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SNP pledge: we'll let asylum seekers work in Scotland

ASYLUM seekers will be given the right to work in an independent Scotland while awaiting a decision on their application to stay in the country.

The plans are part of a new strategy to end the "ghetto­isation" of refugees and asylum seekers by encouraging better integration into communities over the next three years.

The Scottish Government plans will include improved access to English classes and putting key workers in place to help support families, as well as encouraging entrepreneurship and enabling quicker access to benefits once an asylum claim is accepted.

Work will also be undertaken to look at widening the "dispersal" of asylum seekers from Glasgow, by providing support for asylum seekers and refugees in other communities across Scotland.

The Scottish Government's blueprint for independence, published last month, embraced the principle of opposing Westminster's "aggressive" approach to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees and instead encouraging more people to live in Scotland.

The launch of the "New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scotland's Communities" strategy tomorrow will flesh out that stance. External affairs minister Humza Yousaf said that an independent Scotland would "enable asylum seekers to work while waiting for a decision on their application".

He said: "It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that we have people here who have qualifications, degrees and skills and are wanting to work and to contribute via their taxes - yet we are putting up a legal block for them doing so.

"It is just beyond logic. When you speak to someone who is opposed to immigration and asylum, one of the things they often say is, 'They take all our benefits'. It is a common misconception. If that is your misconception, why on Earth would you not want those people working so they can pay towards taxes?"

Immigration and asylum are reserved to Westminster and current rules mean the majority of asylum seekers are not allowed to work. Limited exceptions are only made in cases where someone has been waiting for more than 12 months for a decision on their claim.

The Scottish Government's White Paper on independence proposed setting up a separate Scottish Asylum Agency, with the present approach of "promoting the integration of refugees and asylum seekers from the day they arrive" set to continue.

Yousaf said further details of the plans to allow asylum seekers access to jobs would be announced as the date of the referendum approached.

But he added: "Currently there are other European countries that do it well. Usually there is a three-month period in order to get people settled and language skills if that is needed.

"There can sometimes be restrictions on what kind of job, if there are certain jobs that need filled. But in reality it should work just as anyone else who is wanting to work in the country does - they have to go through the same process and there is no preferential treatment."

Yousaf said the aim of the new integration strategy was helping current asylum seekers to better integrate into the community, particularly when their legal cases could take years to resolve.

"I've seen myself a fair number of cases that have taken years and years. It makes no sense whatsoever for them not be integrated into communities from day one," Yousaf said.

"Essentially [under the present system] you having people living in almost self-contained ghettos and that is not what we want at all.

"We have seen how that can be very damaging, not just here in the UK but across Europe."

Mouataz Faisal, 34, an asylum seeker from Sudan who has been in the UK for seven years and in Glasgow for more than a year, is among those who would like to see a change in the rules around working.

He is a trained architect who is studying for a masters in project management, but fears any future employers will be put off by the lengthy gap in his CV.

Faisal, who is being supported by charity Positive Action in Housing, said: "You are not able to work as a human being. I can't do what I planned to do in my life. I love architecture and I love that kind of work."

Lebo Mohlakoana, 32, from South Africa, who has a four-year-old son and who is also based in Glasgow, has been awaiting a decision on her asylum claim for three years. A qualified accountant, she said she would welcome the opportunity to work.

"Even if it was just a part-time job for families to get by and people to get by it would really make a huge difference," she said.

"Sometimes we are seen as people who are just here for benefits. But I would rather be working in a paying job and doing something for myself … I know I have got the skills and qualifications."

Figures published last week show the number of overseas immigrants living in Scotland has nearly doubled in the past decade. The analysis by Oxford University's Migration Observatory found Scotland's foreign-born population grew by 93% between 2001 and 2011, rising from 191,571 to 369, 284 people.

Christina Boswell, professor of politics at Edinburgh University, pointed to the example of the Labour government attempts in the early 2000s to introduce reforms to liberalise immigration policies.

She said: "Initially there was a window of about four to five years where opposition parties and the media seemed to more or less buy into that narrative, but then things started to change around 2006 when people started becoming concerned about the impact of A8 migration [ie, from Eastern Europe].

"So in a sense we have seen it in recent history - an attempt by government to propagate a more positive narrative around immigration and we have seen how that government felt it had to back down from this narrative under pressure from the media and public concerns around the impacts of immigration."

