When Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh emerged from the back of a police van outside their home on Kenmure Street in May, a crowd erupted into cheers. Exhausted but clearly overjoyed, the men waved to the throng and one held his hands above his head clasped in prayer.
Their release marked the end of an eight-hour stand-off between immigration enforcement officials and local residents and protesters.
It began early on the morning of 13 May, in the middle of Eid al-Fitr, after Home Office immigration officers arrived to detain the two men. Singh, who works as a mechanic, and Sehdev, a chef, were bundled into a police van outside their home in Pollokshields on the south side of Glasgow. Both had been in the UK for 10 years without indefinite leave to remain.
The van was only prevented from driving away after a local resident climbed under the wheels and refused to move until it was confirmed that Sehdev and Singh would be freed. The resident was a member of the No Evictions Network (NEN), a campaign group that organises to support people in asylum accommodation in Glasgow against evictions.
Following his actions, hundreds of residents surrounded the van, forcing back police lines. The police quickly deployed about 20 vans, horses and vehicle removal units to the scene.
Word quickly spread on social media, and the crowd began to swell. As worshippers left the local mosque, where the neighbourhood’s large Muslim community had been celebrating Eid, they joined the lines.
Protesters sat in the road blocking the efforts of police to clear the area. People in their festive clothes handed out refreshments, local residents and businesses offered their toilets to protesters who had spent up to nine hours on the streets, and a free food and water station in a bus shelter was inundated with supplies.
After the men were released, the NEN released a statement that declared: “These are our neighbours”, and criticised the police for their heavy-handed dispersal tactics and for attempting to kettle protesters so the van containing the men could leave.
“The moment the doors finally opened to release the two detained men is one we will all remember for years to come; a rare win in the fight against the hostile environment,” the NEN said.
The Home Office later defended the operation, saying: “The UK government is tackling illegal immigration and the harm it causes, often to the most vulnerable people, by removing those with no right to be in the UK.”
Police Scotland said the men had been released in the “meantime”, to “protect the safety, public health and wellbeing of all people involved in the detention and subsequent protest”.
The Kenmure Street protest was one of the biggest demonstrations of civic defiance seen in the UK in recent history. For many it was considered a “small victory” against the government’s “hostile environment” immigration policy – a set of measures designed to make life so difficult for migrants without indefinite leave to remain in the country that they “voluntarily” leave the country.
It also encapsulated the tense relationships between the community of asylum seekers and refugees living in Glasgow, the charities that support them, and regional and national legislators.
“I am so glad that my fate brought me here to Glasgow, where the people are so connected they will come out onto the streets to help one of their own,” Singh said after his release.
Tensions in the dispersal city
Glasgow is the only dispersal city – a local authority that voluntarily participates in the government’s asylum dispersal plan – in Scotland. The city currently supports about 5,000 asylum seekers, and its south side is the most ethnically diverse part of Scotland. More than one in five residents are of Pakistani origin and nearby Govanhill is home to the vast majority of Scotland’s Roma community. More than 53 languages are spoken across 13 housing blocks.
For local charities that support asylum seekers and refugees, issues such as poverty, slum landlordism and overcrowding are rife. Shortly before the immigration raid Pollokshields was identified as Scotland’s Covid-19 hotspot.
Pinar Aksu, a development officer at the Maryhill Integration Network, understands some of the issues facing the city’s asylum seekers better than most. The charity brings communities together to share experiences and demonstrate the value of cultural diversity in Scotland; co-ordinating social groups, learning outreach projects and community events for more than 500 service users.
“We provide a space where people can meet and socialise, and learn new skills like English language lessons… we do a lot of that social aspect,” Asku says.
“We also work in partnership with organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau, which becomes important for those who get their refugee status.”
Aksu describes Kenmure Street as a “small victory”, made possible by a network of organisations that heard from members that the Home Office was carrying out dawn raids across the city.
