Paul Sweeney: Asylum seekers need support not condemnation

Benjamin Franklin was once quoted as saying that only two things are certain in life - death and taxes.


Recent years have heralded the arrival of a third certainty - Conservative governments using immigration to mask their own political failures.


It’s a tale as old as time and is borne of a desire to create division; division that will distract and divert attention from difficult questions or their shambolic mismanagement of the country.


The tactic is simple - when asked why there is a lack of housing, blame asylum seekers; if confronted about the crisis facing the NHS, point the finger at refugees; or if someone complains that their kids can’t get a good job, criticise immigration.


We see it regularly, both in deliberately designed policy and in inflammatory rhetoric.

Creating policies that would see people seeking asylum deported to Rwanda; declaring migrants crossing the English Channel to be an “invasion”; and deliberately allowing an immigration centre to become so overcrowded that it is now a slum afflicted by diphtheria and other terrible diseases.


As examples, they illustrate the disdain in which people seeking asylum are held, and the depths this Conservative Government will sink to in an attempt to cling onto power.

The scapegoating doesn’t stop there.


If you seek asylum in the UK, you are not allowed to work and are provided with just £42 a week to survive before being told to wait for an unspecified length of time while a dysfunctional Home Office processes your application.


Put yourself in their shoes.


You flee your homeland in desperation and fear because of war, famine or persecution. You are forced to risk your life and the lives of your family because there are no safe routes to claim asylum here. Then, when you finally reach safety, you are not welcomed but instead accused of being the cause of the myriad of problems the UK faces.


It is shameful dog-whistle politics, and we should confront it wherever and whenever we see it.


Despite the anti-immigration rhetoric, the truth is that the UK sits towards the bottom of the European destinations for asylum seekers, and the numbers arriving have been broadly stable in recent years.


But we must do more than simply confront those responsible for propagating myths, we must provide an alternative.


An alternative where we recognise the benefits immigration brings to our ageing and declining population that sorely needs their skills and motivation to rebuild their lives with us; where we embrace people seeking asylum and use their talents to better our society; and where we value diversity and inclusion.


As a nation, Scotland is perceived to be more tolerant of immigration. Perhaps it is a symptom of our own legend as a country with a centuries-long history of diversity and multiculturalism.


But there’s more to be done. While the Scottish Government cannot eradicate in its entirety the abhorrent asylum system run by the Home Office - they cannot lift the restrictions placed on seeking employment or provide more direct financial support – they can take measurable steps in other ways to improve the lives of people seeking asylum in Scotland.


That simple rationale was the inspiration behind my campaign to extend the current Concessionary Travel Schemes to those seeking asylum in Scotland.


We already provide free bus travel to everyone over the age of 65, and to everyone aged from five to 22. Extending the scheme to asylum seekers would not only be straightforward but cost-effective too, with a price tag of less than £500,000 per year.


For context, the Scottish Government spent seven times that amount on spin doctors last year.

When I launched the campaign to extend the Concessionary Travel Schemes to include people seeking asylum, I met with Simon and Vongayi; two asylum seekers currently experiencing the system.


They told me their story. Both were professionals who were forced to flee their homelands due to persecution. Simon is at college studying health and social care, while Vongayi is a full-time mum to her three sons but has previously worked as banking executive.


Their lived experience strengthened my resolve to fight for their rights. The right to safety, security and respect. The right to be treated like a human being, and the right to provide a better life for your children.


With just £42 in their pocket each week, they are forced to attend Home Office appointments at the drop of a hat. Those mandatory last-minute appointments mean they are forced to spend £5 on a bus ticket, virtually their entire allowance for the day and money that would ordinarily go towards feeding themselves and their family.


That is the harsh reality of modern-day Tory Britain.


Deprivation and destitution are not exclusive to people seeking asylum. Visit any city or rural area in the country and you will see glaring examples of toil and hardship, of despair and despondency.


Working people across the UK are struggling, but they are not struggling because of an invasion of people seeking asylum, or an influx of new migrants, they are struggling because of an out of touch, cabal of charlatans in Downing Street who couldn’t care less about them or their families.


While they remain in power, not much will change.


Realistically, our best chance of improving the lives of people seeking asylum in Scotland, at least until the Tories are kicked out at the next election, rests with the Scottish Government who could extend the Concessionary Travel Scheme tomorrow if they wanted to.


For such small change, it would make a huge difference.


You can see the original column on the Glasgow Times website here: Paul Sweeney: Asylum seekers need support not condemnation | Glasgow Times