‘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.’

‘Would the UKBA turn Mary and Joseph away?’: Notes from the Scottish Parliament Debate

Political discourse on immigration in Scotland is very different to England. But, moreover, from my position in the public gallery watching the debate on the discontinuation of the ‘Go Home’ campaign it becomes obvious that this distinction is also being drawn upon to make claims about Scottishness and the possibilities of independence. The debate I am observing concerns the use of posters in the Brand Street reporting centre in Glasgow which used the words ‘Is life here hard, why not go home?’ alongside pictures of destitute people. These posters prompted a demonstration at the Brand Street centre and some negative press responses with The Herald concluding in an editorial that ‘The Scottish parliament should make clear that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable in Scotland. Perhaps it is time to tell UKBA to go home?’ This is just one example of the posters being cast as an imposition from Westminster on a more tolerant land.

I arrive in Parliament just as First Minister’s Questions are finishing. The public gallery and the chamber are near full as Alex Salmond answers questions about welfare and shale gas. Both the public gallery and the chamber empty out after this. Christmas hangs in the air and is referenced by many in the ensuing debate.

The bill is introduced by Labour’s Jackie Baillie who starts out by saying ‘I am an immigrant’ and detailing how she was born in Hong Kong to Scottish and Portuguese parents. She moves on to talk about the ‘Go Home’ campaign and draws parallels between the language used by the National Front in the 1970s saying it is ‘beyond belief that Westminster would borrow this language’. She says the campaign was ‘cruel and insensitive’ and ‘a personal error of judgement by Theresa May’ before moving on to talk about the Immigration Bill, particularly the housing aspect. She goes on to do some ‘myth busting’ (her words) around immigration about benefit tourism, immigrants as an economic burden and the idea that immigrants are unskilled. She stresses that it is appropriate to tackle illegal immigration but not in this way.

The next speaker is Christian Allard (SNP) who is French-born and who also stresses his Portuguese heritage. He is the first SNP speaker, but by no means the last, to make the link between an idea of Scotland as a welcoming country and a history of inward and outward migration. He points out that the ‘Go Home’ posters did not originate in Scotland. He proposes an alternative van campaign: ‘Welcome to Scotland, we want you to stay, we need you to stay’. In his discussion of anti-immigration rhetoric he says that he doesn’t blame the English media, it is only reflecting Westminster but that he wants the Scottish Press to use the facts as presented in a recent Scottish Refugee Council Report. His speech introduces a separation between England and Scotland and a demarcating of Scotland as different. Later on James Dornan (SNP) picks up this thread, arguing that the campaign was not designed for Scotland, it was designed for the South of England.

The first (and only) Conservative to speak in the debate, Alex Johnstone started by saying he was not opposed to immigration, that it was needed for Scottish business and that Scotland had a proud record of asylum. He went on to say that the motion confuses and conflates a number of issues. He is also the first (and only) person in the debate to use the term ‘bogus asylum seekers’. He does say of ‘Go Home’ that some of the words used could fuel a comparison with National Front rhetoric.

Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrats) talks of how the campaign triggered protest. Overall his response is more mixed than that of the Labour and SNP MSPs. He condemns the campaign for breaching public sector equality duty but states that there are people who should go back to their country of origin and that while ‘wider publicity could play a role’ it should not be an inflammatory campaign such as this one. Like other speakers he emphasises the links with the 1970s talking of ‘uncomfortable echoes of the NF’. He also says that illegal immigration is a problem ‘bogus colleges, employers need to be addressed’.

These positions of the four major parties continue to echo through the debate. However, the language and expression of feeling intensify throughout. Christina McKelvie (SNP) referred to Go Home as a ‘disgusting exercise, absolutely abhorrent’. She speaks of the positive contribution of ‘new Scots’ and repeatedly uses the word “disgusting”. She asks ‘Would the UKBA turn Mary and Joseph away?’ then brings it back to Scottish Independence ‘The only way to move away from this is to vote ‘Yes’ next year’.

Hanzala Malik (Labour) condemns the campaign as ‘crude, out of touch’. His voice is loaded with emotion as he talks about feeling ‘shamed, disappointed and shocked’, ‘I couldn’t believe we had stooped to these levels … it does not represent our people, our nation, our humanity.’ He says that he doesn’t need evidence that this campaign hurts people’s feelings. He has lived this evidence. This is a very powerful speech and I’m struck by how emotionally charged some of these statements are and how the language of emotion is used within the speeches. He goes on to say it was ‘ill-designed, ill-felt. Laws did not protect us against this.’

‘I remember when I was young, people used to say ‘why don’t you go home?’ but home was Glasgow. They would ask ‘No, where are you actually from?’

Summing up the debate is Humza Yousaf (SNP). Firstly he points that a number of MSPs have put forward a motion on this subject (this is to acknowledge that the SNP also proposed a similar motion). He says the ‘Go Home’ campaign was ‘iniquitous’ and ‘derailed progress’. He echoed previous speakers by referring to Scotland having a long history of welcoming people. He goes on to say:

‘I’ve been called everything under the sun but the one that hurts the most is when you are told to ‘Go Home’ when you’re just as Glaswegian, just as Scottish as everyone else.’
He says that these campaigns hurt but that the campaign shouldn’t be taken in isolation but is part of a trajectory where the UK is becoming more aggressive. He makes an appeal to colleagues in the Labour Party saying he is genuinely worried that parties in the UK are going on the wrong trajectory and pandering to UKIP.

At this point Liam McArthur jumps in to say that there are too many distinctions being made between Scotland and the UK and that the outrage against the campaign has been across the UK.

Yousaf continues ‘Many members of the public have an irrational fear of immigration. Language from the UK Government is not helping.’

He refers to the united front in the chamber ‘We need to translate this tone to parties in the UK. He ends by referring back to the white paper and its pledges to close Dungavel [detention centre], to end destitution of asylum seekers and to end dawn raids. It is our moral duty to do so.’

The widespread consensus of opposition to the ‘Go Home’ campaign in the Scottish Parliament is not surprising. But there are key distinctions between party discourses and the positioning of Scotland within the debate – all SNP MSPs end their contributions by referring to the White Paper on Independence. Labour are more mixed in their responses, although all virulently oppose the campaign and some, like Malik, speak passionately and with emotion against it – but, as might be expected, they are not drawing on ideas about Scottishness in the same way in their accounts. Liam McArthur, the only Liberal Democrat to speak was very active in challenging other speakers in the debate with the lone Conservative speaker keeping quiet after the initial speech.

Migration is set to be a major issue in the run up to the Independence Referendum and beyond. I am left wondering about the relationship between political discourse and opinions outside of the chamber. Is Scotland so different to England in terms of attitudes to migration? Indeed MSPs’ personal accounts of experiences of racism and of being told to ‘go home’ serve as a check to any over-romanticised version of Scotland’s attitudes to migration and ethnicity. As our research unfolds, I hope we can probe how these discourses of Scottishness and immigration further and explore how these debates about campaigns such as ‘Go Home’ play out beyond Holyrood.


Herald poster