It would be so easy to write about the Owen Paterson debacle, UK Government’s failures at COP26 or Boris Johnson’s irrelevance on the world stage, demonstrated by his address to a near empty hall. However, I have attended several meetings in the last couple of weeks organised by various organisations putting together their submissions to the United Nation’s Periodic Review of the UK’s Human Rights Record. This is the first review since 2017 when the UN Special Rapporteur Mr Stig Langvad, wrote his scathing report which said that he had found evidence that the UK Government had committed “grave and systematic violation of the rights of persons with disabilities”.
Human Rights are not just nice things to have, they are fundamental rights enshrined in International Law, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in 1948, which only committed countries to a moral obligation until 1976 when the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gave it legal teeth. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for example was passed by the UN in 2008, ratified by the UK Government in 2009 and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was passed in 1951.
These Rights therefore are not something that have crept up and taken the UK Government by surprise, they have been with us for decades, so why in 2017 could the Special Rapporteur find the UK so wanting when it comes to respecting our Human Rights? That’s an easy one, the Neoliberal ideology that to a greater or lesser extent has been the dominant political thinking in England since at least 1979, which has been used to create a hostile environment particularly, but not exclusively, aimed at the poor, disabled, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Not only have they created a hostile environment, but also a punitive approach has effectively “criminalised” these groups via strategies of deterrence, surveillance, and sanctions. The rhetoric which started with the Tory/LibDem Coalition Government, about “Strivers and Skivers”, which was perpetuated by the mainstream media and television programs like Benefits Street, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, and Undercover Benefits Cheat. These actions created a system which led to disabled people living in fear of the next brown envelope, a deterioration of the physical & mental health of disabled people, the early death of in excess of 140,000 disabled people during or shortly after the work capability assessments, people being destitute, and the well documented rise in foodbanks.
This coupled with the long running racist/xenophobic campaigns of parties like the National Front, UKIP and the Right Wing of the Conservative Party which were the forerunners of the Brexit campaign. These lead to the Hostile environment policy, the Windrush scandal and on to the current Boris Johnson Government’s “Points-Based Immigration System”.
When we hear the UK government rhetoric on “Bogus or Illegal Asylum Seekers” it is worth remembering the comments of the late Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who said that a bogus asylum-seeker is not equivalent to a criminal; and that an unsuccessful asylum application is not equivalent to a bogus one. People who seek to claim asylum are not doing it for fun, nor are they coming to the UK because of our incredibly generous welfare benefits (just ask anyone who relies on benefits to live, if you’re unsure on that point) and I’m quite sure they aren’t coming here for the great weather either. They are coming here to escape torture, flee persecution, or because they fear for their lives and have been targeted because of what they believe (e.g., Religion or Political opinions) or who they are (e.g., Ethnicity or Sexuality). They often make these journeys at great risk with human traffickers taking their life savings or exploiting them in other ways before, during and after their journey.
It may be worth saying a few words on the use of the terms “refugee”, “asylum-seeker” and “migrant” because frequently our media conflate these terms, some may say deliberately conflate, but I couldn’t possibly comment. I digress, Amnesty International define the terms as follows:
A refugee is a person who has fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there. The risks to their safety and life were so great that they felt they had no choice but to leave and seek safety outside their country because their own government cannot or will not protect them from those dangers. Refugees have a right to international protection.
An asylum-seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.
There is no internationally accepted legal definition of a migrant. Like most agencies and organizations, we at Amnesty International understand migrants to be people staying outside their country of origin, who are not asylum-seekers or refugees.
Some migrants leave their country because they want to work, study, or join family, for example. Others feel they must leave because of poverty, political unrest, gang violence, natural disasters or other serious circumstances that exist there.
Lots of people don’t fit the legal definition of a refugee but could nevertheless be in danger if they went home.
It is important to understand that, just because migrants do not flee persecution, they are still entitled to have all their human rights protected and respected, regardless of the status they have in the country they moved to. Governments must protect all migrants from racist and xenophobic violence, exploitation and forced labour. Migrants should never be detained or forced to return to their countries without a legitimate reason.
From this point I am going to be speaking about the UK Government’s treatment of Asylum-seekers, that’s not to say that they treat Refugees and Migrants any better. It’s also worth pointing out that these terms are used to describe a person’s legal status, unfortunately they are also used by some in certain political circles to depersonalise and stigmatise them, as well as turning them into a political issue.
I mentioned earlier that asylum-seekers don’t come here for our generous benefits, so what does an asylum-seeker get in terms of cash support (It’s actually a payment card known as an ASPEN Card) from the UK government £39.63p per week or to put it another way £5.64p per day for food, clothing and sanitation products (Source: Home Office Asylum Support – March 2021). It’s worth saying here that it is illegal for an asylum-seeker to undertake any paid employment, so unless they have personal savings this is all they have to attempt to live on. While on this topic asylum-seekers also have no recourse to public funds, which again means that they cannot contract Human Rights lawyers, Asylum Advocates, or other professional services to navigate the complexities of our legal system.
The ASPEN Card is criticised by many because the Home Office can use them to check on the type, value, and location of transactions. Remember that these are individuals who have fled their country because they are living in fear, frequently they fear authority and any form of surveillance by the “authorities”. In May of this year the Home Office changed the provider of the ASPEN Cards, but like so many things the UK Government do errors were made which left thousands of asylum-seekers without ANY money for weeks, indeed some were still without the financial assistance they needed in late July.
