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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 12, 2023


Human Rights of Asylum Seekers in Scotland (Report)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-11608, in the name of Kaukab Stewart, on behalf of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, on asylum seekers in Scotland. I invite members who wish to take part to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible. I invite Kaukab Stewart to open the debate. You have around 10 minutes, Ms Stewart.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Before I make my remarks on behalf of the committee, I encourage members to reflect on the tragic news that we heard from the Bibby Stockholm this morning.

The committee’s inquiry into the human rights of asylum seekers ran from late April through to June this year, following an evidence session on race inequality that took place earlier in the year, during which organisations including the Scottish Refugee Council and the Maryhill Integration Network told us that they considered that the Scottish Government could do more with its devolved powers to support asylum seekers.

I thank and acknowledge all those who provided written and oral evidence to the committee. I thank the clerking team, the Scottish Parliament information centre and the wider team who provided excellent support to the committee during weeks of evidence taking and engagement with the draft report.

I especially thank the asylum seekers and refugees who gave us an insight into their lived experiences at our engagement events, which were held here, in the Parliament, and at the Maryhill Integration Network. The committee appreciates that it will not have been easy for those brave individuals to speak with us and for them to have had to relive some of their experiences, but we hope that our report reflects their voices and experiences and that the Scottish Government can bring forward initiatives and solutions to address the challenges that they face. I recommend that any member who has not yet visited the committee’s web page and read the notes of those engagement sessions, which really drive home the challenges that asylum seekers and refugees face, should do so.

Before I move on to the substantive content of the report, I pay tribute to and thank those organisations that do so much with limited resources to support asylum seekers and refugees to understand their rights and limited entitlements. Organisations such as the Maryhill Integration Network, Amma Birth Companions, Refuweegee, Refugees for Justice, the Scottish Refugee Council, Friends of Scottish Settlers and the Grampian Regional Equality Council helped to facilitate our engagement sessions alongside the committee clerks and the Parliament’s participation and communities team, and we are very grateful to them.

Although immigration and asylum are reserved matters, the committee heard that there are ways in which, with some innovation and radical thinking, the Scottish Government and local authorities could address some of the issues that asylum seekers face, particularly in relation to integration.

One of the keys to integration is the ability to travel, whether it is to attend general practitioner or solicitor appointments; to access advice, support and education services; or just to have the opportunity to visit other places and prevent isolation. We know that the financial burden that is associated with bus travel is an obstacle for many asylum seekers—we heard that consistently throughout our inquiry—so our report strongly supports the extension of the existing national concessionary scheme to include all asylum seekers. That would be transformative and, as Paul Sweeney noted during his members’ business debate on 26 October, there is cross-party support for it.

Jackson Carlaw, convener of the Citizens Participation and Public Petitions Committee, recently raised the proposal directly with the First Minister at a recent Conveners Group meeting. The subsequent announcement by the First Minister at the start of November that £2 million has been set aside in next year’s budget to allow the scheme to include all asylum seekers is very welcome. We look forward to next week’s budget statement, which will enable us to understand more about how that scheme will be rolled out and how the £2 million will be allocated.

The committee heard about the pilot schemes that have been running in Aberdeen and Glasgow, and we hope that those will help to inform how the scheme is extended. We note also other policies and strategies that the Scottish Government has in place, including an additional £1.6 million in funding, announced in February this year, to focus on the development of a refreshed “New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy”; the “Ending Destitution Together” strategy; and the new guardianship service for unaccompanied asylum-seeking and trafficked children.

Our report reflects the legislative context, including the Illegal Migration Act 2023 and the current asylum process. We heard strongly expressed views that the 2023 act will change the landscape for asylum seekers who are seeking legal protection in the United Kingdom. We agree with calls from the Scottish Refugee Council and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland that, as far as possible within devolved powers, the Scottish Government should work with local authorities and other relevant bodies to maintain the integrity of the looked-after children system and to scrutinise the age-assessment regime that was set out in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 as well as the 2023 act.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I agree with everything that Kaukab Stewart has said and all that the committee has done in its report. Does she agree with my party’s position that asylum seekers should be allowed the opportunity to work while their claims are being processed, which would potentially give them a sense of freedom and reduce the financial impact on the state?

