Glasgow Has Shown Us How to Support Immigrants, Now We Must Follow Their Example

Tom Huggins-Teasdale discusses why the words we use, and protests like those in Glasgow, can help us to change the narrative on immigration.

WORDS Tom Huggins-Teasdale

ILLUSTRATIONS Isabella Coombs

There are certain world events that become teachable moments; by observing the lessons that they provide, we can all learn to be better. On 13 May, the world watched as one of those moments developed on a side street in Pollokshields, Glasgow. 

Immigration enforcement officers from the UK Home Office had removed two men from their accommodation and were detaining them in a van parked on Kenmure street. Local mechanic Lakhvir Singh and Chef Sumit Sehdev, who have been living in the UK for the past 10 years, were reportedly being held on suspicion of overstaying their Visas. Although Singh’s Visa is known to have expired in 2016, his attempts to renew it have been rejected so far by the Home Office.

The dawn raid, which is a favoured tactic of the Home Office, did not go unnoticed and the van was soon surrounded by around 200 people protesting the men’s detention. While most gathered around the van, one man climbed underneath it, remaining there for the duration of the protest to ensure it was unable to leave. Some of the protestors were linked to the ‘Glasgow No Evictions Network’ which aims to combat the removal of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants, while others were alerted by community members.

Singh and Sehdev were eventually released back into the arms of the community which had come together to support them in a stand-off that lasted almost 8 hours. The Home Office, however, has made it clear in a statement that they were released on bail and it still plans to detain and deport them at a later date. Police Scotland are said to have intervened on behalf of the detained men due to concerns over “safety, public health, and wellbeing”, although their presence at the raid and the role they intended to play, have been called into question ever since the event.

The community that stepped forward to challenge the attempted removal of Singh and Sehdev demonstrated that despite being born in a different country, the two men belonged in Scotland.

Along with being a clear demonstration of the power of protest, this story has multiple layers to it – and it is within those layers that we find the real lessons to be learned. 

On the surface sits the Home Office and its attempts to spread the ‘Hostile Environment’ policy. It is clear that they would like immigrants and asylum seekers to be viewed negatively, and for those born in the UK to see them as a threat to our economy and our values. While some measures introduced by the Home Office have focused on making it more difficult for immigrants to access services, such as requiring landlords, NHS services, and banks amongst others, to conduct immigration status checks, other policies have been more directly aimed at public perception. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Home Offices ‘Go Home Vans’. 

This short-lived project involved driving large billboard vans through ethnically diverse communities, carrying messages that encouraged undocumented immigrants to go back to their country of origin. While their stated purpose was plain, it is reasonable to accept that those billboards also reinforced the message that anyone who did not have a legal status given to them by the government should be rightly unwanted here. It also promotes the idea that telling someone to “go back where they came from” shouldn’t carry the racist stigma that is rightly applied to it. What we have seen in Glasgow is an absolute rejection of this ideology. The community that stepped forward to challenge the attempted removal of Singh and Sehdev demonstrated that despite being born in a different country, the two men belonged in Scotland.

The true key to understanding the value of this protest lies in the altogether removal of the word “immigration” from the equation.

Immigration in the UK is not as simple as the Home Office’s narrative would like the public to believe, and the needs of an increasingly vocal Scotland is making that plain. While the UK government introduces a points-based immigration system and new initiatives aimed at excluding those without high level skills, qualifications or incomes, Holyrood has been open in stating that Scotland’s needs lie in a different direction.

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have been arguing for a Scottish-specific immigration policy for some time, and their proposal is altogether more humane than the exclusionary policy they are currently forced to accept. While the SNP’s argument for immigration in Scotland is very much designed to benefit the country, their ideas do so in a way that makes the choice to live in Scotland accessible to a wider range of migrants, they achieve this by removing the salary thresholds and application fees that limit who can apply for UK Visas. Their recommendations to remove the Immigration Health Surcharge and to review the Immigration Skills Charge could even cut some of the income that the Scottish government currently receives. This shows their willingness to place people before economic considerations. 

In this context, it’s perhaps no surprise that the events in Glasgow took place in Nicola Sturgeon’s own constituency or indeed that she herself condemned the raid, which took place during Eid in a largely Muslim area. These events, however, are not simply a rejection of discriminatory immigration policies, or even a show of support for the economic needs of Scotland. What unfolded that day can be seen as a continuation of the divide that has emerged between England and Scotland since the results of the Brexit referendum.

Scotland rejected Brexit by a wider margin than England accepted it, yet they were pulled along by the wishes of those in Westminster. The idea of a return to membership of the European Union has since been seen as a driving force behind the renewed push for Scottish independence. As with all Member States, this would mean Scotland being open to EU citizens once more as part of the “right to roam” policy currently enjoyed by those born in EU nations. As immigration and “taking back control” of borders was an important factor in voting intention during Brexit, this acts as further evidence of the Scottish public’s softer stance on the issue.

The true key to understanding the value of this protest, however, lies in the altogether removal of the word “immigration” from the equation. On Kenmure street, around 200 members of a community stood in solidarity with their neighbours against something that they collectively saw as an injustice. The fact that Singh and Sehdev weren’t born in Scotland didn’t matter as the crowd chanted, “These are our neighbours, let them go!”.

In loudly and proudly declaring their support for their neighbours, the people that gathered around that van helped to reframe the identity of those that the Enforcement Officers were detaining.

This sentiment is important, not least because it demonstrates the different attitude of the Scottish public on immigration compared to the rest of the UK. Research conducted by UnHerd in 2020 found that while the Scottish public is far from universally accepting of immigration, it is more accepting overall than the rest of the UK. This is not the first time that Scotland has seen large gatherings that demonstrate solidarity with migrants. In 2015, Scottish citizens held vigils across the country to support refugees fleeing war in Syria as part of the “Glasgow sees Syria” event, and a human chain was formed in George Square to mark the 2017 launch of the now annual Refugee Festival Scotland. Although these events can help to provide refugees and immigrants with a sense of unity with the people of Scotland, their wider significance is that they provide an alternative narrative which allows people to broaden their understanding of migration. 

In loudly and proudly declaring their support for their neighbours, the people that gathered around that van helped to reframe the identity of those that the Enforcement Officers were detaining. In a country where some of the most often used phrases to describe migrants in the media are things like “illegal”, “failed asylum seekers” or a “flood”, events like this help to humanise the people behind these terms. This allows words like “neighbour”, “friend” and “partner” to take their place and, as a result, stops people from seeing migrants as a faceless threat. When we use the word illegal to describe a migrant, it acts to criminalise the person themselves. Despite many organisations recommending the use of the word “Irregular” to describe undocumented immigration, the media, and politicians continue to use the criminalising language of “illegal” to apply unfair bias against refugees and immigrants, whatever their status.    

This is why the simple concepts of solidarity and unity undoubtedly will be crucial in the times ahead. As more and more countries begin to look inward and isolation becomes an increasingly popular political preference, events like that in Glasgow become guiding lights that help us chase away the darkness of aggressive nationalism. The message is clear if we choose to listen to it. No matter our place of birth, the language we speak or the borders that some seek to control, our shared humanity will always connect us. 

Tom Huggins-Teasdale is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.

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