Scotland’s immigration debate must go beyond a focus on Scotland’s economic needs and fear of the ‘other’

The depiction of Scotland as being welcoming to newcomers is an important aspect of Scottish national identity, but what are the prospects for immigration reform in the case of Scottish independence? Joanna Wiseman argues that the debate on immigration in Scotland must go beyond a simple focus on Scotland’s economic needs and a suspicion and fear of ‘the other’. 

The view from Edinburgh Patrick_Down, CC by ND 2.0)

The view from Edinburgh (Credit: Patrick_Down, CC by ND 2.0)

Edinburgh is certainly overpopulated these days. I have to negotiate my journey to the Festival of Politics at the Scottish Government with crowds gathering in every possible and impossible corner of the city. They have come to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a festival that attracts thousands of visitors every summer.

These crowds will soon disappear again; the majority of festival-goers are only temporarily in Scotland and are thus at most met with mild irritation and annoyance by the local population. Yet what about people coming to stay in Scotland, for longer periods of time, or indefinitely? How welcoming is Scotland towards immigrants and what kind of attitudes will shape the future of immigration in Scotland? These and other questions are the reason why I am braving the festival crowds – I am attending a panel discussion organised as a part of this year’s Festival of Politics focusing on ‘The future of immigration in Scotland’.

With the referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom little more than a year away (according to its website at the very moment I only have to wait another 384 days, 20 hours and 38 minutes) the topic of immigration serves both independence campaigners as well as opponents as a means to decry their counterpart. While the former, including the Scottish Government, construct an image of a more welcoming and immigrant-friendly nation post-referendum in opposition to the UK, the latter, such as members of the UK Government, portray Scottish independence as a risk to the whole of the UK, when for example claiming that it would inevitably open the gates to mass migration to the country.

One of the key issues here is the fact that Scotland’s demographic situation differs from that of the rest of the UK. Panel member Robert Wright, Professor of Economics at the University of Strathclyde, highlights the tension between UK wide efforts to limit immigration and the UK Government’s aims to cut down net migration to the tens of thousands; in Scotland, there is the issue of an ageing population and consequential workforce shortages in specific sectors. Scotland’s population has ‘failed to reproduce itself’ Robert Wright claims, and as a consequence now depends on migrant labour. On the whole, he states, Scotland’s society today still consists of a relatively homogenous white population, and the percentage of the foreign-born population in Scotland is significantly lower than in the UK as a whole (6.6% compared to about 12%).

The migrant population that receives most attention from the tabloid press and politicians is of course that of asylum seekers and refugees. Scotland has a relatively short history of accommodating asylum seekers; following the new dispersal policies of the UK Government in 1999, Glasgow became the only local authority in Scotland to sign up for dispersal. It now accommodates about 10% of the UK’s asylum population and the Scottish Refugee Council estimates that currently there are about 20,000 refugees, asylum seekers and others ‘of concern’ in Scotland. In the case of Scottish independence, Robert Wright predicts that numbers of asylum seekers are likely to fall, a view reiterated in the Scottish Refugee Council’s report Improving the Lives of Refugees in Scotland after the Referendum: An Appraisal of the Options. This is, as Robert Wright explains, firstly due to the fact that the majority of asylum seekers are supported in Scotland as a result of dispersal policies, which means that they have initially arrived in England, and secondly the existence of only a small number of international airports in Scotland, which limits the accessibility of Scotland by air.

Currently immigration is a reserved power to Westminster. If Scotland were to become an independent state, the newly formed government would face important decisions about what kind of immigration policies it would want to put into effect. It is likely that Scotland will in some form gain more powers post-referendum, which means that the government will have to prove its pledges of a more flexible migration system and more humane asylum procedures.

The depiction of Scotland as being welcoming to newcomers has become an important aspect of Scottish national identity. This was a discourse that was reproduced by both panellists and audience members at the Festival of Politics. Yet what kinds of immigrants will the Scottish Government really welcome?

The debate often focuses largely on Scotland’s demographic situation and both Robert Wright as well as Craig Douglas, student at Strathclyde University and manager of a Japanese manufacturing company, focus on migration primarily in the context of economic growth and the needs of the labour market, aiming at attracting the ‘the right workers with the right skills’, in the words of Robert Wright. Craig Douglas thereby distinguishes between those immigrants with a ‘fantastic work ethic’ and others, such as ‘illegal immigrants’, who ‘do not contribute to society’. Robert Wright and Craig Douglas both raised concerns about recent developments which restrict the ability of overseas students to work in the UK upon completion of their studies as worrying, again their focus thereby lies on the potential value of these students for Scotland’s economy. (Despite featuring less in the media, students in fact constitute a far bigger percentage of the migrant population in the UK than asylum seekers and refugees.)

However, what does it mean to ‘contribute’; how can contribution to a society be measured? And should we really think of this contribution exclusively in economic terms?

These are important questions raised by Alison Phipps, Professor for Languages and Intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow and co-convenor of Gramnet (Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network). She adds a much-needed perspective on immigration that is not only concerned with economic growth and the labour market, reminding us that ‘care is not a reserved matter’. Matters such as housing, education or health are devolved powers and the Scottish Government thus already has responsibilities to care for its migrant population in these areas. For Alison Phipps, the destitution and poverty experienced by asylum seekers in Scotland are major concerns, as well as the recently revised family reunion policies which set a minimum income threshold at £18,600 for sponsoring a non-EU partner. She demands that the Scottish Government take a clear stance on these issues, as they affect the Scottish born population just as much as those who have migrated to the country.

Craig Douglas responds to this call by warning of the dangers of becoming an ‘over-caring society’, somewhat reminding me of the Conservative rhetoric around human rights in the immigration context and the idea of there being a possibility of having ‘too many’ human rights. His views are taken further by members of the audience questioning why Scotland should offer care and empathy to others. What Craig Douglas and others fail to acknowledge is of course the wider global context, which the theme of this year’s Festival of Politics already suggests – Scotland’s place in the world.

Immigration to Scotland, both now and post-referendum, will be influenced by global processes, as Alison Phipps reminds us. Some of the UK’s past and current foreign policies have contributed to or caused current political upheaval in the world, and economic trade justice lies ‘at the heart of the debate on immigration’. Scotland is not independent of issues of global poverty and has to recognise its responsibilities for people within its country as well as beyond. Also our responsibility as Scottish citizens does not end with ‘donating money to those poor children born with a cleft’ (who conveniently stay where they ‘belong’), as one of the audience members suggested.

As I make my way home, wading through herds of tourists who are busy making their contribution to the Scottish economy, I am thinking back to a recent visit I made to the Home Office reporting centre in Glasgow, and the way I felt looking at posters that were plastered on every bit of the wall, even the floors and chairs, asking the waiting asylum seekers to inquire about ‘going home’, not dissimilar to recent campaigns in London. I am hoping that the Scottish Government takes responsibility, both now and in future, and that the debate on immigration in Scotland goes beyond a focus on Scotland’s economic needs and fears of the ‘other’. I am hoping that more voices like Alison Phipps’s will shape both the present and the future of Scottish immigration.

Note: This post originally appeared on Open Democracy and can be viewed here. It represents the views of the author and not of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Joanna WisemanJoanna Wiseman is completing a PhD in Human Geography at Newcastle University. Her project is funded by ESRC and the Scottish Refugee Council and focuses on the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow. She has worked closely with the British Red Cross and the Scottish Guardianship Service.


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This post is part of Democratic Audit’s Future of the Union series, which explores the UK’s future prospects as a political union and the implications of constitutional and territorial changes. To read more posts in this series click here.

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