Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
The Scottish Refugee Council’s AGM and Public Meeting: Refugee Voices in the Scottish Referendum.
The Scottish Refugee Council AGM begins with a welcome, a hand shake from an African refugee greeting me with the gorgeous, generous slow structure of greeting I have come to love in my relations with those from other parts of the world “Hello, ah hello” – as the recognition dawns between us that we have met before – and then another familiar face handing me a badge, smiling, laughing, connecting welcoming. “Go through there” she says, “vote in the referendum then there will be lots of people wanting your opinion.”
I go through and my priority is to vote. The ballot paper says the following:
Should Scotland be an independent country?
Yes No Don’t know
Are you eligible to vote in this referendum?
Yes No Don’t know
Are you from a refugee background?
As the volunteer encourages me to vote I tell her my great grandmother was a suffragette and that I need no encouragement to vote. In fact the poignancy of the opportunity suddenly brings a lump to my throat as I realise that next to me about to vote is someone who is of refugee background, who has fled from a country where there is not an opportunity for women or for men to vote in anything approaching free and democratic elections. My memory recalls the blood prints of hands on the walls around Tahrir square, from my visit there with Gramnet’s Life Long learning in Palestine project, hand prints made by those marking their protest and desire for full, free, fair elections.I become quieter as I move through the questions. Recently I was in Aotearoa New Zealand and I learned more deeply to appreciate the importance of the heritage of my ancestors and the vital importance of place and the land. I am not refugee background myself. I realise I do not know if there have ever been refugees in the blood line of my family, except that my family were moved from the land in the enclosures in the nineteenth century to work the cotton mills of Lancashire and that there is a story in the family that one of the names carried down the maternal line – a French name – came because the family came over from France during persecutions of Huguenots. I quieten even more and my vote is cast in this mock referendum. The moments with this ballot paper have been humbling, reflective, surprisingly recast by being in the context of voting where for so many so much blood lies underneath the right to make a X.
I turn from this moment of quiet into the melee of activity in the reception rooms, with familiar faces handing me pens and asking me to record my opinion on a whole host of aspects on asylum and refugee politics.
I love the atmosphere. It feels a bit like a traditional market place, full of chat, meeting, people, action and colour. I find myself strongly agreeing with various statements and scribbling comments on sheets, in between the lovely meeting and greeting of so many simply fabulous committed people who dedicate so much passion to work with the most vulnerable people.
After the business part of the AGM the Public Meeting begins: “Refugee Voices in the Scottish Referendum Debate”. Judith Robertson, Chair of SRC reads out the result of the ballot.
“The fact that only refugee background people from commonwealth countries can vote does not mean that refugee voices should not be heard.”
“Results of our Referendum Ballot are as follows”, she says, adopting, for a moment, the tone of a returning officer:
108 votes were cast
24 Don’t Know
36 people voted of Refugee background
12 Don’t Know.
She then introduces the guest speaker Roland Schilling, UK representative of UNHCR, who begins by showing us a short video from the Syrian border. I offer it here as a fragment in words:
Blood on the ground
We all bleed red
Baby boy holds baby
“It is a dire situation” Roland Schilling says. “It does not even reflect the situation happening in Syria where there is no access to humanitarian aid. For UNHCR it was one of the most difficult years. It is the largest numbers of displacements since the Rwandan Genocide. Five times the size of Scotland.”
I look at a photograph on the projector, puzzled. It shows match boxes. No, not match boxes. Homes. People. In Zatari refugee camp, Jordan.
“I have never known so many people working so hard and so tired.”
Yes. yes, it is like this here too. For these good people in this room, I think.
Then he tells it straight:
1) “Money – international support has been generous with regard to the Syrian crisis and we have to praise that generosity: £600 million in assistance from UK Government. But there are serious limits on the emergency funds available in the world. Lebanon and Jordan are suffering from the enormous numbers of people arriving who need our support.
2) The burden of host communities has increased but there has also been a burden shifting in the world. Ten years ago around 30% of refugees were received by the rich countries and in the global north: now 80% receive protection in the global South because of upstream activities and border controls. This for us is morally and ethically problematic and this undermines the basis of protection. There are tremendous strains in countries receiving large numbers, and competition between urban poors. This creates a political fragility especially in places like Lebanon, especially where there is a history of civil war brought about by arrival of large numbers of people.
3) The social implications are dramatic. The population in Lebanon has increased by 20% and of children by 50 %. School capacity has doubled and tripled. Imagine this in Scotland. It is extremely difficult to cope.
4) The Lebanese state generously grants free education but children cannot afford transport costs. We think providing the protection needed could be protracted. The call of The High Commissioner to resettle refugees is about solidarity with receiving countries. We believe that countries in the region are understanding that they are being told: “Keep your own borders open but make sure no one comes to Europe.”
5) The ideal would be a world where there are no refugees. People will take risks themselves if there is no increased protection and no orderly programme. If we do not do this, we will face more situations like the Lampedusa tragedy. I do not want to come back and have to show you the images of what will have happened if we do not resettle the Syrian populations.”
There is sustained applause and calls for the UK to take and resettle Syrian refugees, then Debora Kayembe, Barrister refugee from DR Congo and with her own language company, now training as a solicitor in Scotland, stands to speak directly to the refugees present.
“The referendum is about everyday life. What will be your attitude? I say we should all be engaged because we live in Scotland. It is where we confront the system. It is no secret that there is racism and anti-social behaviour. Sometimes we say it is better for us to die because the doors are closed for us and because we cannot understand the system, we would prefer to stay in poverty.”
“It is hard to leave our home and start a new life. Then comes the decision when the doors are closed. At the moment our children cannot get the support they need because of the long waiting list. Can we say this should go on and we are better together?”
“I come from the Congo. We saw political change with children getting the gun in the street and becoming the world capital for rape. At the same time political change came to South Africa with the release of Nelson Mandela.”
“Right now if you ask me about change I don’t know yet how I would vote but it must be a good move and a much fairer society.”
“Do you think we really are “better together” as refugees? Independence: what are you going to bring to us?”
“We are facing politicians. Just let’s be involved and let’s listen before we make up our mind.”
And in my eyes there are tears and in my throat there is a lump the size of a tennis ball. And I realise in the passion Debora brings that I have heard my great grandmother speaking to me across the centuries and urging me again to think hard to listen and most of all to vote,
because I can,
and because so much blood lies underneath the right to make a X.