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Tuesday, 25 April, 2000, 21:22 GMT 22:22 UK
Transcript: Escape to Glasgow

This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Escape to Glasgow programme, broadcast on Tuesday, 25 April.


Reporter, Shelley Jofre: The Red Road flats in Glasgow's Springburn - towering landmarks that pierce the city's skyline. Soon to be home to Cecilia, from Rwanda. She's seeking political asylum in the UK.

She, and her two-year-old daughter, have travelled overnight from London to be re-housed in Glasgow while the Home Office considers her application.

Cecilia is one of 7,000 asylum seekers to be housed in Glasgow over the next five years.

It's a controversial move for a city burdened with debt and more than its fair share of social and economic problems. There have been loud protests about whether the city can meet the needs of these asylum seekers without harming the lives of local people.

Cecilia, though, is grateful just to have a place of safety for her and her daughter.

Cecilia: When I was living in Rwanda those days I didn't ever think of coming this far. I didn't ever think of coming, you know, coming to stay, coming to seek asylum. Well my family was burnt down in their house, my father and one of my sisters, the circumstances were horrible. It was worse home now¿.it holds a lot of dreadful nightmares.

Reporter: Six in the morning, and the arrival of another coach-load of asylum seekers in Glasgow. The newly formed support team have their final briefing.

On this trip 15 families were expected, but only 11 turned up for the overnight journey from London. No one knows where the other four families have gone.

There's a wide range of nationalities and languages in the group. Only a handful speak English. Most have young children.

The priority for the team is to get them settled as quickly as possible in their new homes. They're all to be housed in multi-storey council flats that have been lying empty for some time.

The council has been unable to find locals who want to live in the flats. Even so, not all the existing tenants are ready to welcome their new neighbours with open arms.

Local tenant: I'll be able to tell you in a couple of weeks because I'll have a whole landing full of them¿ I'll be the only Glaswegian on the landing of six houses, know what I mean¿..

Local tenant, number two: You're a foreigner in your own country now. They just get papped in and we have no say in the matter. You see the furniture going in, you see them getting this, and you're like that¿.we've not got half of that in the hoose¿..

Reporter: The decision to house asylum seekers in some of the most deprived areas of Glasgow has created a storm of controversy. Even those with experience of working with asylum seekers doubt the wisdom of the move.

Dr Iain Brown (Springburn Health Centre): You have to recognise that the reason that the accommodation's there in the first place is that the area has problems. To put this additional burden onto this area without trying to sort out some of the underlying problems is folly.

David Comley (Director of Housing, Glasgow City Council) : No one defends the housing conditions in which far too many tenants live.

That does not strike me as a reason for not helping with the asylum seeker programme and, I agree, taking the opportunity to get some rent for accommodation that we couldn't otherwise rent, whilst also extending the city's humanitarian tradition of extending a welcome to refugees.

Reporter: Cecilia and her daughter enjoy a quiet meal in their new flat in Glasgow. It's a welcome refuge from the hardship and horrors that she endured in her native Rwanda, a country torn apart by a savage and brutal tribal war.

Entire families were wiped out. Men, women and children butchered in a bitter struggle between two tribes for control of the country. A million people were slaughtered in just three months.

Cecilia: Wherever you went there were bodies everywhere. These deaths, if somebody is dying another one is already dead, maybe three weeks ago, just lying there, and to survive you can't stay in the building, you had to stay around dead bodies so you can try to move on.

That is where we ended up in a camp towards the borders of Rwanda and Zaire and could only get clean water. The older water was contaminated, with the bodies, and if you had to take it you would fall sick.

That's why somehow we had to rest in the camp so we could get some bit of medication. After that you had to move really because you knew any time it was death. And we tried very hard, though my partner didn't make it. I did try to make it.

Murdoch: So tell me, what happened to your partner?

Cecilia: The camp was invaded and we had to run for our lives. Most people lost their lives there. But while escaping my partner was shot, that's where his life ended. It was hard for me to go on at that time, but I had to because I had to live, and being pregnant wasn't easy, being on your own seeing all this happening, it wasn't easy, I had to go and he asked me to go, that was the last word - "go, be safe".

Murdoch: Did you think at that time that you would survive?

Cecilia: What kept me going actually was the life I was keeping inside me. But, I didn't know whether I was going to manage to save it, or save myself. All I had to do¿.all I knew was I had to survive, I had to go on, that's what I knew I had to do. It was so horrible. It's just that I'm lucky¿ I don't know who to thank. I'm just lucky to be alive and to have my daughter up to this age, and she's alive, and healthy.

