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Frontline Scotland
Desperately seeking safety
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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 00:47 GMT 01:47 UK
Frontline Scotland: Desperately seeking safety

This is the transcript of the Frontline Scotland programme Desperately Seeking Safety broadcast on 5 June, 2001.

ROSS McWILLIAM: Fleeing from troubled spots all over the world. Men, women and children seeking safety. Four thousand found themselves in Glasgow. Almost half were went to the tower blocks of the city's Sighthill Estate.

This family sought refuge from the conflict in Palestine. Their world has been turned upside down, and their lives torn apart. These children no longer see their father.

REEN SAADA: I miss my dad very much. When I see him again I will hug, cuddle and kiss him.

ROSS: But it's not the violence in the Middle East that has separated them - it was violence here, in Sighthill, that broke up the family. The children are now living with their aunt and uncle and four cousins. They don't know when they'll see their father again.

TITLES : Desperately Seeking Safety

ROSS: The asylum seekers came to this country looking for refuge. They all had different stories of persecution, torture and discrimination. Glasgow was to be their new home. But far from being a haven for many it's become hell. Could that have been avoided, or was it inevitable that putting forty nationalities into an ethnic melting pot it was bound to boil over.

Faten Hameed from the Middle East Network wants to stop the tension and bring the two sides together. It's a tough task.

FEMALE RESIDENT: Can you tell me why at night we slept in our beds when asylum seekers came in we had no talks. We never knew anything behind... an you blame us for our tempers.

MALE: I could take you up to my girlfriend's house and show you what my girlfriend's been put into.

FATEN: I totally agree with you.

MALE: They don't even come from the country and they're getting what they want.

FATEN: They are walking into, as you put it, furnished fully from the washing machine to the kettle, it's not their flat... they're getting it temporarily.

FEMALE RESIDENT: We're getting threatened with eviction as we call them "black Bs", right OK, but if they call us "white bitch". See if you go outside of my block, all the way down the stairs it's got "f**k Scottish", now who's writing that? It's not me. It's not them. It's not us. So you tell me why that's wrote doon ma block "f**k Scottish", because that's what they feel about us. They feel they can come in here and they can say... and we've got to sit back like carpets and we're not getting support off the local police. We are angry here.

ROSS: Sighthill bears the scars of an estate that has gone to seed. It's best days are long gone. It was, in the words of one resident, a dejected and demoralised community before the two thousand asylum seekers started arriving a year ago. Many families and single mothers are struggling on the breadline. Watching neighbouring flats being decorated and furnished hit a raw nerve. Glasgow City Council has been accused of being na´ve and insensitive.

NORRIE GOWER (Fountainwell Tenants Association): I think the way the whole situation's been handled has been appalling from the start. We were given no warning that this was going to happen. It's not jealousy, it's lack of consultation in that if people... if the Council had come and said these people are going to move here, this is going to happen, then things would be fine. But they were sneaked in on buses early in the morning, and it was... it was just actually really, really appalling the way that it was done.

ROSS: As the number of asylum seekers in Sighthill grew so did the rumours and the resentment.

FEMALE RESIDENT: You look up at their kitchen windows, they've all got satellite dishes. We've no Cable TV, we've to pay telly licences for all that, none of them have ??unclear?? ...they're all getting living here for free.

FEMALE RESIDENT: Council tax paid for, everything, as we say the satellites, the phones, mobile phones, they're driving about and see the cars, some of them are driving about in convertibles.

ROSS: But the asylum seekers came to this country with nothing. They're not allowed to work, and are surviving on vouchers and cash worth around half the normal weekly income support. The accommodation provided for families like the Saadas is basic. It's certainly more comfortable than the transit camp they fled from in the Lebanon, but now it feels like a prison.

REEN SAADA (via interpreter): She's saying that she is scared from the Scottish people. I asked her if all Scottish people scare her, she said no. I asked her who do you really fear from, what kind of Scottish people, what areas, she said really Sighthill area people.

ROSS: The reason Reen will no longer leave the flat, even to go to school where she had been doing so well, is because of the vicious attack on her father and uncle. They were set upon by a mob outside the flats in Sighthill and badly beaten.

After recovering in hospital they are now in hiding. Too frightened to go back to Sighthill and unable to see their family we spoke to them at a safe location. It's a far cry from the welcome Haitham Saada was expecting when he came to Scotland.

HAITHAM SAADA (via interpreter): I asked for to be sent to Scotland. We met a number of medical staff in Lebanon who were very nice people and very kind, and that's the impression we had about the Scottish people in Scotland.

