Attacks on asylum seekers in Glasgow

    • From the Observer Sunday 27 May 2001 
    • A general practitioner who has patients in one of the tougher housing schemes in the west of Scotland told me the other day that he uses an old banger to do his rounds. This is a strategem to protect his car, and himself, from theft, attack or worse.

      That there are places in urban Scotland to which most of us would not willingly go during the day and certainly never visit at night is a fact which as a society and a political culture we have chosen not to confront. It is regrettable, we seem to feel, but it is part of our lives. We prefer not to cast too much light on the dark world of the 'schemies'.

    • Now the issue has been forced to our attention by the treatment given to the asylum seekers who have been dispersed to Scotland. Glasgow has received 4,500 and has lodged about 1,400 in Sighthill. They have been subjected to frequent attacks by gangs of local youths. Since January, 80 incidents have been logged by the police, which means that in reality there must have been many more.

      That racism is at work seems clear. Yet, as Bashir Mann pointed out last week in a forceful speech, there is more to it than that. He argued that young men in schemes like Sighthill are 'out of control', and blamed Scotland's system of children's panels for police impotence. And, as Tommy Sheridan noted, the difficulties facing the asylum seekers has been made worse by their concentration in an area of severe deprivation. In such places, as Professor Neil Mc-Keganey and Dr Marina Barnard of Glasgow University have shown, drug abuse is linked with crime and prostitution in a chain of alienation.

      Racism is therefore only one of many symptoms of a deeper malaise. According to the System Three poll in the Herald last week, most Scots give the issue of aslyum seekers a low political salience. And so we take refuge once more in our habitual myopia as the authorities make Dungavel Prison ready to receive 150 refugees who have been refused permission to stay in the UK. They have committed no crime. Their sin, of which Tories convict them with peculiar bitterness, is that they are, in the judgment of the authorities, not fleeing persecution but merely seeking to escape poverty and better themselves. Mr Hague is acquitted of racism, even by his opponents, but the same cannot be said of elements in his party.

      Economists believe that Europe will not enjoy sustainable economic growth or support its ageing population without adding to its labour force. Last December the European Commission floated the idea of managed migration using quotas and a 'green card' entry scheme. According to the EU justice and home affairs commissioner, Antonio Vitorino, the policy aimed to treble legal migration to almost one million by 2004.

      The immigration Minister Barbara Roche has accepted the need to recruit immigrants, but only those with higher skills. Yet no Minister makes case for the 'poor bloody infantry' that the economy needs just as badly. In north London, every morning, a fleet of white vans converges on a street to recruit illegals for work on building sites, at low rates of pay. This is one of at least four daily hiring trysts in the capital. In Essex last week I fell into conversation with the owner of a minicab company who complained that it was impossible to find drivers.

      In Glasgow, of course, there is still entrenched unemployment and at least part of the hostility to asylum seekers is economic fear and resentment about welfare payments made to them. Yet if the UK and European economies run into the doldrums Glasgow will shiver even more.

      As Sir Sean Connery remarked in an interview in the Daily Record last week, Scotland's real enemy is poverty, not just of the material kind but of aspiration. To this one might add brute ignorance, not just of those who prey on the asylum seekers in Sighthill but those Tory politicians who give voice to their prejudices and attempt to cloak them with respectability.

      The Scottish Parliament has, it is true, begun to grapple with the issues of exclusion, alienation and deprivation. But its debates, largely in committee, attract little public attention. In Sheridan those outside the comfortable elites, epitomised for Sir Sean by the Edinburgh legal establishment, have found a charismatic champion with a gift for dramatising systematc injustice.

      Bashir Mann's solution, of clamping down on rampaging youths who torment the immigrants, has some virtue in the short term but is no substitute for new social and educational policies. What the asylum seekers show us is that the need to act is urgent. Dungavel is a monument to our stupidity - we are locking the wrong people up - and our political cowardice.