Murdoch: Would you have ever expected when you with your partner in Rwanda that you would ever finish up in a situation here in a multi-storey block in Glasgow?

Cecilia: No, I expected to be dead, actually. If I hadn't thought that much I think I wouldn't be here at all.. I'm lucky I made it because my partner had to die, and at least I'm lucky I made it and I have a child with me, not like she was dead, I'm alive, we're at home safe and sound now. And at least we can start from here. That's what I'm looking forward to, that a new life and forget what you've gone through, and try to move on.

Reporter: That new life starts wherever there's an empty house. In Glasgow there are two and a half thousand houses council flats lying vacant. But in London and the south-east where housing is bursting at the seams the influx of asylum seekers has stretched council resources to the limit.

Jim Laird (Glasgow Asylum Seekers Consortium): I think it's difficult for people in other parts of the country, and certainly in Scotland, given the small numbers that we get coming here every year, to appreciate the difficulties, the very real difficulties that London and the south-east are experiencing.

You're talking about an asylum seeker population of last year of 70,000, going into that area. And if you add that on to previous years then you're talking about substantial numbers.

Now, I think it's only right that other parts of the country should try and assist London boroughs where possible, if they have got capacity to do so.

Reporter: There are two schemes under which asylum seekers are being sent to Glasgow. The Government is running the National Asylum Seekers Scheme and the London local authorities are running their own dispersal programme.

Female: I phoned Lewisham, I phoned Bromley, I phoned Southwark, and I phoned Faversham and Fulham, and I still haven't got any details. That's no good, because by that time the bus will be on its way.

Reporter: Between these two schemes Glasgow City Council plans to take more than seven thousand asylum seekers over the next five years. They will come from more than twenty different countries from as far afield as Afghanistan, China, Iran and the former Soviet Union.

The programme has only been up and running for two months and already the city has received more than a hundred families. From the outset their presence has attracted attention - not all of it favourable.

Certain ethnic groups have found themselves under fire from their neighbours and from the media. In March a group of Romanian gypsies was sent back to London after a number were found begging with their children on the streets of Glasgow.

Female: The Kosovacs are aweright, aye, gee them their due, they're nice people. But they Romanians, och¿don't like them at all.

Murdoch: There's a lot of people from other countries coming, it's not just Romanians¿.

Female: Are there ?

Murdoch: Yes, there's people from Iran, and Iraq, and Turkey.

Female: Oh they're awright, I mean you don't get nae problems aff them, but these Romanians, they follow you for money and everything.

Charlie Riddle (Sighthill Tenants Association): For about a month it was the only thing anybody talked about anywhere, and there was Nazi graffiti up on the shops, and everything, and it all now seems to have settled down. Because people were coming away with wild stories about what¿all the benefits they were going to get and everything, and saying no, no, they're not ¿and then of course, a bunch of gypos jumped¿come off a bus all talking into mobile phones, you know, and they were the ones that got sent home after a week because apparently they were up begging in Bishopbriggs, and all the guys were in the boozer getting drunk, so that didn't go too well.

Mr Laird: We get a very small minority who behave in a criminal way, or in a bad way, and that tends to take the focus away from the real genuine tragedies of families who have to come to the city. And our concern is that all asylum seekers then become labelled as criminals, deviants, beggars, economic migrants, or whatever, and it's simply not the case.

Reporter: But the debate rages on in the media over whether these visitors are truly deserving of help. It's also become a major political issue. Last week Conservative Leader, William Hague, called for the setting up of reception centres where asylum seekers would be required to stay while their claims are assessed.

William Hague: People will know that if they claim asylum in Britain then they will be detained.

Reporter: Some of his party faithful believe most of the claims are bogus anyway.

Bill Aitken MSP Conservative Party: They're not refugees. Refugees means that they're under physical threat back home. They are economic migrants.

They want the better life for themselves and that, of course, is perfectly understandable. But what has got to be perfectly understood as well as that we cannot cope with the numbers involved. We'd like to have them, and we would like to help them when they're not at physical risk back home. Back is home is where they should be.

Mr Laird: Overall the figures for 1999 show that the majority, 54 per cent of people, who applied for asylum for exceptional leave to remain within the country were successful. If you look at the appeal stage through the courts after that then that figure's likely to increase.

So despite all the rumours about bogus asylum seekers, certainly more than half the people currently coming to Britain are genuine asylum seekers.

