Public service provider Serco’s decision to temporarily halt its plans to evict 300 asylum seekers is welcome. But it’s only a pause, not a yet victory for the many of us who expressed outrage at the original plan, and - even more importantly - Scotland hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the deeper issues underlying this episode.
Increasingly, asylum seekers are not seen as people. In public and political discourse we often forget that asylum seekers are men, women and children who have been uprooted from their homes and communities around the world and forced to seek the protection of another country. They have faced persecution, perhaps due to conflict, to their political or religious beliefs, their gender or sexuality. Many have experienced trauma. Every stage of their journey to safety can bring its own challenges to physical and mental wellbeing.
The lengthy asylum process and the fact that asylum seekers are not allowed to work has a huge impact on the lives of asylum seekers, who are perennially in limbo and are unable to get on with their lives. Inevitably, this instability is harmful to the mental health of asylum seekers dealing with stress in navigating the asylum process, in some cases coping with PTSD created by trauma, the anxiety and worry of living in poverty in a new country, learning a new language and being surrounded by a different culture while your family are stuck in a war zone. It’s an overwhelming reality.
I believe that the original eviction plan failed to understand the circumstances asylum seekers find themselves in. Their sudden decision to evict a vulnerable group suggests that there has been no consideration nor an appreciation of these people’s lives and what they’ve been through, in particular the detrimental effect that the decision would have had on their mental health and wellbeing.
The truth is, our society has normalised unacceptable language like “failed asylum seekers” or “illegal immigrants”. By doing so, we no longer see this group as people. We emotionally detach ourselves and are able to easily excuse any brutal action towards them. We should be more conscious of the language we use towards fellow human beings. Asylum seekers are people who want to contribute to their new society. In Scotland, we must protect and safeguard the vision of the “New Scots” Strategy – Scotland’s innovative plan for the integration of asylum seekers and refugees - and challenge the negative language and attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees as well as setting an example to the rest of the world.
Asylum seekers deserve better – to be respected as people and treated with dignity. In order to achieve this we must ensure three key things.
Firstly, the public and private sectors should avoid playing political football with people’s lives and ensure that legal and moral obligations are adhered to. As such, we must understand the complexities of asylum seekers’ vulnerabilities to ensure their wellbeing needs are addressed.
Secondly, we must recognise that asylum seekers, like everyone else, need a safe and warm home to live as this is fundamental to our mental health and wellbeing. Housing should not only provide shelter but a secure and positive environment that supports people as their lives progress. And finally, the three core elements to supporting an individual’s mental health is to provide “a place to stay, a role to play, and a community to belong to”. If we deny all three basic rights to our neighbours we do damage to us all.