it is absolutely crucial that the Home Office gets it right. Scottish partners have been frustrated by the lack of engagement so far. We want to ensure that the new provider understands the Scottish context and the differences in legislation and regulation in order to achieve the best outcomes for people seeking asylum. I still want to believe that the new contract can provide an opportunity for the Home Office to work in genuine and equal partnership with devolved Governments and local authorities. We emphasised all those points to the immigration minister at the four nations meeting on asylum on 15 October.
The Scottish Government takes its commitments to vulnerable young people extremely seriously. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are looked-after children. Since 2010, Scotland has led the way in providing specialist independent advocates for them through the Scottish guardianship service, which is delivered by the Scottish Refugee Council and Aberlour Child Care Trust. Forty per cent of children who are supported by the guardianship service have been recognised as victims of human trafficking. We will launch a consultation soon to gather views on the role, responsibilities and functions of the new independent child trafficking guardians. However, we are aware that the funding that the UK Government provides to local authorities to support unaccompanied children does not cover the costs that are incurred. An increase is vital in order to ensure that the support is properly resourced. We have again pressed the Home Office to clarify future arrangements, following its review of funding.
Last month, more than 80 organisations, including the Scottish Refugee Council, launched the “Lift the ban” campaign, which calls for the right to work for people seeking asylum. The Scottish Government has long supported that strongly; employment is critical to integration. It helps people to build their skills; it supports their health, wellbeing and self-esteem; it increases their social networks and friendships; and, at the most practical level, it puts food on the table and clothes on their children.
However, it is not just the people involved who benefit—we all do. Our economy needs more people to work in our public services and to start and grow businesses. “Lift the ban” estimates that people seeking asylum could contribute £42 million to the UK economy if they were given the right to work after waiting six months for a decision on their claim. It is clear that we are missing out on a tremendous wealth of talent as well as an opportunity to promote further integration.
Without employment, people seeking asylum must survive on financial support of £5.39 a day. I expect that most of us spend more than that just on food before we even consider other essentials such as toiletries, clothes and travel. Poverty is part of the asylum system, and the spectre of destitution is never far away. Even for people who are granted refugee status, the move-on period of 28 days does not give enough time to secure housing and welfare benefits or employment. At a time when people should be able to get on with their lives, they risk becoming homeless and penniless.
People who are refused asylum and who have exhausted their appeal rights face the ending of all support. The Equalities and Human Rights Committee has rightly drawn attention to the issues of destitution arising from reserved asylum and immigration legislation. The Scottish Government is working with partners to develop a strategy with practical actions to try to mitigate some of the impacts on those who are most at risk.
I see that I will have to bring my remarks to a close. The current approach does not have to be how we deal with asylum. We can point to the Syrian resettlement programme as a positive example of the Scottish Government, local authorities and the UK Government working together. We see 31 of 32 local authorities providing homes to people who need them and sanctuary to people who have fled persecution.
Another way—a more humane way—is possible if we choose to work together. I do not want to make the choice that we currently have to make. I do not want people to live in destitution. Another way is possible if we decide to work together across parliamentary boundaries to send a strong message to the Home Office today.
That the Parliament believes that Scotland must be a place of safety for people seeking asylum; agrees that those seeking asylum should be supported to integrate in Scotland's communities and rebuild their lives from day one of arrival; believes that the asylum system must treat people fairly and with dignity and respect at all times; considers that the UK Government must work in equal partnership with devolved governments and local government and provide local authorities with the resources required to support people dispersed to their areas; believes that accommodation provided to people seeking asylum must meet Scottish quality standards and be appropriate to their needs; considers that people seeking asylum should be allowed to work while their claim is being assessed to help rebuild their lives; recognises that there must be a long-term sustainable solution that does not leave people destitute or homeless at the end of the asylum process, and considers that refugee resettlement programmes provide a model of partnership working and integration support that should be replicated in the asylum system.
Scotland has always been generous when it comes to offering hospitality; indeed, Scots are famous across the world for the welcome that they offer to others. Offering refuge to people who are suffering because of conflict or persecution in their home country—Huguenots seeking freedom from religious violence in the 17th and 18th centuries or Polish exiles during the second world war, for example—has long been part of Scotland’s heritage, and things are no different now.
The world is in a state of flux. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes because of a combination of conflict, natural disasters and religious and ethnic tensions. From Myanmar to Kandahar and from Hungary to Damascus, nearly 70 million people are on the move, and 3.1 million of them are considered to be asylum seekers.
We in this country are lucky to have the freedom to express our opinions, to choose our religion, to vote how we please and to write what we will, but many people have endured all manner of hardships for the chance to practise what we take for granted. Thankfully, most of us will never know the pain of having to leave our home against our will, or the pain of being separated from our families and having to cross continents in search of safety.
It is right that people who seek asylum from persecution and find themselves in Scotland should be able to feel safe and secure. That is why it is important that Scotland extends the hand of friendship to those who need it most.
The UK Government and the Scottish Government have taken many positive steps to help asylum seekers, particularly over the past few years with the rise of crises in the middle east, notably in Syria. The cabinet secretary referred to the resettlement programme, which I whole-heartedly support. It is an excellent example of how to help people.
It is important to provide asylum seekers with basic amenities, but we could do more. During the time it takes to go through the process of seeking asylum—which can be years—we need to ensure that we do not put people’s lives on hold, waste the skills that people have or prevent them from developing as people. If we do not ensure that asylum seekers have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to their own lives as well as to their host nation, we do everyone a disservice.
For that reason, the UK Government should investigate relaxing the rules for asylum seekers looking for work in the UK. Although I appreciate that asylum seekers can currently engage in voluntary work, if we really want to ensure that individuals are able to prosper here, and should they ever wish to return to their countries, the prospect of employment is essential. All regimes fall in the end, and there will come a point after any conflict when the time comes to rebuild. When that happens, countries need a cadre of well-educated people to reconstruct them. People of all professions—doctors, teachers, town planners and market traders—will be required to build their country’s future. We can play a role in that mission by ensuring that asylum seekers have the chance to shape their own lives.
When countries are hostile to certain viewpoints or ways of life, they often lose much expertise and diversity because of the brain drain of talented youth. That point emerged while I was speaking to a young man from Pakistan whom I will call Imran, although that is not his real name.
Imran is gay, which is frowned on in his home country. Fearing persecution from religious hardliners, Imran left to seek asylum in the UK—more specifically, in Glasgow. He has been granted the right to stay here, but he spoke thoughtfully about the seven years in which he waited for a decision. I would like to share Imran’s words with members. He said:
“I didn’t have much money as I wasn’t allowed to work. What could I do really? While I’m grateful that I’m now living in a country where I won’t be criminalised for my sexuality, I wish I had been allowed to work while my decision was pending. It would have made all the difference, I wanted to work hard and show people that I belong here.”
