The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-05098, in the name of Neil Gray, on world refugee day: welcoming and supporting refugees in Scotland’s communities. I would be grateful if members who wish to speak in the debate were to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Neil Gray to speak to and move the motion—for up to 12 minutes, minister.
World refugee day is an opportunity for people around the world to honour refugees, celebrate their strength and recognise their resilience. It is a day on which we work together to build empathy and understanding for people who have faced danger that most of us can barely imagine.
The United Nations theme for world refugee day 2022 is “Whoever. Wherever. Whenever. Everyone has the right to seek safety” from persecution and conflict. Scotland has a long history of welcoming people from around the world, including those who have been forced to flee their homes and seek safety from war and persecution. Scotland’s approach to supporting refugees and asylum seekers is framed by the new Scots refugee integration strategy. Developed and led in partnership by the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Refugee Council, the new Scots strategy has set the clear principle that integration should begin on, and be supported from, day 1 of arrival.
Our new strategy placed Scotland in a clear position to respond to the humanitarian crisis that arose from the conflict in Syria, and it continues to inform our response to the displacement of people from Ukraine and Afghanistan, and through other wars and conflicts around the world.
In recent months, we have all seen reporting of the horror and destruction from the war in Ukraine. People have been displaced within Ukraine and across its borders as they seek safety from the conflict. Although, for most of us, that is something that we have watched on TV, we are not removed from it. Almost 5,000 people have arrived in Scotland from Ukraine. They need accommodation and our support. I am clear that we must step up and do what we hope that others would do for us in such a situation.
The war in Ukraine needs us to provide a united and national response. I am proud to have seen people in Scotland show strong solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Scottish support agencies have co-ordinated humanitarian aid and support direct to the region; people have offered places to stay for those who are displaced by the war; and communities have stepped up to offer people a warm Scottish welcome.
This is not a time for standing by and watching. We all have a part to play, and I appeal to everyone in the chamber to find out what more they can do in their area to support people who arrive from Ukraine.
The Scottish Government is taking practical steps to support Ukraine and the people who have been displaced by the conflict and who need a place of safety. We are working to do all that we can within the United Kingdom Government’s sponsorship scheme and visa routes. In partnership with COSLA, local authorities and the third sector, we are working to ensure that everyone arriving at our welcome hubs receives a warm Scots welcome, with access to essentials, including temporary accommodation, trauma support and translation.
I highlight the relevant section of the motion that is before us in thanking all our local government colleagues and third and private sector partners for all that they are doing—as well as our officials in the Scottish Government, who are working day and night. That is greatly appreciated.
This seems an appropriate point at which to ask the minister to bring us up to date on the number of Ukrainians who have arrived in Scotland, the number who have been matched to families and homes, the number who remain in hotels or other temporary accommodation, and the average length of stay for Ukrainian refugees in temporary settings.
It is fair to say that there are people who are currently in hotels in Scotland who have been there for too long. We want to do everything possible, working with our third sector and local government partners, to ensure that the process of checking properties and making sure that the disclosure checks are carried out— which makes that supersponsor scheme the safest, alongside the Welsh scheme, in the United Kingdom—happens as quickly as possible.
We also want to do everything possible to make sure that resources are committed to the national matching service, to ensure that we are utilising expressions of interest and the creative solutions that have been offered in different parts of our social housing sector. I was at the Wheatley Housing Group yesterday, and it has very generously put up 300 properties, which is fantastic. That will give people long-term security of accommodation, for which I am very grateful.
Last week, the three other Labour MSPs for Glasgow and I met the Glasgow community integration networks, which have written to the minister, outlining their concerns about the lack of support and funding that they have had to cope with the increasing demand on their services, including help with English for speakers of other languages and support for people to access food banks. Can the minister commit to meeting those networks as soon as possible to address those concerns?
Absolutely; I give the commitment to Pam Duncan-Glancy that I am more than happy to meet those networks. I have met others who represent the Ukrainian community in Scotland, including in the regular meetings that I have with—dare I say it?—my friend Yevhen Mankovskyi, who is the Ukrainian consul general. He is doing a power of work to ensure that the needs and desires of those who are arriving from Ukraine are met. I am more than happy to give that commitment if Pam Duncan-Glancy wishes to write to me on behalf of the local organisations that she mentioned.
Our national matching service, which is delivered by COSLA, supports local authorities to identify suitable longer-term accommodation. It is heartening to see so many Scots opening their homes to those who need it.
The Scottish Government has committed £11 million to increase the capacity of local authority resettlement teams and to support the refurbishment of properties and integration. We continue to work with our national and local partners, including COSLA, local authorities and the Scottish Refugee Council, to improve our approach.
We have provided £1 million to the Scottish Refugee Council to increase its capacity to support people who are arriving from Ukraine. We have also committed £36,000 to support the Ukraine advice Scotland service, which is delivered by JustRight Scotland.
I am pleased to announce that that service has been bolstered recently by an additional £12,000. The service offers free confidential legal advice to Ukrainians and their family members, and it has proved invaluable to displaced people who are struggling to navigate the UK immigration system.
Further, I can confirm a funding uplift of more than £77,000 for the Edinburgh third sector interface organisations and Volunteer Edinburgh to ensure the continued provision of volunteers to give a warm Scottish welcome to tired and often traumatised people as soon as they arrive in Scotland.
As the member will understand, my conversations with COSLA are regular, and they certainly cover the matching service and the need to ensure that we get it right and are able to move as quickly as possible. Rachael Hamilton will understand that ensuring that we are able to match the needs and desires of those arriving from Ukraine to the expectations of those who have offered their homes is a human resource-intensive process, but I am confident that, given the investment and resource that has been committed to the matching service, we can make sure that that happens as quickly as possible.
I will give way one final time.
I thank Foysol Choudhury for raising that point. No matter where people arrive from, we are committed to doing everything possible to give them the same treatment. He is as aware as I am of the different nature and responsibilities of the Afghan resettlement scheme. The UK Government has not taken the same partnership approach as it has with the Syria and Ukraine schemes, which has been more of a challenge, but I am committed, as my colleagues in government are, to ensuring that we get the scheme right. I will speak a bit more about that shortly.
Earlier this month, I visited Poland to see at first hand the needs of people who have been displaced by war and how some of the Scottish Government’s humanitarian support has been deployed. The Scottish Government has provided £4 million in financial aid to provide basic humanitarian assistance.
I saw the life-saving services and support that a UNICEF blue dot centre is providing to children and families. UNICEF has used Scottish Government aid to support 24 blue dot centres in countries neighbouring Ukraine. I learned how the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund’s federated partner Caritas is delivering a wide range of services to people who have been displaced by the war. At a refugee centre called Szafa Dobra, I met some of the inspirational local leaders and volunteers, such as Maria Wojtacha, and some of those who have previously escaped war and persecution themselves and have volunteered to step up, such as Alun Ruznik. They are absolute inspirations. It was clear that the humanitarian support that Scotland has provided is reaching the right places.
Visiting Poland was moving and at times overwhelming. It really brought home the stark reality of the impact that forced displacement has on people. Seeing women and children living cheek by jowl in a disused shopping centre and on camp beds that were pushed together will live with me for a very long time. It certainly underlined the importance of our collective work in Scotland and my determination that we do everything possible to give people a safe and dignified place to call home in order to rebuild their lives.
Despite the prominence of the war in Ukraine, we must not forget that there are many other wars and conflicts around the world. Scotland continues to welcome refugees and people displaced from many countries, including Afghanistan, following the fall of Kabul last August. That includes people who gave great service working for the British military and other organisations.
All of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have committed to participate in refugee resettlement schemes, using the experience that they have developed since welcoming refugees from Syria. I commend local authorities’ welcoming people through the Afghan resettlement and relocation schemes, and the global UK resettlement scheme. I also thank Scotland’s existing Afghan communities for the insights that they have shared to inform the work and the support for people arriving from Afghanistan.
I have been clear about the key principles of our new Scots approach. Integration from day 1 is not just for refugees or displaced people who have been granted status in the UK; it includes people who are seeking asylum from the day that they arrive here. In February, when I led my first debate as a minister, I was disappointed to have to talk about a regressive UK Government bill instead of Scotland’s role as a place of welcome and sanctuary. The Nationality and Borders Bill, the damage that it would do and the problems that it would fail to fix were debated in the chamber, and we voted to withhold consent on two clauses within the competence of the Scottish Parliament.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 was passed in April. It will affect people who live in communities across Scotland, and it will not deliver the humane immigration and asylum systems that the UK needs. It will cause lasting damage to the UK’s international reputation, and it will jeopardise the rights of thousands of people long into the future.
I am horrified by the UK Government’s attempts to send to Rwanda people who have sought safety in the UK. People who are seeking asylum in the UK should have their case heard in the UK. If they are successful, they should receive refugee status in the UK. I hope that we can all agree that we want nothing to do with the trading of human misery and that we want to see that stopped. The policy is a complete abdication of the UK Government’s responsibilities, it breaches the refugee convention, and it is a threat to the international protection regime. It is also doomed to fail, as the only way to break people trafficking networks is by establishing safe and legal routes to claim asylum. I am sure that the cabinet secretary with responsibility for refugee and asylum policy will say more about that when she closes the debate.