The punches and the kicking that he's got has carried a lot of hatred and bitterness. It wasn't just a soft thing, it wasn't like they were playing a game, or they were having fun. It was just so harsh and so expressive of a deep hatred it looked to him, or felt to him.

ROSS: The brutal assault made headlines all over the country. But a doctor who looks after the asylum seekers at a local practice sees people injured in racist attacks on a daily basis. But most are too scared to report the violence.

Dr VON KAEHNE (Fernbank Clinic): People say in Sighthill you cannot go out alone after dark, you cannot go out alone even now in summer evenings. You're restricted to your flats, even in the flat you're not safe. People were telling me that in the middle of the night someone bangs at the door and kicks the door, so life in Sighthill is for many people a living hell.

I probably see every second day a casualty sheet if someone has been assaulted, attended casualty at Stobhill, or Glasgow Royal Infirmary, or other casualties with assault, injuries stemming from assault up to broken bones, and broken noses, whatever.

Here people present to me with bruises, sometimes on a few occasions also with more bigger injuries, injuries to the eyes when they were hit. Fortunately so far I have not had any major lasting injuries here, but I think it a question of time the way it is going, and I'm very, very worried.

ROSS: Many asylum seekers are more than worried, they're scared, staying trapped in their homes day and night. Mohammed and his wife escaped persecution in Pakistan. They had problems from the very first day in Sighthill.

MOHAMMED: When we went outside to have a look what's going on over here, the people, shops,we went outside and the young guys, under sixteen...they behaved very badly, they abused us, they're throw stones on us. So the first day they made a bad impression about Sighthill.

ROSS: It was to get worse. His pregnant wife was kicked in the stomach by two teenage girls who got in the lift with the couple. Mohammed feels trapped but he'd rather be behind bars.

MOHAMMED: I think a prison is better than Sighthill. If you are in prison, an asylum seeker in prison there's no need to be frightened, because you know, they are safe. But over here it is bad, worse than in a prison because anything could happen over here, anything.

ROSS: Shwan escaped Saddam Hussain's regime in Iraq. But his new-found freedom in Glasgow came to an abrupt end after he was stabbed by a group of teenagers.

Now he only leaves his Sighthill flat for important journeys, like prayers at the Mosque. The attack is still a painful memory.

SHWAN KAREEN SAEED (via interpreter): It was outside my flat in Sighthill fifteen Scottish teenagers came for me. There were two or three knives and they stabbed me here in the stomach. I like Glasgow and Scotland is good, but Sighthill is very bad.

ROSS: There have been ninety reported racial attacks since the beginning of the year. It's that background of rising racial tension and violence that has prompted the local Residents' Association to attempt to build bridges. This meeting had all the right ingredients. Asylum seekers like Ziad whose brothers were attacked and his wife verbally abused. Brian O'Hare, the Council's man on the ground, and Faten, a Housing Officer with a foot in both camps.

Residents' Association meeting

FATEN: I know there are a lot of problems. This woman suffered a lot of problems, ┐this guy, his wife has suffered as well, so now we want your suggestions as you are the local community, what is the way forward.

MALE: The purpose of this meeting is to build bridges....

ROSS: The man mixing all the ingredients is Chairman of the Residents' Association, Charlie Riddell, it proves to be a recipe for disaster.

Residents' Association meeting

FEMALE: You told the lady up the stairs to get back to your own country ya black bastard, he shouldn't be in a meeting him, he shouldn't be in a meeting, and I disagree with that man in a meeting.

MALE: I will have to close this meeting if people....

FEMALE: Well you can do what you like.

MALE: If there's any more outbursts I'm closing this meeting.

FEMALE: Now before the refugees came in there was nowhere for our kids to go or anything, but now the refugees are here everything's getting proposed for them. I was told it was for the refugees and nothing else. How can you ask us to mingle with those people when what they people have done....

MALE: One more time, I know you've all got grievances, I know you all feel bad about things, this is not what this meeting is for.

ROSS: Even a plan to have a public meeting to bring residents and asylum seekers together hit problems.

Residents' meeting

MALE: If both groups are there it's going to turn into a war. So let them have their own meeting.

FEMALE: It's too late to build bridges now... there's so much happened in our lives now that it's too late now to build bridges between us and your...there's 28 different communities, 28 different countries in here and we're going to have to learn the needs of every one of them.

CHARLIE RIDDELL: I asked you not to shout at this meeting please. The meeting's closed now.

ROSS: Long term residents, and the new arrivals are left wondering where to go from here, and the recriminations continue.

