THIS morning, coming out of Lidl, I spotted a new addition to the parade of shops: a candy floss pink coloured sign with Helmi’s Bakery written across it. Despite (or maybe because of) the continued battle of the bulge I’m fighting, I soon inexplicably found myself staring at a tray full of baklava and several small copper jugs of steaming Syrian coffee, surrounded by locals all enjoying the sweet and sticky fare.

There was something familiar about the name of the shop, and it wasn’t until I was halfway through my second coffee that I remembered that the original Helmi’s had been set up by a Syrian refugee on the island of Bute. This must be a new branch. Over our masks I met the friendly gaze of the piercing blue eyes of the Syrian girl who served me. I fleetingly thought about the headline that morning in one national newspaper that the UK Government was considering floating asylum processing centres on board disused ferries, for those seeking asylum from her country and others, and felt a pang of shame.

At the request of Home Secretary Priti Patel, herself the off-spring of parents who faced persecution in Uganda, officials have been busily brainstorming ways to transport asylum seekers, around 7000 of whom have arrived in small boats at Kent, to islands thousands of miles away, Scottish islands a wee bit closer to home or to retired cruise ships and ferries. According to the article, a disused 40-year-old ferry could be purchased for a mere £6 million and could house some 1,400 people in 141 cabins.

It didn’t mention whether the brainstorming included questions about how so many people living in such close proximity might be protected from coronavirus, whether holding them in such conditions was what we would expect for ourselves if the shoe were ever on the other foot, or whether even discussing human beings using such cold and dehumanising language was acceptable.

The proposed outpost of the Ascension Islands was quickly discounted, presumably after one of the more forward-thinking civil servants realised that putting thousands of foreign nationals on an island inhabited by 1000 people, alongside a military airbase with associated hardware in the middle of a pandemic might not be the best bit of outside-the-box thinking.

The officials have been told to learn from how other countries deal with the issue, including Australia which has held asylum seekers on the impoverished South Pacific islands of Nauru, and Manus, a cruel policy that has seen people languishing in terrible, unsanitary conditions for years and had children googling ‘how do I kill myself’.

According to Alexander Downer, former Australian High Commissioner to the UK, in a radio interview this morning, the policy has worked “extremely well” in deterring people smugglers. He didn’t mention the fact that since 2013/14 the policy has cost Australia at least an average of $1 billion every year to manage these offshore processing sites and pay visa costs to the host island. It does make you think how many asylum seekers could have been successfully resettled and integrated into Australia itself, once their claims had been approved.

Ms Patel presumably did not ask her officials to look at Germany’s example where around one million refugees have been settled, and more than half now work and pay taxes, including a young law graduate I met who had arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos in 2015 on a rubber dinghy, who’s been working as a nurse throughout this pandemic.

So what about the idea of sending asylum seekers to Scottish islands? We’ve heard from the First Minister that, “Any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me”, but assuming the UK Government are not proposing to actually detain people and allow them to come and go freely, could the plan be one of the less hair-brained ones on the Whitehall table?

We in Scotland pride ourselves on being hospitable and welcoming. Our own history has taught us how persecution and penury has caused the displacement of people, and we need migration especially to the islands. Although, sadly, whilst the outcomes for a small number of asylum seekers here have been tragic, this has been the fault of a hostile asylum system and not of the majority of the public here. Last year by June 2019 we welcomed 4019 asylum seekers to Glasgow – more than any other council area in the UK and we have pioneered a pathway towards integration for refugees which was commended by the UN as an example for other countries.

This outward-looking, human-focussed approach is surely what marks us out and distinguishes us. And also, after my visit to the Syrian bakery this morning, there is surely always space for more baklava.

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