Imran had a language issue. In fact, when we spoke, he spoke in Urdu, and what he said was translated. He said that, although his local mosque offered basic English classes,
“some education from the council would have been helpful.”
He found that all he could do with his time was pray and spend time getting to know his new home.
It is really important that we give young men such as Imran a real chance, and that we allow them to work to enable them to show us their talents and to move forward in their lives. We also need to enable them to integrate, as best we can.
I am pleased that the Scottish Conservatives are saying something different from their UK party on the question of the right to work. However, their amendment does not negate the criticism of the UK Government in relation to deliberate use of destitution. Does Michelle Ballantyne agree with the rest of us that its brutal policy must end?
I do not agree that there is a deliberate policy of destitution. I do think that we should be giving asylum seekers the right to work. We are having that conversation and we need to continue it, because it is the right to work that will prevent the criticism that Patrick Harvie has raised.
We should be doing all that we can to ensure that people like Imran and many of his fellow asylum seekers are able to grow as human beings during their time here. We have an obligation to do that. It is not only the right thing to do; it also makes practical sense to enable asylum seekers to contribute to our society and our economy and, hopefully, to their own economy, should they choose to return.
In conclusion, for the sake of those such as Imran and for the future benefit of countries around the globe, we should always do what we can to shelter and support asylum seekers, because they come not out of choice, but out of desperation. They come deserving and expecting the hand of friendship.
I move amendment S5M-14548.2, to insert at end:
“; recognises the skills and talent that many asylum seekers have to offer, and urges that due care and attention is given to the facts of individual cases.”
I, too, welcome what Michelle Ballantyne said about relaxing the rules on work. I wonder whether that is the official position of the Tories. It would help if that were clarified by whoever closes for them. Like Patrick Harvie, the Labour Party supports the view of the cabinet secretary and the Green Party that a policy of forced destitution of asylum seekers is never acceptable to those who believe in a humane system for asylum seekers and refugees.
The refugee crisis that dominated the news in 2015-16 and which resulted in a sharp rise in the number of people coming to Europe to claim asylum is less dominant now. Arrivals have dropped, and now that many Governments have cracked down on the movement of undocumented migrants within the EU, thousands are stuck in reception centres and camps, not visible to most people. Meanwhile, others are trying to settle and make new lives for themselves. As
The Guardian has commented,
“The cameras have gone—but the suffering endures,” with camps proliferating across Greece, Turkey and many European countries.
Across Europe, there have been political consequences to what has happened. Denmark will no longer take any refugees under the United Nations quota system and is now focusing on integration; the German Parliament has voted to cap sharply the number of refugee reunions; and, ironically, Poland and Hungary are challenging the European Union with regard to who can cross their borders.
On 27 October, Putin, Merkel, Macron and President Erdogan gathered in Istanbul to agree the formation of a Syria-led constitutional committee to try to bring to an end the seven-year Syrian conflict that has forced 12 million people to flee their homes. No other conflict in recent times has highlighted the causes and effects of war more than the plight of the Syrian people, who are now seeking places of safety across the world.
We have taken only 10,000 of those poor people, despite our being involved in that conflict every day. Around one and a half million people remain in the rebel stronghold of Idlib province, and one million children are at risk. We should be alive to the fact that Britain is involved in the daily bombing of Idlib. There is a cause and effect to being involved in war; in this case, the effect is the refugee crisis and the number of asylum seekers who are coming here for safety.
I thank the Scottish Greens for pushing for the debate and the Government for its positive response, given the dreadful scenes in Glasgow, where thousands of asylum seekers are facing eviction. As I said, we will not support a forced destitution policy—it is not acceptable.
We also believe that there should be a public sector provider of asylum-seeker housing, and that it should be accountable to the Parliament—that is what our amendment is about. The problem with a private provider is that it is not accountable, but it seems that accountability will be lost to us.
According to the Scottish Refugee Council, there has been unprecedented, on-going collective representation by asylum dispersal councils, including Glasgow, to the Home Office saying that they must have partnership and local oversight. The councils say that if the Home Office does not shift its position there is a real risk that they will stop choosing to be dispersal authorities. I am proud of the record of Glasgow and, indeed, Scotland on the matter, and I am sad to see that that ship may have sailed.
The Labour Party agrees that lifting the ban on the right to work is the humane thing to do and that the Smith commission’s recommendations, as mentioned in the Green’s amendment, are something that we should be able to return to, to ensure that people who come to Scotland have a way of lodging their asylum claim.
I move amendment S5M-14548.3, to insert after “dispersed to their areas”:
“, and that the delivery of asylum accommodation, which must be within the public sector, must have adequate funding to fulfil this responsibility and should be housing of a good quality standard.”
I thank the Government for lodging the motion for debate. There has been long-standing public and political concern about this issue and I well recall the wave of opposition to dawn raids back in the early years of Glasgow’s participation in the dispersal programme. Communities would barricade their neighbours into their flats, rather than allowing Home Office agencies to kick in doors, tear children from parents’ arms and drag people off to detention.
Those nightmarish scenes sound like something from dystopian fiction, but they were a reality then and they are a reality today, in this country. Detention is still being used without time limits against people who pose no threat to the public, have done nothing wrong and many of whom still have routes to challenge unfair refusal of asylum. If citizens of this country were being subjected in our criminal courts to the sham of due process that asylum seekers endure in the asylum process, the outrage would be overwhelming, and yet the UK Government permits that as part of its wider hostile-environment policy towards immigrants more generally, not just asylum seekers.
A system that should be designed to ensure safety and refuge to all those who need it is in fact a system designed to say no to the maximum number of people possible. It is a system that places people in grossly inadequate housing and then tips them out into the street with nowhere to go—destitution used as a deliberate weapon of policy.
I will not mention specific cases, but we all know that the more general background to the debate is that, in Glasgow, the Home Office’s outsourced thugs from Serco have threatened mass evictions and lock changes in a bid to force hundreds of people into destitution. That organisation cannot claim to be neutral in the face of the UK Government’s vicious policies; by implementing those policies, it is complicit. Although that threat is currently on hold, we know that the potential is still there for a humanitarian emergency in Glasgow over the coming winter months.
I welcome the Government motion and agree that Scotland must be a place of safety for people seeking asylum. The asylum system must treat people fairly and with dignity and respect at all times. However, we cannot have this debate without a recognition that the current asylum system in the UK fails to do that and is designed to fail to do that.
We will continue to make—across party lines, I hope—a case for fundamental change in that system, but while making that case we cannot accept that urgent steps can be avoided that are within the powers that our councils and the Scottish Government have. Today, the First Minister agreed that the Government will implement all the recommendations of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group—HARSAG—report. That includes, under recommendation 5,
“Funding for short-term emergency accommodation for destitute migrants”,
which includes failed asylum seekers
“who are not entitled to statutory homelessness assistance, and are currently rough sleeping or at a high and imminent risk of rough sleeping”.