Reporter: But there are currently 100,000 asylum claims outstanding and all these people need to be housed and supported while they wait. The lengthy appeals process can keep them here for years.

It's a process the Government has pledged to speed up. In the meantime though delays like this have fuelled local resentment about what they consider to be preferential treatment for asylum seekers.

Male: We were just saying going down in the lift how the asylum seekers are getting priority, ¿how their children are getting left behind and these people are coming into the city and they're getting everything laid on their lap.

Male: A lot of people maybe waiting on things to get sorted in their own house, and they're just walking in, theirs is all furnished for them. So, I think I would be a wee bit angry myself.

Tenants, male: For a full week there, know what I mean, there were vans coming and going, know what I mean, for money that had been taken for years that they've no had.

And och, you had to see it with your own eyes, know what I mean, it's disgusting, know what I mean, when there's people like asking caretakers 'have you any auld suites, have you got this and that¿'

Female: Terrible that the flats¿.and what they're spending on them, and what they could be putting into our own flats.

Mr Riddle: It's not the presence of the people themselves, we're used to people from all over round here. It was this business of the fact that everybody round here is very poor, and they don't have these kind of things that other people seem to be being given, and that seems to be the whole crux of the whole thing.

Male: All as I've seen is the furniture going in, all the best, carpets, you name it, the lot. Everything down to like plastic things to hold their spoons, and cutlery, know what I mean, wanting for nothing.

Jessica Judilevich (The Refugee Council): Asylum seekers have got even less than they have. And they're only in those flats on let-in free basis, those flats which many of them maybe were boarded up are being done up in a very simple way in order for that asylum seeker to be there on a temporary basis.

This is not going to be their home, the new sofa will not be theirs, that is not their flat. They will be there on a temporary basis while the Home Office determines their application for asylum.

Reporter: While they're waiting asylum seekers are not allowed to work for their first six months in this country. And they'll only get ten pounds a week cash in hand under a controversial new scheme introduced by the Government on 1 April.

Jessica: One of our principal concerns is the new voucher system. Asylum seekers will, from now on, not be entitled to claim for income support.

They're going to be given vouchers and those vouchers are going to be worth about 70 per cent of what a British person would be getting on income support. Just to give you an example, a single asylum seeker over 25 will be getting £36 per week, where a British person on income support will be getting £53 a week. That is the major difference. So people will be living with a lot less money.

Reporter: These vouchers are paid for by central Government. But critics are concerned that local council tax payers are being left to pick up the tab for many of the others services used by asylum seekers.

Mr Aitken: For many of the asylum seekers this is as near to paradise as they are likely to get. The fact of the matter is that the asylum seekers have come over without frankly being invited for the best of reason from their personal outlook. They want the better life, and who can blame them for it. But in the other hand they cannot really expect us to pay, as a Glasgow taxpayer, to fork out the bill.

David Comley: If one of the council's basic requirements is that there should be no charge to the council taxpayer or the rent payer of the city, and that there should be nothing provided at anybody else's expense.

That's why it took some time to negotiate appropriate arrangements because we had to be sure that what we were going to be paid would actually cover support services to asylum seekers, and would not be a charge on the rent payer or the council taxpayer.

See what people see happening is yes, we repair flats because in a way that we would repair them if we were letting them to anybody.

Now we do provide furniture because quite clearly asylum seekers are not in a position to furnish their accommodation. And we have to provide furnished accommodation. The rents that are paid to us by the Home Office reflect the fact that we're letting furnished.

So the council won't make a profit out of this. It will collect money it wouldn't otherwise collect, but it will also have to spend on services it wouldn't otherwise have to provide.

Reporter: But the Glasgow deal does not address who will ultimately foot the bill for the health care of asylum seekers. Many of them are coming from countries where there is a wide range of medical problems, and health care is poor or non-existent.

Some, like Mersada Zaki, need to see a doctor as soon as they get here. Mersada arrived in Glasgow three weeks ago.

She's nine months pregnant. She and her husband and young son left Kosovo three months ago. Their journey to the UK took seven days hidden in the back of an articulated lorry. It's become a common way into the country for asylum seekers.

Mersada: There were about twenty of us in the back of the lorry, men, women and children. It was a very difficult situation, we couldn't eat, make a sound or move.

Other people had told us that everything had to be done overnight. I had a very difficult trip. It was embarrassing, there wasn't anywhere we could use a toilet and as there were other men and other people there as well.