As the UN has made clear in the theme for world refugee day, everyone has the right to seek safety from persecution and conflict. We must do all we can to uphold the refugee convention, to which the UK is a founding signatory. We cannot abdicate our international and moral responsibilities to recognise refugees.
We welcome refugees because they have faced enormous danger, and welcoming them is the right thing to do. We support refugees because of the great challenges that come with seeking safety. We celebrate refugees because we recognise their skills, knowledge and strength. We stand with refugees because they are our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours.
That the Parliament uses the opportunity of World Refugee Day to welcome people who have sought refuge in Scotland from war and persecution, including refugees, people seeking asylum, people relocated from Afghanistan and displaced people from Ukraine; recognises the contribution that refugees, people seeking asylum, people who have arrived under refugee resettlement and relocation schemes, people granted discretionary leave or humanitarian protection and displaced people arriving under specific visa routes have made to Scotland over many years; thanks local authorities, communities, individuals, the third sector and faith organisations that have supported, and are supporting, refugees, people seeking asylum and displaced people to settle in the country; commends the key principle of the New Scots refugee integration strategy that integration begins from day one of arrival, and celebrates the opportunity to connect and share stories through Refugee Festival Scotland.
It is a pleasure to open this important debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.
Scotland and the United Kingdom have a proud history of welcoming refugees, such as the Huguenots, Freddie Mercury, the Kindertransport and Sigmund Freud—the list is long and varied. However, that work does not stop; it perseveres to this day. For decades, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of helping some of the most vulnerable people in the world, here and abroad. Nowhere has that been more apparent than with regard to Ukraine.
Local voluntary organisations, councils, charities and the public have all stepped up in a truly staggering outpouring of kindness. The UK Government has also been hard at work, issuing more than 130,300 visas since the start of the conflict, while supplying considerable amounts of military and humanitarian aid to our Ukrainian friends. Recently, it has also streamlined the visa application process.
Scots have risen to the challenge admirably, as 4,773 individuals have now arrived in Scotland. Many of them are now settled with host families and adjusting to new lives in the United Kingdom. Their resilience, strength and spirit are worthy of recognition, as are the warm hearts of their hosts.
Last week, I contacted a member of the Pentlands Ukrainian support group, an organisation that is based in Currie, not far from the Parliament. The work that the group does is incredible. It was set up by two women, one Polish and one Ukrainian, and it supports local guests and hosts with a range of social events and practical assistance. The PUSG now runs its own English classes and offers employment support. It raises funds to support its work, and the member to whom I spoke told me that their Ukrainian guests are settling in well and swiftly adapting to life in Scotland.
So far, so good. However, even with that model scenario, there are still obstacles to be overcome. Bus tickets are a prime concern. Although Ukrainians arriving in Edinburgh receive a bus ticket that is worth 20 journeys, those are soon used up. Just to get to the Ukrainian centre on Royal Terrace for an advice session, for instance, takes four journeys. Perhaps Ukrainian guests want to visit the centre of Edinburgh to learn about their new home or open a bank account. That is another four journeys. Add in a dentist’s appointment or a week’s trips to the nursery and it does not take long before the ticket is used up and guests are back to relying on strangers for lifts.
The PUSG attempts to cover the cost, but the majority of its funds are spent on bus tickets that are enabling Ukrainians to rebuild their lives and gain some semblance of normality. However, that is unsustainable. In only a fortnight, the PUSG spent £601 on bus tickets, leaving little for other activities such as English classes or employment support.
Edinburgh Leisure has kindly waived its fees for the first six months of Ukrainians’ stay in Edinburgh. Free swimming sessions are welcome, as are the 20 free bus tickets, but I urge Lothian Buses to follow Edinburgh Leisure’s approach and consider providing six months of free bus travel for qualifying Ukrainians to make their lives a little bit easier.
On Thursday during the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, Ukrainian Consul General Yevhen Mankovskyi highlighted several other pressing issues that require the Parliament’s attention. More support must be provided for the more than 500 Ukrainians in hotels. At the moment, they do not even receive a visit once a week from officials, but regular updates would be warmly received, especially when welcome hubs are expensive and difficult to get to. More language classes and greater childcare provision were mentioned, as was access to schools.
The member rightly mentioned the need to conduct welfare checks for Ukrainians and families living in hotels. We hope to get them into settled accommodation as soon as possible. Does she agree that we should take a similar approach with all refugees and asylum seekers, irrespective of whether they are from Ukraine, because hotels are not a suitable place to house anyone in the long term?
All members need to work together to find solutions to all problems. We will gain more by working together than we will working apart so we need to find solutions to all the problems that are raised by refugees or displaced persons who come to Scotland.
For Ukrainian refugees on the far side of a catchment area, a school can be hard to reach by bus, particularly given the issue with tickets.
I urge MSPs to find out whether their regions have similar issues, and to make contact with local bodies to see how they can be resolved. Sadly, I have heard several times about Ukrainians being bussed off to distant towns without being told where they are going. That is simply unacceptable. I wrote to the minister to request a meeting to discuss the issue and am still waiting to receive a reply.
We can all help in a small way. Members often receive questionnaires offering donations to charities if we respond. I urge members to donate those funds to groups such as the PUSG. The money will make a real difference and will go a long way towards making our Ukrainian friends feel like they are home.
It is a pleasure to open the debate for Scottish Labour and to celebrate UN world refugee day. I welcome the fact that the motion before us highlights the contribution made to our society by refugees and those who have sought asylum here. That is incredibly important to note at a time when refugees and asylum seekers are under daily attack from certain political quarters and quarters of our media. It is important for people to hear how many prior generations of refugees have contributed to and enriched our country and our society, from the displaced of world war 2 onwards, and how many continue to do so. However, the picture is increasingly divided.
In the first instance, we can all be proud of the will to help those who have been displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and grateful for those who have already been helped. However, those who arrive here are, all too often, being failed by inadequate preparation.
Last week, the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee heard from the Ukrainian consul general that hundreds of Ukrainians have been stuck in temporary accommodation for months on end. He pointed out that there are many sponsor applicants and many people who require sponsors but that far too many people are unable to join those dots with no apparent fault on either side. The Scottish Government must ensure that it knows what success looks like in its supersponsor scheme and how it can iron out those problems to avoid further misery.
However, the darker side of the refugee story is that, although we can be thankful for what is being done for the people who have been displaced from Ukraine, the help that is being given to them throws into sharp contrast the treatment of other refugees who have arrived here.
Although people from Ukraine can work and access public funds, people who have fled from, for example, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan cannot. I highlight those countries because they are the ones to which we have a particular obligation, given our foreign policy in recent years. Many of the refugees from those countries have been stuck in temporary accommodation not just for months but for years, with only £8 a week on which to get by. Many cannot get a school for their children and are not legally allowed to work.
I do not mention that to argue that those displaced by the Ukraine conflict should be given less, but to show how much more support could have been given to those fleeing other conflict zones. We need to be careful to avoid the appearance that some may feel of there being a racist double standard in our approach to supporting refugees.
That is all without even mentioning the latest attack from the UK Government on asylum seekers: the horrendous policy of sending those who cross the channel seeking refuge here to Rwanda. That is a costly exercise, both in monetary terms and in our moral standing as a nation.
The UK Government is intent on sending people trying to flee from a range of conflict zones to a country in the middle of Africa from which we have previously accepted refugees. It is reminiscent of a transportation policy from Britain’s colonial past. However, it is also, fundamentally, a policy where the UK, as a developed nation, is paying off a poorer nation on another continent to deal with what our Government considers to be a problem. At the very least, the policy represents a colonial state of mind from the Tory Government in Westminster.
I and my Scottish Labour colleagues continue to call on the UK Government to drop that horrendous policy, which has not even been put before the Westminster Parliament. I hope that future UN world refugee days will be marked without the national embarrassment of such a grotesque policy, and I hope that, as a result, we will be able to more easily celebrate the many ways in which our national compassion has benefited our national life.
Scottish Labour will support the motion, but we do not feel that it represents the full reality of the situation for refugees in Scotland.
I am very grateful that the Government has secured time for today’s debate. The Parliament will, as we always do, mark world refugee day, but doing so this year will come with a poignance, which we will all feel, given what is happening in Ukraine and with the Afghan situation.
I pay tribute to the volunteers up and down Scotland who are, right now, preparing homes for people coming from war-torn countries. I particularly thank the people who are working at the welcome hub at the Royal Bank of Scotland site in my Edinburgh Western constituency—we are very grateful for the work that they do.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
Those lines capture a promise of the American dream, as it was in 1883, when she first penned them. The poem encapsulates the dream of safe harbour for the persecuted and destitute the world over. It told of a progressive attitude towards immigration and diversity, which helped to forge America into one of the most successful countries on the planet. Sadly, that attitude is unrecognisable in large parts of the America of today.