That has to be
“provided alongside access to advocacy, and immigration and legal advice.”
To be clear, that provision does not yet exist and we need a clear commitment from the Government to its urgent delivery. I also want to see the UK Government pressed to act on the Smith commission recommendations.
The Scottish Government should clearly signal that it supports those who, in the most extreme circumstances, find themselves with no option other than to mobilise to physically prevent lock changes and eviction, if such things are threatened once again. If SERCO and the Home Office find other ways in which to intimidate people out of their homes, we must ensure that they have places to go and that those who act in support of them have the support of the Scottish Government.
I move amendment S5M-14548.1, to leave out from first “asylum system” to “at all times” and insert:
“current UK asylum system fails to treat people with dignity or respect their human rights, particularly in relation to the deliberate use of destitution as a policy tool; calls on the UK Government to take urgent steps to end the threat of destitution and to implement immediately the outstanding recommendations in paragraph 96(4) of the Smith Commission report; congratulates the many individuals, communities and organisations that have worked to welcome and support asylum seekers in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland, including by mobilising practical opposition to evictions and lock changes”.
I am grateful to the Government for bringing the debate to Parliament today. I will speak briefly to the other amendments. We will, of course, support the Conservative amendment, and I can indicate our support for the Labour amendment in particular. We have heard a lot about the situation in Glasgow. Vince Cable, our federal leader, has set out a five-point plan for the Liberal Democrats on outsourcing. One of the clear red lines that he has set is that there are sensitive areas where the profit motive should play no role, and the delivery of asylum accommodation falls into that category.
We are also sympathetic to the Green Party amendment, which we will be supporting tonight. All our parties are signatories to the Smith commission report, paragraph 96.4 of which calls for the Governments to work together to make the system far more flexible, nuanced and aligned to Scottish values.
When we talk about asylum, immigration and refugees in general, we often hear the term “exodus”, which is a biblical term. Human history is peppered with examples of the mass movement of people avoiding conflict and violence. It is very sobering, then, to think that the number of people currently on the move as a result of persecution and violence is greater than the whole of humanity at the time that the Bible describes: 65.3 million people have been forced from their homes and there are 21 million people on the move right now. Those people are fleeing conflict, violence, extreme poverty and famine. Whether that is the caravan of 1,500 refugees fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras or those taking to treacherous, barely sea-worthy craft in the Mediterranean, all those people suffer trauma, dislocation and destitution.
Our response to that movement of people will define us as a nation and it will define our generation. There are two kinds of response to that: the public policy response, which we have heard something about, and the community response, which is the subject of my amendment.
At a policy level, it is fair to say that the UK Border Agency and the Home Office routinely operate in an atmosphere of mistrust; whether in testing age or evidence of torture, the approach is one of disbelief, with no flexibility in the process at all. The process is certainly not trauma informed.
We are wrong to presume that we always do things better in Scotland. The Hillingdon judgment in England afforded unaccompanied asylum-seeking children the status of children at risk far sooner than that happened in Scotland. I am glad that we have moved towards that so that such children can enjoy support under section 25 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, but that is still not routinely deployed across the country.
The treatment of young unaccompanied asylum seekers is how I got into politics. I worked for Aberlour Child Care Trust and the Scottish guardianship service for eight years. They experience the hostile environment that the UK Border Agency fostered while they provide support with accommodation, navigation through immigration systems and companionship. That is what makes them unique and I support their work.
As part of the committee inquiry, we visited Shakti Women’s Aid, which is incredible in its work to help women with no recourse to public funds to flee domestic violence. The Edinburgh Clothing Store is a charity that gathers clothing to give to new arrivals, English classes in Edinburgh are provided by the Welcoming, and the Edinburgh Remakery refurbishes old laptops to give to asylum seekers and refugees to help them start on their own as they settle in Scotland .
Warsan Shire is a writer I have quoted before. She said:
“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
Whether you start your journey in Tapachula or Aleppo, you will find space and comfort here in Scotland, our systems will not harm you and our communities will embrace you. That is the spirit of the motion today.
I move, amendment S5M-14548.4, to insert at end:
“, and recognises the immense contribution of the voluntary sector in providing community support, practical assistance, navigation through systems and companionship to some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland.”
As anyone who has looked at Scotland’s place names on a map will realise, Scotland is the product of many diverse influences. Scots have been migrants the world over, and Scotland has become the home to many people who are on the move, whether they have come to study or to work, or have come as refugees or asylum seekers.
Over successive generations, those communities have made great contributions to our social, cultural and economic life. With the Syrian crisis, I hope that Scotland has shown itself to be a nation that is both hospitable and caring. My constituency, Na h-Eileanan an lar, has welcomed a number of Syrian refugees. One refugee, 17-year-old Anas, told newspapers of the kindness that his neighbours have shown him since he arrived—they stop him in the streets to ask whether he needs anything and tell him that he is welcome in Scotland.
I also thank the Syrians who have come to the Isle of Lewis for the contribution that they have made to our community. An example of that contribution is the mosque that was built, which reflected a desire to ensure that new members of the community, along with the established Muslim population, had a place of worship for the first time. That principle and that project were supported by a significant majority of the community, including many Christian organisations.
I mention those examples because support of that kind is strongest when people have an idea of why Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have come to this country and what they have had to endure to get here. We should all take the chance to find out, and doing so will give us pause for thought.
Sadly, not everyone does think—and that includes some in the media who should know better. The strange political times through which the world is living have emboldened some voices of prejudice. We all have a duty to challenge prejudice and discrimination wherever they are found, but the UK Government's position on asylum seekers remains lacking in many respects. Dungavel detention centre sits just 30 miles from Glasgow. As we have heard, that centre and others like it often separate families.
Data obtained by the
Sunday Herald under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 shows that, in one month in 2017, 20 out of 145 detainees were monitored for being at risk of self-harm and suicide. Those are just some examples of the misery that regressive policies can cause when they are inflicted on those who have come to our country to start a new life and to escape the terrors of war and destitution. Along with many others in this Parliament, I am sure, I call on the Tory UK Government to act now to end the intransigent attitude that the Home Office has very often shown towards these families.
We want to do more in Scotland—more than the UK Government’s legislation allows us to do, sometimes. We want to be an international leader in supporting asylum seekers and allowing integration. We want to build on the Scottish Government’s new Scots strategy and we want to build on support for charities to ensure that asylum seekers have safe accommodation and are not stuck in detention centres. We want to show that Scotland welcomes refugees and asylum seekers.
These islands have a long record of people of different traditions working together. I think of my own islands, where people of different traditions and heritages work together; across Scotland, new people endlessly surprise by the way in which they can enrich our own cultural heritage. That is true of Scotland as a whole and today is a chance to celebrate our asylum seekers, to challenge prejudice and to call on the UK Government to show the respect that our asylum seekers deserve.
