Tories and Scotland contrast heavily in refugee support

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 07th Apr 2023

As Easter approaches, I found myself thinking about Alastair Campbell’s famous advice to Tony Blair – “We don’t do God”. Our new FM changed all that in Scotland when he posted a photo of himself and his family praying in Bute House at the end of their daily Ramadan fast. It was an arresting image illustrating the diversity of modern Scotland although some people did wonder whether Kate Forbes leading her family in Christian prayer would have met with a similarly positive reaction.

Religion has had a bit of a bad press in Scotland recently, but in my experience some of the most important outreach work done in my constituency is carried out by faith communities. In as much as I might not agree with all the tenets of either Humza or Kate’s faith, I hugely appreciate the contribution our different faith communities make to modern Scottish society and respect their right to hold beliefs with which I and others might disagree.

For myself. I am a bit of a wishy-washy lapsed Catholic but still capable of being roused to passion if I think my faith community is being insulted. And so, last week in the House of Commons I lost it a bit when Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, decided to use a parody of the words of St Augustine to mock Alison Thewliss’ excellent response to his statement on housing those who arrive by small boats in the most basic accommodation possible as part of their deterrent policy. As had already been reported in some newspapers. former military sites are under consideration as well as industrial barges.

Alison Thewliss ruffled the Tory’s feathers by referring to the UK’s historic form on internment camps, most recently used in Northern Ireland in the 1970s when many innocent Catholics and nationalists were interned without trial in camps and, on a vessel in Belfast harbour. Jenrick resorted to the tired and dishonest Tory trope that Scotland has not taken its fair share of refugees and asylum seekers and accused the SNP of being “humanitarian nimbys” saying that Alison took a kind of St Augustine approach “Lord let us welcome refugees but not in our constituencies.” Given Glasgow’s outstanding record on welcoming refugees I was infuriated and accused him of blasphemy earning a rebuke from the Speaker.

Alison was right. What is proposed is highly reminiscent of the refugee detention camps we saw in the BBC series “Years and Years” which many of us watched avidly during lockdown. In the dystopian science fiction drama set in a UK of the near future refugees are interned in the UK and a fascist right populist played by Emma Thompson is elected PM.

Jenrick riled Alison, myself and our colleagues by seeking to make a comparison between his plans to inter refuges on an industrial barge with the Scottish Government’s use of former ferry accommodation in Edinburgh and Glasgow to house Ukrainian refugees. The comparison is, as Alison said, both offensive and misleading.

I visited the MS Victoria at Leith Dock last month and saw the difference with my own eyes. For a start, the accommodation used in Scotland was an emergency temporary response which is now being stood down. As Minister with special responsibility for refugees from Ukraine, Neil Gray was assiduous in keeping local parliamentarians informed of developments.

As a result of a joint strategy led by Glasgow City Council over the past three months, with support from the Ukrainian consul and third sector, all those on board the MS Ambition docked in Glasgow have disembarked for onward shorter and longer-term accommodation. Plans are well advanced to do the same in Edinburgh by the end of the summer.

It seems the UK Government looked into emulating the Scottish Government’s response but rejected the idea because of the expense involved and the fact that quality accommodation would not fit with their plans to “suffuse our entire system with deterrence.”

The Tories plan to isolate refugees and asylum seekers from those of us who already live in the UK. In contrast the Scottish Government provided wraparound support for the cruise ships, with local government, NHS, schools and community integration. Those running the cruise ships have also done a great job. When I visited the MS Victoria I saw high standard overnight and communal accommodation. There was a regular minibus shuttle service into Leith where children on the boat were attending local schools and some of the adults were working in the community. On board entertainment produced by the guests, children’s activities including a children’s club “Funny Moments” formed by ship charter organiser Landry and Kling employing a team of 7 Ukrainian guests from the ship with backgrounds in childcare, including teachers and a child psychologist. Activities have been organised for more than 380 children among a cohort of over 1,000 refugees onboard to keep them active and focused after school and at the weekends. We also met with the principal dancer of the Freedom ballet who lived on board with their family. All the rooms have ensuite toilet and shower and windows or an illuminated panel and the food is of high quality. The same cannot be said of many of the hotels commissioned by the Home Office.

The Scottish Government, Edinburgh and Glasgow City councils and the charter companies as well as the guests themselves are to be congratulated for what they have achieved. Of course, it is not ideal, but it is temporary and quite different from what the Tories have planned.

As well as being a security nightmare the Tories plans would breach the Refugee Convention on arbitrary detention and could amount to racial discrimination given the very different treatment given to refugees from Ukraine. Such housing for unaccompanied minors and those traumatized in warzones would be highly inappropriate and the security on such sites could be a nightmare.

The environment created on board the MS Victoria by the Scottish Government and their partners is one of respect and nurture recognising a difficult time for people fleeing the war, but there is no respect or support in the barge ships or the Tory policies surrounding it.

Joanna Cherry KC MP


    • Joanna Cherry 139 Dundee Street, EH11 1BP
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