The ban on accepting new asylum seekers to Scotland raises new doubts about Westminster’s subterranean management of immigration and international protection. Kenmure Street might have made Glasgow a byword for solidarity, but it also illuminated a system plagued by controversy which embroils local authorities in the machinations of the Home Office, its “hostile environment” and its dark network of outsourcing firms.
Theoretically, accepting refugees into a community is an act of international solidarity with victims of persecution. But the origins of the dispersal system, which forcefully relocates asylum seekers around the UK, grew from less estimable motives.
Dispersal was an unfiltered reflection of post-Thatcherite uneven development: one part south of England NIBYism, one part the desperation of financially stricken councils, which, conveniently, were areas of housing surplus. By its own ignorable standards, the system worked: asylum seekers now make up just 0.01% of South-East and East England, compared to 0.19% of the North-East.
The system incentivised the poorest areas to take the maximum for the lowest cost. Results were frequently dystopian. By 2001, Glasgow’s poorest areas like Sighthill were transformed overnight, with a fifth of the population being asylum seekers; given the motives attached to the scheme, there was no corresponding investments in integration. Something had to give, and it did, with the unprovoked murder of Kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Dag two decades ago.
Following protests, Glasgow’s range of voluntary, NGO and council services improved markedly. However, central government’s punitive and penurious motives remain unchanged. A vast system of privatisation and outsourcing, associated with firms such as Mears and Serco, emerged to exploit the system’s cracks.
While these corporations have been condemned for profiteering from human misery, their behaviours reflect demands set by the Home Office. Naturally, any savings are less about taxpayer expense than about delivering a “hostile environment”, and thus deterring all but the most desperate from journeying to Britain.
Asylum housing has a Dickensian quality, with miserly landlords delivering dank, cramped, frequently filthy accommodation, described recently as “not fit for a dog”. Delays in the asylum system mean these stinking quarters become “homes” for months on end, with the constant threat of a knock at the door from the Home Office. Mental health crises are endemic, with tragic consequences, including, in Glasgow hotel accommodation alone during lockdown, the stabbing of six asylum seekers and the suicide of another.
It’s rather too easy for Scotland to wash its hands of these problems. Of course, the ultimate the “bad guy” here isn’t really the local authority, the devolved administration or even the outsourcers — it’s the Home Office. Rather conveniently, this can cast Scotland as the morally blameless cosmopolitan hamstrung by the villains in London, a narrative which the SNP Government is only too keen to promote: “no problem here”, or “look over there”. Politically, the Home Office’s demonstrable badness only adds to the vicious cycle of rival nationalisms.
This system will rumble on and on, unless some new constitutional settlement emerges. Handwringing is easy; the alternative requires bravery and imaginative political leadership. That could involve a new devolution settlement, although so far nobody has devised a workable model for devolving immigration; or it could involve independence, freeing us to face our own problems, racism included, without the alibi of Westminster.