Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking in the Scottish Parliament to mark World Refugee Day. On that occasion, the motion passed by the Scottish Parliament highlighted the contribution made to our society by refugees and those who have sought asylum here in Scotland. It was very important to do this at a time when refugees and asylum seekers are under daily attack in the media and from certain parts of our politics.
I highlighted how many generations of refugees have contributed and enriched our country and our society from the displaced of World War Two onwards, many arriving into our own Leith harbour. But we continue to have a divided picture in our country when it comes to refugees.
We can all be proud of the willingness of the Scottish people and their government to help those displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it is clear that those who have arrived here have all too often being failed by inadequate preparation for their arrival.
Since I was elected to the Parliament just over a year ago, I have repeatedly raised with the Scottish Government the plight of refugees, particularly from Syria and Afghanistan, who have for years been stuck in hotels because no permanent accommodation has been available for them to move into. When the war in Ukraine broke out, I again warned the Scottish Government that housing people displaced from Ukraine would only add to these existing pressures, which had not been properly addressed for many years.
Before summer recess, the Scottish Parliament’s Culture and External Affairs Committee heard from the Ukrainian Consul General that hundreds of Ukrainians had been stuck in temporary accommodation for months on end. This was later acknowledged by the Scottish Government with the suspension of its Super Sponsor scheme for Ukrainian refugees and the chartering of the ship now moored at Leith docks to house people for whom no permanent accommodation was available.
We have been assured that this is a short-term solution to the problem, but I remain sceptical when previous waves of refugees have already been housed in hotels for years on end. The ship was originally chartered for six months, but I am very doubtful that this will be the extent of it given the scale of the housing crisis in Edinburgh and surrounding areas. Any extension would then also bring with it questions of value for money, which must be something the Scottish Parliament keeps track of in the coming months.
This said, I am not dismissive of the ship as a temporary means of dealing with the problem of housing Ukrainian refugees. There are advantages to the ship being used for temporary accommodation in comparison to hotels. There are communal areas and consequently a sense of community on the ship, and facilities onboard which would have been much harder for people to access from hotels.
But this only serves to highlight the divide in our approach to refugees. The UK now effectively has a two-tier system: Ukrainians are allowed to live, study and work here, claim benefits here, and now have special dispensation made for their community living, even if it is housed temporarily on a ship; meanwhile refugees who have already arrived in the UK from Syria and Afghanistan are languishing in hotels, scattered around Edinburgh and wider Scotland, unable to work or claim benefits.
Of course, this divide is not entirely down to the Scottish Government. The Conservative Government in Westminster has set the direction on refugees and asylum seekers, and its hostile environment approach has made life considerably harder for anyone claiming refuge here, even from places to which the UK (due to its foreign policy decisions) has an unusual burden of responsibility, such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. As a result, those refugees who have been stuck in this situation for years look at what Ukrainians have been given with disbelief.
As I said in the Scottish Parliament, this is not to argue that those displaced by the Ukraine conflict should have been given less, but rather to show how much more support could have been given to those fleeing other conflict zones. I highlighted then the need to avoid a racist double-standard in our approach to supporting refugees.
I very much hope that the Scottish Government learns the lessons from the lack of preparation for the influx of Ukrainian refugees. We increasingly have housing and healthcare systems that barely have the capacity for the existing population, let alone for sudden influxes of people. The Scottish Government are right to say that we are a welcoming society and want to provide a warm welcome to people in need – but they must also ensure that we, as a society, are prepared and equipped to do so.