I can give you the time back, Ms Stewart.

Kaukab Stewart

I cannot comment on that question as the committee convener but, in a personal capacity, I agree.

As our report notes,

“The Committee also strongly recommends the Scottish Government”


“with third sector partners and public agencies”

to develop

“trauma informed and skilled training for all those who work to support asylum seekers.”

Housing is another key area where there are many concerns. Our report notes that there is

“a lack of appropriate and affordable accommodation across Scotland and the rest of the UK”,

to which there is

“no easily identifiable solution”.

We heard a lot of evidence on the use of temporary accommodation, particularly hotels. We are concerned that the practice is being used increasingly and for longer periods of time. That is leading to its being normalised, which it should not be, as the impact on families and on the mental health and wellbeing of individuals is significant. Hotels and other forms of institutional accommodation are inappropriate and should be used only as a temporary measure when it is absolutely necessary.

We recognise the current housing crisis and the challenges that that presents to local authorities in respect of providing appropriate accommodation. Our report urgently seeks clarification of what the Scottish Government is doing, or what it intends to do, to address that situation.

Linked to that, we recognise the impact that the wider dispersal policy is likely to pose. Our report asks the Scottish Government what preparations it has in place to support local authorities to meet the challenges that that policy will have on them. We also seek a commitment from the Scottish Government that it will work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and individual councils

“to identify issues that are unique to ... them.”

We would welcome an update, and some clarity, from the Scottish Government on funding and resource support for third sector organisations, particularly those outside Glasgow, that provide asylum-seeking individuals with advice about their rights and the services that they are entitled to access. I hope the minister might be able to address those points in her remarks.

Witnesses also raised another potential impact of the Illegal Migration Act 2023, with strongly expressed views that it will effectively end the protection for survivors of trafficked exploitation and modern slavery that was provided under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015.

In our report, we urge the Scottish Government

“to develop guidance to ensure a robust and equivalent form of support”

to that which is currently provided under the 2015 act. We also ask the Government to consider the calls for a national referral mechanism as proposed by the Scottish Refugee Council.

We heard concerns about the impact on children, including unaccompanied children, and about the use of mother-and-baby units. We heard conflicting accounts about unaccompanied children living in hotels, and our report expresses the committee’s frustration at not being able to clarify whether there are unaccompanied children living in hotels. That is very concerning, and we ask the Government to investigate and clarify the position as a matter of urgency. We are also keen to understand how the Scottish Government plans to safeguard children, including unaccompanied children, in the light of the power in the Illegal Migration Act 2023 to remove them from local authority areas.

Concerns were raised over the use of mother-and-baby units and the impact that they have on women and on the early years of a child’s life. The committee has asked the Scottish Government to investigate that and to report back accordingly. It would be helpful to have an indication of how long that investigation might take.

I understand that I have completely run out of time, but I have not yet covered some areas. In my remaining few seconds, I will just say that I was going to talk about English for speakers of other languages—my colleagues may bring that into the debate—and that, on the matter of asylum seekers who have experienced trauma, we encourage a trauma-informed approach in order to reduce isolation.

I look forward to this afternoon’s debate and to hearing members’ reflections on our committee report as well as the minister’s response.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions set out in the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s 8th Report, 2023 (Session 6), The Human Rights of Asylum Seekers in Scotland (SP Paper 455).


The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

I start by echoing the convener’s comments in acknowledging the sad reports that a person seeking asylum and living on the Bibby Stockholm has died. My thoughts are with all those who knew them and all those who will feel the loss personally, which I know will be a much larger group. It would be inappropriate to speculate on the circumstances at this point, but I expect the UK Government to meet the Home Secretary’s commitment to investigate fully.

Having appeared before the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee during the inquiry, I know that the breadth of evidence with which the committee was presented, which included evidence from local authorities, COSLA, third sector support organisations and Mears Group, was very impressive, and I acknowledge just how much information the committee has considered in completing its report.

I also took questions from a citizens panel, and I know that committees across the Parliament have been exploring ways to bring the public into policy scrutiny, which I absolutely welcome, and it is great to see the committee exploring and testing ways to do that.

