Tinkering at the edges is not enough

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by Anne McLaughlin, SNP candidate for Provan and champion of the Florence & Precious Belong to Glasgow campaign.

When I was unexpectedly elected in February 2009 after Bashir Ahmad sadly passed away, I had one advantage over many other MSPs.  I’d worked for 3 different MSPs and I learned the lessons they were too immersed in the job to learn.

So I was clear from the start that I wanted to take time to decide what interests I was going to focus on so that I didn’t end up doing nothing well.  Ha!  Easier said than done.

I was also clear what those interests would be.  Asylum was not one of them.  Of course I would represent my constituents who happened to be asylum seekers but for some reason that I’ve completely forgotten now, I didn’t want it to be one of my core interests.

Ironically enough that was precisely what I became known for to those who follow politics.  I had come into contact with a few asylum seekers and had done my best to help them but it was all very low key, they were part of my caseload.  And then two of them were detained in Dungavel Detention Centre and seeing them in that place made me realise that I really couldn’t turn my back on the issue and that I had to do everything I could to change our approach to asylum and those who need it.

I had had no real illusions about how we treat asylum seekers in the UK but I really was quite blind to just how shocking the reality is.  The reality of a system that is about stopping people coming here rather than helping people who are in dire need.  A reality that says it’s perfectly acceptable to imprison young children for indefinite periods of time.  And a reality that allows vulnerable people to sleep on the street with no statutory right to a bed for the night or any income whatsoever.

The first time I learned about the latter was when my now good family friend ‘Sam’ came in to the office to tell me he’d been evicted because his claim had finished and his weekly allowance had been stopped.  This is someone who’d fled his village in Darfur when rebels burned it down raping and killing villagers along the way.  His family disappeared in an instant and he was taken to torture camps.

He’s a gentle, lovely young guy who wouldn’t harm a fly and he’s been deeply traumatised by his previous life.  He has terrifying flashbacks and yet here we were saying it was fine for him to sleep in the street and perfectly acceptable for him to do without food or clothing.  One of my worst moments as an MSP was discovering, after reassuring him that he must have that wrong and he would ‘definitely’ be entitled to something, that I was wrong.  Having to tell him that was not easy.  I was close to tears but I knew seeing his MSP cry would not be helpful to him so I saved it for later that night.

There are so many other examples I could give you of what is wrong with our system but space will not permit me.  Suffice to say that tinkering at the edges is not enough.  When parliament eventually comes to an end for me, I would be keen to head up a review of our asylum system in preparation for independence.

We have to be thinking now about what kind of system we want.  The last thing we should be doing is inheriting the current UK Borders Agency and changing only the name.  There is much I would do differently but it has to start with looking at the culture within the existing organisation.  A compassionate asylum system would be based on need and the desire to do good in the world in which we have done so much harm in the past.

Given the tremendous support I’ve found for my asylum seeking constituents from Alex Salmond, Michael Russell, Nicola Sturgeon, Fiona Hyslop, Alex Neil and Kenny MacAskill to name just a few, I feel sure I will have the full backing of the SNP for such changes once we are independent and are able to say to those who need our help, “You are welcome”.

To quote the Dalai Lama, “Compassion … is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”

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Published with thanks to the Scottish Independence Convention.