As we mark international refugee day this year, those words feel more poignant than ever for us, as Scots, as we open our homes to those who are fleeing the horrors that are unfolding in Ukraine. However, the 7 million Ukrainians who have left their country and the many more who have been displaced within it as a result of the conflict account for only some of those who are seeking sanctuary in our world today.
Indeed, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that more than 100 million people are either internally displaced or refugees seeking safety and asylum. Foysol Choudhury is absolutely right to bring our attention back to the plight of people fleeing Afghanistan. They have not gone away, and their plight has not gone away.
We are seeing the highest levels of human displacement since world war two as a result of politics, persecution, war, poverty and, of course, climate change. We cannot forget that, sometimes, the actions of humankind drive people out of their homes.
It should say much about the quality of life and the peace that we all enjoy in these islands that refugees seek safe harbour here. The people of this country have a proud history of responding to those fleeing their homes with the compassion and generosity that we see today. That pride is justifiable. However, we are not always as good as other countries at accepting refugees. We should remember that we took in only four Syrian refugees for every 10,000 citizens in Scotland. In comparison, on the same per capita basis, Germany and Sweden took in 70.
In recent years, there has been an immensely worrying shift in both attitude and policy, particularly at a UK Government level, when it comes to those seeking sanctuary on our shores. Quiet xenophobia from the right-wing press on a drip-drip basis, coupled with the UK Government’s hardening tone, has created a hostile environment for refugees and survivors of trafficking and exploitation. The ugly face of that environment is encompassed in the so-called new plan for immigration, which includes the appalling Rwanda policy and the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, as has been mentioned this afternoon. My party has vehemently opposed all those steps, as they represent some of the most regressive and illiberal policies ever to have been signed into UK law.
Everyone agrees on the need to stop people smugglers taking people across the English Channel in makeshift rafts, but that means creating safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to make their way here. The unhappy truth is that, in today’s world, far too many of us have forgotten the reality, which was captured so eloquently by the poet and refugee Warsan Shire when she wrote:
“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
We have fallen lamentably below the generous and welcoming standards that we would want the rest of the world to recognise in us. I am gratified by the difference in tone and action in Scotland, but we are not always getting it right here, either. We have already heard about the 500 Ukrainians who are still languishing in Scottish hotels. I hope that, as a Parliament, we will work to support the Government to improve processes so that we can make the system slicker. Thousands of Scots have opened their homes and are awaiting guests from Ukraine, but they have heard very little or sometimes nothing from the authorities that are supposed to be making that happen.
I again recognise the immense contribution of immigrants and refugees and what they bring to our society, whether that be the skills and energy that they bring to the workplace as colleagues or what they bring as neighbours and, indeed, friends. We are all the richer for having them here. The plight of refugees, wherever they come from, is visible on our television screens, in our communities and at the points of entry all around the British isles. Our response to that plight will be the measure by which our generation is judged.
Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. They are defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention is a key legal document that defines a refugee as:
“someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Here, in the UK, we should reflect on how our involvement in various conflicts destabilised many of the regions and countries that folk are having to flee from, but that will need a whole other debate. Therefore, today, as we focus on refugees, let us simply ask ourselves this: 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 places 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 have a moral and legal obligation to provide refuge to our brothers and sisters who find themselves in that situation. However, the UK Government is abdicating responsibility for those moral and legal obligations through its planned offshoring of asylum processing. Priti Patel, Boris Johnson’s Home Secretary, has described the deal, which will cost at least £120 million in the next five years, as a “first-class policy”. The United Nations does not agree, and it stated in its analysis of the scheme that it is
“incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
The UN also raised a host of potential problems, including a shortage of interpreters in Rwanda, a risk of discrimination against LGBTQ people and a lack of capacity to process hundreds, if not thousands, of diverted asylum claims.
Officials said that there would be 130 people on the first flight to Kigali, but, after dozens of successful legal challenges, only seven asylum seekers were taken to the airbase. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, told the media:
“I can’t say exactly how many people will be on the flight. But the really important thing is that we establish the principle.”
The principle of rich countries buying their way out of international obligations and trading in human misery by paying poorer countries to take vulnerable humans to somewhere where they might be at further risk of harm is not a principle that I share. I agree with the UN’s assessment that it is wrong. It is also expensive and ineffective in meeting the UK Government’s stated aims of preventing people from crossing the Channel.
As the minister pointed out in opening the debate, that can be done by providing safe routes and by removing the financial incentive for traffickers by disrupting the market for humans. In particular, in relation to women and girls who are trafficked for prostitution, it can be done with a robust justice response to men who purchase sex. The UK Government’s approach will not work. Even former hardline Prime Minister Theresa May of the “go home” vans is criticising the plan on the grounds of “legality, practicality and efficacy.”
I hope that Scottish Conservative colleagues in this chamber will be given cause for concern and do what they can by either speaking out or speaking privately and using whatever influence they have with their UK Government colleagues to change that inhumane and ineffective policy, which is shaming us all globally.
We could do so much better. As well as the simple democratic case for our nation restoring its independence, there are a myriad of specific policy reasons. A different approach to foreign policy and migration is one of those. With independence, and full power over migration policy, we can build an asylum and immigration system that is geared to meeting Scotland’s needs, which are different from those of the rest of the UK. For example, we need more working age people here.
We could have a system that is founded on fairness and human rights, which we have shown is possible with the Scottish social security system. An immigration system that fulfils our moral and legal obligations and that brings benefits to our nation is achievable for Scotland, but to achieve it we must have the full powers that only an independent nation has.
I welcome people who have sought refuge in Scotland over the years and recognise the contribution that those who have arrived here make to our culture and communities. Refugees are welcome here. Our country is richer for the diversity that you have brought—thank you.
It is not very often that you are generous with our time, Presiding Officer. I thank you for that.
I am delighted to speak on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. My colleague Sharon Dowey has already outlined the proud history that Scotland, and the United Kingdom as a whole, has in providing homes for refugees. We have also, rightly, focused on the abhorrent war in Ukraine and the support that we have been able to provide for people fleeing Putin’s deplorable attack on their sovereignty.
Like many of my colleagues across the Scottish Parliament, I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and kind-heartedness of the people living in the constituency that I represent. Borderers have well and truly stepped up to the plate, opening their homes to 100 refugees. I want to thank them personally for the work that they have done in welcoming Ukrainians to the Borders. I also thank the British Red Cross for carrying out essential welfare checks compassionately and providing other signposting services.
However, I urge the Scottish Government to continue its conversations with COSLA. I thank the minister for taking my intervention on that. I know that he recognises that there have been issues with getting hosts and the refugees into conversations to ensure that they are placed in the right place. The Borders had 421 household registrations in May to act as hosts through the supersponsor scheme, but it is unclear how many of those households will be matched.
Comparing with the experience of the resettlement of Afghans and Syrians, priority was given then to individuals with self-contained properties that were close to public services such as transport, schools and general practices. That is important for a rural area. Could the minister perhaps comment in closing on whether the particular issues that I am raising have been an issue in rural areas?
Furthermore, some families have arrived in the Borders for whom the local authority has had to find emergency accommodation because they were homeless. It would be helpful if there was a formal mechanism to alert local authorities when displaced Ukrainians arrive in the Borders, so that their welcome would be even better than it already is. We know that the Scottish Government has played an important role in ensuring that the schemes have run as smoothly as they can, and I hope that teething problems such as those and the problems with disclosure checks are being worked through.
Of course, the need for such schemes highlights a much larger problem that the world faces. We can congratulate ourselves for the great work that we do in welcoming refugees to our country—and, indeed, our homes—all we want, but as long as oppression and discrimination persist, we are not getting to the crux of the problem. I whole-heartedly welcome the work of the UK and Scottish Governments and the work that they have done together. I am sure that, on all sides of the Parliament, we would agree that finding solutions to the problems that lead to people having to flee their homes and getting to the heart of such problems must be prioritised.
I ask Stephanie Callaghan whether she welcomes the fact that, since 2015, 200,000 refugees, including women and children, have been resettled here, in the UK. That is a good thing. Does she agree that we should ensure that people who create criminal gangs cannot line their pockets through people fleeing from persecution, who are drowning in boats as they try to get here?
Not just now
, but I will see where my time is.
I am very proud of the fact that, as I have just said, we have resettled 200,000 refugees since 2015, although I am sure that there is more work that we can do. I am proud of the work that the UK has undertaken as a member of the United Nations Security Council to promote peace above all else. I am proud of the sacrifices that our armed forces make every day. We are in the lead up to armed forces day, which is this Saturday—yesterday, I participated in a related event in my local authority area. That is important, because our armed forces have been integral in peacekeeping missions around the globe. Scotland can play a leading role in standing up to those who pose a threat to world peace.