But the past year shone a harsh spotlight on the challenges for organisations like the Maryhill Integration Network. As we spoke, the city was about to mark one of the most tragic events in its recent history.
In June last year, Badreddin Abadlla Adam left his room at Glasgow’s Park Inn hotel, walked down to reception and attacked six people. The 28-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan, who had been placed in the hotel as part of the UK government’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, stabbed and seriously injured three other residents, two staff members and a policeman who arrived on the scene. Adam was shot dead by armed officers shortly afterwards.
The incident highlighted the increasingly precarious situation of people who seek a safe haven in the UK. Adam is one of three asylum seekers who have died in Glasgow since the start of the pandemic, and his case left campaigners and politicians calling for a public inquiry.
Aksu says the decision to relocate Adam to a hotel had “made no sense”, because he and other recent arrivals had been living in small apartments in a hostel, with their own bathrooms and privacy
“Absolutely they should have stayed put,” says Selina Hales, director of Refuweegee, a charity that works to provide a warm welcome to forcibly displaced people arriving in Glasgow.
“Coronavirus was an excellent excuse to further brutalise the asylum system and to save money. They locked them up and didn’t have devices or access to WiFi. They should have left them where they were, and connected them remotely and digitally with the Home Office and their doctor and all the other services they rely on,” she says.
Instead, the Mears Group, the contractor that manages asylum accommodation in Glasgow for the Home Office, moved about 350 asylum seekers into six hotels. Parliament heard in June that many received little or no notice, and that among them were pregnant women and survivors of trafficking and torture.
While the decision was taken as a pandemic safety measure, it left people suddenly thrust into communal living, sharing washing facilities and queueing for meals. Most had been receiving the standard asylum support payment of £37.50 a week, but because food was provided this was halted by the Home Office.
Concerns had been raised by The Maryhill Integration Network and others over living conditions in the hotels. “This is why we end up doing the work of the Home Office and organisations like Mears – but we really shouldn’t,” Aksu adds.
Hales says Refuweegee could have made a lot of money if it had charged the Mears Group for the emergency food and support packs it had provided: during the pandemic the charity went from delivering 150 welcome packs a month to 150 emergency support packs a week.
“There’s no point refusing to work with an organisation you might disagree with as you might not be able to help people,” she says. “But I’ve found the local authority is better structured to support individuals, as it is not looking at it just from a profit-making perspective.”
Research by the Glasgow-based refugee support charity Positive Action in Housing found one in three asylum seekers housed for long periods in hotels say it harmed their mental health. The charity has called for an investigation into the circumstances around the decision to uproot asylum seekers from settled homes at short notice and move them into empty hotels.
“The situation is one of misery and desperation and those in authority appear to be taking no heed of their suffering,” PAIH director Robina Qureshi says.
“People want their Home Office cases settled so they can finally leave the oppressive contract system that governs their lives, seek work or study, contribute to society and stand on their own resources.”
PAIH’s Room for Refugees Network arranged 43,529 nights of shelter in 2019/20. “With the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown restrictions, we have been running a skeleton team in our office plus outdoor surgeries, but helping people while overcoming digital and language barriers is our biggest challenge,” Qureshi says.
Regional and national pressure
Following the shooting of Badreddin Abadlla Adam, Glasgow City Council announced a temporary ban on accepting new asylum seekers to “ease pressures” on the city’s capacity under the dispersal programme.
But Hales says this was not an opportunity for “breathing space,” because there are still thousands of asylum seekers requiring support across the city.
Aksu is concerned about the impact on organisations that rely on local authority funding to deliver services. “We are very worried about what this means, both for the people we support and for organisations. It’s a huge threat to all the charities who are providing support to asylum seekers and refugees,” she warns.
A spokesperson for the council told Third Sector the idea of a “ban” does not accurately describe the situation, although it was revealed in June this year that the “temporary pause” may be continued until next year.
