‘That was in London, not here’: Talking anti-immigration campaigns and belonging with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow

‘All the rules you are using here in Scotland … the Home Office, their rules, they are getting them from England.’

It is the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum and I’m analysing a transcript of a focus group that I conducted this summer with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow for our project ‘Mapping Immigration Controversy’. As part of our research we are conducting focus groups with various groups in cities across the UK to map the impact of anti-immigration campaigns. The discussion, based in the offices of our research partners Positive Action in Housing, was wide-ranging. People talked about poor housing provision, about being treated badly by the Home Office, about being separated from loved ones, about the indignities of destitution. It was an emotionally charged morning, there were expressions of anger, frustration and loss, and some of hope. There were also complex feelings expressed about belonging and home. This came out in reflections on the ‘Go Home’ posters that were circulated in the summer of 2013 on vans and in Home Office registration centres in Glasgow and London. As one woman from Zimbabwe commented ‘I’ve been here for 13 years, now they are saying ‘go home’. Where am I going to start off?’

I’m trying to untangle some of these feelings and stories about nation, city and home, loss, dislocation and injustice amidst the noise of the referendum build-up outside. Most, if not all, of the participants in this group will not have a vote tomorrow.

There was a general feeling among the group that Glasgow was a friendly place, that people here were accepting and that although there was racism, it was better than other places. People talked about living in areas that were stigmatised and said that although others thought these were bad places, for them this was home. One woman said ‘people say Ibrox is a dangerous place to be, but to me I have never experienced that. I have been in that same place. For more than three years I have stayed in Glasgow, so it is like my birth home.’ Another woman reflected on her experiences in a different Scottish city:

‘People in Glasgow they are good, and it is changing my life, and to know what is wrong, what is good, because when I was in [Scottish City] there were a few asylum seekers, and you can’t even come out to say to people, “I’m an asylum seeker” it’s like you are danger to people. It was hard to come out, but here in Glasgow I am happy.’

As the first UK city to accept dispersed asylum seekers from London, Glasgow has a well-developed, though under-funded, infrastructure of groups fighting for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. This activist network was drawn on to explain why Glasgow was different (‘there is a big anti-racism campaign, and I think today evening there is a meeting in STUC about arranging a demonstration…’). Other cities in England and Scotland and other countries (particularly Spain and France) were used as unfavourable comparisons. Notably, when people had experienced racism within Glasgow this was blamed on the Home Office and the media (‘don’t blame the people out there, blame the Government’). However, a caution on comments that suggested racism was declining in the city was raised by a man who asked the others ‘If you are being positive about racism, why are we talking about “go home”?’

It was striking that in the ensuing discussion of the ‘Go Home’ campaign, the Home Office was cast as a UK imposition on Scotland. Some of the group had seen the posters in person at the Home Office registration but one man was adamant that this had not happened in Glasgow, ‘It’s not here that happened, it’s not in Scotland but that happened in London’. This echoes discourse about the ‘Go Home’ campaign coming from the Scottish National Party. While the campaign was condemned by all political parties in Scotland, as I noted in a previous blog, the SNP have drawn on this campaign to highlight how UK policy on asylum and immigration is not in keeping with Scottish attitudes or the proposals for immigration and asylum in the White Paper on independence, which include the closing of Dungavel Detention Centre. Thus an unwelcoming UK is held up against a welcoming Scotland and a promise of a fairer society to come. The White Paper on Independence explicitly draws on the ‘Go Home’ campaign:

‘One of the major gains from independence for Scotland will be responsibility for our own immigration policy. Currently immigration is a reserved matter, and the Westminster Government’s policy for the whole of the UK is heavily influenced by conditions in the south east of England. Westminster has also adopted an aggressive approach to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees, culminating in the recent controversy over advertisements to tell people to leave the UK and “go home”.’

These proposed changes for the future of asylum and immigration policy in Scotland are also part of a wider discussion on Scottish nationalism and Scottishness as an inclusive identity. A recent study found that almost all ethnic minority groups in Scotland were more likely to claim a Scottish identity in Scotland, than an English identity in England. Scottish Asian people such as MSP Humza Yousaf have been central to the Yes campaign and to some degree the SNP seems to have been successful in managing to put forward an inclusive version of Scottishness, although as Nasar Meer rightly cautions in a nuanced article on the subject ‘Politicians love to be photographed next to ethnic minorities in kilts’.

The argument that Scotland needs migration in the face of a declining population pre-dates the referendum and local government in Glasgow has also put forward a pro-migration approach. But for those in the focus group an independent Scotland represented a welcome change in asylum policy and chance for Scotland to free itself from the Home Office. At the end of our discussion, talk turned to the referendum. ‘I know you are originally from England’ said one man to me ‘I’m not racist [laughs] but no problem, I am going to be honest with you. The problem is the government [in] England is very, very, very bad … This is why I am going to say “yes” if I have [the] right to vote.’

All of the group agreed that they would vote ‘Yes’ if they had a vote. This is just one focus group that is part of a much bigger set of discussions taking place throughout Scotland. These are voices that are seldom heard and who are excluded from the democratic process but who will be greatly affected by what follows. As one woman put it:

‘We are the ones who actually want this change, we want this change more, because of what they’ve written in the White Paper about closing down the detention centre, about reforming the Home Office here in Glasgow. As refugees and asylum seekers we want that.’

Mobile Solidarities – The Right to Remain Conference

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

Over a hundred people filled the small community hall that hosted the Right to Remain (RtR) conference in Bethnal Green on the 6th September. Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and Slough were some of the areas that I managed to note down at the opening of the event, as people called out with their affiliations to warm applause. Our welcome from the organisers was accompanied by a forewarning “We’re going to hear how horrible things are”.  And we did, not least the news of the death of Rubel Ahmed in Morton Hall detention centre, which was announced towards the end of the day.