It is important that everybody is welcome, whoever they are and wherever they are from around the world. We must listen to them and make sure that we continue to be a welcoming country. I hope that we agree that the whole of the United Kingdom—all parts of its nations—is already a welcoming country and that we do not discriminate on the issues that Pam has just highlighted.
I will return to the main theme of the debate. My constituency—and Scotland, on the whole—is a welcoming and tolerant place. I am pleased that today’s debate has reinforced that reputation, and I hope that people who flee war and persecution continue to look to the UK as a place where they can find refuge and build a life for themselves.
I am grateful for the opportunity to mark world refugee day and to highlight Scotland’s efforts to welcome asylum seekers and refugees from around the world to what I consider to be a safe haven, where they have the opportunity to live meaningful lives free from fear and persecution.
I will go on to talk about asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow, but it is impossible to talk about this subject without first and foremost condemning, in the strongest possible terms, the UK Government’s latest appalling immigration policy, which is to traffic asylum seekers to Rwanda for their claims to be considered and decided. The policy is inhumane and the Home Office that pursues it is callous, uncaring and in breach of international obligations. As Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stated:
“The UK Government has breached the foundational principle of international refugee protection.”
Just as I thought that the Home Office could not strip away any more dignity from refugees, it is now electronically tagging them, further dehumanising and depriving human beings of even a moment of peace.
In complete contrast is Scotland’s approach to asylum seekers and refugees, which is outlined in the “New Scots Refugees Integration Strategy”. The approach places refugees and asylum seekers at the heart of the communities in which they live.
I whole-heartedly celebrate the contribution that asylum seekers and refugees make to this country, and I agree that there are many positive aspects to Scotland’s approach and practice. However, I will point out some things that need to be improved.
According to Professor Alison Phipps, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization chair for refugee integration through language and the arts at the University of Glasgow, the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Act 2022 undermines our ability to pursue a compassionate and progressive strategy. Professor Phipps highlights the efforts of Together with Refugees, a coalition of expert lawyers led by the University of Glasgow honorary graduate Dr Sabir Zazai OBE, who is CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council and of JustRight Scotland. Those groups work tirelessly to advocate for asylum seekers and to unpick the legal impacts on Scotland of the UK Nationality and Borders Act 2022.
I commend to the minister the work done by Refugees for Justice in preparing an asylum dispersal proposal for Scotland. I would also commend it to the Home Secretary, but I fear that all compassionate approaches are far from the hostile environment agenda that is clearly being set down there.
Last Monday, I was privileged to speak with asylum seekers living in Glasgow Kelvin, who had recently been residents in one of the several private establishments that house asylum seekers when they arrive here. Some of their experiences were far from ideal. I was struck by their stories. They had previously been doctors, teachers and other professionals and were all desperate to work and to provide for their families. The right to work should be at the heart of any compassionate system. They paid tribute to the warm welcome that they had received from Glaswegians and were very grateful to Migrant Empowerment, which I note is represented here today, for its assistance.
Hotel accommodation is not part of the agreement between the UK Government and those who are paid to house vulnerable people. The maximum amount of time that any asylum seeker should spend in a hotel is five days; the average stay in hotel accommodation in Glasgow is currently 72 days, and many residents have been there longer, due to a lack of accommodation for placements. That is unacceptable.
Asylum seekers get around £40 a week from the UK Government, via a voucher card that can be used only in certain shops and does not give change. If the card stops working, that can take days to resolve, meaning that the asylum seeker has no access to money. That is obviously unacceptable.
I thank my Glasgow colleague for giving way on the important point of the income available to asylum seekers, which is hugely constrained compared to that available to other parts of the population. Does she agree in principle that extending free concessionary travel would be a practical way for us in Scotland to help asylum seekers increase their income?
I agree in principle to looking at any opportunity to provide dignity and respect to all those we welcome here. I further suggest that all immigration policy should be devolved to Scotland as soon as possible so that we can make those decisions for ourselves.
Children who live in hotels are close to my heart. Thankfully, the policy that said that children could not enrol in school until a permanent catchment area was decided has been changed and children can now go to school from day 1. They now have the opportunity to play, make friends and learn, which is so important. I place on record my thanks to the community, staff and pupils of Garnethill and St Patrick’s primary schools, among others, for their welcome to asylum-seeking children. I have had the joy of teaching children from Syria and Afghanistan and have been privileged to see their progress.
I believe that we must move away from a profit motive in our system for asylum seekers and refugees. It is long overdue that the right to bid for contracts to house and care for asylum seekers should be returned to councils, along with the funding to do so.
I am mindful of the time and will skip to my final point. I thank asylum seekers and refugees for their courage and tenacity in challenging the system, both for their own sake and for the sake of those who follow them in calling Scotland their home.
I thank the Government for bringing its motion, which I signed, to the Parliament for debate. I also place on the record my thanks to the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government and the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine for the constructive discussions that we have had on the issues in recent months.
Scotland has a proud record of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers into our communities. We are a diverse and multicultural society, a society that embraces the benefits that immigration brings and a society that sees refugees and asylum seekers for what they are—human beings who are often fleeing unimaginable horrors and are determined to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Sadly, not all refugees and asylum seekers are treated with compassion after landing on our shores. Determined to stoke division and appealing to people’s cruellest instincts, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have been intent on vilifying and persecuting some of the most vulnerable people in the world. They decided that small boats crossing the Channel should be physically blocked and pushed back by UK border authorities and the Royal Navy. They vilified the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for doing its job—saving lives at sea without fear or favour. Most recently, they have been trying to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing—a move that was rightly blocked by the European Court of Human Rights.
Unsurprisingly, like many of Boris Johnson’s deplorable schemes, those plans have turned out to be unworkable, unviable and ultimately illegal. It is therefore heartening to see the Scottish Government taking a more compassionate approach to refugees and asylum seekers. The bombastic rhetoric that we hear from the Tory demagogues in the House of Commons is thankfully not replicated by many of us in this Parliament. However, we cannot pretend that everything is fantastic for asylum seekers and refugees living in Scotland. There is more that the Scottish Government could be doing to improve their lives now.
It is a little over six months since I launched my campaign to extend the concessionary travel scheme to all asylum seekers in Scotland. The campaign has the backing of just about every stakeholder working in the sector, including the Scottish Refugee Council, Refuweegee, Maryhill Integration Network, the British Red Cross’s Voices network and others. It has the backing of MSPs across the chamber from Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Scottish Greens. Most important, it would cost less than £400,000 a year, meaning that it is affordable. At a relatively modest cost, it would improve the lives of asylum seekers across Scotland immeasurably.
To their credit, the refugees minister and the cabinet secretary have engaged positively with my proposal, along with the Minister for Transport. However, there has been no announcement yet of a timeline for the policy to be implemented. I seek a public endorsement from the Government that the proposal is something that it is actively seeking to implement. I would like to have at least the security of an announcement today on the timescale and the principle that the Government is working as hard as it can to do what I have proposed. I urge the Government to commit to it. The Government knows where I am coming from. I am not interested in playing politics with this. I just want to improve the lives of asylum seekers and refugees who call Scotland home.
I have some concerns about the unequal and multilayered system that we are seeing emerge in our asylum system. The situation in Ukraine is horrific and my heart breaks for those families who have been forced to flee knowing that they may never be able to return. The response from both the UK and Scottish Governments to Ukrainians seeking refuge has been admirable. We have opened our homes, introduced specific visa schemes and, in some instances, sought to provide free travel to Ukrainians in Scotland.
However, we do ourselves a real disservice if we continue to pretend that Ukraine is an isolated and exceptional incident. Vladimir Putin inflicted the same devastation on Aleppo as he did on Mariupol. Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen with impunity, and Israel continues to breach international law with its oppression of Palestinians. Where is our compassion for those countries and their people? Where are the visa schemes for Yemenis? Where is the homes for Syria scheme? They do not exist, and that should give us huge cause for concern.
One cannot truly show compassion to those who are fleeing war and persecution until that compassion is shown regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality or circumstance, but I fear that that is not happening. It may be inadvertent, but the evidence shows that our treatment of people who are fleeing war and persecution has been far from equal. That needs to change.
The Scottish Government’s policy is far in advance of the UK Government’s when it comes to attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers, but I am sure that most of us agree that that is a low bar. There is undoubtedly more that could be done within the powers that the Scottish Government has available to it to help refugees and asylum seekers now. Let us start by introducing free concessionary travel for asylum seekers in Scotland. That policy is simple and cost-effective, and I can think of no better way to mark this week, celebrating refugees and asylum seekers, than for the cabinet secretary and ministers to stand up in the chamber and unequivocally commit the Government to implementing it.
We can work together to improve the lives of refugees and asylum seekers, and I am convinced that the political will exists among those in this chamber to make that a reality. I truly hope that, along with members across the chamber, the Government shares my ambition for those in our asylum system, who could, if they were given the chance, contribute so much to our society.