Even the child was frightened, he thought if the police stopped them they would kill him. It was very, very cold, your lips were trembling. We thought that maybe God had written that we would die there, we couldn't go anywhere, do anything. We were very tired, it wasn't easy for a pregnant woman to stay in a lorry without food, without being able to move.

Reporter: Glasgow already houses some three hundred Kosovans who arrived last year. Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced last week that he expected them all to be returned home by June.

This alarms Mersada's husband Arben, who fought in the Kosovan Liberation Army. Even though the Serbs have now left Kosovo he still feels it's too dangerous to return.

Arben: Because of the instability of the region, people only feel safe with the presence of the USA, English and German forces there. Without them they don't feel safe.

Mersada: I'm very happy that my child will be born here. I'm now nine months pregnant and I'm happy that my child wasn't born during that lorry journey.

Reporter: When the war in Kosovo was at its height medical staff in Glasgow pulled out all the stops to care for the hundreds of refugees who were flown in. But this time thousands are expected, and already overstretched health centres fear they won't have the resources to cope.

This practice in Springburn caters for one of the most deprived areas in Britain. It already has 30,000 patients, add an extra two and a half thousand asylum seekers and the strains are bound to show.

Dr Brown: The asylum bill gives quite a lot of discussion about the type of consultation that should be involved locally before there is any introduction of asylum seekers into areas.

I would certainly describe our experience is that the Springburn area has been press-ganged into accepting a group of asylum seekers rather than wooed in any way. We have a package of finance from primary care trust which they have put forward without any guarantee of central funding.

And this will continue for the foreseeable future, for two to three years. But there is no guarantee they'll be reimbursed, this is money that would otherwise be spent in Glasgow where, as you know, health is not very good, and it would well have found other, some perhaps might say, other more worthwhile ways of spending the money.

But they have decided that this was ¿.in this area where there's a concentration of asylum seekers it was worthwhile supporting the project. It is very important that down the line looking ten years ahead that there is still the resource to support what can only be an ongoing problem.

Female at Springburn Health Centre: Good afternoon, Springburn Health Centre here, it's just to confirm that we had arranged a Farsi interpreter for Thursday afternoon for an Afghanistan family.

Dr Brown: My worry is that the shape and flavour of my practice will change forever if I have an indigenous group, two and a half thousand, with perhaps two dozen foreign languages spoken by my patients, and this is completely different from general practice in Springburn at the moment.

Female: And their Farsi as well. Right, I'll phone back to Sheila and see if I can get someone for the afternoon as well then. OK.

Dr Brown: If there was no additional resource these people would have become pariahs, they would have found themselves going from doctor to doctor with practices naturally reluctant to commit economic suicide by taking on patients that are very time-consuming.

Even assuming there is simply a communication problem having a two-way conversation, and including an interpreter, at least doubles consultation time. Therefore as a rule of thumb you can expect twice as much resource to be consumed simply through language barrier.

Female: She said that the Farsi is actually, there's not many Farsi interpreters which is the problem, so, but she'll get back to me tomorrow. No, Svetlana's coming in earlier for another family. No, I don't Svetlana's, I think Svetlana's ¿is it Russian, Russian and Polish. That's fine, I'll phone you back tomorrow and tell you anyway. OK, right, bye.

Reporter: The controversy surrounding asylum seekers looks set to continue with a burning issue at the next election. We wanted to ask the Home Office about some of the concerns raised in this programme, but, they refused to be interviewed.

For those who've already arrived in the city, though, the whole furore means very little.

Asylum seekers like Cecilia are just relieved to have found a place where they feel safe, at least for the time being.

Cecilia: As far as home is concerned I don't have anything there, and I have no family. I'm just starting off, and if I'm just to be accepted, I would be very grateful. If you're given a new chance it will be always a scar that you have to live with, but try it, forget and live on with a new atmosphere, a new people, they should try to understand that what we've gone through is not easy.

Reporter: Things haven't been easy for Arben and Marsada Zeki from Kosovo either. Just days after their arrival in Glasgow they did at least have one small reason for celebration - the birth of little baby Daniel.

Arben: What can I say? Who could have predicted that the baby would have been lucky enough to have been born here.

Murdoch: Is this baby a Scottish baby, or a Kosovan Albanian baby?

Arben I don't know.

Marasda: It's Scottish really.

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See also:

12 Apr 00 | Scotland
Refugees shun Glasgow
12 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Fresh row over asylum seekers
10 Apr 00 | Europe
Europe toughens asylum policies
18 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Asylum camp plan attacked
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