Today, the record of worldwide, forcible displacement of people has never been higher. There are more than 3 million asylum seekers. They may have experienced war atrocities or persecution because of their religious or political identities. Some have been denied their human rights or suffered because of their sexual orientation.
Migrants and refugees, often from countries such as Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan, have faced enormous challenges in their home countries. Surely meeting those challenges with fair engagement and integration upon their arrival in Scotland should, where possible, be our shared aim.
It is paramount that Scotland offers protection for those asylum seekers, which should go hand in hand with support and advice. I have seen first-hand examples, such as a member of my local staff in Kandahar in Afghanistan being threatened because he worked for NATO. His family received night letters in the mosque, which forced my staff member to leave not only his job but Afghanistan for safety.
I know what asylum seekers have experienced, and I welcome the support that is in place as part of our asylum system. On a UK-wide level, refugees who claim asylum have the right to free healthcare, including prescriptions and optical and dental care. Access to those services offers a fundamental and fair right to those individuals. Through its support for refugees in other countries, the UK Government lessens the potential for exploitation and human trafficking. Asylum applicants are also entitled to weekly payments that go some way to help them, including during maternity. Of course, the UK asylum-seeker system is not perfect, but an annual review of the allowance ensures that helpful improvements can be made when possible.
Of particular importance to me, as it should be to the whole chamber, is the principle of family reunion, which the UK favours. Its resettlement scheme aims to ensure that child refugees can join their families in the UK. In practice, the system may have resulted in difficult cases, but having that principle in place is a starting point that the UK can develop further and build on.
In Scotland, there has been a notable effort to support asylum seekers. It has been encouraging for me that local authorities have reached Scotland’s target to house 10 per cent of the UK’s refugees three years early—I know about that from having been a councillor in Argyll and Bute. That commitment to asylum-seeker support is admirable and will help to rebuild the lives of those who have suffered. I also note that the goals set out in the new Scots strategy for the next four years are okay. Those aims favour the practical integration of asylum seekers into our communities.
When asylum seekers are resettled, their skills and knowledge must not be underestimated. Our local communities can benefit from them, which I have seen from their input in the Isle of Bute in my region. We should all appreciate the different cultures and experiences that asylum seekers bring.
The asylum system is complex and in need of careful adaption and improvement. Mistakes have been made that must be learned from. I hope for further development of current efforts and goals for the system, for the sake of genuine asylum seekers in need.
I want to say something about asylum seekers and refugees as an introduction. They would not be asylum seekers and refugees if the west—the UK and others—had not bombed their countries. We owe those people, because we are the ones who went in there and bombed them, in Iraq and other areas.
Many people have spoken about what happened 10 or 12 years ago. I remember when the first asylum seekers came to Glasgow a good few years ago. I am proud of what Glasgow has done to help asylum seekers, including underage asylum seekers, which can be very difficult. Neighbours and communities stood behind those asylum seekers, as Patrick Harvie said. They stopped them being removed and taken away. They bolted up their houses to make sure that they were not taken away. That was in Sighthill and Scotstoun; I am proud that we did that and that we stood beside them hand in hand.
After that, we had Dungavel, which the Presiding Officer will be very familiar with. That was an abomination; everyone will know the amount of people who stood up to get it closed down. I am proud of what the Scottish Government and all the parties in Parliament have done to alleviate some of the suffering of asylum seekers.
However, Westminster still pulls the strings on asylum seekers. Years ago, I tried to phone up the Home Office to help asylum seekers, only to be told, “No—that is only for MPs to do.” That did not stop people in this chamber; we still went through and pushed and pulled, and we had some successes. I remember a family of six in Royston, who I am glad to say are still here to this day, along with others. We were determined to do something, and that is why the motion says that there should be equality for MSPs and MPs when it comes to helping our constituents. That is the way forward.
We also need equality in funding for the work that local authorities do to assist asylum seekers. It is a disgrace that the Home Office will fund local authorities in England but not local authorities here in Scotland. I think that it was one of the Conservatives who said that Scotland has more asylum seekers than any other area. This is to do with equality, and it is morally wrong not to give the people who come to Scotland the same opportunities as those elsewhere in the UK.
I have often asked—I think that we have all asked this; it has certainly been asked by colleagues of mine, anyway, and members of other parties—why asylum seekers should not be allowed to work. Like other members, I have people in my constituency who are doctors, shopkeepers, psychiatrists, surgeons and lawyers, and they cannot work. They may be people who want to do things with their hands. It does not matter what they want to do. They want to work and, if they are allowed to do so, they can contribute to our economy and, more than that, contribute to themselves. They can help themselves and they will not feel quite so bad.
In finishing, I want to mention destitute asylum seekers. I met a destitute asylum seeker who had walked from the east end of Glasgow to the soup kitchen at Anderston Kelvingrove church. Members who know Glasgow will know that it is a long walk from Parkhead in the east end to the west end. That was the only way they could get food. I think that I have mentioned this before. I assume that, by the time they got back, they would be hungry again, but that was all they had. They had no money and nowhere to stay. I remember the poor soul who died in the churchyard just outside Calton, who was destitute as well.
We owe these people.
The motion states:
“the asylum system must treat people fairly and with dignity and respect at all times”.
It should shame us all that we need to articulate that. However, that is the reality of what is happening in the UK and across much of western Europe. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to seek ... asylum”.
Sadly, the human right to seek asylum appears to have been lost in the current climate, which has seen the political discourse throughout western democracies tainted by the language of nationalist right-wing populism.
In the UK, xenophobic and racist attitudes have been manifested through the Tory Government’s callous hostile environment policy. In July, Serco attempted to conduct a mass extrajudicial eviction of some of the most vulnerable people in our society when it attempted to covertly remove more than 300 asylum seekers from properties across Glasgow by changing the locks of their properties without warning.
The lock-change policy that was pursued was barbaric and lacked any compassion, humanity and rationale. The decision was motivated by greed. Serco—a company with an annual revenue of more than £1 billion and an annual trading profit of £80 million—wanted to squeeze some extra profit by forcing vulnerable individuals who have been victims of some of the world’s cruellest dictators and most repressive regimes into homelessness and on to the streets of Glasgow.
The events of July were the culmination of the unseen practices of Serco’s management of accommodation for asylum seekers. Through my working relationship with the women asylum seeker housing project, I have heard first hand from asylum seekers of their experiences of Serco’s coercive and intimidating practices. I take this opportunity to welcome to the public gallery the people from WASH who have come to listen to the debate.
