Scotland’s Abandoned Refugees

By Simon Jones

The government leaves locals and refugees unprepared, and the media passively intimidates supporters.

The Scottish island of Bute is a place that people escape from, not somewhere they run to. It’s not the bucolic fantasy you might imagine from the phrase “Scottish island”; there are no stately castles or tweed-clad landowners strafing the sky for pheasants. There is a castle, but it’s a ruin, and the landowners divide their time between London and the United States, visiting Bute so rarely that a few years ago the Scottish government took them to task for being “absentee lairds.” It’s no wonder they stay away. Bute is studded with struggling farms, “for sale” signs, and abandoned properties: a post-industrial community that never had an industry. If people are able to leave, they don’t stick around long.

All of which makes it an unlikely place to send people fleeing one of the most fractured, entrenched conflicts on Earth. And yet Bute has recently taken in 15 families from Syrian refugee camps.

The main town of Bute, Rothesay, sits grey and drab on the hillsides around a bay. Most of its citizens today are retired or unable to make a life for themselves elsewhere. People come not so much to build new lives as to escape their pasts. Outside of the town, the island, low and green, is farmed by tenant farmers whose situation is dire. The estate that managed the land on behalf of the landowners had, until recently, a reputation for neglect and silencing dissent, with stories of repairs taking months after the winter storms. In 2010 the island’s creamery closed; now, no dairy products can be produced on the island for sale, and it continues only to get harder for farmers.

Two hours away is Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. Bute’s population was mostly sustained by tourism from Glasgow until the 1970s; families would take a once-a-year holiday “doon the watter,” to Rothesay, and stay for a week before heading back to work in the city’s shipyards and factories. Today there are no shipyards or factories and most of the money has dried up — what hasn’t goes to Spain for package holidays instead.

When the government announced that it would take in Syrian refugees, it asked local councils, the next-largest government level, to indicate how many they could take. Bute has a surplus of housing available; the falling population and lack of interest in people moving has made it possible to buy a house overlooking the sea for the same price as a family car. This made Bute an appealing candidate for resettlement, regardless of the needs of refugees or locals. The government dropped refugees in Bute without preparing them or their new neighbors, simply because there was space.

The refugee crisis Bute has been caught up in involves people fleeing Syria, but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Pakistan. There are two distinct strands. The first is the people who have fled as refugees to camps primarily in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan — mostly Syrians. Then there has been the movement of people through Europe, where support systems for people claiming refugee or asylum status have been completely incapable of meeting their needs.

The terms can sometimes be confusing. Asylum-seekers are people who have made a legal claim to reside in a country to avoid persecution. “Refugee” is less specific: Sometimes people self-identify as refugees as they apply for asylum; other times a crisis emerges in which people are generally understood to be refugees even if there is no way of collecting an individual asylum application from them. Migrants are people who move to other countries without these legal safeguards about their rights to stay there. The distinction is often a legal one, rather than having to do with a person’s intent.

Over 7 million people in Syria have had to flee their homes because of the war there. More than 4 million have left the country entirely, most now residing in Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey. For these countries, the scale of the influx has been overwhelming; Lebanon and Jordan — countries roughly the size of Connecticut and South Carolina respectively — have seen their populations increase by close to 2 million combined.

The disintegration of Syria has forced people to make the journey to Europe in greater numbers than ever before. When the war broke out more than half the population lived in cities, where the most intense fighting has taken place. Chemical attacks, massacres and barrel bombs — oil tanks filled with explosives and dropped from helicopters onto homes or city squares — have made the country’s cities unliveable. Those who have the means to leave have plenty of motivation to do so, and with most cities being near Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan, there has been an exodus to these countries. It has been an intensely sectarian conflict, with Syria’s diverse population being divided to suit the war’s commanders. There have even been instances of groups swapping whole villages to settle disputes over territory.

