As police report spike in hate attacks, is xenophobia on the rise in Scotland?


As protestors demonstrate against the housing of asylum seekers in an Ayrshire village and Police Scotland report a spike in racially aggravated crimes in the wake of the Paris attacks, we ask whether xenophobic sentiment is on the rise in Scotland.

THE Scottish Defence League demonstration in Monkton on 15 November was opposed by pro-refugee activists in the centre of the village. At the demonstration, local resident Susan told the Ayrshire Daily News that the housing of 150 asylum seekers in the nearby Adamton Hotel didn’t bother her. “They’re very pleasant people”, she said. “When you see them they’ll say ‘hello’.”

Her fellow pro-refugee demonstrators certainly outnumbered the small group of Scottish Defence League protestors, who were there to object to the presence of newly-arrived asylum seekers in the Adamton Hotel nearby. The two sides ended up in a long stand-off as police intervened to keep them separate.

Outnumbered perhaps, but the comments underneath the Ayrshire News interview with Susan – and indeed comments and social media interaction around the issue generally – would indicate that there is a problem with anti-refugee sentiment in Scotland, even if it doesn’t translate into numbers on the street.

The vast majority of comments responding to the Ayrshire News interview on Facebook are anti-refugee, with some using violent and xenophobic language, but many stating their fears over ‘jihadists’ and ‘bombers’ coming into the country.

The idea that a more pro-refugee sentiment prevails north of the border “cannot be substantiated” – Dr Nasar Meer

A first-time demonstrator posted: “My first time going today! Feels like you’re actually standing up doing something!”. A resident who joined the SDL demonstration told Commonspace she was “terrified” of the asylum seekers and said her daughter “comes home and asks me if they are going to kill or blow us up”.

Unconfirmed rumours that one of the attackers in the recent terrorist killings in Paris may have entered Europe as a Syrian refugee have spread quickly, fuelling the idea that incoming refugees to the UK could pose a threat.

During a brutal assault on a Fife couple outside their Methil takeaway, the attackers cited “revenge for Paris” and Islamic State.

The claim has been repeated by tabloid papers and on social media, leading to Home Secretary Theresa May stating that thorough checks will have been made on the Syrian refugees due to arrive at Glasgow Airport on 17 November. According to The Herald, the Scottish Government is being urged by local authorities not to stage a welcoming event for fear it will attract unwelcome attention.

The idea that a more pro-refugee sentiment prevails north of the border “cannot be substantiated”, says Dr Nasar Meer, an academic at Strathclyde University. Opinion polls show roughly the same views being held across the UK – the difference lies in the political rhetoric in Scotland.

Dr Meer goes on: “Until now the Scottish Government has been able to honour international obligations in terms of intake of refugees – in spite of popular opinion. There’s more political leadership on the issue [in Scotland].”

Phil Jones is coordinator of the Glasgow Night Shelter, an organisation which provides a safe place to sleep for refugees who are homeless as a result of Home Office policies. He was at the demonstration in Monkton on Sunday, and says that such events must engage with the local community if they are to make a positive impact.

The Home Office, Jones says, “has no interest in helping people integrate”, and doesn’t bother to talk to communities or ensure provision of services when quite considerable numbers of refugees are housed in an area, leading to grievances and concerns. “This is the problem”, adds Jones, “there’s no consultation”.

“The Home Office has no interest in helping people integrate and doesn’t bother to talk to communities or ensure provision of services when considerable numbers of refugees are brought to an area.” Phil Jones, Glasgow Night Shelter

But Robina Qureshi, director of integration group Positive Action in Housing, rejects the idea that xenophobic or anti-refugee sentiments are on the rise in Scotland. She notes that “since August there has been a huge groundswell of opinion in favour of refugees, and a feeling of being ashamed of the UK government”.

“Nowhere is this better evidenced than in the 2,300 households which have registered with our Room for Refugees project,” she says.

An organiser of the counter-demonstration in Monkton, trade union activist Sarah Collins, says that the two groups present that day – one pro-refugee and one anti-refugee – shouldn’t be seen as “two sides of the same coin”. The slogans of the Scottish Defence League, she says, amount to “racial hate crimes” and if the SDL is going to start holding regular demonstrations again, it must be opposed.

“Since August we’ve seen a huge groundswell of opinion in favour of refugees. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in the 2,300 households which have registered with our Room for Refugees project.” Robina Qureshi, Positive Action in Housing

SNP MP Natalie McGarry tweeted on Sunday “don’t email me with intolerance” after receiving a large number of emails and tweets objecting to the housing of refugees in Scotland. A Scottish Government taskforce is handling the resettlement of refugees, and it is headed by international development spokesperson Humza Yousaf, who recently travelled to the Greek coast to see the situation firsthand.

Yousaf, who was Scotland’s first Muslim MSP when elected in 2007, has himself been sent a flood of racially abusive and threatening comments since the Paris attacks took place on Friday 13 November, many of which he has had to report to Police Scotland.

Terrorist attacks in recent years have tended to lead to a surge in xenophobic, anti-Muslim or anti-refugee sentiments. Following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in 2014, physical assaults against Muslims rose by 500 percent , according to a report by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.

A similar trend has been seen in the UK, with six out of 10 saying they’d experienced or seen discriminatory behaviour towards Muslims. This was up 20 per cent from 2010.

A petition to ‘close the borders’ until IS is defeated currently has 390,000 signatures, with the petition text quoting the IS threat to “flood Europe with 500,000 jihadists”.

Scotland is seen as having less of a problem with racism and intolerance than England, with more welcoming attitude to newcomers – but a recent survey of Scots from black and minority ethnic backgrounds showed that a third had experienced discrimination , and over half had not reported it to the police.

This finding indicates that reporting levels may be so low as to undermine official figures. Just this weekend Police Scotland made a number of arrests for alleged hate crimes, including the brutal assault of a Fife couple outside their takeaway in Methil, Fife.

Responding to recent events, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This Government is clear that any form of hate crime is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated in 21st century Scotland. We have already invested more than PS80m since 2012 to advance equality and tackle discrimination and the overall number of hate crimes reported in Scotland have fallen compared to last year.”

The pro-asylum and pro-immigrant rhetoric of the Scottish Government is, as Dr Meer notes, far removed from that heard at Westminster. But the events of this weekend and further back are prompting some worry.

While there have been some big gestures from many Scottish citizens to welcome and help those seeking asylum in the country, many others are scared and angry about what they perceive to be a threat, and they feel ignored.

There’s a gulf, perhaps, between these people and the violent individuals of the Scottish Defence League – and lumping them all in together as ‘racists’ may only make matters worse and more complicated for those at the frontline of tackling racism.

Picture courtesy of Douglas Coulter