CHARITIES working with refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland have "deep concerns" about the current hostile environment created in the UK, an independent commission has heard.

Commissioners from the independent commission on refugee integration were in Glasgow yesterday for the only Scottish local engagement hearing of seven evidence gathering events around the UK.

Chairing one of the sessions was Sabir Zazai, CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council, who said testimony given showed universal concern about "the impact of regressive, hostile policies" from the Westminster government.

He said: "I think that this is a watershed moment in the UK's history of asylum and immigration because a Bill has been put forward that would basically shut the door on people seeking protections.

"So we may no longer in the UK have the right for people to seek protections. Someone like me who arrived in the back of a lorry from Afghanistan, fleeing persecution from the Taliban, would be pre-judged by this bill and I would be classed a criminal and someone who is breaking the law.

"Without protection there is no integration. 

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"The challenge is for the commission to come up with some recommendations that are reflective of the views of the people we have listened to and come up with an asylum system that is fit for the challenges of the world that we live in, that it can afford people the safety, dignity, equality and protection."

Commissioners also heard from a range of experts and people with lived experience from across the Scotland at panel hearing sessions at Trades Hall in Glasgow, including representatives from British Red Cross, COLSA, University of Glasgow, Edinburgh City of Sanctuary, Just Right Scotland, Maryhill Integration Network, Scottish Government, Refugee Sponsorship Circle, Scottish Refugee Council, Talent Beyond Boundaries and The Bridges Programme. 

On the question of differing attitudes from the Scottish and Westminster governments, Mr Zazai added: "I think there is political goodwill here in Scotland to get things done differently. 

"The other good thing in Scotland that was mentioned is that politicians are not willing to capitalise on public attitude or messaging and that is a gift nowadays because politicians just jump on any negative public attitude to make things worse for people from certain backgrounds. 

"So that is good.

"The challenge for us is to safeguard and nurture what we have in Scotland. Let's not get into the debate of comparing ourselves with others, nowhere is perfect, Scotland is not immune from racism or public attitude issues but I think we have mechanisms and key ingredients to continue to work towards creating a more humane and equitable society for all."

The three commissioners joined asylum seekers and refugees at Maryhill Integration Network (MIN), in the North West of the city, to plant seeds in the garden and share their experiences.

They heard from Yamam, not her real name, who came to the UK from Iraq in 2021 with her then three-year-old son. Last May the mother and son had their refugee applications accepted. 

Having been involved in the revolution in Iraq, the 35-year-old suffered terrible experiences at the hands of the militia who continued to threaten her life.

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She and her little boy, now aged five, are settling in Glasgow where Yamam has started an HND in art and design with hopes to go to the University of Glasgow to continue her studies. 

Yamam said: “I volunteer with Maryhill community centre. I’m helping with the art group and support a workshop focused on empowering women where I help translate because lots of them don’t speak English yet.

"I also volunteer at a children and family workshop where we tell our refugee stories in different ways through art. We’re making a book and a collage which will be part of an exhibition at the University of Glasgow.”

MIN has been an important source of support for Yamam and her son, a place that helped her realise that she could achieve her dreams. 

"I feel like I’m part of this community," she added. "I go to the workshops, I volunteer and everyone here is friendly and tries to help each other. 

"I dreamed about studying art all my life and am now able to achieve this. If I hadn’t gone to the art group I wouldn’t know that I could study and apply to college. I am so thankful for that.

"Being part of the community and the Maryhill group has helped me a lot. When I got here I didn’t even know how to use the bus. I have no family or friends here, it’s just me and my son.  

"So these groups are extremely important to us.  They are not just a project they’re a family." 

Pinar Aksu, Human Rights and Advocacy Coordinator at MIN, attended yesterday's evidence sessions and spoke to the commissioners during the day's hearings. 

She said:  “We work hard to create a welcoming and safe space for people who are navigating the immigration system across Glasgow.  

"Over the many years we have been supporting people, the terrible impact changes to the immigration system have been having on their lives is clear.  

"Not having the right to work, lack of access to education and damage to wellbeing are some of the significant concerns we are witnessing. 

"We hope to continue supporting people by understanding one another, working across communities and protecting the right to seek asylum.”

Commissioner Bishop Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop of Chelmsford, is a former refugee who arrived in the UK from Iran aged 14 and is vice-chair of the committee. 

Bishop Dr Francis-Dehqani said she had asked for perspectives on whether there is real political will in Scotland to make a difference to the experience of people seeking asylum in the country but received mixed responses.

She said: "My reflections after this session in particular are that I've heard two very different things: the answer to my question about is there the [political] will to make this real off the paper during the session was quite positive.

"But, actually, one or two people have come up to me since to say there isn't the will and that this is virtue signalling and it's virtue signalling partly to put distance between the two governments.

"I'm not sure which it is, or maybe it's both. 

"But if Scotland can provide us with an alternative template and prove that it works and that it's better, not just for the refugees and asylum seekers but for the communities as well, then that could be potentially really positive for others."

"The potential is very significant, the treasure at the end of it is very significant but it remains to be seen." 

The Commission on the Integration of Refugees aims to improve the integration of refugees by bringing together conflicting viewpoints and diverse experiences to find common ground on how to fix the system. 

It will run until the end of 2023 and hold seven hearings across the UK, as well as commission research and take written submissions from the public. 

It is convened and funded by the Woolf Institute.

Commissioner Tony Smith, Chair of the International Border Management and Technologies Association and former Home Office Director General of the UK Border Force, worked for the Home Office for 40 years. 

In 2000 he was seconded to work in Canada and study refugee integration there, and was director of ports of entry when the Twin Tower attacks occurred in New York.

On return to the UK he was director of ports of entry during the London 7/7 terror attack.

The former civil servant said it was frustrating to hear criticism of Home Office staff. 

Mr Smith said: "I worked for the Home Office for 40 years, man and boy, from the 70s through to 2013 when I retired, at all levels and I stayed in that department all that time. 

"From what I can see, we're still not very good at refugee integration.

"But I do find it quite frustrating that the Home Office does get criticised so much and I can say, because I know a lot of them, the people who work in the Home Office feel quite beleaguered and under significant pressure to do a great deal of work with not necessarily the right tools and they are not allowed to speak out in the media.

"I'd like to think that when I come out and speak I can speak on some of the concerns they have. 

"I'm hoping the commission can make some meaningful recommendations to the government of the day, evidence-based recommendations that will build a rather better system than the one we are seeing at the moment."