On world refugee day, I take the opportunity to show my support for those who have made Scotland their home, travelling to our shores having faced great adversity, risk and challenge in search of safety to forge decent lives for themselves and their families.
We will all have witnessed at first hand the contribution that those who arrived in Scotland have made to the constituencies that we represent. That is certainly true in my constituency of Maryhill and Springburn. We must highlight and celebrate those successes. That is important, not as an end in itself but rather to challenge the right-wing rhetoric that we get all too often from elements of the press that seek to demonise refugees and asylum seekers who come to our shores. Unfortunately, we sometimes hear similar rhetoric from politicians in Scotland, although thankfully on far fewer occasions in this place.
Asylum seekers and refugees become our doctors, nurses, teachers, care workers and scientists, and work in many other professions. When they are given the opportunity to contribute to our communities, they play their part in full. Nevertheless, many of those who have arrived in Scotland as asylum seekers are not permitted to work. The most basic human right—the right to try to support oneself and one’s family—is simply denied them. That is not only completely wrong, it is an act of downright self-harm to the Scottish and UK economies, given that we face a labour and skills shortage.
I hope that we can agree that that must change, and change quickly. I very much hope that the UK Government will think again on that particular matter.
The motion before us rightly recognises the various paths by which refugees have come to our shores, and it highlights
“people relocated from Afghanistan and displaced people from Ukraine”
Many people who come through those routes, although not all, will have the right to work and will have recourse to public funds. Others are not so fortunate. The UK needs a more humane and consistent human rights-based approach to ensuring that all who are fleeing their countries because of fear of violence and persecution are supported and are permitted to at least try to support themselves.
The motion stresses that integration for refugees and asylum seekers should start “from day one” in Scotland. Unfortunately, that is in stark contrast to a UK Government approach in which some asylum seekers and refugees will, on day 1, begin their struggle to avoid being deported to Rwanda. That is the day 1 reality for many who are coming to our shores now. The UK Government needs to ditch those plans and not seek to offshore both its international and its moral obligations.
I am grateful to Bob Doris for giving way, and I am enjoying his speech, but I wonder whether he might expand on what we can do collectively in these islands to prevent good people from falling into the hands of wicked human traffickers. What can we do to stop the dreadful trade in misery that they perpetuate?
I am glad that Mr Kerr has given me the opportunity to repeat what we have heard already about the need for safe, legal and certain routes for people coming to our shores. Perhaps we need a meaningful partnership agreement with our European Union partner countries to do something more meaningful and substantial in that regard.
This Parliament is well aware of issues with the UK Government and its housing partner, Mears Group, and how that company resources and provides appropriate, and at times not so appropriate, accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees. I will not rehearse those issues, but I put on record the appalling actions that were taken by Mears Group, which effectively kicked refugee families, many of them my constituents, out of their homes at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. A Scottish Covid-19 public inquiry, led by Lady Poole, is about to commence. Although I appreciate that that inquiry is restricted in respect of some of the reserved aspects that it cannot go into, Lady Poole has indicated that it may be open to looking at overlapping aspects impacting on those asylum seekers who were forcibly placed in hotels.
If integration in Scotland is to start “from day one”, we need to look at the impact from day 1 on housing, education, access to health, and children and young people, including what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic. All those areas are devolved to this place.
I will finish as I started, by celebrating those who have made their lives in my constituency of Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn and across Scotland. I want to mention two organisations, the first of which is Glasgow Afghan United, and the work of the now Councillor Bostani, who is my local councillor—if I have a pothole, Mr Bostani, I am coming to you.
Abdul Bostani, who is a good friend of mine, and many members of the local Afghan community have done sterling work, including empowering women to step forward in their communities, not just in Glasgow but across Scotland. Certainly, with the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, Glasgow Afghan United has done a power of work. It is also currently providing humanitarian aid to Panjshir province in Afghanistan, so the organisation is made up of strident, forceful, impressive and inspiring individuals. They are people in my constituency whom I call friends and who came to our shores fleeing violence and persecution, and they are making a wonderful contribution to the communities that I am privileged to represent.
I should, of course, also mention Maryhill Integration Network. It has empowered a vast range of new Scots, refugees and asylum seekers who have come to our shores over the past 21 years. It celebrates its 21st birthday party tomorrow. I am sure that, in her summing up, the cabinet secretary will want to wish Maryhill Integration Network a very happy birthday.
MIN has empowered those who have come to my constituency and Glasgow to make their voices heard, not least through the MIN voices group, whose members have given powerful first-hand testimony about their lived experience. That has included the impact of travel, and I put on record that I fully support giving free concessionary travel to all refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland. I look forward to that being delivered as soon as possible, as it will be significant progress. People have also spoken about the right to work, housing, access to education and healthcare. Their lived experience matters, and MIN has captured that.
As we celebrate world refugee day, I put on record my thanks to those who have made their homes in my constituency and across Scotland for the part that they play in building Scotland and taking Scotland forward.
Like some others in the chamber today, I came to Scotland by choice. I found welcome, community, potential and purpose. In making my home here, I had the privilege of agency and choice, and the power of personal decision.
I know what it means to travel far from family and friends, and from a life left behind. I know what it means to retain a strong tie to another part of the world and to miss and yearn for that different life. However, I do not know from personal experience what it means to have to do that: to put my fate in the hands of strangers and to trust, without option, in the systems and bureaucracies of another state to save me from the persecution of my own. Yet, if we are to speak of that—indeed, if we are to be fully human—we must try to imagine how it feels for the past to be a place of pain, the future a blank void of uncertainty and the present, far too often, for far too long, a limbo of empty stasis where one is waiting for a decision.
As public representatives, we need to see the big global picture and to pay attention to the details: the granularity of daily life for those who do us the privilege of seeking asylum here. We need to acknowledge the web of geopolitical connections, the ways in which we and people like us have benefited from global injustices, and the communal responsibility that we unwittingly share.
When, as now, actions are taken in our name that exacerbate the suffering of refugees, punish them for no fault and increase the numbers of those who are forced to flee their homes, we must speak out and go on speaking out. We have a voice and a platform. We have that privilege—and that duty.
A tiny proportion of the world’s refugees make the difficult and dangerous voyage to the shores of Britain. The UK Government has deliberately failed to provide safe routes for them. Now, those forced to use unsafe routes are to be punished further: they will be flown thousands of miles from the support networks that they struggled so hard to reach to Rwanda, a country whose human rights violations the UK itself has recently condemned. The Government is further endangering vulnerable lives and undermining, for the whole world, international law and principles.
The Rwanda scheme—I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but my Surface has just crashed.
The Rwanda scheme is no mere one-off populist stunt. In November, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published his report into Home Office asylum casework. That report reveals in stark detail the true refugee crisis: a scandal of chronic delays, incompetence, insensitivity and extortionate spending on completely inappropriate and inhumane private sector accommodation. What was the UK’s reaction to that revelation? It chose to double down on its cruelty and stupidity with the passing of the shameful Nationality and Borders Act 2022.
In a few short months, Boris Johnson’s Government tore up our relationship with the refugee convention, threw away some of the genuinely proudest moments of British history, and flung the pieces into the faces of those most in need of our care, our compassion and basic minimum justice—those in need of our word. Instead of a place of safety, what the UK now offers to those fleeing persecution, including Afghan people escaping the Taliban, is what the Scottish Refugee Council has accurately described as a “refugee punishment regime”.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s trade policy helps to drive millions more from their homes. The UK supplies more than half of the combat aircraft used by Saudi Arabia for bombing raids on Yemen, with UK bombs, missiles, and even cluster munitions on board. The results are heartbreaking atrocities, evidenced war crimes, famine and disease.
This year, the UN Refugee Agency called the situation in Yemen
“one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises”, with 4.3 million people displaced internally. That is the reality of global Britain under the Tories—it is a legacy of hunger, loss and pain that is consciously and deliberately continued.
I ask those who support the UK Government to reflect on the distinctions between those refugees and asylum seekers fleeing British-made bombs and the consequences of UK foreign policy decisions, and those refugees and asylum seekers fleeing Russian-made bombs and the consequences of Russian foreign policy decisions.
We have heard this afternoon about the importance of the dedicated schemes that are in place and the work that is being done to support those who are fleeing Putin’s war in Ukraine. Indeed, those schemes are vital. However, I ask—as Paul Sweeney and others might do—where the dedicated schemes are for those fleeing the violence, war and famine in Yemen. Where are the dedicated schemes for those who are seeking safety and a new life because of the illegal occupation of Palestine? Where are the dedicated schemes for those who are fleeing persecution because of their sexuality or gender identity, or because of other conflict or climate catastrophe? What makes those refugees and asylum seekers less worthy of our compassion, love and support?
The xenophobia of the UK’s immigration system should shame us all. Britain has a proud history of offering support; Britain had a proud history of providing love and compassion for those who were most in need. Scotland still has the desire to do that. Collectively, we should work to ensure that we fulfil the aim of showing love, compassion and support to those who are most in need. Scotland welcomes refugees—and so do I.
