There has been a wave of support for people caught up in the migrant crisis. While the authorities have attempted to secure the gates to the fortress, people across Europe have started to organise mass campaigns of support and solidarity, participating in what Abdul Bostani from the Scottish Refugee Council describes as “active citizenship … to help asylum seekers and refugees”. Gerry Hastie and Nicholas Cimini report on a recent meeting in Kirkcaldy, Fife, and describe how the momentum built up during the campaign for Scottish independence has reinvigorated the Scottish left and is now helping to provide focus to the relief efforts for refugees and migrants.
Just over a year ago voters in Scotland decided to remain part of the UK. The result might have been a disappointment to most on the socialist left but the networks built-up during the referendum campaign have reinvigorated and given a heightened political confidence to hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country. This confidence was evident in abundance at a meeting in Kirkcaldy, Fife, on Tuesday night last week and is now being channelled in support of refugees and migrants.
Up to 40 participants attended the meeting in Kirkcaldy which was organised by local members of the new left-alliance RISE: a socialist and pro-independence movement that will contest the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016. Participants included representatives of various community groups, activists in different political parties and formations (the SNP, SSP, Solidarity, the People’s Assembly, Common Weal and rs21) as well as people not associated with any party or group. They heard from Naeem Khalid of FRAE Fife (Fairness, Race Awareness and Equality) and Abdul Bostani from the Scottish Refugee Council who gave harrowing yet inspirational accounts of the experience of being a refugee and the action that people in Scotland and elsewhere have been taking to defend the rights of refugees and migrants.
Naeem spoke about the work of FRAE Fife. He discussed the move to a multicultural Scotland and the role that FRAE Fife is playing in terms of welcoming migrants, offering them support and giving advice about housing, landlords, finances, etc.
Naeem gave an example of offering support to a number of Libyan students and their families who moved to Fife to study. During their studies, as the Arab Spring spread to Libya and was met with brutal repression, the students and their families found it necessary to apply for asylum status. They made their application at a time when Glasgow was the only local authority in Scotland commissioned to house asylum seekers and this forced the families, against their wishes, to move to Glasgow despite already being settled in Fife.
Naeem noted that “there is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in the UK and to remain here until the authorities have assessed their claim.” He also described how “The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum. It has saved millions of lives. No country has ever withdrawn from it.”
He expressed concerns about David Cameron’s recent announcement that the UK would take only 20,000 people from UN refugee camps outside Europe, but not those inside, and then went on to describe how the lucky few who eventually reach the UK are treated as second class citizens. Most asylum seekers live in constant fear of being deported and struggle financially to make ends meet, living in extreme poverty. Almost all are refused the right to work and are forced to rely on state support – which can be as little as £5 a day to live on. Since 2005 most people recognised as refugees are only given permission to stay in the UK for five years and can have their case reviewed at any time. This makes it difficult for them to make decisions about their future, to find work and make definite plans for their life in the UK.
Abdul Bostani, from the Scottish Refugee Council, then spoke about the current crisis and his experience of seeking refuge in Scotland. He movingly described how he came to Scotland from Afghanistan in 2001 and, despite a number of challenges, was made to feel welcome by the people of Glasgow.
Abdul also gave some horrifying details about the scale of the current crisis. The number of people internally displaced by armed conflict, violence and human rights violations increased to 28.8 million in 2012, the highest figure ever recorded by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva. In 2013 more than 1 million people fled their homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and estimates for internally and externally displaced people following the Iraq war range from 3.5 to 5 million. By mid-2014, the OCHA (the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) estimated that 10.8 million of Syria’s 22 million population was affected by the conflict and in need of humanitarian assistance, including 6.5 million internally displaced, often multiple times – 50 per cent more than in 2013.
After the introductions, everyone, including Naeem and Abdul, broke up into round-table discussion groups. Conversation here ranged from the positive contributions that migrants have made to Fife to the obstacles faced by refugees and migrants.
Participants brought to the meeting enough aid to fill a camper-van, including winter clothes, non-perishable foods, sanitary items, a tent and other essential supplies. They also spoke about the need to donate money, no matter how small the amount, to the Glenrothes/Fife Calais Refugee Collection appeal and other similar appeals.
Beyond the provision of material and financial aid, however, participants felt more was required by way of supporting refugees when they arrived in Scotland and for the duration of their stay. Key themes emerged from this around combatting racism and addressing social inequalities more generally. Suggestions were also made about tackling the myths used to demonise refugees and migrants, and the setting up of a formal (as yet to be named) Fife-based network of activists that would work to further develop ongoing support. This network, which will not be aligned to any political party or group, will have a launch event within the next few weeks and all are welcome to attend. Details of the event will be shared when these become available.
The meeting in Kirkcaldy, and the practical outcomes that have come out of it, would not have been possible were it not for the re-emergence of a heightened political confidence on the Scottish left. Contrary to claims that the independence movement is a breeding ground for petty-nationalism, this meeting was a modest but significant attempt from the residents of Fife to reach out to others and to work together to address the challenges that our communities face. This movement is not about parochialism or isolationism but about creating a more equitable society that uses the skills and talents of ordinary people, wherever they come from.