CHARLIE RIDDELL (Fountainwell Tenants Association): It's asylum seekers who are being assaulted here....

FEMALES ....uproar....

ROSS: This was meant to be a meeting to get Sighthill to pull together. Sadly, it looked more like the estate was pulling itself apart.

FEMALE RESIDENT: Well, I'm in a 5-apartment, my windows are nailed shut, every one of my windows are nailed shut, nobody's listening to me and they're getting everything in their houses - furniture, windows, the whole lot, and I'm sitting in a house that's falling apart.

ROSS: When you have moments like you had this morning when there is so much anger being shown, does it make you despair that you can ever get these communities living together in harmony.

CHARLIE RIDDELL: I don't think it does. I think we should still do it. Once we get through....if we can release all this tension where people feel as if they're not being listened to, they're very touchy about being considered to be racist and all that kind of stuff and I don't think they are. So I think if that can all be.... I think it's a risk, but I think it's a risk that must be taken now.

ROSS: Ziad, still looking after his nephew and nieces while his brothers remain in hiding doesn't share that optimism. The meeting left him despairing of any hope for the future.

ZIAD SAADA (via interpreter) : It's a huge disappointment, and I'm surprised, and I was shocked. I just did not expect it at all because I used to be frightened and I have fear towards some other people in the area, not from them because I see these people who were around the table today on a daily basis, and now I have to fear from everybody.

ROSS: An increase in police on the beat working alongside interpreters has put a lid of things for the time being. But the pressure is still building.

Do you think the people of Sighthill are racist?

Chief Superintendent ALLAN BURNETT: No I don't think the people of Sighthill are racist. Some of them certainly are carrying out racist attacks but that is the tiny minority. The huge majority of the people in Sighthill, Springburn and the rest of Glasgow want to enhance Glasgow's reputation. They hate to see it being damaged. And I think that's one of the very important avenues that we can use in bringing everyone together is pride in Glasgow.

ROSS: But that reputation has been damaged, and there are fears among refugee leaders that the fuse has already been lit.

MOHAMED ASIF (Asylum Seeker Spokesman): Somebody's coming up to you and killing you or hitting you with a knife, or with bottles. You have the right to defend yourself. I'm not saying you're encouraging anyone to do that. But again, if somebody did the same thing to their own children how would they feel. We have the same kind of feelings. We have the same kind of dignity. We have the same kind of pride. The refugees want protection now. Everyone is asking for protection. They say we don't want anything, we just want the authorities to protect our lives, is what the refugees want here.

ROSS: If they don't get that will they then have to protect themselves?

MOHAMED ASIF: Well if they don't get it then the matter will become very, very worse. And then I'm not saying again to provoke people to fight or to take action hold the law in your own hands. Then people have the rights to defend themselves you know. If you cannot protect us then please tell us we can go somewhere else.

ROSS: There are claims on the estate young asylum seekers are already taking the law into their own hands and the police are ignoring it.

FEMALE RESIDENT: One night I heard a lot of shouting and I looked, and all you could see was all these things shining, and it was them coming down like army men with all these swords and all that chasing the white boys. And they must have got it on camera, they must have got it on camera. It was right in front of the camera station. The police came, they were all lined up against a wall. Now wee seen them all throwing their stuff, you could take the police to point to them, they sent them up the stair, and there was about eight/nine boys, white boys were all put in the back of a van and took away. But they were all sent home.

ROSS: And you were sure it was swords that they had?


FEMALE RESIDENT: Plenty of people in Sighthill witnessed it, plenty of people seen it that night.

ROSS: Some of the residents that we've talked to have made claims that the younger asylum seekers are beginning to fight back, and they said quite categorically that they've seen them starting trouble, goading local youths, and in some cases they've been carrying weapons. Is that something that you're aware of?

ALLAN BARNETT: Well, I'm aware of many of the discussions and points that are being by the local community. I think there is a responsibility on both sides to stay calm, and really, there are certain things that are obviously against the law that we can't condone in any circumstances.

We have no evidence that the asylum seekers are arming themselves in any way, and that's quite an important point to get across because really, this whole situation feeds off myth, the myth about what the asylum seekers get when they arrive here, the myth about what they're doing by way of retaliation in preparation to tackle the other side. It is all extremely unhelpful.

ROSS: The police have found themselves under attack from both sides. Local residents claim that they've been asking for more beat officers for years. Now, they're swamped by them and it's only for the benefit of the asylum seekers. The asylum seekers claim they wanted more protection a long time ago. But the biggest criticism is reserved for Glasgow City Council. They took the asylum seekers in their thousands, and government money in its millions, but failed to take the time to explain the impact on Sighthill.