Asylum-seekers have no choice as to where in the UK they are housed and their accommodation is frequently a substandard flat, house, hostel, B&B, or even hotel (during the pandemic). Housing for asylum-seekers is contracted out by the Home Office to private companies, e.g., Serco, or Mears Group. This means that the Scottish Government and Local Authorities, contrary to common belief, have no control whatsoever over the standard of housing given to asylum-seekers in Scotland or any individual council area. Indeed, it was partly due to this fact which led to Glasgow City Council imposing a ban of accepting any new asylum-seekers last year, when more than 200 asylum-seekers were housed in hotels in the city due to insufficient housing. Last July (2020) Glasgow City Council was forced to take this drastic step to ease pressures following a mass stabbing at a city centre hotel, which was being used for asylum accommodation, which led to the shooting of suspect Badreddin Abadlla Adam. It’s worth noting here that Badreddin Abadlla Adam was also a victim of the poor housing asylum-seekers were given, people who “knew him” at the hotel commented that he was terrified of catching Covid, they said he was withdrawn, agitated and “paranoid”, and self-isolated in his hotel room – where he had been for three months.
Cllr Aitken said that the housing situation was not manageable, getting to the point of not being safe, (as demonstrated by the case above and others) and that Mears Group were running the asylum housing in Glasgow on the cheap. She further commented that the UK Government had taken a political decision to continue to run asylum accommodation as a privatised service and that Mears Group could have sourced appropriate accommodation in Glasgow, but they only looked at the parts of the city with the lowest rents.
Please remember therefore that when we are talking about asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants we are talking about a diverse group of people with a huge range of skills, talents, life experiences, interests, and cultures with which they can, and do enrich our society. This is something which is recognised by the majority of people in Scotland, additionally why the Scottish Government go to great lengths to stress that we are an open, welcoming country which actively wants/needs people from other parts of the world to settle here and call Scotland home.
In the meetings I attended I heard many horror stories of further abuses of people’s Human Rights in Scotland, but here is the crux of the matter in most of these cases the abuses occurred due to the inadequate devolution settlement within which we currently live. Some of the organisations suggested that the Scottish Government could do more by asking for more powers to be devolved to Scotland and while that may very well be a legitimate point, I would contend that an ideologically driven Government that created the Hostile Environment policy would not devolve powers to the Scottish Parliament that would risk the Hostile Environment across the whole UK. Not to mention the fact that they are looking at removing powers from Holyrood not providing us with more.
I envisage another roasting for the UKs record on Human Rights from the UN when the current periodic review is completed. The UK Government recently took the Scottish Parliament to court to try to strike down the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC was passed by the UN in 1990 & ratified by the UK in 1991) into Scots Law claiming it was outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate on this matter. The UK Supreme Court disagreed on the whole and stated quite clearly that the Scottish Parliament were within their rights to make these changes to Scots Law, but they had overstepped the mark in a few places. Scottish Secretary Alister Jack had previously stated that he had concerns about section 6 of the bill, which focuses on ensuring public authorities comply with the Convention, could be seen to place legal obligations on UK ministers in reserved areas. He also complained about Sections 19 -21 which allow courts to strike down legislation or make a declaration about Acts that the court considers to be incompatible with the Convention (UNCRC), suggesting that these sections would constrain the UK Parliament’s ability to make laws for Scotland. Can you imagine complaining about sections of an Act because it forces those who govern over us to protect our Human Rights? Well, he did, and sadly the UK Supreme Court agreed with him on these points.
It’s important that these changes are made to Scots Law because currently these rights are only enshrined in International Law and not in domestic law, which means that there is limited recourse when these Rights are breached, incorporation solves this issue.
Here is the point that we can take onto the streets when campaigning, just now it is marginalised groups like people with disabilities, of which I am one, and asylum-seekers/refugees who are on the receiving end of these Human Rights abuses. But if the UK Government are prepared to try to prevent the Scottish Parliament from legislating to protect the Human Rights of children in our country that should be of huge concern to us all. As I think I have clearly demonstrated the UK care very little, if anything for the Human Rights of the people who live here and that includes everyone that we speak to on the doorstep.
In concluding I found this reminder of just how deep-rooted Human Rights are in the Scottish psyche, Fiona Hyslop writing in The Herald in 2016 said
“Burns advocating respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights is just as relevant today, whether in welfare policy, food banks, trade union legislation or the human rights debate”.
“As Burns put it:
“Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourns”.
The truly human nature of the welcome received by refugees – from hand knitted hats and scarves to home cooked meals – shows the determination of Scots to live up to Burns’ values.
What could be more relevant today than the Bard’s famous words:
“For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.””
Burns advocated for Human Rights over 250 years ago and they are still relevant today.
The only way to protect our Human Rights is with the full powers afforded to us in an Independent Scotland and its up to us in the Independence movement to have these conversations with other Scots (Old & New). I said conversations deliberately, it may raise the profile of the movement, be great fun, be uplifting to go on marches, or wave Saltires from bridges; but how many people do these activities convert from No to Yes? Its only by speaking to people that we can progress people to our position and secure Independence, so please keep having these conversations.