Refugee Week: Time for UK to ditch right-wing xenophobia and recognise the value of immigrants and refugees to our society – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

At the foot of the Statue of Liberty, inscribed on a bronze plaque, is a poem by Emma Lazarus entitled The New Colossus. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it says.

Tuesday, 21st June 2022, 4:45 pm
Refugees land on a beach in Dungeness, England (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)
Refugees land on a beach in Dungeness, England (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

These lines capture the promise of the American Dream as it was in 1883, when Lazarus first penned them. A dream of safe harbour for the persecuted and the destitute, those looking for a new life. It was dreamed in thousands of languages in every corner of this planet and it led to a mass migration that made America the diverse country that it is today.

As we mark Refugee Week and many of us open our homes to those fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, those words hold new power and resonance.

But the seven million Ukrainians displaced by conflict only account for some ten per cent of those seeking sanctuary in our world. All told, over 70 million people are on the move right now, displaced from their countries of origin against their will and for reasons beyond their control.

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It is the highest human displacement since the Second World War. Worldwide, people are displaced by dint of politics and persecution, war and poverty. But we should also remember that more and more people are being forced to leave their communities because of our planet’s changing weather systems: changes caused by humankind.

In the UK we have a history of responding with compassion and generosity to those at risk. There is justifiable pride in the response of our communities to such situations.

However, we do ourselves, and refugees, a disservice if we are too self-congratulatory. For every 10,000 citizens in Scotland, we took in only four Syrian refugees. Compare that to Germany and Sweden where they took in 70 Syrian refugees for every 10,000.

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Decades of quiet xenophobia in the right-wing press have shaped UK Government policy to be resistant to incomers. Government plans to deport refugees to Rwanda demonstrate that.

This was also evident when, in the early days of war, Home Office ministers pointed Ukrainians fleeing war crimes to a visa scheme designed to attract workers to pick soft fruit. Nor is the Scottish Government getting it right either. Despite many offering to open up their homes, 500 Ukrainians are currently residing in ill-equipped temporary accommodation.

Everyone agrees on the need to stop people-smugglers taking people across the Channel in rafts, but that means creating safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to make their way here.

We also need to recognise the value of immigrants and refugees to our society. They bring skills and an appetite to work. They aren’t here to displace us. In fact, in many cases, they will look for the first opportunity to find their way home. That reality was captured by a poet from our own century, Warsan Shire, a refugee herself, when she wrote: “Nobody choses to leave home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

The plight of refugees, wherever they come from, is visible on our television screens, in our communities and at points of entry across the British Isles. Our response to that plight will be the measure by which our generation is judged.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western