I have heard about the extremely poor quality of housing accommodation that Serco provides. I have heard the experiences of men, women and children who struggle to stay warm in the depth of a Scottish winter because they have no electricity or gas as their £10 top-up voucher has been used. Serco has failed to keep their properties in good habitable standard by not repairing broken boilers, and when repairs are carried out, I have heard stories of Serco housing officers using their own keys to enter the properties of asylum seekers without notice when the occupants are not at home. For someone to have a stranger enter their home without their knowledge is extremely distressing, especially for asylum seekers who have experienced traumatic and violent episodes while attempting to flee oppression or warfare in their home country.
Scotland should be a place of safety, where people are able to live, free from persecution, as valued members of our communities. However, as is always the case with the Tories, the current system puts profit before people. The system must change and asylum accommodation must be taken out of the hands of private companies. We need an asylum system that is based on the values of compassion, humanity and human rights.
I offer a strong and vocal message of solidarity to all asylum seekers in Glasgow who have experienced Serco’s brutal, callous and inhumane practices and the UK Tory Government’s hostile environment policy. Scotland is your home. We welcome you with open arms. You have every right to be in this country and live your life here.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everybody is entitled to seek asylum. I open my remarks with a few basic questions that underlie how we should approach the needs of asylum seekers. If we were fleeing for our very lives, and with a right to seek asylum guaranteed under international law, how would we wish to be treated at the first port of call where we sought sanctuary? If we—or our families, friends or loved ones—had cause to flee from our homes, towns or villages, taking only what we could carry and in fear for our lives, how would we want to be treated? Would we want to be shown compassion, care, decency and humanity? Would we expect to be able to work and contribute to our new community? How we treat those who need our help defines who we are and what we value as individuals and as a society.
We must ensure that we do all that we can to ease the process for asylum seekers. At present, for example, we have a ridiculous situation in which asylum seekers who are based in Scotland have to make the long journey to the screening unit in Croydon to make their claim, rather than being able to make it here. Claiming asylum can be an extremely traumatic and disorientating process, in which claimants must be evaluated to determine whether a return to their home country would lead to persecution as a result of a range of factors, including their race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or political beliefs.
Despite the appalling rhetoric on immigration from the UK Government and its inhumane hostile environment policy, the numbers of asylum seekers in the UK are at an historic low. At the start of this century, there were more than 100,000 asylum applications annually in the UK, but the rate is now about 30,000 a year, despite a recent spike caused by the Syrian situation. I endorse Sandra White’s comment that we have an absolute responsibility in relation to areas where we are perpetrating more conflict.
Over that period, the success rate for applications has risen from less than a third being successful to about 40 per cent.
For successful applicants, there remain many barriers to be navigated in settling into their new lives. Among the challenges is that of having just 28 days after leaving asylum accommodation to find a new home, set up a bank account, register for benefits and apply for a job. I am pleased that the Scottish Government is making progress in co-ordinating the efforts of organisations and community groups across Scotland to help with that integration process, through its new Scots refugee integration strategy, which has been endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council for its involvement of refugees and asylum seekers in the strategy’s conception and delivery.
The failings of Westminster’s current asylum system are many, but I am proud that Scotland plays its part in welcoming those fleeing persecution. North Ayrshire Council in my constituency of Cunninghame South is just one of many local authorities that have taken in refugees as part of the Syrian resettlement programme, which has settled more than 2,000 refugees across the country and provided them with access to health, education and other essential services to help them integrate into our society. As new Scots, their arrival strengthens our diversity and helps us to collectively redefine and build on our identity as a nation.
Nevertheless, as has been mentioned by countless other speakers, the circumstances in which Scotland wishes to help are becoming more difficult by the day, particularly with regard to the provision of accommodation.
I am running out of time, so in closing I ask Conservative colleagues who have been keen to share warm words to use whatever little influence they have with the Home Office and insist that it works with the Scottish Government, local government and the third sector. Just leaving us to pick up the pieces is utterly unacceptable.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in today’s debate on asylum seekers. Globally, the number of people who have been forcibly displaced continues to rise and is now at a record high. In 2007, about 3 million asylum seekers worldwide fled conflict, persecution or exploitation. It is right and proper that developed countries such as ours support such individuals, because they have made, and continue to make, a massive contribution to our society.
The UK Government is committed to supporting people who claim asylum in our country in a number of different ways, such as by providing financial assistance, housing, education and healthcare.
Rather shockingly, about half of all refugees around the world are children. It is therefore important that we support young people who have been forced to leave their country of origin. Children who have been recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are able to join close family members who are in the United Kingdom. Between 2012 and 2017, the UK Government issued 24,000 family reunion visas, allowing children to start a new, safer life with relatives who are already integrated into communities in the UK. Since 2010, 42,000 children have been granted leave to remain in the UK, affording opportunity to children who are fleeing their own countries. It is right and proper that we have done that.
In addition, the UK Government is committed to supporting asylum seekers and refugees who settle in other countries around the world. The Department for International Development provides essential services to ensure that support. That means that refugees are less likely to be exploited by people smugglers or traffickers as they make the dangerous journey to Europe. The approach seeks to tackle the problems at source rather than deal with them when individuals who are already in difficult situations find themselves in even greater danger.
In Scotland, our record on supporting and integrating asylum seekers is good and we should be rightfully proud of it. We have heard stories of that support from members who have spoken about constituency cases. The Scottish Refugee Council, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have set out in great detail how they expect asylum seekers to be dealt with.
I agree with the Scottish Conservatives’ amendment that each individual case should be assessed on its own merit, and that the skills and talent that such individuals possess should be recognised. It is encouraging to see the strong collaborative desire in Scotland to ensure that such individuals can live free from persecution as valued members of their community and are able pursue their ambitions through education, employment, culture, leisure and other activities.
Moreover, it is encouraging to note that local authorities in Scotland have met their targets for housing refugees ahead of schedule. As a former councillor, I have seen at first hand the work that has been done by local authorities to achieve that success. They have gone above and beyond to ensure that individuals are housed, educated and looked after. That is important, so I commend and congratulate the councils that have achieved that.
It is incredibly important that we continue to fulfil our moral responsibilities by ensuring that our asylum system protects people who are fleeing conflict, persecution and exploitation. I am confident that, by working together, the UK Government, the Scottish Government and local government can come together to achieve some of our objectives. More can and must be done if outcomes are to improve. We should do everything in our power to ensure that individuals who need support and shelter receive them.
We have already heard from a number of members about the plight of asylum seekers. We know that many are people who have lost everything and are fleeing persecution. A great number of them are vulnerable children with no family to help and support them. I am proud to be part of a country that welcomes asylum seekers and which takes our international responsibilities seriously.
“Refugee empowerment and engagement with communities are at the heart of all our work, so we were delighted to support the wide-scale consultation with communities and refugees across Scotland. Their views are central to the direction and content of this strategy.”
Scotland is a country that includes asylum seekers in decisions about what their needs are. The new Scots strategy commits to supporting refugees, asylum seekers and communities, and has been endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council as an “extremely valuable initiative”.
