Rejecting the Headlines: finding alternatives to the mainstream narrative of the ‘refugee crisis’

Kaisa Saarinen interviews Glasgow Unity Centre in order to clear up some important misconceptions – and finds out what we can all do to help.

Good news doesn’t sell. This simple truth explains why the media is, and always has been, so eager to make the worst of everything. Most major media outlets have been happy to contribute to the ongoing mass hysteria about immigration in order to boost their sales. Several studies have been conducted on the topic of media portrayal of immigration, and they consistently show that the coverage in the UK is amongst the most negative in Europe, and that the continuous flow of fear-mongering headlines and images has a very real impact on its readers. We have all seen examples of this: people described as ‘illegal’, their movement as ‘invading’ or ‘flooding’.

It is not surprising that a large number of British people believe in misinformation about immigration. On average, respondents of an ipsos MORI poll in 2003 estimated that Britain has 23% of the world’s refugees. The real figure was 2%. Since 2003, Europe has seen the emergence of populist parties whose raison d’être is pointing fingers at immigrants and blaming them for everything that is going wrong in the world. In times of economic hardship and uncertainty, people always love a good scapegoat. But although many politicians and writers make their living out of selling fear and hatred, there are still people who try to make a positive difference. In Glasgow, several organisations work hard to help asylum seekers and other migrants, and aren’t afraid to stand up in the face of misinformation and hate speech.

In a situation where ‘truth’ seems to be evading us, and ‘debate’ on most issues has become an absurd shouting contest, it is easy to let your heart go numb and ignore questions with no easy answers. That’s why it is so important to remember that the demonising headlines do not represent the whole truth, or indeed the truth at all. It is completely rational and possible to reject such a distorted narrative.

Curious to find out what would be the best course of action for someone who wanted to do just that, and be part of another, more humane story, I contacted Unity Centre. They are a small Glasgow group of activists supporting asylum seekers by providing shelter and information. One of their volunteers, Jasmine, answered my questions.

When was Unity founded?


— Unity was founded in March 2006. It was started in response to Dawn Raids, which were happening primarily in large blocks of flats where asylum seekers were given housing. Most notable was 33 Petershill Drive which was demolished last year. Unity founders discovered that families were allocating one member to stay up to check if there was a raid. They set up meetings so that this could be shared across the building, rather than lots of people being awake and scared alone.

— Regarding the Dawn Raids, Unity and other groups in Glasgow were under the impression that these types of raids had stopped until recently. We noticed that raids were happening and thought they had restarted – hence a group of us set up Glasgow antiraids. Upon completing an information request, however, we learned that in fact the raids were happening the entire time — it is just that people were not aware and there was less organisation around them.

Since you started, what do you think has changed in Scotland and the UK?

— Lots of policies and programs have been introduced across the years – Capita was contracted to ‘find illegal immigrants’ with a multimillion dollar contract when I first started, four years ago. People were getting intimidating phone calls and being sent letters telling them they needed to go to the Home Office. Many were detained and sent out of the country as a result, despite the fact that Capita had no real power. They intimidated people into making themselves known.

— There was the Go Home campaign — in Glasgow reporting centre on Brand Street there were stickers and those reporting were given flyers saying things like ‘life is hard in the UK but going home is easy’. This campaign was heavily attached in London where vehicles with the messages were driving around neighbourhoods with high immigration.

— Regarding detention, lots of policies have been introduced that make it more and more difficult to secure release. In England specifically (not in Scotland), legal aid cuts have meant that applications to remain in the UK based on family and private life (article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights) were cut. This means people need to pay lawyers privately and they often do poor work. Massive amounts of money are spent on cases, or people simply do not access legal help. Detention of those with criminal offences has increased – we noticed this the most following the ruling that detainee fast track was unlawful. This meant that people claiming asylum could not be automatically detained and go through their cases inside detention but that they had to be released to go through the process. Detention centres then seemed to fill up more with foreign national offenders.

—The ‘deport now, appeal later’ policy has also added to the UK home offices effectiveness of removing foreign national offenders. This has been in place since October 2014 and on the 1st of December, it will extend to include all non-asylum cases even where there is no criminal element.


What’s the local situation like in Glasgow?

— With regards to the community surrounding migrants, I feel that direct action has reduced in the past few years. There used to be blockades of the home office in Glasgow much more regularly and I can only remember one occurring this year. Turnouts to protests are also often quite small, although there are now regular protests outside Dungavel, which is set to be shut down and replaced with a more streamlined detention facility. In England, there has been a real movement among migrants, especially surrounding Yarlswood detention centre. It’s amazing and encourages migrants themselves, rather than activists alone, to act on the issues surrounding migrant rights and detention.

