Maggie Lennon runs a programme that helps refugees and migrants acquire the skills and training to settle in Scotland

IN the ferment of Scotland’s constitutional debate arguments rage about what divides us from England and what unites us.

An hour or so with Maggie Lennon teaches you that right now a gulf separates Scotland from its UK neighbours in the field of basic human compassion for the world’s most vulnerable peoples.

Ms Lennon is the director of the Bridges Programmes, the foremost agency for economic integration for migrants in Scotland. It is an unwieldy strapline that merely hints at its essential and sovereign work: ensuring that in Scotland there is a light to guide refugees to a place of wellbeing even as it dims elsewhere in the UK.

She has been the driving force behind Bridges for more than 20 years, and doesn’t hide can barely find the words to convey her contempt for the Nationality and Borders Bill currently travelling through the palaces of Westminster. “This has to be the most evil piece of legislation I’ve ever read,” she says. “It’s absolutely foul. And it won’t even achieve what it’s set up to achieve. There’s no understanding of why people flee their homelands or the true nature of people trafficking.

“The headlines are a disgrace: ‘We’ll send you all to Rwanda if you come here without permission’. There’s no such thing in international law as illegal asylum seekers. They’re trying to create a pernicious two-tier system. So, if you do manage to get to Britain and claim asylum and you’re given leave to stay, you’re only going to be allowed to stay for three years.

“You won’t be allowed any family reunion and no one will give you a job, knowing you are here temporarily. They’re consigning people to three years of abject misery. It’s an appalling way to treat any human being, let alone one who is in dire need.

“It flaunts international law in every conceivable way and I think it’s only a matter of time before the UK withdraws from the European Convention on Refugees. We already know they intend to withdraw from the European Human Rights Act.”

It’s a massive area of contention and one where a world of difference exists between Scotland’s attitudes and those of the rest of the UK. Ms Lennon thinks all Scots ought to be proud of this. She demolishes the UK Tories’ concept of safe routes. “There are no safe routes,” she says. “If you turn people back in boats it won’t stop them coming. How desperate do you have to be to put small children in a boat in the middle of the night? This isn’t about getting a job in Tesco or getting on to Britain’s benefits system.”

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Bridges works specialises in working with local and national government to help refugees and migrants into training, higher education and employment. In the refugee and migrant groups who have come to Scotland over the last 20 years there are thousands of highly skilled, young and able workers who can help contribute to the Scotland’s economy for a generation. “In Scotland we have the First Minister’s leadership group on human rights and there’s been massive amounts of work done on this,” Ms Lennon says. “There’s also the Human Rights Consortium of Scotland. We’re basically trying to widen the concept of human rights beyond the political and economic. They also have to mean social, cultural and environmental rights.

“People, no matter where they come from, have a right to a happy and peaceful life. Too often we’ve allowed ourselves to become captured by the concept that people should be grateful that we give them house room.”

The Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to enshrine the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots Law, only for Westminster to say: “You can’t do that”.

The Scottish Government is also seeking to incorporate other humanitarian international treaties.

Alongside the debate about Holyrood’s competency to hold a referendum on Scottish independence there is one about which jurisdiction possesses the legal competency on some matters of human rights.

“It casts Westminster in such a bad light,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want the rights of the child to be enshrined in law? What is that saying about the current prevailing attitudes in England? Scotland’s target has to be a human rights statute which becomes embedded in the public sector and becomes much wider than in England.”

Ms Lennon reckons the Bridges Programmes, based in the old Springburn College in Glasgow’s north-east, has helped between 8,000 and 10,000 refugees and migrants settle here and find the opportunity to contribute.

It is a disciplined and well-organised operation which ensures that clients don’t just get certificates and jobs but that these are long-term and appropriate to their skill sets.

“We need people to have National 3-level English because that’s the level of English you need for sustainable work. If your English is below that then you might get on the bus to the interview but you’re not going to get through the interview.”

She points to Norway and Germany as models of good practice. “In Norway if you’re a refugee, you’re not expected to find work for two years. But you’re expected to learn the language and integrate.

“If we had that attitude then you could really build in resilience and make people much more able to contribute to the communities they’ve moved into and be in a position to pay more tax with more sustainable jobs.

“Germany took in hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2019 while Britain took just 20,000. Germany already had a positive experience in this area. The guest-worker programme for Turkish people, set up in the 1950s, has been hugely successful and now you’ll find second and third generation Turkish people in highly skilled, well-paid jobs benefitting German society and the economy.”

Bridges’ most notable achievement in its 20-year existence has been to help around 50 refugee doctors into Scotland’s NHS with the help of the General Medical Council (GMC) and British Medical Association. The doctors’ programme is testament to how much civic Scotland is trying to make a difference within the restrictions placed on it by Westminster.

“We started the programme because we knew there were a lot of refugee doctors in Glasgow. We then discovered there was someone within NHS Education for Scotland who had refugee doctors as his remit. He didn’t know he had it until we pointed it out.

“We identified that they needed some English language support and some clinical support for their exams. We knew if we launched this we would get the money. Essentially, it became recognised that this was an urgent need and so we got some money.

“For the first two or three years our focus was simply on getting these doctors their GMC registrations. But it became clear that they were still finding it difficult to get jobs and when they went into work they hadn’t a clue how the NHS operated.

“So, two-and-a-half years ago we approached government and said we need to embed this within the NHS. About that time I was addressing the WHO in Geneva where I met the German head of their GMC and they’d come to the same conclusion in Germany. So now the programme is really full on.

“They get support for their English language exams through one of the Glasgow colleges, and we’re now building for next year an online portal. So, no matter where they live they can get access to that. We are currently developing a Scottish version of that training and we’ll be inviting consultants and registrar-level doctors to help teach that.”

And, of course there are issues of race and ethnicity. Scotland’s social attitudes in this area are only slightly more enlightened than in England. Lennon though, argues that in Scotland there are no places for such attitudes to go.

“There’s no significant hard-right here, such as the forces which drove Brexit, agitating for closing borders. These attitudes will never build up a head of steam in Scotland.”

The Bridges Programmes have helped Ukrainians fleeing war. But there’s an edginess here too as African and Asian migrants are still perceived with suspicion, whilst the nation is being urged to open its homes to Ukrainian refugees.

Ms Lennon says: “Let’s be honest here – much of Westminster’s policies are driven by colour and religion. It makes me mad when companies like M&S and Tesco say they’ll give any Ukrainian a job interview. Why not Somalis, or Ethiopians, or Afghans?”