I cannot imagine what it must be like for people who have had to flee their homes due to fear of war or persecution, to leave members of their family behind and then to find themselves in a country where their knowledge of the language and culture is sparse. How terrifying that must be.
We must try to walk in the shoes of refugees while we respond to their needs. We need to listen and act to provide them with refuge from terror. The continuous media focus on the war in Ukraine has brought that home to us. No one could fail to have been horrified by the pictures from Afghanistan of people clinging on to an aeroplane in their desperate need to leave. We could do and must do better by them.
I agree with Foysol Choudhury and Paul Sweeney that there is a huge disparity between how we treat white European refugees and how we treat people of colour from around the world. Many such cases have been highlighted in the debate. All refugees must be treated with care and compassion.
We cannot debate the treatment of refugees without mentioning, as other members have done, the UK Government’s policy of offshoring our responsibilities to Rwanda. Passing our obligations to a country that has fewer resources than our own is despicable. The Conservative UK Government is our national shame. We desperately need a Labour Government to restore our international reputation.
The Scottish Government has stepped in to help Ukrainian refugees. The supersponsor scheme is welcome, but there are issues with it that I will mention shortly. Before I do so, I simply want to make the point that all refugees should be treated equally; they should all be offered a safe place. I feel uneasy that we appear to have two categories of refugee, which is simply unacceptable.
Scottish Labour is aware of a number of issues with our homes for Ukraine scheme. First, women and children, who make up the bulk of refugees from Ukraine, are being left in hotels for far too long. We have a housing shortage, and we must build more homes—not just for refugees but for our own people. We all know that, when refugees are perceived to receive assistance that is not available to our own people who are struggling, we see a backlash, so the Scottish Government must deal with the housing shortage urgently to ensure that that does not happen.
The second issue that I want to touch on is exploitation. I have heard of cases in which refugees who have come to Scotland under the homes for Ukraine scheme have found themselves at the mercy of people who would exploit them. I am pleased that protections are being strengthened to weed out those who would do that.
We already know that offering a place to stay in exchange for sex is common in Scotland, and exploits our own vulnerable people. Therefore, it should be of little surprise that such evil people would do exactly the same to refugees. The checks are welcome, but it is difficult to identify a person unless they have offended previously, especially when such exploitation is not illegal in Scotland. I have heard anecdotally of one case in which a refugee who was being exploited in that way and who contacted the police was told that the police were unable to intervene. We should protect refugees and our own vulnerable women by ensuring that such practices are illegal.
Sexual exploitation is not just an issue where food, accommodation or money are exchanged for sex; it also fuels trafficking. That is because there is demand for purchasing sex, which is legal in the UK—hence the attraction of sex trafficking to feed, and profit from, that demand. Valiant Richey of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe recently wrote a piece for
“there has been a 200 per cent increase in UK internet searches for ‘Ukrainian escorts’.”
That totally undermines the myth that buyers of sex are unaware that trafficked women are being used to fulfil their demands. It shows clearly that, worse than their being uncaring about that, many people are actively seeking to exploit refugee women.
We need to be a country in which no one is for sale and where people who seek to do that are held to account and punished for their abuse. We need to stop being a lucrative destination for traffickers. We know that refugees are easy pickings for them. Too often, refugees have fled without identification. We therefore need safe routes for them to claim asylum in the UK. Without those, they are vulnerable as a ready source of profit to traffickers. Some will be sold into modern slavery to feed our need for cheap labour or to feed the demands of the sex industry.
The Co-operative Party, of which I am a member, has promoted a charter against modern slavery and is encouraging local authorities and organisations to look at their procurement processes to ensure that they are not inadvertently supporting slavers’ activities. However, we all have a role to play, because modern slavery is especially prevalent in cash-based industries. I ask people to remember that trafficking and exploitation go on in plain sight, so, if people suspect something, they should report it. I urge the Scottish Government to act and to make Scotland an unwelcoming place for such activity.
World refugee day is a day of both heartbreak and hope. It is a day on which to be grateful for the laws that protect the right to seek asylum from persecution and have saved thousands of lives. Everyone has a right to seek safety—whoever they are, wherever they come from and whenever they are forced to flee.
However, safety is just the first step. Once out of harm’s way, refugees need opportunities to heal, to learn, to work and to thrive. As we have heard, Scotland has a long history of welcoming and supporting refugees, and the contribution of refugee communities over successive generations has helped to make Scotland a proud, successful and diverse country.
It is regrettable that the limit of Scotland’s power over the immigration system undermines many of the values that Scottish people hold dear, such as inclusivity, hospitality and, above all, treating people as human beings. Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the very notion of asylum being radically called into question in the passage of the so-called Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Rwanda deal that has been enacted by the UK Government. People across the UK have responded to those appalling attacks on refugee rights with a loud cry of “Not in my name.”
That fills me with hope. Widespread protests that have been led by ordinary citizens erupted across the UK, from the streets of Glasgow to the roads around Gatwick airport. Alongside those protests, fearless immigration lawyers have been defending the rule of law, while being decried by a Tory party that constantly scapegoats others in its terrifying culture wars.
At such critical moments, we cannot afford to feel passive and powerless. We cannot allow a UK Government that has been rejected time and again by the Scottish people to define who matters and who does not—who is disposable, and who is not. Today, 100 million people are experiencing displacement. Each of them is a person with hopes, dreams and loved ones—a person who is looking to rebuild their life.
I am privileged to be able to relay the story of Mohammed, who was a refugee who arrived in the UK 10 years ago after fleeing persecution. Now in his 30s, Mohammed has no status, social security or right to work. He has been stripped of the very freedoms that our laws set out to protect. For Mohammed, these have been 10 years of uncertainty and suffering, with no ability to plan for the future—being constantly trapped in the present and struggling to survive. His most recent appeal to the Home Office, three years ago, remains unanswered.
Mohammed illustrated his experience eloquently. I do not apologise for these words being hard to hear; they are hard for me to repeat.
“The law is like a stone. It cannot feel us, our humanity or our worth, designed by those who live comfortably in a warm home, perhaps with a family and a career. They do not feel what it’s like to be beaten to within an inch of their lives by a brutal immigration system. It’s like the man who makes bullets would not sell to the gun manufacturers if he knew those very same bullets would pierce his heart. How can the lawmakers understand what it feels like to be shipped off to Rwanda, or hunted down by immigration officers like second-class citizens? The law is broken. There is no heart in these laws.”
Mohammed wants us to understand that no one chooses to be a refugee—but we can choose how we respond. The harsh UK asylum system leaves people in limbo and completely restricts their freedom and agency, while conscripting citizens here to enforce unjust immigration laws through the hostile environment.
I would like to see the cruelty of such legislation replaced with the compassion of our communities. As a Parliament, we can show the world that Scotland welcomes refugees and rejects the UK Government’s cruel and racist asylum policies. We must champion a shared sense of humanity. I will quote Mohammed again. He said:
“It should not matter if I am Syrian, Egyptian or Ukrainian. I am human. If I donate blood to someone who needs it, it is human blood and I can save someone. Why then does the law place one over the other? Why does it make me feel like I am not a human being? Why does it take decades for someone in the Home Office, who will not understand the plight of my struggle, to decide I have finally had enough suffering?”
The UK asylum system is driving people to suicide. Mohammed just wants to work to support his family and live beyond surviving each day, but he cannot, and he tells me that
“freedom does not like people like me.”
Refugees such as Mohammed should be celebrated for their courage and they should be supported to flourish and contribute to our culture and society.
When they are forced to flee, refugees can physically only carry so much, but refugees bring generations of dreams, experiences and traditions, they are hugely valuable. Across the world, refugees have brought new life, prosperity and rich cultural diversity to their host communities: they have certainly brought them to Scotland. This is a time to thank them and to recognise their positive impact.
The minister and others have gone into detail on the work that the Scottish Government and its partners are doing to support new Scots. I will simply close with this: let us stand together in solidarity with all refugees, let us defend the inalienable right to claim asylum, and let us never lose sight of our common humanity.
I am proud to close the debate for Scottish Labour. I say to those watching that, whether you have sought refuge in Scotland from war and persecution, sought asylum here, been relocated from Afghanistan or displaced from Ukraine, you are welcome here.
I am also proud to represent Glasgow. I know that our city is great because of the people in it. Our diversity is our strength. Refugees and asylum seekers are our friends, family and neighbours, and many of them—those who are allowed to work—are our colleagues. It is true that people make Glasgow, and that includes refugees and asylum seekers.
What we have done to support Ukrainian refugees through the homes for Ukraine scheme has been incredible and has echoed that sentiment. People have opened their homes and their arms to offer sanctuary and safety to those who have been forced to flee their homes and livelihoods in the face of Russian aggression. The scheme has shown the very best of us, and it was heart-warming to see how many people were ready to step up. I want to thank everyone in communities across our country who opened their homes, including those who did so in Glasgow, some of whom my amazing office has supported in recent weeks.