FATEN HAMEED (Middle Eastern Network): Yes there was lack of planning, definitely. It should have been planned before, it should have prepared for it, we should have organisations should have been invited around the table so we can distribute order responsibilities to every organisation....if it is voluntary organisation, or the Local Authority is really to work together to welcome these asylum seekers, and to make them feel they're like living at home. And it would have worked if they planned for it. But obviously it's a bit too late now for that.

ROSS: When the government started its controversial dispersal programme moving asylum seekers around the country Glasgow City Council was the only Scottish local authority to offer to help. The criticism is that by putting so many asylum seekers in such a poor area with little, or no explanation to local residents it was bound to cause problems.

There are plenty who will say that the last thing on their mind is racism, and they feel that what is wrong about bringing the asylum seekers is not because of the colour of their skin or where they come from, but the fact that they are receiving aid and services that wasn't explained to them in the beginning by the Council.

ARCHIE GRAHAM (Glasgow City Council): Yes, I think I would have to say that there's a grain of truth in that. I mean many of these people are good, honest, decent people and they simply don't understand the nature of the contract we've got for locating people here. So, yes, we're prepared to learn lessons, and we're prepared to improve communications, there's no question about that.

ROSS: A new leaflet dropped to every Sighthill resident explaining the facts is planned. And tough action, including eviction, is threatened against anyone involved in racism. This woman and her sons could be the first to be forced from their home in Sighthill.

FEMALE RESIDENT: This is a letter I got from the Housing through the door, attacks on the refugees.

ROSS: There are fears that may further inflame an already tense situation. There's also criticism that the Council jumped in too quickly eager not to welcome the asylum seekers but to get millions of pounds of rent money from the Government.

Is that why the asylum seekers are here simply to fill up empty houses?

BRIAN O'HARA (Manager, Glasgow Asylum Team): No, Glasgow City Council takes its responsibility very seriously in terms of doing what it can for the vulnerable in society, and Glasgow City Council recognises that the Government's dispersal scheme, the asylum seekers in general, particularly the country's that these people have come from are extremely vulnerable.

ROSS: You're also taking huge amounts of money.

BRIAN O'HARA: We get a contract fee from The Home Office that allows us to build in the accommodation and support over the five years of this contact.

ROSS: How much is that worth?

BRIAN O'HARA: Well, that is commercially confidential.

ROSS: It's taxpayers' money why should it be confidential?

BRIAN O'HARA: Over a five year period you could be looking at something like a hundred million pounds for the city.

ROSS: So for flats that would have been sitting empty you are getting a hundred million pounds, is that really an act of charity or an act of commercial enterprise?

BRIAN O'HARA: No, can I repeat what I say, Glasgow City Council was approached by The Home Office to be involved in the dispersal programme. Glasgow City Council has got a good track record of supporting the most vulnerable in society, and we take that matter very seriously.

ROSS: For the moment the arguments and tensions disappear. It had been weeks since the Saada children had last seen their father. But Frontline brought them together to a safe location. Time for those kisses and hugs Reen had spoken about.

His family's future almost certainly lies elsewhere in the UK if The Home Office rules that he can stay. But for now this is a happy occasion - full of smiles and laughter. All that Haitham has ever wanted from this country.

HAITHAM SAADA (via interpreter): I did not come here for anybody to give me a house and vouchers and money. I came here for security and safety. This is what I want. I am a proud person who wants to work, and we are, as Palestinians as a nation┐we don't mind even working 24-hours a day earning our money, not given that. But what I came for is the security and safety.

ROSS: Rightly or wrongly Sighthill now has a reputation. Lessons have to be learned. But building bridges can take time and with the number of asylum seekers arriving in Glasgow set to double over the next couple of months time is one luxury the city can't afford.

FEMALE SIGHTHILL RESIDENT: ....we're angry....

FEMALE SIGHTHILL RESIDENT: ....and we're bitter....

FEMALE SIGHTHILL RESIDENT: All the attention the refugees are getting.

MALE ASYLUM SEEKER: One's life is in someone's own hand. It's not in your own hand.

FEMALE SIGHTHILL RESIDENT: They're all provoking us to retaliate to them.

MALE ASYLUM SEEKER: We are not here to make money. We are here to save our lives.

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01 Jun 01 | Scotland
Cardinal attacks asylum policies
22 May 01 | Scotland
Anger at council asylum moves
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