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Asylum, Scotland and Independence

On 9 July 2013, an inquest in London ruled that Jimmy Mubenga was unlawfully killed when he died on a plane at Heathrow while being restrained by G4S guards who were trying to deport him to Angola.

Jimmy Mubenga came to Britain in 1994, a student activist who had to get out of Angola because the regime was after him. His wife Makenda Kambana, whose father had been killed by the regime, had already escaped to Britain, bringing their child with her. Jimmy found work and the couple had more children. Then Jimmy got into a fight in a nightclub and in 2006 he was convicted of actual bodily harm and jailed. After he had served his sentence he was in line for deportation – a far more severe punishment than his jail term.

Jimmy Mubenga was killed in October 2010, in the words of the inquest jury "pushed or held down by one or more of the guards, causing his breathing to be impeded".

Like all migrants and asylum-seekers living in Britain, he was living in a different country from British citizens, with a different legal system and different rights, subject to the old sentence of transportation for even a minor offence.

Jimmy Mubenga's death was exceptional. But violence and abuse during deportation are routine. In 2008 campaigners and lawyers published a dossier of nearly 300 cases of alleged assaults on deportees by private security guards. People were beaten, punched, kicked, knelt on, sat on, handcuffed in ways that caused injury, and were racially abused.

Those aren't the only ways that asylum-seekers are abused.

At the end of March 2013, 180 people were being held at Dungavel, not for any crime, but because the government doesn't want them here. Over the previous 12 months, a total of over 28,000 people were taken into immigration detention across the UK, with about 2800 in detention at any one time. Some had been detained for years. Of the people coming out of detention in the year to the end of March 2013, 76 had been held for more a year.

Some asylum-seekers have their liberty, but have absolutely nothing else.

They are not destitute by accident or oversight, but because the law has systematically destituted them. They are not allowed to work. If they are refused asylum and do not have a new claim or an appeal in progress, they are shortly afterwards denied access to any publicly-funded support, unless they choose to co-operate in their own deportation back to countries where they believe themselves to be at risk death, serious abuse or torture.

Why is the system so vicious? It is because British immigration policy is openly based on a strategy of deterring people from seeking asylum here.

Asylum-seekers in Scotland

In Scotland we ought to know what it's like to leave your home behind. For generations, right up until 2002, Scotland experienced net emmigration, not immigration.

What happens to asylum-seekers in Scotland is at the moment determined by UK law. A series of laws introduced by the Westminster Parliament over the last couple of decades have made it progressively harder for people to claim asylum in the UK, and harder to survive while trying to do so.

Only a handful of people arrive at Scottish ports and airports looking for asylum. Anyone who does that has to go to Croydon, in England, to file their asylum claim. The overwhelming majority of Scotland's asylum-seekers enter Britain south of the border.

Wherever they enter the UK, asylum-seekers have very limited choices. If they have family or friends they can stay with, they can opt to do that and receive subsistence-only support from the UK government's National Asylum Support Service (NASS). Most do not have that option. Under the dispersal scheme created by the 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act they will be sent to one of the various locations around the UK where NASS has arranged accommodation. The only place in Scotland that they can be sent to is Glasgow.

So almost all Scotland's asylum-seekers live in Glasgow, with a small number receiving subsistence-only support in Edinburgh and one or two other places.

There is no accurate figure for the total number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Scotland, but based on UK trends the Scottish Refugee Council estimates that about 20,000 refugees, asylum seekers and other people who fall within the UNHCR term "persons of concern" are living here.

That is a modest number, but it has provided quite a significant addition to Scotland's previously small BME population (100,000 people in the 2001 census). Economic migration to Scotland is much larger – in each of the last few years 36-37,000 migrant workers entering Scotland were given national insurance numbers.

The number of asylum-seekers receiving support in Scotland reached a peak of around 6000 people in 2004 and fell steadily to about 2000 in March 2011. In March 2013 the number was just under 2300.

The drop in the number of asylum-seekers in Scotland is at least in part a reflection of a UK-wide trend. The number of people applying for asylum in the UK peaked at 84,000 in 2002 and settled down to somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 from 2005 onwards. Worldwide, the number of refugees has marginally risen over the same period.

The UK's dispersal policy is driven by cost. Glasgow City Council was one of the most expensive accommodation providers in the UK, which is why in 2011 the UK Border Agency (UKBA - a branch of the Home Office) ended its contract with the Council, giving the contract first to Ypeople then to SERCO, whose normal business is running prisons and detention centres (including Dungavel). The resulting housing crisis for Glasgow asylum-seekers is still unfolding.

Besides the asylum-seekers who are receiving support, there are others who have ceased to get any support. It is impossible to make a respectable guess about the total number of people in that situation. But in 2012 the charity Positive Action in Housing helped 313 such people out of its destitution fund. 87 of those people had been destitute for between 1 and 3 years, and a further 24 had been destitute for 3-5 years (Positive Action in Housing Annual Report 2012).

What could Independence do for asylum-seekers?

An independent Scotland ought to work towards dismantling the oppressive immigration system that it will inherit from the UK. But there will be some very immediate problems.

It will probably inherit 180-200 detainees held in Dungavel. It will inherit an uncertain number – maybe around 2000 – asylum-seekers living in poor housing and poverty. And it will inherit an even more uncertain but smaller number of asylum seekers who are facing absolute destitution.

The measures necessary to deal with these problems are straightforward. Various organisations have been campaigning for them for years.

The first thing Scotland needs to do is to end detention and destitution.

A thorough overhaul of immigration and asylum law can follow later. But as soon as the Scottish Parliament gains authority over immigration matters, it should introduce legislation to abolish the power to detain asylum-seekers and to give all asylum-seekers – even those whose claim has been refused – an entitlement to support and a right to work.

An independent Scottish Parliament should also legislate to limit the powers of immigration officials so that there are no more dawn raids like the one in February this year that split up a young Nigerian family in Glasgow.

It would also be a good idea to grant an amnesty – a right to stay in Scotland - in all the legacy cases from before independence. On current trends, that would probably only be around 2000 people.

These are just minimal humanitarian demands. They are not radical. They are band-aid, not reform.

There has been cross-party sympathy in the Scottish Parliament for the plight of asylum-seekers, and the Scottish media has given a good deal of supportive coverage of their problems. It should be possible to turn this into support for practical measures to help asylum-seekers. But it would be a bad mistake to think that this will be easy.

The measures that are needed fly in the face of the culture of deterrence that has shaped British immigration policy and policies right across Europe. Success is possible. But we will need to work hard to achieve it.

Based on a talk given at a meeting of the Radical Independence Campaign in Edinburgh on 23 July 2013

Photo © Gareth Harper

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