We are committed to ensuring that asylum seekers in Scotland have access to health, education and all the other services that they need. We are also assisting with employability by funding the new refugee doctors programme, which is unique in the UK. It aims to maintain the skills of refugee medics and to help them to gain General Medical Council registration.
Since 2010, the Scottish Government has assisted young people who have been trafficked or who have claimed asylum by funding the Scottish guardianship service, which provides guardians to such young people. To date, it has supported 376 young people. In the 2017-18 academic year, the Scottish Government introduced a long residence rule, which means that Scotland-domiciled students who do not have settled status, including asylum seekers who are waiting for a decision to be made, and who meet the long residence criteria, are eligible to apply for tuition fees and living costs.
Although we in Scotland look to work in partnership with asylum seekers, Scottish local government and the third sector, we continue to face the challenge of a shortfall in funding from the UK Government to support such people in our communities. We also have to contend with an increasingly hostile environment for those who come to our communities from overseas. The Home Office continues to be responsible for providing accommodation and financial support to asylum seekers, but there are often problems with that arrangement. We have already heard about the complete boorach that Serco has made of accommodation in Glasgow.
In contrast, our vision is that all people in Scotland should live in high-quality sustainable homes that they can afford and that meet their needs. We have clearly outlined an ambition for fair and respectful treatment of asylum seekers, while recognising the important part that is played by our partners in local government. We now need the UK Government to respect that ambition and to fund fully our local authorities to support the people who are dispersed to their areas.
Like many of my colleagues, I am often asked by schoolchildren who come to Parliament what is the best thing the Scottish Parliament has done, or the best law that it has passed. I always return to something that was done in 2007 under the then minority Government—the extension by the Scottish Government to asylum seekers’ children of the right to higher and further education. For me, that is a symbol of our country, of the welcome that we offer and of how seriously we take our responsibilities to asylum seekers. It also differentiated us from the rest of the UK. It was an extremely important piece of legislation.
“This move will not only enhance the skills of these young people but it will allow them to make an invaluable contribution to Scotland’s economy, society and culture and will promote Scotland as a globally inclusive nation.”
Surely that is what we all want—to be a globally inclusive nation.
I mention that because I welcome the fact that the Conservatives seem to have moved towards agreeing that “integration” means that asylum seekers should have the right to work. However, if we expect asylum seekers to contribute to our society in that way, it is not too big a step to take to recognise that that means that we have a responsibility to protect those who cannot work. I do not believe that we should be giving them only £5 a day or £37 a week to feed themselves, to travel and to buy essentials including sanitary products. I do not think that that is a reasonable amount; it is a tiny sum. The right to a safe home that our citizens have should be extended to asylum seekers; their living conditions should not be left to private companies such as Serco.
Scotland has introduced the baby box, which is another symbol of how we value children in our society. However, the children of asylum seekers cannot receive a baby box because of the “no recourse to public funds” regime that they live under in this country.
I would like us to recognise that asylum seekers should have the right to work and to integrate fully into our society. As a society, that means that we must take our responsibilities towards them more seriously. I am delighted that today’s motion has been lodged by the Government, that there has been such consensus across the chamber about the current situation, and that we all agree that using destitution as a weapon against asylum seekers is utterly deplorable.
Considering some of the fractious debates that have taken place in the chamber in recent weeks, this has been a refreshing and welcome debate around consensus. That started with the minister—I associate myself and the Liberal Democrats with her remarks—and her belief that any immigration system or system of dealing with asylum seekers or refugees who are fleeing torture and persecution should, by necessity, be based on compassion and values. Our parties stand shoulder to shoulder in that regard.
I am very proud of my party. People talk a lot about the things that happened when we were in a coalition Government; I am very proud of the steps that we took to end detention of the children of asylum seekers. That was one of the most important achievements of our time in the Government and it speaks to the values of Liberalism and of this country.
We have not seen those values in the conduct of organisations including the UK Border Agency, which still operates based on non-belief. It uses bone-density scanning to verify whether a person is a minor and offers young people the opportunity to extend the time that they need to prepare their asylum case only if there is demonstrable evidence of torture or rape. I find that to be desperately inhumane.
It has been great to hear so many plaudits for Aberlour Child Care Trust and the Scottish Refugee Council, and for the Scottish guardianship service, which they provide. It is important to acknowledge that we still have questions to answer about how we deal with people who have been caught up in human trafficking, in particular around the criminality that is associated with it.
It was refreshing and welcome to hear Michelle Ballantyne talk about the need for asylum seekers to be able to contribute. I warmly congratulate her for calling on her own UK Government to see refugees and asylum seekers being afforded that opportunity. That is important, because the ones whom I have met in the course of my career have been desperate to contribute to the country that they have seen as giving them salvation. We owe it to them to give them that opportunity.
Alasdair Allan spoke warmly about the culture that exists in the islands, and the history of islanders giving welcome to incomers. We are all of us islanders, in one way or another.
Sandra White spoke powerfully about the historical culpability of these islands for many of the troubles that people are fleeing. The sense of national atonement that is still evident in Germany has seen Germany take in nearly 50,000 Syrian refugees. It is important that countries recognise the impact that they have on the world, and that subsequent generations take steps to remedy and address that.
Mary Fee gave us a striking analysis of the events of the summer, particularly with regard to Serco, which has operated beyond the realms of human decency in how it has treated people. That point was picked up by Patrick Harvie and, in a typically brilliant speech, by Pauline McNeill.
Ruth Maguire demonstrated why the decision to make her convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee was the right one. I look forward to working with her on the committee to take forward many of the issues, and with Gail Ross, who also made an excellent speech.
Ruth Maguire called on the Conservatives to put pressure on the UK Government: I have been heartened by the tone of the contributions of the Conservatives to the debate. Alexander Stewart capped off a fine set of speeches with a commitment to do just what Ruth Maguire called on them to do.
Madeline Uraneck said:
“However they arrive, asylum seekers, immigrants, and refugees reach with outstretched hands toward safer, more promising shores. Welcoming these wayfarers rekindles our humanity and heals our broken parts.”
That says to me that there is huge capacity for enhancement in our communities when we welcome people here. We need to do more to achieve just that.
I very much appreciate the many contributions that we have heard today. I will not have time to mention them all, but I want to say something about each party’s position.
I have already welcomed the Government’s motion and its commitment to support asylum seekers’ rights to work, to housing that meets quality standards and is appropriate to their needs and to finding a long-term solution that prevents destitution. In that regard, I hope that when the minister closes the debate she will be able to say something about the timescale for the provision of emergency accommodation—a recommendation that I acknowledge that the Government has already accepted.