It’s an especially difficult time for migrants and those working on migrant rights campaigns these days. The interviews that we have been carrying out over the past few months, as a part of the Mapping Immigration Controversies project, have been showing the unfolding effects of creeping anti-migrant rhetoric and policy initiatives. The ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants that Theresa May announced as a part of Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.the Immigration Act has become palpable, extending from increasingly inhumane care in detention centres to the proliferating of border controls. Migrants who are here legally have been telling us that they are feeling undermined and insecure. Other British citizens have been turning for reassurance to political parties such as the UKIP and the BNP, because in their minds it seems that migrants are at the root of all social problems, from housing, to social unrest, to access to GPs and crime. “They have got it made, these illegal immigrants”, a UKIP voter told me in a focus group in East London a few weeks ago. “They have got us over a barrel and we let them do it”.

Under the theme of ‘Solidarity in a hostile environment’, the idea behind the RtR conference was to help and inspire migrants rights campaigners, by sharing case study examples, tactics and experiences. The conference began with presentations from Frances Webber, a former immigration and human rights barrister; Saira Grant, Legal and Policy Director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and Rita Chadha, Chief Executive of Ramfel (Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London).

Frances Webber drew attention to the huge contemporary erosion of rights for migrants, characterised as she saw it, by a culture of ‘depraved indifference’, a term that comes from US criminal law. Mean Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.spiritedness combined with self-righteousness was what was emerging, a version of British values that Frances urged the conference to resist. “Let’s reject British values. What I’d like to see is human values”.

Saira Grant’s focus was the Immigration Act, which spans six Whitehall departments, covering legal practice, bail rights, increased immigration enforcement powers and access to public services. According to the Home Office, the Act “is focused on stopping illegal migrants using public services to which they are not entitled, reducing the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK for the wrong reasons, and making it easier for the Home Office to remove people who should not be here”. The right to appeal against immigration decisions has been severely curtailed and Saira spoke about the piloting of the new landlords scheme that will begin in the West Midlands in December. The scheme will mean that landlords have the right to check the immigration status of potential tenants and could face a fine of up to £3k if they rent to undocumented migrants.

Given this harsh climate, how should organisations and campaigners work with the Home Office, if at all? This was the question that Rita Chadha tackled. Using examples from Ramfel’s recent monitoring of Operation Centurion, Rita described how the Home Office had tried to engage with Ramfel in the implementation of Operation Skybreaker. Rita suggested that we should get involved in Neighbourhood Partnerships. Perhaps, most surprising of all, was the advice “befriend your local police officers”. In Rita’s experience, the police can be relatively supportive to migrant rights organisations. In Barking and Dagenham, local police had agreed to training in signposting migrants to support services.

After a delicious lunch of rice and vegetables, there were two group work sessions in which we were organized into six small groups, whose membership changed with each session. The groups were facilitated Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.to help us share ideas and positive outcomes from our respective work. In each group we read and discussed an allotted case study from a small booklet of practical examples compiled by RtR. My group discussed the Noela Claye campaign, coordinated by Women Against Rape (London). During the discussion a mother told us about her how she had supported her son while he was held in an immigration detention centre and someone from Glasgow’s Unity Centre described their practice of ‘signing support’ where members who have to report to the Home Office check in with Unity first, in case they are detained. Some people in the group wondered aloud about whether a campaign might have detrimental effects for a case. Frances Webber believed the opposite and stressed the importance of “bringing the community into the court room.”

It was in the intimacy of the lively discussions in these small groups that it was possible to see some of the larger workings of how the normalization of everyday injustices is turned into a visible political issue/controversy. This happens as people gather around a human plight and set up of transnational, transcultural and trans-urban communication networks and infrastructures through which ideas, outrage, care and resources can flow. These ways of mobilising dissent brought to mind the political theorist Vicki Squire’s concept of ‘mobile solidarities’, through which care, support and citizenship claims are thickened as they move between and across human and geographical networks. Mobile solidarities with those whose presence is insecure and endangered, can be spontaneous and fleeting, but they can also be nurtured and substantiated through on-going effort, dialogue, attentiveness and shared learning.

What struck me about the case studies that we were offered was that they included campaigns that had failed to achieve a successful outcome. For example, another case we were invited to discuss was that of Isabella Acevedo, who had worked as a cleaner for the former immigration minister Mark Harper. “It may be surprising to include an example when the person was forcibly removed from the UK” our case studies booklet stated, “but it’s important to remember that the fight does not necessarily end when someone is removed, and we must look at what has been learnt by the campaign and what has been left behind and may help others in the future”.

More often than not campaigning work is marked by frustration, forced compromises and failure and it was valuable to see these aspects of social and political life recognised. Such work – interpreting and articulating counter narratives, mediating discursive chasms, listening to marginal voices, tending to hurt and injury, Image of Right to Remain Conference. Photo by Francis Ngale.tolerating uncertainty and not-knowing – seem vital in encouraging the improvisations that are necessary for sustaining our ‘mobile solidarities’. As the geographers Graham and Thrift (2007) have pointed out, despite its origins in failure and fault, in improvisation there is always hope: “Improvisation allows the work of maintenance and repair to go on when things may seem bleak and it takes a whole series of responses, from simple repetition (such as trying it again) through to attempts to improve communication so as to be clear exactly what the problem is, through disagreement over causes, through to complex theorizing, responses which are often the result of long and complex apprenticeships and other means of teaching…” (p.4).


All photos by Francis Ngale