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November 4, 2015

Sighthill all over again?

It’s not clear yet how many refugees Scotland will be asked to take in as part of the UK’s planned contribution to the international effort. Something in the region of 2000 over the next four years is the figure being put about.  Despite the Government’s prevarication, the voluntary response to the plight of the refugees has been predictable and generous.  Writing in the Scottish Review, Kenneth Roy reflects on the cack-handed approach of the authorities to the refugee challenge that faced us 14 years ago. He fears that lessons have not been learned.

Kenneth Roy, Scottish Review

One morning 14 years ago, the people of Sighthill, a poor estate in north Glasgow, awoke to the surprising sight of council officials lugging washing machines and other household appliances into empty flats. They took a closer look and saw that there were strangers in their midst, unfamiliar faces wearing unfamiliar clothes from unfamiliar lands. The people of Sighthill were resentful. They wondered what the new tenants had done to deserve a washing machine from the council.

Within a few weeks in the late summer of 2001, more than 3,000 asylum seekers arrived in this pocket of chronic social deprivation. It was an astonishing movement for which Sighthill was ill-prepared. No-one had warned them in advance; no-one had consulted them. Suddenly, people with nothing – the locals – were living alongside people with less than nothing – the dispossessed. It was a recipe for tension which the myopic authorities utterly failed to anticipate.

The results were disastrous. The hostility of the indigenous population spilled over into racist abuse, harassment and even murder with the fatal stabbing of a young Kurdish man. In the aftermath of that incident, many asylum seekers were afraid to leave their homes and some fled to London begging for sanctuary, fearful that they would be next. One of them – a Palestinian – told journalists that he had complained 10 times to the police about threats from local people and that the police had done nothing.

That autumn I chaired a crowded public meeting in Glasgow, bringing together representatives of civic society, to discuss what could be done to reconcile two bitterly polarised communities. The atmosphere was positive, but it was coupled with bewilderment that the reputation of the friendly city had taken such a battering. As a result of that meeting, the charity which publishes this magazine set up a scheme for encouraging the social and economic integration of asylum seekers – an initiative which continues, independently, to the present day.

There is no doubt that the failure to communicate with the local community played a huge part in the serious trouble which erupted in Sighthill; that, and the prejudice of sections of the right-wing media. How much have we learned from these experiences in the intervening years? The answer seems to be: precious little.

Last weekend, Serco – the outfit contracted by the UK government to provide housing for asylum seekers – moved around 120 of its clients to a hotel on the outskirts of a rural village close to where I’m writing this. The hotel was once a grand country house with historical associations, somewhere to celebrate a special occasion or enjoy a peaceful weekend break. It fell on hard times and the new owners built an ugly extension for the coach party trade. The place is unrecognisable from the splendid retreat it used to be.

Without a car, it is fairly inaccessible. It’s a long walk into the village, especially on a wet autumn day like today, and an even longer walk into the nearest town. It is to this isolated spot, far from the facilities of civilised life, that young men – they are mostly young men, apparently – have been moved as part of a large-scale dispersal of asylum seekers out of London. Rumour has it that they will be billeted here until the spring. The boredom of a long winter in a lonely place stretches ahead.

I say ‘around 120’, but I’m not sure of the number. Those of us who live in the area are in the same position as the people of Sighthill in the summer of 2001: officially we know nothing because we have been told nothing. The local press alludes to the secrecy of the operation and reports that the authorities are refusing to say where the asylum seekers are from: could it be Syria? If the small village does have 120 new inhabitants living in its hinterland, proportionately that is roughly equivalent to the several thousand whose abrupt re-settlement caused severe social dislocation in north Glasgow. Yet there has been no attempt to involve the community or to seek its help. When I contacted the local Church of Scotland minister to suggest that the church hall might be opened to welcome the newcomers, I got an encouraging response – but, like me, the minister had only just heard of their arrival.

The village is uncomplaining. The young men are already welcome customers at the shop, where they spend their daily allowance of £5 on toiletries, mobile phone top-ups and cigarettes. On Sunday, before the 9pm curfew, a few ventured out of the hotel in small groups, responding to the locals with a friendly wave. But I am less sanguine about their reception in the neighbouring larger towns, where tolerance of an alien minority cannot be assumed.

A possible clue to public attitudes is to be found in the first TripAdvisor report on the hotel since it became the temporary home of the asylum seekers. It was posted last weekend by someone who lives in the area:

Asylum Seeker/Migrant Hideaway

Stayed in this hotel last night with a voucher deal. Service very poor and hotel is being used to accommodate asylum seekers/migrants. Although they are prohibited from accessing certain areas of the hotel, they can clearly be seen wandering around the grounds and the local area. Wouldn’t even consider returning to this hotel.

Should TripAdvisor really be publishing such material? But there is a larger question. If, despite the colossal humanitarian tragedy unfolding before us in Europe, some people continue to view asylum seekers as little better than captives in a zoo, why are the receiving communities not being properly informed and educated? I have a possible answer. If Glasgow City Council couldn’t get it right then, we should not expect Serco, a company driven by profit and with a limited grasp of the concept of social responsibility, to get it right now.