‘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.’