The day I sat before the committee was world refugee day—20 June—and we are now marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I attended a local meeting of the global refugee forum this morning. The context of the work that we are doing, and the wider picture of asylum policy in the UK and across the world, is very important. We have a proud history in Scotland of helping those in need and of providing sanctuary, and our communities have long been enriched by diversity. I share the committee’s passion for doing all that we can to improve the experience of asylum seekers here in Scotland. I am considering the committee’s report carefully, and I will respond in due course.

I want to reflect on the fact that has been acknowledged by the convener that, with asylum being a reserved matter, much of the evidence that the committee heard was, naturally, about the impact of reserved policy on people in Scotland—both on asylum seekers themselves and on the communities and services that support them. That has included everything from delays in processing asylum applications to plans under what is now, sadly, the Illegal Migration Act 2023—many of us hoped that it would not make it past being the Illegal Migration Bill, as it was during the committee’s inquiry—and the overall hostile environment approach from the UK Government. As the convener will know, I share her concern about the impact of the 2023 act. She will recall that we wished to withhold consent to the bill at the time, and we continue to explore ways to mitigate the act’s worst impacts.

During my time as minister for migration, I have tried very hard to get the message across to asylum seekers and refugees here in Scotland that their Government wants to help them, that we care about them, that we welcome them and that we do want anyone to feel afraid or that they are not worth the same, or entitled to the same rights, as anyone else. Operating that way successfully is very difficult when the situation is inextricably linked to the actions of a UK Government that is often very hostile.

During my summer recess visits, when I spoke with and listened to communities across Scotland, there were stories in the press about Robert Jenrick ordering that murals be painted over at detention centres, which were there to make children feel a little less stressed.

As I ate dinner after a long day spent meeting children of former asylum seekers, a waiter came over and asked whether I was the “immigration” minister. I said that I was the “migration” minister, but that it was me he could ask. He said, “I’m from Rwanda,” and said it very defensively, as if he was daring me to object to him. I thanked him for coming to speak to me and we had a very pleasant conversation, but I am very aware that the perceptions of, and the expectations about, an immigration minister are quite tough to get across so that we can have the open and honest conversations that we must have with people who have lived experience, so that we know about the real problems that we must solve. I acknowledge and welcome the committee’s role in helping to platform lived experience.

The committee has acknowledged the reserved nature of immigration and of relevant areas of welfare. The most significant issues that are raised in its report are reserved and include asylum accommodation and support, asylum decision making, policies restricting the right to work and those now restricting the right to claim asylum at all in line with the Illegal Migration Act 2023. I do not say that in order to wash my hands of responsibility; indeed, the Government recently set out what we would do in all those areas, if given the opportunity, and we are urging the UK Government not only to make the changes that we believe are right but to give us the room to do things differently. I will turn shortly to the areas in which our devolved competence does give us some room for manoeuvre.

Some of the issues that I have focused on in my dealings with the UK Government have included urging UK ministers to uphold the UK’s moral and international obligations under the 1951 refugee convention; asking it to invest in the UK asylum system to increase the quality and speed of asylum decisions; and calling on it to ensure that newly recognised refugees are not at risk of homelessness or destitution, by extending the move-on period from 28 days. During a call yesterday, I suggested a 90-day period, in line with the notice that was given to Afghans who were moved on from hotels, or, failing that, 56 days, which would be in line with homelessness policy here.

We have also called for something about which I wrote to the former minister, seeking urgent action, which is to provide funding for local authorities and work constructively with them, sharing information in good time to allow them to provide the wraparound support that we know many authorities really want to provide.

We have asked for asylum seekers to have the right to work without restriction to the shortage occupation list and for assurance that the financial element of asylum support will reflect the real cost of daily life, including digital access and travel costs, because the support is far from that at the moment.

We have also asked for an end to the maximisation policy and the use of unsuitable asylum accommodation. We in Scotland have worked very hard to try to keep at bay the worst suggestions. That is often not even about housing but is about trying to keep as many asylum seekers in one place as possible. We know that some of the suggestions that come from the UK Government are simply not safe.

We have watched helplessly as the UK Government has tried to push through its Rwanda plan, with its new bill seeking to disapply key sections of the Human Rights Act 1998 and reduce what is required under domestic human rights law. That is, of course, a violation of the UK’s international obligations and of basic constitutional norms. We must be unapologetic in calling that what it is: removing human rights from humans.