However, we should not stop there. We cannot forget those from elsewhere who need our help, our empathy and our welcome. People from other countries have sought refuge, but have been treated with contempt—as Maggie Chapman put it earlier, there is a “refugee punishment regime”.
The differing approach of the UK Government in its treatment of people fleeing Ukraine and people fleeing other places is racist. My colleague Paul Sweeney has set out the many inconsistencies in the UK Government’s approach, including the policy of sending people to Rwanda, which is abhorrent. I deplore the despicable policy of sending people to Rwanda—a country that even the Home Office believes has a poor human rights record. It is a desperate and shameful move from a callous Tory Government that is risking lives. One horrific example is that LGBT people will face persecution just for being who they are, as my colleague Ruth Maguire referenced. On Stephen Kerr’s point about trafficking, we should address that by creating safe and compassionate routes to safety, not by outsourcing our legal responsibilities to countries with terrible human rights records.
Under successive Labour Governments, we were once a country that led the world on human rights. Now, human rights experts are queuing up to condemn a toxic Government policy. However, we cannot allow the actions of the Tories to act as a smokescreen for not quite getting it right here. The gulf between the Scottish National Party Government’s warm words and what is being delivered is growing, and we need to address that. People who are participating in the homes for Ukraine scheme tell us that hosts and Ukrainians sometimes have different expectations and there is a reality check when people settle in, whether that is about pets and allergies, food choices or anything else that most of us take for granted.
Perhaps most worryingly—we have heard this already—approximately 500 people face weeks in hotels. Integration is key, but those people are being refused the opportunity to integrate. The SNP-Green Government has the power to do more on that, and I hope that it will. That must start by ensuring that, regardless of where people have come from, they move from hotels as soon as possible. Many colleagues, including Bob Doris, Sharon Dowey and my friend Foysol Choudhury, have noted that. The Government must address the fact that Ukrainians arriving in Scotland are being left to navigate the complexities of a new social security system on their own, unless they seek support from third sector integration networks, which are bursting at the seams and working beyond capacity to deliver support, while not receiving the funding that they need to deliver those services.
I absolutely accept that we have too many people in hotels in Scotland, and I have already referenced the fact that I want us to move much faster in order to get people into long-term accommodation. However, does Pam Duncan-Glancy acknowledge the challenges in Scotland for local government, the Scottish Government and our third sector partners, which have been echoed in the supersponsor scheme in Wales? The Welsh Government has faced the same challenges and has had to pause. We have not paused yet. We want to work through things and ensure that we are able to provide the warm Scottish welcome that people expect us to provide.
I acknowledge the challenges and that there are difficulties ahead, but we have to do everything that we possibly can in Scotland not just to say that people are welcome but to provide them with a home in a place in which they can feasibly integrate into society. There is a lot more that can be done at the local authority level, including by my own local authority in Glasgow.
On the subject of financial support, I echo the calls of my colleague Paul Sweeney for free bus travel.
There is little support for local and community-level organisations to help the integration of Ukrainian refugees. Organisations such as the Glasgow integration networks and the Maryhill Integration Network, which I have had the pleasure to meet and work alongside, are providing lifeline services. It is time that the Government stepped up and recognised that, and provided sustainable levels of funding for them. I welcome the minister’s agreement to meet those organisations.
There is also an urgent need for clear, translated and easily accessible information for Ukrainians, including on social security. There appears to have been no preparation for, or research into, the proportion of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Scotland who cannot speak English. People are now being left to grapple with a system that does not speak their language. My colleague Rhoda Grant characterised that perfectly when she said that that would be terrifying.
Despite what right-wing commentators like to portray and the resulting hostile environment, which Alex Cole-Hamilton has referred to, refugees and asylum seekers want to work, but they are not allowed to. They want to study, too. A radiographer told me that she is desperate to work and that her daughter wants to take up her place at university here but cannot do so because she cannot get her tuition paid for until they have lived here for more than three years. Those people want to contribute, but our rules are stopping them. That is why we should consider removing the list of preferred occupations and take action to ensure that people such as that woman’s daughter can study here. After all, education has been devolved since 1985, before the Scottish Parliament existed. I noted my colleague Kaukab Stewart’s interest in education. I hope that she will support that action, too.
We know why and how the Government needs to act, so my question, of course, is: when will it do so? We need the Government to urgently consult community-level organisations regarding integration and support for people who arrive in Scotland and to set out what guidance will be given to local authorities regarding the supersponsor scheme and the homes for Ukraine scheme, particularly around safeguarding. Organisations have done that before—Room for Refugees, for example. I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary set out what examples the Government has taken up for the homes for Ukraine scheme.
Given that hosting arrangements will start to end soon, what will happen next? What is the plan for the thousands of Ukrainians who still cannot return to their homes five months into the war? Homes have been destroyed, towns are unrecognisable and Russian troops are still carrying out inhumane and indiscriminate acts. I ask the cabinet secretary to be specific in her response about what we will do next.
We promised refugees a warm Scottish welcome, but it is clear that the reality on the ground is falling a bit short. As Stephanie Callaghan put it, this is a day of hope and heartbreak. It is a day about human rights. Now, more than ever, members must take our role as human rights defenders seriously and start defending them in deeds, not words.
On Saturday, I had the privilege of attending a celebration hosted by the Voices network UK in the multicultural centre in Garnethill. When the people gathered introduce themselves, they all said the same thing: that they felt lucky to be in Scotland. I replied that they were lucky but also—and I say again to them now—that we are lucky to have them.
I am grateful to be able to reply to the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. When I first read the title of the debate, I hoped that we would be able to push to the side the party and constitutional politics that often plague the chamber and focus on how we in Scotland can continue to help some of the most vulnerable people in the world. To a large extent, I have been gratified by the tone of the debate that we have had.
I say to Neil Gray that I am proud, as we all should be, of the fact that our country—the United Kingdom and Scotland—has never abdicated its moral responsibility for refugees. I agree with my colleagues Sharon Dowey and Rachael Hamilton that we have a global reputation for being a warm and welcoming place. That is why people want to come here. I recognise that.
Foysol Choudhury talked about race-based double standards. I completely agree with him on that point. That is why I am gratified that, in the last full year of accounting, 250,000 people net came to this country from the rest of the world. That means that they have come from far and wide. I am grateful for that. Migrants in general add enormously to the quality of all our lives through what they bring, such as the colour and vibrancy of their backgrounds and their diversity. That undoubtedly enriches all of us.
I was a little intrigued by Alex Cole-Hamilton’s references to issues relating to the English Channel, some of which I recognised and some of which I did not. I simply point out to all colleagues that, when people cross the Channel, they are leaving beautiful France. They are leaving not a war zone but a country that is part of the European family.
Does Stephen Kerr accept that there is no legal obligation on asylum seekers to seek refuge in the first safe country that they get to? There is a myriad of complex reasons why someone might want to seek onward travel to the UK, such as family ties, diaspora connections and the fact that they speak English rather than French. Does he accept that those are valid reasons for seeking a safe route rather than being forced into an unsafe route, such as crossing the Channel?
I do not accept that anyone is being forced into an unsafe route. All the reasons that Paul Sweeney just gave for people wanting to come to the United Kingdom are bone fide reasons for them to be able apply to come and make this their permanent home.
No one is, or should ever feel, forced into the hands of the wicked people who trade in human trafficking. We should all be united in standing foursquare against their activities, which are utterly immoral.
Paul Sweeney helpfully raises the question that I was going to raise and the response from Stephen Kerr does not cut it, to be frank. Unless there is a safe and legal route for people to claim asylum in the United Kingdom, there will always be a business model for the human traffickers that the Tory Government suggests is the modus operandi behind the Rwanda policy. When will the UK Government establish safe and legal routes by which people can arrive in the UK to claim asylum?
The minister knows full well—I know that he does—that there many ways that people can apply for various forms of entry to the United Kingdom. We must not pander to the human traffickers’ business model. It is utterly outrageous that we should show any division among us as elected members representing the people of Scotland and give any comfort to the activities of those people, who really are dreadful and wicked.
I am happy to confirm to Ruth Maguire if she is listening—
I am sure that members agree that we should not pander to the human traffickers’ business model.
Does Stephen Kerr recognise that the current working practices of the UK Border Agency—the delay and the atmosphere of disbelief that is adopted when asylum and immigration cases are being processed—often lead to child victims of trafficking who are waiting for their cases to be heard and adjudicated being re-trafficked in this country?
Alex Cole-Hamilton is right to point out that we can improve and that we can be better, but let us not trash everything that this country is trying to do to make it as welcoming as it possibly can be.
There are areas in which we can do better, and I will speak out as a Scottish Conservative against things that I consider to be immoral and wrong. The number 1 thing that we should have in our sights when we consider the plight of many of the people who are literally being washed up on the shores of these islands is how they got here in the first place. There is horrible profiteering, with traffickers trading in human misery. We should be united, foursquare, against all that.
