The hostility begins to melt

When Firsat Dag, a Kurdish asylum seeker, was stabbed to death
two years ago on Glasgow’s Sighthill estate the city was widely
condemned for racism. It was accused of failing to prepare for the
arrival of asylum seekers who filled the empty council properties
nobody else wanted to live in. Michael Kelly, the former lord
provost, said at the time: “Glasgow, in its treatment of asylum
seekers, has proved itself to be as unpleasant, hard and nasty as
all the old clich’s defined it.”

The trial of Dag’s murderers revealed a different story. It was
accepted that the crime was not racially motivated and that Dag was
killed by two men who had attacked and robbed two German tourists
the same afternoon.

Brian O’Hara, asylum support project manager for Glasgow council,
rejects the charge that the city was ill-prepared for the arrival
of asylum seekers. He points out that the council already had
experience of accommodating Kosovan refugees and had also accepted
asylum seekers relocating from London boroughs before the new
dispersal system was introduced three years ago. “We were
criticised for signing contracts without being fully prepared,” he
says. “People who say there was no consultation mean we didn’t ask
their permission. A considerable amount of work was done prior to
the first coach’s arrival. People have short memories – we took a
decision in Glasgow that we wouldn’t put on large public meetings
but we did consult through existing community groups.”

Whatever the controversy about Glasgow’s record, the city is now
widely regarded as one of the best examples of the controversial
asylum-seeker dispersal programme. Since April 2000, when the
National Asylum Support Service was set up by the Home Office,
people seeking state support while their asylum claims are being
processed have no longer been entitled to any choice about the
accommodation offered to them.

Instead, they are allocated accommodation and financial support in
one of several cluster areas on the British mainland in housing
provided by local authorities, housing associations or private
landlords under contract to the Home Office. The intention is that
the dispersal scheme should have no effect on council taxpayers or
social housing waiting lists, so all of the properties used are
difficult to let. The costs of accommodation and support for asylum
seekers are covered by direct funding from the Home Office.

From the outset, the voluntary sector has played a leading role in
supporting asylum seekers arriving in Glasgow. Nick Hopkins, policy
officer at the Glasgow Council for Voluntary Service, has been a
pivotal player. He believes the city’s commitment to involving host
communities as well as asylum seekers and refugees has been a key
factor in their successful integration in Glasgow. “The message
that we’ve given out is that asylum seekers have specific needs,
but these are often shared with the local community so where
possible they should be met side by side,” he says.

Local settlement and integration networks have been established in
the 10 areas where most asylum seekers have been dispersed. These
include representatives of both the host community and asylum
seekers and refugees as well as voluntary, community and
faith-based groups. The networks act as forums for raising issues
of concern as well as offering training and support and
co-ordinating services such as drop-ins, humanitarian assistance,
English classes and translation.

Another key element is the supportive role adopted by the Scottish
executive which has provided £6m since 2001 for work to
integrate refugees. Much of this is spent on English classes and
£600,000 has been allocated to the local networks, enabling
them to develop their training and translation services.

The Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) has also received funding for a
major consultation programme with local refugee and indigenous
communities. SRC settlement and integration manager Peter Barry
says: “Most of these communities were the poorest in the city and
also the most white. It was essential that we could get people
together in a way that wouldn’t just be token to talk about issues
such as community safety and policing and educational opportunities
that are a problem for everybody in these areas.”

Money from the Scottish executive supports a range of projects to
help people who receive a positive decision on their asylum
application find work. Jim Hunter, chairperson of the Highlands and
Islands Enterprise development agency, believes asylum seekers have
the potential to counter the growing problem of labour shortages in
many parts of Scotland. “As we now have record low unemployment in
many areas, it can be difficult for employers to find people to
fill new vacancies as they arise,” he says. “The Highlands is one
of the few parts of the world where there are fewer people now than
there were 200 years ago.”

The executive is also running a major public education campaign
known as One Scotland, Many Cultures to challenge racist
stereotypes, including negative perceptions of refugees. The
campaign has been running for more than a year and includes
television and billboard advertisements as well as work with

Unlike the often negative messages emanating from Westminster-based
politicians, the executive wants to promote the view that far from
adding to the burden on hard-pressed public services, asylum
seekers in Scotland have the potential to contribute to the
nation’s economic prosperity.

It has conducted a skills and qualifications audit of asylum
seekers and refugees. Scotland’s communities minister, Margaret
Curran, says: “I’m certain that it will show that many asylum
seekers are educated and skilled. Scotland has for centuries
welcomed those fleeing other countries. Multiculturalism has
enriched our country.”

Barry believes there are clear indications that Glasgow’s efforts
to promote integration are bearing fruit. He says: “I don’t want to
downplay the many incidents of racism and violence happening in the
city, but some of the most virulent opponents have turned around
180 degrees and are now at the vanguard of promoting integration.
Big employers are beginning to recognise that they need to look at
what refugees have to offer. There’s a growth of refugee
participation in networks. Children in schools are creating some
really beautiful things together.”

But there are limits to what Glasgow or the Scottish executive can
do for asylum seekers. This was starkly revealed earlier this month
when the council issued eviction orders to 167 asylum seekers whose
appeals had failed. About half a dozen have been physically

O’Hara says the council has no option but issue eviction notices to
people who have exhausted the appeals process: “We’re doing
everything we can within the constraints of the law. If we allowed
them to stay we would be in breach of primary legislation. It’s
happening all over the country.”

Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) director Sally Dahglin says: “It is
part of the government’s so-called tough measures, which have the
effect of leaving some asylum seekers on the streets with no means
to support themselves.”

And out on the windswept high-rise estates of Sighthill and
Kingsway Court, there is still a long way to go to convince local
people that asylum seekers are not a threat. Sufian Al Zaidy, an
Iraqi interpreter, says: “I can see some improvements. [Officials]
are better educated about refugees. But most of the problems happen
in the multi-storey flats. Fifty or 60 families are being put in
one area with not very educated people. People don’t understand
what is going on and their first reaction is to fight.”

Glasgow’s asylum seekers

  • There are about 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers in
  • Some 6,000 asylum seekers have been accommodated by Glasgow
    Council since 2000 under National Asylum Support Service. Although
    several other councils have been in discussion with the Home
    Office, only Glasgow has agreed a Nass contract.
  • Fifty-seven different nationalities are represented among
    asylum seekers in Glasgow. The largest numbers come from Turkey,
    Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo.
  • About 1,800 asylum seekers dispersed to Glasgow have received
    decisions on their claims, of whom 1,500 have leave to remain. Of
    these, 40 per cent have said they intend to stay in the city.

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