— Regarding housing, it has always been poor. A very recent development in Glasgow is that the accommodation provider Orchard and Shipman (subcontracted by Serco who is contracted by the Home Office) are to lose their contract after they were taken to court by the asylum seeker housing project — great news! Another huge development is that former Home Office secretary Theresa May is now Prime Minister! Immediately after she came in, there were policies to name all migrant workers for companies, and to demand children in school to provide their birth certificates and passports. These are clear racist policies.

— So essentially, the battle is the same, but different policies and climates present new hurdles to migrant communities. There has always been a ‘culture of disbelief’ across Home Office decision-making in cases; reducing access to legal aid; increasing court fees; shortages of lawyers willing to take on cases and represent properly; people made destitute by companies like Orchard and Shipman . These things mean that it is increasingly difficult to get in front of a judge and have a case properly considered – the legal avenues to pursue justice and the hostile environment make it almost impossible for anyone who is not financially stable, has some understanding of legal systems and is highly educated with a thorough understanding of English to secure themselves in the UK at present.


Do you feel that Scotland is more open-minded than England, where xenophobic parties such as UKIP have gained more prominence?

— I do feel Scotland is a nicer place to be, through what I have heard from people who have moved from England. Most comment that people are friendlier and more helpful. With respect to political parties, we do often find sympathetic MPs in Scotland; and to a greater degree, MSP’s, who do not in fact have powers to support migration-related issues, as those powers are with Westminster. That being said, Nicola Sturgeon spoke out for the Australian family who faced removal recently. Yet whenever we have contacted her constituency for support for an individual, we have been told they cannot get involved — not because they didn’t want to, but because they didn’t have the power to. We feel this illustrates the ingrained systematic racism and white privilege that exists, the ‘desirable’ migrant versus the ‘undesirable’. While our belief in no borders supports the Australians staying, it also means we believe all other migrants should be granted the same support and publicity. For example, there was a chartered flight full of Nigerians and Ghanians set to be removed at the same time as the Australians were first in the media. This got no media attention despite our press releases being sent out.

What kind of successes have you had? What is the most rewarding part of your work?

— The successes we have had are generally when someone is released from detention or is granted some form of leave in the UK. I feel like these used to happen weekly and now maybe monthly but I think that is an exaggeration. The most rewarding part of our work is the relationships we have built within and alongside the unity centre. We are run by asylum seekers, migrants and British citizens, so our decision making is designed to be inclusive. We are also all volunteers, we operate as a collective and run on minimal finds – around £8000 a year. We feel this is a huge success, especially as we are now ten years old.

— We have also set up offshoot groups that now run independently, including Unity LGBT, Unity Sisters, Unity Arabic Exchange, Roots to Return, Unity College Drop-in and Unity Sewing Group.

What kind of volunteering work is available at Unity?


— Volunteer opportunities are – caseworkers in the office (just need to attend a day’s training first). To become a caseworker you fill out a volunteer form and attend training before coming into work. Volunteers generally do one to two days max a week (sometimes half days depending on schedules). We also have fortnightly collective meetings that it is good to come to whenever possible. Fundraising is also a massive help, as our volunteers are often too busy running the office and our 24 phone line to get to fundraising. We always need IT help so coming into help with that is hugely useful, we need to work on the database and few other things. Hosting someone who is destitute is also a really useful thing to offer for those who can.  Coming to the Arabic Exchange as there are more Arabic speakers than English. Also setting up other projects that you may feel are needed; we are happy to support them, just don’t have time to run them.

What are the the best ways, big or small, to combat the atmosphere of negativity in the media and society?


— The best ways to combat the hostile environment is to change it from the ground up. This can be through providing a new discourse, calling out friends and relatives, standing up for strangers experiencing abuse, helping someone you know order to navigate a difficult bureaucratic system whether it be them trying to apply to university, sign up at the job centre, apply for some jobs, contact their housing provider, visit someone in detention, attend protests and events.

— Also learning about why people migrate – the effects of colonisation, war and causes of poverty (caused by the West or the rich countries) is really important. At Unity we don’t believe that it is only refugees who are welcome but that borders should be open because of colonisation and the effects of global capitalism, and because for citizens of the UK, Australia, the US, and many EU countries, borders are essentially open.

Article by: Kaisa Saarinen

Find out more about the Unity Centre here: 


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