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Glasgow’s proud history of solidarity with refugees

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Successes in building links with refugees and local people can be a model for others, writes Margaret Woods of Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees
Issue 2475
Protest at Dungavel against the detention of children in 2003
Protest at Dungavel against the detention of children in 2003 (Pic: Duncan Brown)

Labour home secretary Jack Straw ordered the dispersal of refugees across Britain 16 years ago. Glasgow City Council agreed to take in thousands of families while their asylum cases were decided. 

An Iranian asylum seeker said in 2001, “People were hostile to me and other asylum seekers. They were being fuelled by what politicians were saying in the press and on television.”

Many local people, churches, trade unionists and community projects rallied round to befriend and help the refugees. 

The Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees (GCTWR) was set up with the backing of various trade union branches, politicians from several parties and huge numbers of local people.

Soon the Home Office opened premises in the city and Dungavel Detention Centre out on the moor. Life became much harsher for the refugees and a climate of fear spread across the city.

Local communities swung into action, launching campaigns supported by demonstrations. Large numbers of people attended court hearings—often with union banners. 

The campaign to defend the family of well-known local Angolan pastor Makielokele Daly organised four protests over Christmas 2004. It saw them released from detention.

About 25 people occupied Brand Street immigration office in Glasgow for a day in November 2005 in protest at the deportation of asylum seekers.

The four Kurdish Ay children spent 13 months in detention with their mother—the longest in Britain—before being deported. 

Around 1,200 outraged people joined a Scottish TUC protest outside Dungavel.


The protests peaked with the biggest protest at a detention centre, when 2,000 people protested outside  Dungavel.

Campaigning stepped up a gear when dawn raids started. Asylum seekers could now be faced with 15 Home Office officials in stab proof vests dragging families from their beds at 5am.

Asylum seekers built links with ordinary local people who campaigned for them.

Refugees had been housed in the most deprived working class areas of the cities. These communities organised the defence of their new neighbours with the help of GCTWR, campaigning lawyers and financial help from unions.

Up to 500 people regularly protested every Saturday outside the Home Office.

Eventually the furore forced the government to abandon dawn raids and child detention in Scotland. 

The fates of 500 families which were in dispute were settled when, in one way or another, virtually all received status.

Over the years, the day to day work of befriending refugees and helping with cases while ensuring that people felt part of the community continued. 

Glasgow set a benchmark for solidarity, defence of refugee rights and opposition to detention and deportation.

For several years feelings ran so high that no immigration minister came on the usual annual visit.

 Most of the major public campaigns ended in success and a spirit of greater hope pervaded the city.

‘The treatment of asylum seekers stinks’

Noreen Real, neighbour of the Vucaj family, Kingsway Court flats, Scotstoun (2005):

“The raid on Mrs Vucaj’s house really hit me. They were taken away at five in the morning. The father and 17 year old son were handcuffed. The men were put in one van, the women in another.

“I went to the demonstration at Brand Street, the immigration office in Govan where asylum seekers have to sign a register, to voice my anger at the treatment of the Vucaj family.

“The whole treatment of asylum seekers stinks. What have these people done? Nothing. I have asylum seekers next door to me and I thank god they’re there.”

‘Attitudes are changing’

Jassim Johe, refugee support worker at the Kingsway Court (2005):

“There is still a racist element, which the media has played a big part in.

“But attitudes are changing. At the centre I work in we are working towards integration—people playing football together, dancing classes and rugby.

“When leaflets were distributed to over 1,000 flats only two people said they didn’t want leaflets.

“You now see asylum seekers’ teenage children mixing with white teenagers. Families have barbecues and picnics together. That wasn’t something I saw when I first started working here.”

Saying no to racism today

Margaret Woods and Amal Azzudin from the campaign

Margaret Woods and Amal Azzudin from the campaign

The present Tory government ruthlessly scapegoats refugees. 

Last week we held a meeting in Glasgow to discuss what people can do now to help refugees. I reported back from a solidarity trip to Greece. 

People declared their determination to demand that the borders of Europe be opened and the refugees allowed in. 

The following weekend I went to Greece again to attend the Keerfa anti-racist conference.

As the EU European countries and big NGOs have done little it has again been local volunteers, ordinary people who have organised solidarity, campaigning and practical help. 

Large amounts of money have been raised and tons of supplies of clothing and other necessities collected and shipped out to refugees from across Europe.

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