In recent months it was revealed that almost 200 asylum-seeking children, many of whom had no parents or guardians, had disappeared after the Home Office placed them in hotels. There are theories as to where they have gone, but no answers yet, though many fear criminal gangs are trafficking and grooming them. The NGO Article 39 recently reported that “4,600 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have been accommodated in hotels, 440 episodes of disappearance have been recorded.” By “episodes” they mean children.
Maybe I have had more sleepless nights from this than some because I have been an institutionalized child trusting the state to protect me. They took care of me when I was a little boy. I read my heavily redacted and heavy social work documentation in my adulthood sitting, strangely, in a very comfortable house during a writer’s residency in Latvia. I found out that it was passed from person to person, from distant family member, from friend to friend, until social services finally tracked me down.
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My little boy is almost the same age now as I was then and I never let him out of my sight for a moment. In fact, recently my heart nearly stopped when I turned my back to knock over a cup of coffee at Starbucks and got distracted by a phone call. It wasn’t more than a few seconds, but it might as well have been two weeks because it’s just a parent’s instinct to panic when their child is out of line of sight. But these children have no one to keep them close and in sight. They depend on the Ministry of the Interior to have that instinct of surveillance and protection.
The reason I ask you to imagine this happening in Scotland is because I don’t believe, or maybe I don’t want to believe, that it can happen here.
I remember the exact moment when I decided that if I was going to return to the UK from Prague, Scotland would be my home. I was watching the Kenmure street protests online. An entire community came out in support of two Sikh men, Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdev, who were threatened with deportation. An entire neighborhood literally standing shoulder to shoulder, absolutely united in their belief in doing the right thing.
I left Scotland, I definitely believed, 27 years ago. By hook and by crook, is what I thought as I said goodbye to Coatbridge in the rearview mirror. The life I left behind was not one I wanted to return to, plagued as it was with poverty, occasional violence, and my little sister finding used syringes in our backyard. Good riddance to the schools that never noticed if you didn’t show up for a whole term and instead were sitting on a stained mattress in some dodgy older man’s council house, smoking a bunch of dope you bought from a fat man with an alsatian.
So I can assure you that I never knew that I would want to come back here, let alone bring my precious little boy home. But when it was time to return to the UK, our best hope was to live in Glasgow, where I witnessed such a show of solidarity with refugees.
Last year I took my young son to support the Kenmure protesters during their trial. It is true that he was much more interested in the PomBears that we had brought him as a bribe and in singing Hickory Dickory Dock but for me it was a thank you to a country that has welcomed us and so many people with open arms. Going there was my way of saying ‘Scotland is a country where I am proud to raise my son’. This is a Scotland that I think would be better off if children were removed from its streets. In fact, I think we would have made sure this never happened if we put all children, as they should be, with foster parents or in care homes with staff trained to care for the young.
Is the Scottish system for refugees and asylum seekers perfect? Absolutely not. But in Scotland I see a willingness you would never witness in Westminster to embrace strangers who will become our neighbors and citizens. There’s the brilliant charity Refuweegie, which has provided over 10,000 personal welcome packs and community-created emergency support packs to people across Glasgow and Scotland. And the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy, which was created to help immigrants settle, designed with input from more than 700 people from refugee and asylum-seeking communities. In Scotland today, I see a country that matches my values and one that I hope my son will adopt.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this Nova Scotia than our new Prime Minister Humza Yousaf. We now have a Prime Minister who said: “We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message, that your skin color, your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country we all call home.” Punjab to our Parliament, this is a journey across generations that reminds us to celebrate the immigrants who contribute so much to our country.”
I am very grateful that my son can grow up in this country. I am so glad he has me looking after him and I will continue to be heartbroken and sleepless for those children in Brighton & Hove who should have a guardian to look after them, feeling like a second is a week without knowing they are safe.