UK system is designed to make immigrants unwelcome

IT is the season of goodwill and all, but there are plenty people feeling anxious and fearful because of the UK’s disastrous approach to immigration. I want to write here about my own views on it because we in the Yes movement really need to be laser clear on it.

First a disclaimer. I take this stuff personally and cannot separate my own experience from the issue. I grew up as an immigrant, in Saudi Arabia. In 1979 when I was five my Dad was like a lot of folk in the building game – made redundant.

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First published in The National, 29 December 2018

With little going on in Scotland, we headed to Riyadh, where we spent the next six years. My folks still live in the Middle East, and my sister, brother-in-law and my nieces live in California. They’re not foreign, they’re my family.

I’ve been lucky enough to have studied or worked in umpteen countries, dealing with immigration and work visas in the US, India, Poland, Germany and I obviously these days cross a lot of borders into Belgium and France.

So this is not an academic discussion for me. I know that what some airily dismiss as dull, unscary paperwork is utterly fundamental to decisions people make about where to be and how to live their lives. Dad’s six-monthly visit to the Saudi Interior Ministry was not some rubber stamp exercise, we could be out on our ears the next day, and we were in a better position than most. How a country organises its immigration and nationality laws is how best to see what sort of country it is and what sort of place it wants to be. Saudi was a great place to grow up, and I have very many happy memories of it.

But I’ve no loyalty to the place because at every dealing with officialdom it was clear, we were there on a purely transactional basis, don’t get comfortable. And, don’t for a moment think you’ll ever be one of us.

Scotland’s tragedy is that for so much of our history we exported our most precious natural resource – ourselves. Through emigration, forced or otherwise, Scotland lost vast numbers of our population, for the New World, for the rest of Europe, to England or elsewhere.

There’s not a family in Scotland hasn’t sent a Broons or Oor Wullie annual to close relatives somewhere else in the world. Not foreigners, but family far away.

Only recently, literally in the past decades, have we started to reverse that trend, and we’re a better, fitter, younger and more interesting country for it.

We have political leadership and a political consensus that Scotland needs more people, not fewer, and we need to be a welcoming and inclusive place not just because its the right thing to do but because we face returning to a long slow decline if we’re not.

Immigration played a big part in many people voting Leave in the UK EU referendum. The issue was deliberately whipped up, and the anger that exists, rightly, at poor public services was entirely misdirected to immigration.

Nigel Farage, with a straight face, blamed motorway congestion on immigration. David Cameron talked of “swarms” of people at Calais.

The fact is, there’s three issues being mixed up. Immigration from the rest of the world, freedom of movement from and to the rest of the EU, and the refugee crisis.

The UK already has control of immigration from the rest of the world, and indeed refugee policy. Only freedom of novement is changing, with the rights of millions of our friends and neighbours being altered against their will, breaking promises they took at face value to come here.

Millions, too, of UK citizens elsewhere across the EU are in limbo. And the reason why so many people are fearful is because we can see what sort of system the UK has in place already for people from outside the EU. It is not called a hostile environment for nothing. The UK, now, has an immigration and nationality system that is tortuous, mean-spirited and designed to make people feel unwelcome, a burden, an inconvenience. It discriminates against women, it divides the world into “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants. It puts insurmountable barriers in the way to people who (perish the thought!) might want to come and live here. It is that system EU nationals are about to be tipped into and no amount of soulless glossy puff from the Home Office can disguise that reality.

Scotland has no control of immigration, so we’re at the mercy of the hapless UK Home Office. It is popular to paint the Home Office as a dysfunctional organisation and the regular stream of disasters, the Windrush scandal being the latest, as aberrations. Actually, they are the deliberate policy of the UK Government. We have, for the moment, a Prime Minister who truly does believe that immigration into the UK should be cut to the “tens of thousands”. The only time I see her come to life is when she is talking about immigration, she truly does want the UK to be people like us, not them. It is a fast track to the 1950s, and it is a disaster for Scotland.

I had some criticism from some quarters recently when I said at a public meeting in Stirling “there’s no foreigners in Scotland, where you’re from is an interesting part of your story, but as far as I’m concerned if you’re here you’re one of us, you’re as Scottish as any of us.”

Some folk, largely with a lot of red white and blue in their profiles, took offence, but I mean it and it is smart politics as well as economic necessity. Of course there will be checks and balances to an independent Scotland’s immigration rules, but above all else I want Scotland to be a welcoming, inclusive place where people feel safe and at home.

That will make Scotland an attractive place, at a time when the UK is making itself look mean and ugly.