Alp Mehmet, vice-chairman of immigration pressure group Migration Watch UK, argued that the economic contribution of immigration is "on balance, pretty negligible". He said to suggest there should be no immigration was "absurd", but added: "It is the scale of it, and certainly Scotland I think potentially is opening up immigration to rather more than it can probably deal with.

"That will remain to be seen, of course."

Scottish Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said the "obvious problem" with the SNP's immigration plans was that it is likely to be vastly different from the rest of the UK.

He said: "That will force the UK Government to put in place border patrols between Scotland and England. If it doesn't, the crossing between Scotland and England will be seen as an extremely weak entry point into the rest of the UK."

Drew Smith, Scottish Labour's spokesman on the constitution, said: "The SNP say they want to tailor a completely different immigration policy from the UK, yet at the same time also say we will simply continue to have an open border with the rest of the UK. That doesn't make sense.

"They are trying to pick and mix elements of UK and European Union policy to fit their previous promises, and the result is plans which are light on detail but weighty with assertion."

ASO'S STORY

Aso Fotoohi, 28, came to Scotland from Iran 12 months ago. A Kurdish Iraqi, he was a member of a minority ethnic group and as a human rights campaigner was persecuted by the Iranian government.

He sought asylum in the UK with his claim accepted within three weeks, and was moved to Glasgow as part of the UK Government's asylum seekers dispersal programme.

He has a degree in mechanical engineering but has been struggling to find work in Scotland and is now studying sociology as part of an access course.

He said: "When I first arrived in Scotland I knew very little about the country and nothing at all about Glasgow. I had heard the name Glasgow but didn't know anything about the city. I was given refugee status very quickly and started trying to build a new life for myself here.

"It is always difficult to join a new community - even if you move just from one city to another city. You can imagine how difficult it is for a person who comes from another country, has left his or her family, doesn't speak the language and comes here. It is more difficult.

"There is support from organisations like the Scottish Refugee Council which makes it easier

"On the whole I have found people in Scotland kind and helpful and I admire Scotland and the services it provides for people, but of course I miss my country.

"My priority now is my studying and finding a job."

KAROLINA'S STORY

Karolina Grabara, 34, came to the UK from Poland in 2004 and moved to Scotland with her husband three years later. She now lives in Dalgety Bay in Fife and has swapped her career as a biologist to become a portrait photographer.

Grabara, above, said: "I came to the UK for three months holiday right after I graduated from university in Poland. There were no jobs in Poland and I decided it would be an adventure.

"Then I met my husband, who is Polish as well, and that was my reason for moving to Scotland from Oxford in 2007, as he came to Scotland for a job.

"I love it here in Scotland - people are so kind and so relaxed. It is very different than in Poland.

"I think it is because people have a better lifestyle, so they are more relaxed and not that stressed in general, or at least the people I know."

Grabara said she would only be likely to return now to Poland for "sentimental reasons", such as missing her family.

She added: "We like it here, my daughter is going to go to school next year in August, so I think once she starts school we are going to settle here even more.

"Also it is the first time I am working for myself, I am self-employed and I love the flexibility. I don't think I would have as many opportunities in Poland.

"We are happy here for now."

LIMING'S STORY

Liming Jiang, 27, is an engineering student from China who is in the third year of his PhD in structural fire safety at Edinburgh University.

He studied at Shanghai University before securing a scholarship which enabled him to move to Scotland in 2011.

He said: "In China our group in university has quite a strong relationship with the group in Edinburgh University, so my supervisor in China suggested I came here.

"I want to study abroad and to have an international background.

"There were other reasons - I like photography, so I'm really impressed by the scenery in Scotland and Edinburgh.

"So far I have really enjoyed life here. Some people complain about the weather in Edinburgh - at the beginning it was chilly, but then after a year I got used to that.

"It is completely different - in Shanghai there are more crowds, with 13 million people living in the city and so here life is kind of relaxed and people are generally more friendly than people in Shanghai.

"By the end of my PhD programme I will be looking for a job - I'm not sure if it will be in the UK as there isn't too much work in civil engineering or structural engineering,

"But I would really like to maintain links to Edinburgh. It would be fantastic for me to have a job where I could spend the half the year in China and half the year in Edinburgh or the UK, as I have got a lot of friends here."

Foreign students 'can stay on'

The proposal to introduce a post-study work visa in an independent Scotland will be announced today. It would allow recent international graduates to stay in the country or set up a business. The Westminster Government ended a similar UK scheme in April 2012.

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