I also welcome the Labour Party’s demand—which the Scottish Greens absolutely share—that the housing and wider support provision needs to be well funded and of a high standard and should be brought back into the public sector. We should be providing such services to a standard that we can be proud of, instead of turning a blind eye while the Home Office and its private sector friends bully and demean people who are here as our guests, leaving them feeling unsafe, insecure and terrified.
I agree with Alex Cole-Hamilton’s amendment about the critical role that the voluntary sector has played and continues to play. From emotional support to crisis accommodation, and from legal advice to donations of basic items such as toiletries and children’s toys, huge numbers of people want to help. For me, that is one of the most powerful aspects of the issue. Even after years and years of racist propaganda from both the UK Government and the far-right press, so many people see those who are in desperate need, and they want to help. So many people have a basic response that is one of deep, instinctive empathy. One of my favourite examples is Refuweegee. One of the most touching things that it does is to ask people to write a letter or card to an asylum seeker whom they will probably never know. Such letters and simple messages of welcome are included in its donation packages, many of them with local children’s drawings of Glasgow. They speak volumes about the natural human empathy that remains so strong and that we must use to prevent the UK Government from succeeding in making Glasgow—and Scotland—a hostile environment. Several members have mentioned the wider global context—the rise of the far right around the world—in which such basic practical examples of actions of human solidarity, which are rooted in empathy, have never been needed more.
I was puzzled by the Conservative amendment when I first read it. I want to say again how much I welcome the fact that the Conservatives are supporting asylum seekers’ right to work. That is a welcome difference from the UK Government’s policy. However, on its own, and in the absence of a wider change towards a more humane asylum system, should we be asking people who face the threat of imminent eviction or detention without trial to hold down a job? How realistic would we feel that to be, in the absence of a more wholesale change to the asylum system?
Michelle Ballantyne is wrong if she thinks that that is always the case. She is also wrong if she thinks that those who are refused asylum never have their refusals overturned on appeal: a great many of them are refused wrongly.
“All regimes fall in the end.”
Let us hope that, in the case of the UK Government, that comes sooner rather than later. While it is responsible for the viciousness of its policies, it is not enough for us to stand by, confident that we know who to blame. We have a clear and unavoidable moral responsibility to take action in defence of the most vulnerable among us—and in defiance of those who treat them with contempt.
We have had, in the main, a consensual debate. I, too, welcome the women who spend their time campaigning for housing for asylum seekers for coming along today.
As has been acknowledged, the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement of people on record. The United Nations reports that more than 68 million people from around the world have been forced from their homes due to war, violence and persecution and that that number is on the increase.
All of us will have seen the horrific images from countries such as Syria and Myanmar and the terrible violence that the people there are having to flee from. It is very important that we do not lose sight of the bigger picture in relation to what is driving a global crisis.
Yesterday, I retweeted what the First Minister said about her visit to Auschwitz and its impact on her. I will never stop thinking about what I saw on my visit. I will always remember the tour guide telling me that Hitler initially tried to expel many Jews and when they sought refuge, many other countries turned them away.
I assume that the UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the world’s attempt to make sure that people fleeing violence, persecution, fear and death get support from the countries that have signed up to the convention. The United Kingdom is one of those countries. The United Kingdom can and should do more. The motion is focused on what happens when people are seeking refuge in the UK. The current experience for those seeking refuge and asylum is, we would have to say, not good.
As the cabinet secretary, Pauline McNeill and others said, the Home Office process is slow and ineffective. Asylum seekers are facing record delays in the application process. Campaigners attribute the decline in grants of asylum in part to an “unrealistically high” standard of proof for asylum seekers and say that applicants are expected to obtain “impossible” proof, such as evidence documenting torture and sexual violence.
As Patrick Harvie has highlighted, there is a high level of error in Home Office decisions. Last year, of the 11,461 appeals that were lodged, 39 per cent—that is, 4,307—were successful.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. People seeking asylum in the UK are allowed to work only if they have been waiting on a claim for more than 12 months and they can fill a role on the shortage occupation list, which includes positions such as classical ballet dancers. It is estimated that asylum seekers could contribute £42 million to the UK economy if those rules were relaxed.
The Lift the Ban Coalition, which is made up of 80 organisations, is calling on the Government to give asylum seekers and their adult dependents the right to work after waiting six months for a decision on their claim, and to be unconstrained by the shortage occupation list.
Far too many asylum seekers are in detention centres and, given that children account for 53 per cent of global displacement, there needs to be a review of family reunification policy.
In Scotland, we can do better. The motion is correct to identify the need for the UK Government to work more closely with the Scottish Administration. We will also support the Greens’ amendment, and urge that discussions take place as soon as is practical to implement the recommendations in paragraph 96(4) of the Smith commission report.
I thank those members who have participated in the debate. I have found it extremely interesting. When I was asked to speak in the debate, the first thing that I did was to look up the technical differences between what constitutes an asylum seeker, a refugee and a migrant. I did that because those terms are often confusing and used interchangeably; they also overlap. In the context of the debate, and the research that has been done for it, I wanted to ensure that we are clear on the differences, because that is important.
In 2017 alone, around 70 million people across the world had to leave their homes for various reasons. Some of those reasons have been well documented and evidenced today. It is not always about war and conflict. There is a plethora of reasons why people have taken the difficult decision to leave their home country. Their political views are often cited as one reason, but other reasons include their religious beliefs and, these days, their gender identity and sexuality.
I turn to some of the comments made in the debate. I will start with comments made by my colleague Michelle Ballantyne in her opening speech. She spoke at first about some of the freedoms that we take for granted and the fact that those coming to this country should be able to maintain the skills with which they arrived. That is an important point, because there is good reason for letting them maintain their skills. Often, those people are qualified doctors, nurses or teachers in their homelands, but when they arrive here, we label them as asylum seekers. In their home countries, they are professionals and valued members of their communities. We think that they should be equally valued members of the communities and the countries to which they have chosen to come. Therefore, those people who choose to stay should be welcomed, but those who wish to return to their native countries should do so with the skills that they need to rebuild those countries.
With regard to numbers, the majority of asylum seekers in the UK come from Iraq, Sudan, Iran and Pakistan. I can confirm that the Conservative members believe that there is merit in the idea of allowing those waiting for their case to be heard to be given further employment opportunities.
My colleague Michelle Ballantyne has written to the Home Secretary to express her views on that. The example that Michelle gave of her constituent—the young man from Pakistan who felt as though he was in limbo for the seven years that he waited for his case to be decided—serves as a perfect example of why we should have a grown-up conversation on this issue.
I turn to some of the other points that have been made. In the minister’s opening remarks, she talked about the Syrian resettlement programme and its success, much of which is due to the great work that has been done in Glasgow. The minister made a fair point in her motion and her speech that integration should be quick and effective, and that access to education, health and housing are some of the basic building blocks for integrating people when they enter Scotland.
