Is civil society failing refugees?

Refugees

​TFN looks at whether Scots civil society is doing enough to keep the plight of refugees in the spotlight.

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29th February 2016 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

Scottish civil society’s response to the refugee crisis has gone quiet – and more must be done to make sure the plight of desperate migrants remains high on the agenda.

That’s the view of Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf, who said campaign groups and charities must not slacken the pressure on governments to take action.

The refugee crisis crystallised last September following the publication of pictures showing the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach.

Then, international attention began to focus on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in the Mediterranean and at Calais in France.

Civil society pressure to do things for refugees has gone quiet. The public has to do more to push governments.

There was a corresponding burst of activist activity, with grassroots campaigns and collections springing up across the country, simultaneously raising aid and awareness.

The crisis hasn’t abated – people still die in the Med and live in misery and squalor in Calais. Indeed, it has become one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen.

United Nations (UN) figures show that there are at least 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance as a result of the civil war, with 6.6 million internally displaced within the shattered remains of Syria and over 4.6 million seeking refuge outside of the country.

However, despite these astronomical numbers – and the vast well of human suffering they represent – media attention has shifted since September and the narrative towards refugees changed, particularly after the Paris terrorist outrages in November.

But has civil society’s attention begun to drift as well? That was what Yousaf, Holyrood’s minister for external affairs and international development, suggested at a session on human rights and refugees at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations’ recent Gathering event.

He told attendees that the “civil society pressure to do things for refugees has gone quiet. The public has to do more to push government to, for example, take more [people].”

If the minister expects the Scottish people to take to the streets demanding 20,000 more refugees be brought in, then he’s deluded

His comments caught the attention of those in the audience who have been working with the Syrian refugees who have been brought to Scotland, such as Maggie Lennon, director of the Bridges Programme, which recently set up a programme to re-train 30 refugee medics to enable them to work in the NHS in Scotland

She said: “I thought it was an odd statement by the minister and I’m not sure what he meant by it. If he was talking about organisations, then no, we’re the only people doing the work – it’s not our fault that people have been dispersed to the likes of Wick where we have nothing on the ground.

“If he means members of the public, then yes, because you had this response to the picture of the wee boy etc but then the media narrative moved on – quite quickly after the Paris attacks.

“The public response was intuitive – they wanted to things such as putting people up in their homes, which is inappropriate and potentially dangerous.

“There does seem to be a disconnect – I think there’s an issue with local groups not getting the guidance they need from local authorities, but also local authorities not being sure what to do.

“If the minister meant he expects the Scottish people to take to the streets demanding 20,000 more refugees be brought in, then he’s deluded. However, if the Scottish Government went ahead and did this and made the case for it well, then the Scottish public would accept it.”

In many ways, the public response to the refugee crisis was best exemplified by the growth of activist movements such as Scotland Supporting Refugees, which was set up to help co-ordinate the response of the plethora of groups which sprung up.

Its Facebook numbers rocketed and its members are still actively campaigning and raising aid – though their efforts don’t attract the media attention they did for a few weeks last September.

One of the organisers, Julie Hepburn, told TFN that the appetite, commitment and enthusiasm of grassroots activists is as strong as ever – and this is shared by the public, even though it doesn’t translate into headlines anymore, much less UK government action.

She said: “More could be done to keep this issue in the spotlight, but that's also very difficult. As with all disasters like this, public interest is only sustained for so long before the next story or cause comes along.

“There is also the issue of compassion fatigue, and perhaps a growing sense of helplessness in the face of such a huge humanitarian disaster. After the initial flurry of activity, which was really overwhelming, only a few groups continue to operate.

“However, those who are still running have become really entrenched and well organised. Groups like Re-Act in Edinburgh, Dundee Refugee Support, SAFR in Glasgow, Angus Solidarity for Refugees to name a few. 

“In terms of public sympathy generally though, I don't see that waning much. I coordinate a group in my area called Cumbernauld Supporting Refugees, and since we set up we've collected around 10 tonnes of aid for refugees arriving in Serbia in partnership with charity Glasgow the Caring City.

“At the collections we had in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth in January, we collected and sorted around 1.6 tonnes of aid in just four hours. It was hard work that day!

“Most of the efforts supporting refugees in Scotland have focussed on practical support, rather than campaigning. The Scottish Government has been very welcoming and supportive of refugees, so perhaps that's why there is little impetus to focus any campaigns on them.

“At the other end of the spectrum, the UK government is clearly aiming to do as little as possible, and it's clear it will not be moved on that given it managed to resist doing more at the height of public pressure.

“So perhaps that's why there isn't a huge amount of campaigning to lobby them either.”

TFN gave Yousaf the opportunity to clarify his comments – and he insisted that civil society must keep up the pressure on behalf of refugees.

He said: “As I made clear at the Gathering, Scotland’s response to this humanitarian crisis has been outstanding, by local authorities and by third sector organisations alike. 

“From the outset, the Scottish Government has pressed the UK government to do more and to do it more quickly.

“Civic society has an important role to play too and it is vital that they make their voice heard at a Scottish and UK level to ensure that the plight of refugees remains high on the agenda.”