The refugees on Bute, like all those taken in by the U.K. and Scottish governments, came from official refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. They are mostly from the Sunni region around Dara’a, in the south of the country. Life there is similar to camps elsewhere: awful conditions, few prospects and no end in sight while the conflict rages just over the hills. Most journeys from Syria to Europe away from refugee camps involve the services of traffickers — criminals paid to organise transport in some way, often boats or truck containers. The cost can be thousands of dollars per person.

Traffickers sometimes demand that people work off their debt on arrival — a form of indentured servitude — with migrants at risk of slavery and exploitation by criminal gangs. By the time they reach the Turkish coast, with only the sea voyage to Italy or Greece remaining, most of the money has already been collected, and in many cases migrants and refugees are piled onto boats which were not seaworthy. In just one incident in April 2015, 800 migrants died when their boat sank, traveling from Libya to Italy. According to the International Organisation on Migration 7,504 people have died or gone missing attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the past 27 months.

Europe, population 500 million, has agreed to resettle 160,000 people over two years. The continent is being overwhelmed, but mostly because its response to the crisis has been drastically insignificant and badly planned: around 750,000 people arrived in Italy and Greece, the most common European entry points, in 2015. With the EU pledging to resettle only a fraction of that number, many hundreds of thousands have been left in limbo.

While Europe has been coming up with responses to the crisis — responses that have been criticized repeatedly by refugee agencies for their inadequacy — it hasn’t been complacent. Instead, it has put its energy into protecting itself from having to lend any assistance to the victims of tragedy. The first stage of this master plan was to announce a deal with Turkey, in which the EU would pay for the promise that people coming in from Syria would be kept there rather than making it to Greece. This failed, and people continued to make the hazardous journey across the Aegean sea.

The second phase was announced recently, aiming again to end the movement of people from Turkey to Greece and into Europe. The E.U. has set a cap on the number of Syrian asylum applications it will accept, and will send everyone else back to Turkey. Once there they can live in camps or simply be sent back to their country of origin, a prospect the U.N. has already said could amount to sending refugees back into a warzone where they are at risk of death. All for $6.7 billion per year.

The U.K.’s Home Office allocates families to local councils on the basis of space available. Those councils can then appeal placements if they are found to be untenable, for example if a house is not accessible for someone with a disability. Nobody I spoke with suggested there was a needs-based analysis of the people and their requirements, or of the suitability of placement locations.

People on Bute note that families are often keen to leave the island, while most incomers are elderly or have been rehoused from the mainland. Young people basically have to leave once they finish secondary schooling in order to find work or continue their education. Moving 20 families into an area of 4,500 where there is no knowledge of their cultural requirements, even on issues as important as food, at two months’ notice, is not the norm in Scotland. Until this year refugees and asylum seekers have only been placed in Glasgow, the largest city, which unlike Bute has a significant Islamic population and organizations to support them, albeit without proper funding.

Opposition to Bute’s new residents was mostly passive but unchallenged. Some people reported discontent at the few public meetings there were ahead of the families’ arrival, including anger at what was seen as being preferential treatment for refugees over local people. In reality these complaints are seen almost everywhere refugees are resettled, but the lack of a concerted program of engagement for the local community is troubling, especially given its importance to successful resettlement programs elsewhere.

Part of the problem is the embarrassment of many of those who welcome refugees; they would rather not discuss or acknowledge the discontents. Doing so would imply that Scotland, as a whole, is not an especially welcoming place for refugees. In the past two years since the independence referendum the defeated independence movement has stressed the differences between Scotland and the rest of the U.K. Scotland’s more liberal, more humanitarian status would be undermined by the recognition of existing community problems.

And so, instead of mediation, education, and eventually reconciliation, Bute locals’ qualms have been met with secrecy. Not long after the first families arrived, the right-leaning tabloid Daily Mail published exactly the kind of article you would expect: a masterpiece of dog-whistle politics, in which the Mail described the complaints of local residents about the favorable treatment of refugees and asked, pseudo-philosophically, whether the refugees were burdened by knowing that they were taking the jobs and resources of Scotland’s hardworking people.