I accept the minister’s comments that the due and necessary process that is involved in processing claims can be complex and frustrating for those at the receiving end. There is no disagreement on that matter from Conservative members.
The UK is an attractive destination for many, and the volume of applications reflects that. Last year, the number of applications to the UK dropped by only 1 per cent, year on year, whereas it dropped by 32 per cent for the rest of the EU.
There were excellent contributions to the debate, including that of Pauline McNeill, who moved the Labour amendment, which I will address. There is much to agree with in the premise of the amendment and what it tries to achieve. It should be about the quality of the available housing. However, the amendment restricts the provision of asylum accommodation to the public sector, which, at present, it is not geared up to deliver. For that technical reason, we are not able to support the amendment.
Pauline McNeill made other important points, including the fact that countries such as Denmark, Germany, Poland and Hungary are closing their doors, either literally or in the tone that comes from their Governments. Countries that have borne much of the brunt are also changing their tone.
We are pleased to support Alex Cole-Hamilton’s amendment. We should never overlook the voluntary sector and the valuable role that it plays.
I agree with Sandra White’s comments about MSPs not being able to make representations to the Home Office, and I share her frustration. I met the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party on Saturday in Ayrshire and I raised that very matter. MSPs should be able to make representations, and we will write to the Home Secretary about that.
I will do my best, Presiding Officer.
The debate has been an emotional and heartfelt one, which is absolutely correct because, behind the statistics, the numbers and the due process are individual stories of people fleeing their homes because of violence, war, persecution and torture. The fact that journeying into the unknown is preferable to staying with what is familiar speaks to the truth that seeking asylum and sanctuary is not an easy option—it is forced and endured through desperation.
It is up to us to create a welcoming response to that need and to treat people with kindness, support and dignity. I hope that the Scottish Parliament will come together today to show that we reject a flawed asylum system that enforces destitution. It is deliberate destitution that takes away people’s accommodation and financial support at the end of the process. That political consensus is not new. Indeed, the Scottish Refugee Council briefing notes the broad and enduring political consensus in Scotland that the legal right to seek asylum and safety and to be treated with dignity by the country of sanctuary is precious. As the Scottish Refugee Council also points out, we should never forget that the legal right emerged after the second world war from the international community’s revulsion at the genocide of the Holocaust. That is a timely reminder, given the discussion at First Minister’s question time this afternoon, and it was powerfully articulated by Alex Rowley.
It was important to be reminded by Pauline McNeill in her opening remarks of some of the worrying current trends in responses to asylum across Europe. However, Alex Cole-Hamilton remarked on the positive aspect, in his articulation of Germany’s response to the Syrian refugee situation.
It was important to have the chance to debate in the Parliament the flaws and failures of a system that does not reflect the values of the country that we seek to create—a country that is tolerant, peaceful and understanding of global responsibilities. That system requires wholesale change. The barriers that are built into it not only make integration more difficult but, in some cases, exacerbate the terrible traumas that people have already faced. The system hinders people’s ability to settle in a new country and to build new lives and connections within the community, and it impacts on their health and wellbeing. Asylum decision making must be fair and enable people to tell their stories. However, it must not leave them hanging on, waiting to get on with their lives for years on end. There must be a holistic end-to-end system of support and accommodation and one that does not leave people homeless and penniless and on our streets. We should not tolerate the current system, which is simply unacceptable.
The current system leaves the Scottish Government, local government and the third sector to pick up the pieces. Despite that, we will continue to work for an approach that is based on fairness, dignity, prevention and partnership. However, we need the Home Office to engage in seeking a long-term solution to supporting people at the end of the asylum process in a way that respects their dignity and rights. If people who are refused asylum are not able to return to their country of origin, the Home Office must provide them with accommodation and financial support by funding an asylum accommodation provider or the local authority.
The Scottish Government already provides extra funding to a number of organisations that work with people who are at risk of destitution and eviction. I am pleased to announce that we will provide an additional £20,000 for Govan Community Project to increase its advice and advocacy services, which brings our total emergency funding to £150,000. However, I question why we in the Scottish Government, local government and the third sector continually have to put sticking plasters on a failed system.
I agree entirely that responsibility lies principally with the Home Office and the UK Government, and that that demand should be made, but does the cabinet secretary agree that, if they refuse, we—Scotland and the Scottish Government, our local councils and communities—still bear the moral responsibility to put in place emergency provision?
That is why I underlined the fact that we provide emergency help and destitution help through our third sector partners, and it is why I have announced more money to do that through the Govan Community Project. However, if there are ways that we could do more, I will of course engage with the member to figure out how we can move those forward.
I want to respond to some of the pertinent and powerful points that members have raised. I absolutely agree with Pauline McNeill on the need for independent accountability in asylum accommodation contracts. Her support for the position that the contract should be about people and not profit is important. Alex Cole-Hamilton also raised that issue.
I support Patrick Harvie’s calls for time limits on detention. It is unacceptable for people who have committed no crime and who have done absolutely nothing wrong—it is important for Conservative members to remember that—to be held in detention indefinitely. The presumption should be in favour of community-based solutions, and we want to work to achieve that, if the Home Office is willing. I will get back to the member on issues relating to the action plan, which we hope to publish in the coming year.
I say to Michelle Ballantyne that I am pleased to hear support for the right to work, and I hope that that will bear fruit with the UK Government. However, Patrick Harvie was also right to reiterate the wider failings of the asylum system, which need urgent reform before anyone can even begin to think about trying to seek work. I hope that that is taken on board and that the Conservatives make those points to their colleagues in the UK Government.
Maurice Corry said that the new Scots strategy’s aims are “okay”. However, there is no UK refugee integration strategy. If Maurice Corry can influence not just improvements for people in Scotland but changes for people who are seeking asylum in the rest of the UK, I am sure that any improvements that he can make would be welcome.
Sandra White made powerful points about MSPs not being able to represent their asylum-seeking constituents to the Home Office. We have repeatedly pressed on that. Despite that, the Home Office continues to ignore those issues.
On the skills that people bring to the country, we are pleased that we are able to support the refugee doctors project and help people to get back to their careers and use their talents, skills and experience.
Mary Fee’s remarks are welcome. I also welcome to the Parliament representatives of the women asylum seeker housing project. We are pleased to be able to support some of its work through our funding.
The debate has been wide ranging, and much of it has been consensual. I think that we will decide in a few moments that our message from the Parliament to the Home Office is clear. We need the Home Office to fix the failed system and to end the hostile environment. We need to see people treated with dignity and respect, and we need the Home Office to fund our councils to do more to help and to treat our councils with equity and fairness.
The system does not have to be as it is. We can do better, and we want to do better. We want to build an asylum system that signals to the world who we are and what we value, and which is based on tolerance, kindness and understanding. I am glad of the support of many members for the motion, because it signals a very strong message to the Home Office, which I hope it will listen to.