Reflections on week one at Scottish Refugee Council

Reflections on week one at Scottish Refugee Council:

Well, it’s the end of my first week as Chief Executive at the Scottish Refugee Council and I am writing this blog to share a couple of thoughts.

My move to Scotland is happening at an interestingly historic time. The country is celebrating 20 years of devolution. There are talks around effects of leaving the EU and the implications of potential constitutional changes and what they mean for refugee protection in Scotland. At the midst of this, consultations are taking place to develop the next New Scots strategy for refugee integration, a strategy that Scottish Refugee Council has played a vital part in developing and implementing.

The decision for me to move to Scotland wasn’t accidental. I was attracted to this position because in these increasingly negative and hostile times, I couldn’t think of a better place than Scotland to advocate for a more humane and just asylum system. Scotland has a unique voice in refugee protection. And at the heart of that voice is the work of Scottish Refugee Council to create a more welcoming environment for refugees.

Back in 1999, almost immediately after the introduction of the much debated Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, I was enroute to the UK in the back of a lorry to seek asylum. It would be an underestimation to say it was a terrifying experience, which is another story to be told at a later stage. But it was people like those I am now fortunate to work with at Scottish Refugee Council who advocated on my behalf and offered me the support that I needed to make the transition from a stranger into a citizen. It is for that very reason that I am so determined to bring my personal experiences of going through the asylum system and of working with those seeking sanctuary to build and strengthen what is already here.

Almost two decades on from my arrival, I can see that there is some progress made but not much has changed in the way we treat those asking for our protection. Especially, the progress at policy level is very slow. There are many barriers put into people’s faces. We have created a two tier system that treats people fleeing similar conflicts in different ways. The resources invested in detention and enforcements are higher than the investment in integration and refugee well-being. And if you were brave enough to watch the BBC Panorama programme on detention, you will agree that we are still a long way from a just and humane system. The system undermines the confidence and dignity of those seeking sanctuary and slows down the process of rebuilding lives.

On my second day at Scottish Refugee Council, I had the pleasure of shadowing the Refugee Integration Service. It was a real eye-opener to learn about some of the challenges facing newly arrived groups. The team adopts a hands on and innovative approach to deal with some of the issues. It made me realise that even as a former refugee it is easy to become unaware of some of the challenges facing those seeking sanctuary.

The first person called at reception had a big smile on his face. Before I said, “how can we help you”, he showed his new papers, which stated that his claim for asylum was successful. This was really good news but that isn’t often where the journey ends. There is a raft of other issues to deal with. For example, people are given only 28 days to make the transition from the asylum support into the mainstream support services. Finding appropriate housing, a job and in case of families, finding school places for children aren’t issues that can be dealt with within 28 days. People often end up destitute once their claim for asylum is successful. But that is where the work of our Refugee Integration Service is so important. The staff in this team make sure that people are aware of their rights and obligations and get the timely support to avoid ending up in difficult situations.

Another case observed was a lady still going through the asylum process. She needed support with her children’s school meals and uniforms. Asylum seekers live on around £35 a week, which is well below the poverty line. In essence what this means is that people running from war are forced into poverty.  

Later on that day I visited one of the community organisations, Cranhill Development Trust, where SRC delivers weekly outreach to reach out to those who may find it difficult to get to our offices.  It was important to witness the work SRC does in the community and the impact we are having beyond the comforts of our new offices.

In the same week, I attended one of the New Scots consultation events in Perth, where a number of health practitioners and local authority officials gathered to discuss the future health needs of refugees within the new strategy. Speakers covered a range of issues but the key messages were that of safety, trust, choice and empowerment being some of the key principles of working with refugees.  

Towards the end of the week, I was invited to the Inspiring City Awards event. One of the first signs that I noticed when I first arrived in Glasgow was “People Make Glasgow”. It is a great statement and one that makes you think about the welcoming nature of the city. It tells you that Glasgow is open for business and it is a city that welcomes and encourages everyone to play an active role. I was delighted to be invited to an event in my first week that celebrated organisations, businesses and individuals shortlisted for the People Make Glasgow Awards 2017. It was good to see amongst the shortlisted organisations our friends and colleagues, Refuweegee, who are working hard to create a culture of welcome and promote understanding and friendship between newly arrived and existing communities. The enthusiasm and the energy in the room were remarkable. As a newcomer to Glasgow, I was inspired by the people that I met and their desire to help refugees have a good start in Glasgow.

In a matter of a week I gathered a number of key learning points. This blog alone won’t be enough to list them all.

I gathered that refugees have enriched Scotland over the years and its longstanding tradition of welcome and hospitality has a unique role to play in advocating for those seeking our protection.

At the same time Scotland sends a strong message that despite the challenges, we can still open our doors to those who are forced to flee their homes.

Scotland celebrates the unique gifts refugees bring to its communities and the government through the New Scots strategy invests in refugee integration so that people can start contributing and play an active role.

Finally, we have an amazing team here at Scottish Refugee Council, full of energy and potential to achieve so much more and I am really excited to be part of it, and to work with all partner agencies to make Scotland a beacon of hope for those seeking sanctuary.

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