Everyone I spoke to, even those who welcome refugees, mentioned the Daily Mail article as the reason they were reluctant to speak to the press. But those involved directly in refugee support found this reaction frustrating, as it prevents publicity both for good work and for systemic challenges that benefit from public awareness. The reticence is rooted more in defensiveness than concern for vulnerable people.

Luckily, while the government leaves locals and refugees unprepared, and the media passively intimidates supporters, there are community groups working on their own to make sure Bute’s new residents feel safe and at home.

Before the refugees arrived, there was literally no Islamic community on the island, although one survey turned up one self-identifying Arabic speaker. Meeting the needs of the new community has been a struggle, but one met as much as possible by the local community. The local Catholic Church has opened its church hall as a community centre each day and on Friday it can be used for prayers. The food bank has collaborated with the Islamic organisations on the mainland.

The Bute refugees have been supported in part by a partnership between the Scottish Communities Initiative, a registered charity that helps the disenfranchised, and the Glasgow Central Mosque, the largest in the country. One of the critical features of successful resettlement programs is that they work both with the people being resettled and the communities into which they move, and so SCI conducted visits to the schools on Bute to provide brief workshops on Islam and refugee issues.

This isn’t to say that people on Bute had no idea about the needs of their new neighbors, but there were practical issues which had not been considered. For example, SCI found that the refugees had gone without sufficient protein for several weeks, because there was no halal meat available on the island. The group made contact with businesses on the mainland and delivered 80 kilograms of meat and 60 chickens to the island within 48 hours. Seemingly simple things like this have been the mainstay of Bute’s effective resettlement so far, and are a testament to the practical enthusiasm of people both on the island and like-minded communities on the mainland.

While the local support for the new neighbors is heartwarming, there are serious questions about how refugees’ support is coordinated at a higher level. Preparation at the national and local authority levels has been far more haphazard — it’s fortunate that community groups have helped, but alarming that nobody considered the cultural needs of the new citizens when they planned for their care. Until this year only Glasgow City Council had experience of housing and supporting dispersed asylum seekers. Councils like Argyll and Bute are being asked to meet needs they have never encountered before, with less resources around them than ever.

The government has convened a task force of refugee support organizations, including local councils, to coordinate support for the few who reached the country. But its initial endowment equates to a one-off support payment of $700 for each resettled person. Refugee support organizations have seen their funding slashed in recent years — despite the insistence that the country supports refugees, it’s one of the easiest budget cuts to make in a society already accustomed to austerity. One figure connected with Argyll and Bute Council pointed out that much of the support for refugees will end after only 6 months.

Resettling based on available space also means, in some cases, that refugees land in places where they cannot build a sustainable life for themselves. On Bute, where the population has crashed since the 1960s, there are fewer and fewer people. For those remaining, there are virtually no opportunities, with businesses continuing to struggle and the estate scrambling to support the people already involved in agriculture which is forced into subsistence by the market. Nobody I spoke to believed that the refugees, in any numbers, could expect to build a life there.

Away from the headlines, the people of Scotland are being told that the reflection they see in the mirror is one of a just, humanitarian place. What they miss is that most of the real work is work being done by a few good people, in spite of opaque and cynical systems. That work finds itself complicated by islanders’ worries about their own future. At the core of these concerns is an uncertainty about Bute’s viability as a community. For decades people here have seen businesses and people leave, never to be replaced.

The arrival of refugees, fleeing somewhere that is simply uninhabitable, highlights Bute’s own isolation in Scotland. Nobody seems to have an answer as to what Bute’s future will be, other than the numbing realization that it is unsuitable even for people leaving Syria. As for the refugees themselves, the best guesses of those supporting them are that they may have friends or family elsewhere in the U.K. they could stay with, or that they will inevitably go to the mainland if they can find housing there, like so many of Bute’s own people. Still, people find things to enjoy and opportunities to celebrate the work they have done to help each other as best they can in impossible circumstances. At the end of one interview I was warmly invited to an upcoming meal with refugees and their supporters — in Glasgow, of course.

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