Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A Glasgow Tragedy

Last Sunday, a family jumped from the 15th floor of one of Glasgow's Red Road flats. The Russian family were asylum seekers, who had refugee status in Canada but had been refused protection in the UK and had been asked to make arrangements to leave their Red Road flat and return to Canada. This prospect, for whatever reasons, was worse than committing suicide in the early hours of Sunday morning.

This tragic suicide has brought the spotlight onto the blight of asylum seekers in Glasgow and the UK. It's not the first suicide, and to be honest, I'm surprised there aren't more. The situation for asylum seekers in the UK is dire. Imagine, you flee from a country, have left everything behind, job, sometimes family, your friends, your own culture that you know how to navigate in. You arrive in a new country, one you consider to be safe and where you would like to build a future for yourself and your children. In this country, you are denied the right to work, you are denied to choose where you live, you are given a fraction of what is considered to be the basic amount that a person can live on. You are then housed in a strange city, in a flat nobody else wants, on the 15th floor of a building that has the questionable fame of being Europe's highest building for people to reside in. You are under constant threat of being detained and dread that knock on your door which may take you into a prison like environment. You can't travel. Nobody believes your story. You have to proof everything, including your age. You may have to wait for a decision on your case for 7 years, 7 years in which you slowly waste your life away, unable to provide for yourself, because you're not allowed to work or attend full time further education. You cannot afford to do anything, so you feel excluded, isolated. Your mental health, which was scarred from traumatic experiences that you'd hoped to leave behind you, deteriorates in these years of feeling useless and dependent on the goodwill of others.

Then things turn for the worse - the UK government has decided they don't believe you and you are declared a failed asylum seeker. You are asked to leave the country. You could be evicted, forcefully deported, detained indefinitely. Your flat may be raided in the morning, and you may be picked up and deported without being able to pack your suitcase or for your child to say goodbye to her friends at school. However, you can't return home, because you are sure you will come to harm, you may fear to be killed, to be imprisoned, to be tortured, to be disappeared. The fear eats away at you, destroying your peace of mind which you have so carefully tried to piecemeal together. You have become a living ghost. You may have lost your home and your entitlement to benefits, you may have to live on the streets, forever at the mercy of people who offer you a floor to sleep on and food to eat.

You may never be reunited with your child whom you miss so very much.

This is the reality for many people in the UK. Last night's Secret Millionnaire was moved to tears, realising how important it is for the UK to be a safe haven for people, yet how it makes people who have been through circumstances unimaginable to us, people who would have a lot to give to this country, destitute.

Since Sunday, Glasgow has seen a number of demonstrations and actions. The Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees called for candle lit vigils at the Red Road Flats, for demonstrations and protest. Hard hitting questions were asked. There was a lot of anger, anger that I understand and feel too. However, some of the anger, in my view, was misguided. The issue that breaks people is that the system to deal with asylum applications is fraught with injustice, it's complicated, lengthy, and shaped by public opinion. The government is keen to be seen to be tough on asylum, hence making it impossible for asylum seekers to work, hence forced deportation when really and truly it is not safe for many to be returned to their country. There is an assumption of any asylum seeker's case to be disbelieved, which I feel utterly undermines any human relation. There has to be trust for there to be truthfulness and justice.

So years of anger have been directed recently at the owners of some of the flats at Red Road, the YMCA specifically. The YMCA is a charity, a landlord, and they are contracted to provide housing for asylum seekers. They are not the worst housing providers: For example, as they house many asylum seekers in a very confined space, they also organise activities, advice and support for those living in their flats. Where else do you get English classes in your own building? Activities for teenagers? Art and craft classes? General advice to navigate the system and get the best outcome? There is a specific programme of work that the YMCA does which is to support their residents (who are all asylum seekers). They have a no eviction policy, so tenants enjoy better protection than they would if they are housed by for instance the Angel Group. Of course, the Red Road Flats are infamous and considered to be the worst housing available in Glasgow. But still, is it not better to at least be housed nearby people from the same country in similar circumstances, rather to be placed somewhere without local support available, in a nicer flat but without anyone who speaks your language? The latter happened to a woman I know and as much as she liked her new flat, she was so scared of her new environment that she didn't dare leave the house, and didn't send her children to school.

I object to the anger directed at the YMCA, who are trying to make an awful situation bearable. The suicides could just as well have happened in another location. In fact the family had only been resident for 2 months and probably hadn't made much use yet of the support available. It's the system and what it does to people that is to blame, not the housing provider. What worries me about this is that I personally cannot support a march that blames (the wrong party in my view) without engaging in a productive dialogue that may actually lead to change, as much as I deplore the loss of life and the extent of desperation it hints at.

Once again, I feel ambivalent about how some vocal individuals hijack an issue for their own agenda and present it as if it's everyone's agenda. They should know better. It's about the issue, not personal battles or attempts to yet again make it onto the Scottish evening news. Let those who are affected by the horrendous system called asylum speak, or people who are able to actually represent the views of those suffering in this system. Don't (ab)use the tragedy that has occurred at the Red Road Flats for your own cause, thereby distorting it an alienating a great number of people who are actually supportive of the real issues at stake.

And then you will see me at the march, shouting loud and clear.

You can still watch the latest episode of Secret Millionaire on 4OD.
And here are pictures of the march and demo.
Donate money to help the many other destitute people across the country in urgent need. You can give to Refugee Action at http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/support/makeadonation.aspx.



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