“The Home Office and its contractor have acknowledged that they were running at or J beyond what they had capacity for under the dispersal arrangements. Rather than the council imposing a ban, we all agreed that a temporary pause would be appropriate in order to address that,” the spokesperson said, adding that the length of the “pause” will depend on the Home Office and its contractor.
“The leader of the council has expressed a view that the continued use of hotels would indicate that the capacity issues have not yet been resolved. The council’s view remains that it would wish to reach a point where dispersal can resume – but not at any cost.”
Campaigners have also warned that the government’s New Plan for Immigration, announced in March, will create a “two-tier system” that changes the way the UK fulfils its international obligation to those seeking asylum and proposes differential treatment according to the way a refugee arrives in the UK.
Key proposals include reducing the level of protection for refugees who arrive via irregular routes, limiting their access to welfare benefits and family reunion rights, and requiring them to be reassessed by the Home Office every 30 months.
“As people made clear on Kenmure Street, these policies are not welcome in Scotland, and have absolutely no consent from the communities who make our cities and communities what they are,” a spokesperson for The Scottish Refugee Council said, in a statement that described the proposals as “the biggest threat to refugee rights in the UK that we’ve seen for decades”.
Yet local charities retain some optimism: Hales says the path out of lockdown offers Refuweegee an “exciting” opportunity to start bringing volunteers back and plan deeper, more strategic activities.
“We can start that community engagement again with face-to-face sessions, which is not just critical for the people we support but also for our team, as that’s what drives us,” she says.
Aksu adds: “Not having that space to come together leaves people feeling excluded. A lot of members call our office their second home, but a big focus for us is always going to be campaigning for giving asylum seekers the right to work.”
Since the Kenmure Street protest, Singh and Sehdev have received support and representation from a legal observer at PAIH. Lawyer Jelina Berlow Rahman, who has been instructed to represent Singh, says: “Lakhvir Singh has been here since 2008, a substantial period of time; therefore in my opinion he still has a right to a private life, a family life.”
Qureshi stresses that dawn-raid vans “have no place going into communities dragging innocent people from their homes”. She views the Home Office’s new plans as “dog-whistle politics” and has criticised the department for referring to the two men as “illegal”.
“They are categorically not criminals. Police Scotland should be focusing on going after real criminals, not innocent people without the right piece of paper,” Qureshi says. “The men now have legal representation, and are in the process of trying to regularise their status,” she adds.
“The fact that they had no active legal representation before means they were
left vulnerable. This is about two innocent people trying to build a new life. What is wrong with that?”
The Glasgow Girls’ legacy
Glasgow has a proud tradition of resisting dawn raids and welcoming refugees, rooted in the case of the Glasgow Girls. In 2005 seven schoolgirls campaigned to save their classmate Agnesa Murselaj from deportation, and have since become part of the city’s folklore.
One member of the group, Kurdish-born Roza Salih, was 15 years old at the time.
Members of her own family had been executed in Iraq, but she says that while the community in Scotland welcomed her with open arms the Home Office put obstacles in the way of her education, and stopped her from travelling or working. It took eight years before her asylum application was successful.
More than 15 years after the Glasgow Girls’ campaign, Salih was frustrated and angry to see the same tactics used by immigration officials at Kenmure Street. Her experience left her with “no faith in the immigration system”, and she continues to campaign alongside working in the office of an SNP MP.
The demonstration epitomises the clashes at the heart of British and Scottish politics. Immigration policy is dictated by Westminster, but policing is devolved to Holyrood: a constitutional conflict that is part of the reason Salih favours independence for Scotland.
“In the meantime, immigration issues must be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Our nation needs a fair and humane system. Case workers should be able to meet the asylum claimants whom they work with; there should be no raids and no detention centres,” she says.
“In education, which is devolved, Scotland has achieved so much: there have been successful campaigns for some asylum seekers to access higher education through scholarships. And Scotland is the only nation of the UK that allows refugees the right to vote in devolved and council elections. We want to be able to push forward the same kind of change in immigration rules, too.”