then a plane
back to hell
Durham Cathedral, situated as it was in a difficult border situation, had a massive gargoyle of a doorknocker. A thousand years ago, the fugitive from danger could grasp that knocker and be guaranteed sanctuary. You didn't even have to open the door and plead your case. No-one could touch you if you had seized the handle. Things don't work that way in 2012.
The authorities are more likely to prise your fingers off the knocker these days than to say 'fair dos, you've come from a tricky situation, grasped the gargoyle – now here's a bowl of soup, a comfy bed and safety'.
Of course, if you follow a certain sector of the media, you might think Scotland is overrun by gargoyle-grasping asylum seekers, that they are living in our best council flats, and have the full flush of washing machine, dishwasher, split-level oven and walk-in freezer. You may also have been led to believe that they are 'taking our jobs' or that they are in receipt of benefits far in excess of anything received by the indigenous unemployed in these troubled times.
I find it helps to get the facts from the experts, and the Scottish Refugee Council says there are around 2,000 asylum seekers in Scotland. Why are they here? The word 'asylum' means a refuge, a safe haven, a sanctuary – a place of shelter and protection. The folk who seek such sanctuary, such protection, are fleeing danger. Most arrive here with minimal possessions and certainly aren't given access to benefits.
Westminster government policy is to actually incur destitution – to act not only as a spur to kick the vulnerable back to their own countries, but to deter others foolish enough to be contemplating leaving a war zone, a dictatorship, or a regime of torture. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) does have a statutory duty to offer financial support and housing, but the terms are not generous.
Asylum seekers are given no choice in where they will stay and they're taken to destinations in the UK where UKBA have contracts with local authorities or other organisations to provide accommodation. From 2000 to 2006, Glasgow City Council held the only contract in Scotland. A new contract in 2006 spread the responsibility between Glasgow City Council, Y People (formerly the YMCA), and Angel, a private provider not always seen as angelic in its provision of suitable accommodation. The council was providing housing for half the Glasgow asylum population.
Then the council had a financial fall out with UKBA, which terminated the council's contract a year early. Y People took over the council's share of the asylum seekers, but from December last year, a new player came on the scene. Serco Group plc, an international private service company, was the 'preferred bidder' to provide accommodation, associated services and transport to asylum seekers in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In their countries of origins, the asylum seekers feared torture and prison without trial. In their country of 'refuge', we simply take away the roof from over their heads and the food from their mouths to get their compliance.
The cost of hiring Serco for five years from February 2012, with the option of two further years, is around £175 million, which presumably is a saving for UKBA. Although Serco will be 'orientating' new arrivals and helping them to access health care, transport and so on, the welcome doesn't sound too cuddly. They'll provide 'initial accommodation' for newly arrived asylum seekers; 'dispersal accommodation' for the duration of their asylum claim (and this can now be anywhere in Scotland, not just Glasgow); and 'Section 4 support' for those refused asylum.
It may take till November before everyone is shunted around from the Y People and Angel properties into Serco accommodation and the Scottish Refugee Council hopes to ensure there is as little disruption as possible to the lives of those who have already suffered more disruption than most of us can imagine.
But the real worry is that during their contract period with UKBA, Glasgow City Council and Y People continued to support asylum seekers even when their applications were refused and their rights to accommodation and support ran out. Since 2000, Y People has spent £500,000 holding people in a very fragile safety net to keep them from destitution. Now, instead of a safety net, destitution is going to be ratcheted up as a tactic to smash fingers off that sanctuary doorknocker. The current policy is to make it even more difficult to qualify for asylum and permission to work will be restricted even more.
Organisations such as the British Red Cross, Scottish Refugee Council, Refuge Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing, along with faith and community groups, are offering practical help and advocacy. Campaigning bodies such as Justice and Peace Scotland are voicing loudly their concerns about the punitive effects of these policies.
In their countries of origins, the asylum seekers feared torture and prison without trial. In their country of 'refuge', we simply take away the roof from over their heads and the food from their mouths to get their compliance. We used to grant asylum to one in four applicants. Now nine out of 10 are refused and there is a 'voluntary returns process' they are supposed to go through. They may have been victimised, tortured, raped, or burned from their homes, but we have some forms to fill in that reduce them to the status of an unwanted pair of shoes being sent back to Next Directory.
Grasping the knocker doesn't count any more. We make decisions on whether you can stay based on quotas, and if we say no, we prise your fingers away with an eviction notice, take away your subsistence allowance, and organise a dawn raid to get you on a plane back to hell.
The Scottish Government says asylum seekers 'must be treated fairly and humanely' and supports the idea of allowing asylum seekers to work and receive free health care. I hope it remembers this if it achieves the 'Yes' vote and the issue becomes ours and ours alone.
Marian Pallister is a writer and college lecturer