Paul Sweeney and I have a long track record of exchanging views in various places. He is gifted when it comes to the use of hyperbole. For example, he said that he is not “interested in playing politics”, but that is all that he ended up doing for the major part of his speech. I do not really want to get into the realm of playing politics; I want us to be united in this chamber, as we should be.
In the spirit of unity, would the member agree in principle that—this is a practical solution—the idea of extending free concessionary travel to asylum seekers in Scotland would be a commendable and practical way of helping people now?
As it happens, I believe that we should do everything in our power to assimilate people, so that they can feel that they can make a contribution to the society to which they have come.
Many people have a very romanticised view of what it would be like to live in this country, and we should do everything in our power to help them to have the best possible start. I am not against any measure that assimilates people and allows them to feel welcome and able to make a contribution. Many of the people who come to our country do so with a willingness to work. In fact, in many cases, they are first-class workers who are highly skilled and qualified, and we ought to recognise them as such.
I do not know that quote—I am not familiar with it. However, I do not necessarily subscribe to that view at all.
I have not even made it past the first paragraph of my speech, Presiding Officer, but there you go.
Another minute—you are very generous, Presiding Officer.
Our United Kingdom has a proud history of welcoming and supporting refugees. I say again that that does not mean that there is not room for improvement or that are not processes that need to be re-engineered to be more considerate and sensitive to people’s needs.
U nfortunately, I cannot give way, because I have got only one minute left and I need to go straight to my conclusion.
I have a number of points that I wish to make about the nature of refugees and economic migration, which is, undoubtedly, a global issue of our time. There are no unilateral solutions to the problem, but it is a challenge with which we need to grapple. People who say—in one-line sentences—that there are simple solutions to the issue are, frankly, kidding themselves.
We need to uphold the dignity of refugees, we must work with our European partners and neighbours and we must ensure that we have a common approach to working with refugees. We need to work together, collectively, to end the barbaric human trafficking that we see across our continent.
Throughout our history, the United Kingdom, and Scotland, in particular, has continuously helped the most vulnerable people, because we understand that it is a human duty to help those who are most in need. Let us build on that reputation and make sure that the United Kingdom, and Scotland, in particular, continues to support the most vulnerable now and in the future.
It is a privilege to mark this year’s world refugee day in Parliament and to debate its theme: the right to seek safety.
Before I forget to do so, I join Bob Doris in wishing the Maryhill Integration Network a very happy birthday after 21 years. I join others in thanking all the organisations and individuals who give their time and, in many cases, their homes to support people who are fleeing war and persecution.
This afternoon, we have reflected on the many people from many different parts of the world who have been forced to flee their homes because of war and persecution and have rebuilt, or are rebuilding, their lives in Scotland. The world is, without a doubt, becoming more complex. People are arriving here in many different ways, including by seeking asylum, through refugee resettlement programmes and through visa routes for displaced people. No matter how they have arrived here, we welcome and support people, and we hope that they choose to stay here and make Scotland their home.
There have been many thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions to the debate, and I will try to refer to as many of them as possible.
People continue to be displaced by war and persecution, and Scotland continues to welcome people who arrive from Ukraine and Afghanistan and those who are seeking asylum from other countries. Scotland is part of their story, just as they are part of Scotland’s story.
For nearly a decade, our approach to supporting refugees and people seeking asylum has been framed by the new Scots refugee integration strategy, which was highlighted by Kaukab Stewart. There has been significant change over that time, including the introduction of refugee resettlement schemes, which have resulted in all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities welcoming people into their communities. Refugees now live all across Scotland, not just in our biggest cities, and that is how it should be. We have also faced the challenges of a global pandemic and the continued impact of Covid-19, particularly on some of our most vulnerable and marginalised communities.
In the past year, we have witnessed the sudden large-scale displacement of people first from Afghanistan and then from Ukraine, with many arriving in the UK. According to the UNHCR, the total number of people who have been forcibly displaced has exceeded 100 million for the first time. That number includes refugees and people seeking asylum as well as the 53.2 million people who have been internally displaced.
To stand up our support for displaced people from Ukraine, officials have, quite rightly, been redeployed from other areas of the Scottish Government. That will, of course, have an impact on other priorities, although we will try to minimise that impact. However, that redeployment is the right thing to do in responding to the humanitarian crisis.
We hope that our collaborative international response will address the underlying causes of forced displacement. What we can do here and now is support refugees, people seeking asylum and displaced people for as long as Scotland is their home. We have committed to working with our partners to refresh the new Scots refugee integration strategy. We will ensure that it continues to be shaped by refugees and people seeking asylum as well as by those with expertise in supporting them in Scotland. Our new Scots approach is clear that integration should be supported from day 1 of arrival, not only for refugees but for people seeking asylum. The Scottish Government is clear that people seeking asylum must be supported in a way that enables them to rebuild their lives in our communities.
The UK asylum system is increasingly defined by delays and backlogs. Although Covid has exacerbated the situation, it is clear that those issues existed before the pandemic. People are being left in limbo, sometimes for years on end. Stephanie Callaghan illustrated that very powerfully when raising the case of Mohammed. While awaiting a decision on their asylum application, people are subject to no recourse to public funds restrictions and are unable to work, except in very limited circumstances. They might be eligible for Home Office accommodation and financial support, but only if they would otherwise be destitute. Uncertainty about their future and restricted access to services can often compound the impact of trauma that people suffered when they were forced to flee and from their experiences during their sometimes harrowing journeys to seek refuge.
As many people have said, the UK Government’s policies set people up to fail, and the end result is too often destitution.
Like many others, I believe that the UK asylum system is broken—as, I think, Foysol Choudhury said. The answer is fixing the delays and improving the system here instead of sending people thousands of miles away. I say to Stephen Kerr that sending people to Rwanda really does not uphold the dignity of refugees and asylum seekers.
Others have said this on many occasions today, so members will not be surprised to hear that the Scottish Government is fundamentally opposed to the UK Government’s policy of sending people who are seeking asylum to Rwanda, which is essentially offshoring people. I am seriously concerned that the policy will not stop or reduce dangerous journeys to the UK, and we have already seen that that is the case. The UK Government’s latest move, which is to electronically tag the people whom it sought to send to Rwanda, is yet another example of how people who are already vulnerable are being further marginalised.
The cabinet secretary makes the important point that we do not know whether one particular policy or another will work. What ideas does the cabinet secretary have? Does she agree with me that it would be a good thing if Britain and France could work something out so that we can stem the activities of human traffickers? The UK has given France tens of millions of pounds to create an understanding about co-operative working to that end, but it has not worked. Can the cabinet secretary agree that it would be desirable for that to happen now?
The best way to break the business model of the criminal trafficking gangs is to provide safe and legal routes to the UK that people can use.
I have a lot of information that I could talk about in a whole other debate on the type of asylum system that we want to create, but allowing people to work would be a fundamentally good start. People arrive here with huge skills and talents but, unfortunately, they are not allowed to deploy those, even though that would benefit our economy. There are a number of ways in which we could build a much fairer asylum system, but establishing safe and legal routes to the UK is absolutely fundamental.
I will come on to the point that I think the member wants to ask me about in a second.
It is clear that there is a lot of strong feeling about UK Government policy. As I have said before, we have written to the Home Office a number of times to raise all the issues that members have raised this afternoon about the policy and of course the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.
Clearly, we need and want to do more to support people who are here, and a number of ideas have been raised about that. Paul Sweeney, Bob Doris and others talked about concessionary travel. The latest position on that is that we are awaiting a proposal from the Scottish Refugee Council and the Refugee Survival Trust to provide free bus travel for as many asylum seekers as possible who are not already covered by the existing concessionary travel schemes.
We want to get that proposal in and get help to people where it is needed as quickly as possible. However, we need to ensure that we work through the issues of those who have no recourse to public funds, which Paul Sweeney knows well. I am happy to keep members updated on that. Absolutely, we want to move at pace, but we need to get it right. The two organisations that are working on the issue know better than anyone else what might work.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that encouraging response. I just want to put it on the record that JustRight Scotland has offered legal opinion that there are ways to circumvent the no recourse to public funds issue and ways of introducing new measures, if they are outwith the list of, I think, 27 defined benefits. Will the cabinet secretary take that into consideration?
Okay. Thank you.
I will ask officials to look at the information from JustRight Scotland that Paul Sweeney has mentioned.
Yesterday was world refugee day. The United Nations has rightly reminded us of the paramount importance of the right to seek safety. In among all the difficulties, there has been a positive refugee festival with the theme of Scotland’s year of stories, in which people are telling the positive stories of those who have come here and bringing stories of refugees to life.
That is an important thing to do, in among all the difficulties that we have talked about today. We have to maintain our positive approach as a country of welcome and refuge, we must work together to support people who are fleeing war and persecution, wherever they are from, and we must redouble our efforts to uphold the spirit and intention of the
1951 Refugee Convention by recognising people’s right to seek safety. With that, it is a pleasure to close the debate.