Last Tuesday the Scottish public woke up to a message on the front page of The National — ‘To the first refugees fleeing war-torn Syria who will at arrive at Glasgow Airport today, we’d just like to say: Welcome to Scotland’.
15 of the families who arrived in damp Glasgow on Tuesday morning went to bed on the Isle of Bute – a small, windy island off the West coast of Scotland, home to just 6,000 people and some of the most beautiful mountains and seas in the world. In December the Bute community will screen the popular American film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to welcome their new members. Other refugees are being settled in Edinburgh, Glasgow and other towns across Scotland. Beyond a system of identities defined by passports and border controls, these are ordinary individuals hoping to build a normal and safe life living alongside other ordinary people.
Scotland, for now, seems to be showing the rest of the world how to welcome Syrian refugees with open arms.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, a new phase in the global refugee crisis has begun: a hysterical conflation of ‘Syrian’ with ‘ISIS’. Details are still emerging but the mastermind and key accomplices of the Paris attacks were European nationals (it remains unclear if any had ever been to Syria) – but this information has not stopped politicians from turning the crisis into political game.
Poland quickly announced it would cease accepting Syrian refugees. But by far the worst culprits have been the United States Congress which introduced measures drastically intensifying already-stringent background checks on Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and US Presidential candidates who compare refugees to ‘rabid dogs’ and emulate Nazi Germany policies by proposing special identity cards for Muslims in the US — in reality, just three of the 859,629 refugees admitted to the US since 2001 have been arrested for planning terrorist activities (two of them outside of the US). Political action based on a ‘us and them’ mentality is exactly what ISIS intended to effect by its terrible attacks in Paris – removing the global ‘grey zone’ of multi-religious, multi-cultural societies is one of their key objectives.
The greatest irony of course is that France will stick to its plan to accept at least 30,000 refugees in the next two years. Other countries in Europe similarly have refused to accept the bait (at least with regard to refugee policy). One of these is Scotland.
Syrian refugees resettled in Scotland last week are arriving to a pre-arranged program that includes housing, education and social services. This is due to the UK’s Gateway Protection Programme – which differs from refugee policy in most of the European Union. The geographical isolation of the UK means that fewer refugees end up at its borders after a trip through Europe, and the UK rejects asylum seekers entering in this manner, unlike Germany, Austria and some other EU nations. Instead the program brings refugees directly from UNHCR camps to the UK. The limitations of the policy are that it only accepts the most vulnerable of the vulnerable and is criticized for being woefully small in scope. In total, Scotland has pledged to accept 40% of the 1,000 Syrian refugees expected to arrive in the UK before the end of the year. So far, this promise has remained immune to fear-mongering following Paris.
In media coverage and political commentary, conflation of ‘refugee’ with ‘terrorist’, of ‘Syrian’ with ‘ISIS’ is escalating. Words matter. Words create and change ideas. Syrians fleeing the deadly trio of Assad brutalities, civil conflict and Daesh are as removed from Islamist extremism as are the commentators condemning them — their only fault is to have suffered the unfortunate coincidence of being nationals of a country torn apart by war and terrorism. They deserve more than Western hysteria.