I move on to our approach, which is different. It has been established for a decade and is delivered through two new Scots refugee integration strategies. Our direction of travel is clear and is distinct from that of the UK. The new Scots strategy is led in partnership by the Scottish Government, COSLA and the Scottish Refugee Council and involves partners from public bodies, local authorities, third sector, private sector and community groups.

The strategy focuses what can be done in the devolved context and we are willing to be, and have been, creative. The key principle of the strategy is that integration should be supported from day 1 for people seeking asylum, as well as for refugees, displaced and stateless people and other forced migrants. I do not pretend that it is not difficult or problematic when asylum seekers are denied the right to work or social security from the beginning, but we are determined to stick to those principles as far as we can and to call for action from the UK Government on matters that are out of our hands.

As I said, the UN’s global refugee forum is taking place this week, beginning in Geneva tomorrow. This morning, new Scots partners met refugee leaders as part of a local forum. At that meeting, I heard one of the representatives say something that will stick with me for ever. She said that she has visited asylum seekers who are living in hotels in Glasgow but who had no idea that they are in Scotland. They had never heard of Scotland. They are new Scots, but they have been so prevented from integrating into our communities that they have not even heard of their new home. That is how far removed we are being kept from those we have a duty—and a will—to support. It is a stark reminder to me and to everyone here that there is so much more to do to communicate with people who already live here and explain to them how much we value them and want to support them.

Kaukab Stewart

The minister has made excellent remarks. Does she accept that, in that context, the situation is even worse for children? Does she have a response to the committee’s calls for investigations on unaccompanied children?

Emma Roddick

Yes, certainly. The convener will be aware that one of our key areas of concern about the Illegal Migration Act 2023 was the way in which it has prevented us from supporting, above others, unaccompanied minors and children who are victims of human trafficking . That is a deep concern for us. As I said, I will provide a full written response to the committee’s recommendations as soon as I can.

It has been important to hear the comments from the forum this morning, exactly because they are challenging to us. We are taking account of the impact of the new context on refugees and asylum seekers, and those who support them, so that our vision, principles and actions in the new Scots strategy remain relevant and capable of reacting to events and to new legislation that has come since the strategy’s 2014 edition.

I commit to continuing to raise with the UK Government issues on reserved immigration and asylum policy that impact on people in Scotland. I will continue to work with new Scots partners to support that integration from day 1. I look forward to responding fully, in writing, to the committee.


Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I start, as others have done, by putting on record our concerns and thoughts at the reported death of an asylum seeker on the Bibby Stockholm.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and to discuss the findings of the report. I thank the members and the clerks of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee for their work, and all the organisations and individuals who have been involved. The report is helpful and constructive.

As the minister has done, I also take the opportunity to thank organisations across Scotland—mostly, in the third sector—that provide support for people in Scotland. We must always acknowledge their work in our communities.

Those who have been forced to leave their homes due to persecution should be allowed to seek asylum in the UK. However, that can be done only if they enter the country through a safe and legal route.

Throughout our history, Scotland has made itself home to people from all over the world. Historically, people from the Indian subcontinent, Ireland, Poland and many more have made their homes here. More recently, that group has included Syrians and Ukrainians who have fled illegal wars.

The committee report illustrates the significant challenges that are faced by both the UK and Scottish Governments in providing services, especially as our public services are overstretched and fail to meet current needs and demands.

For those who do not have available accommodation and cannot meet their own essential living costs, the Home Office can provide financial support and housing under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. As things stand, more than 5,500 people in Scotland receive such support.

Immigration and asylum are reserved matters. It is therefore the responsibility of UK ministers and the UK Government to address many of the concerns that are highlighted in the report. I note that the committee has written to the Home Office on that. I accept the concerns of stakeholders about the slow rate of processing asylum applications and taking decisions. That is unacceptable.

However, perhaps the most critical section of the committee report highlights the pressures that local authorities in Scotland are under in supporting and assisting people. I acknowledge and highlight the emergency response that many councils across Scotland, including the City of Edinburgh Council in my region, have undertaken to support people and put in place resettlement schemes. Most of us who represent Edinburgh and Glasgow will also be acutely aware of the housing pressures that our communities face. That is why, recently, both the City of Edinburgh Council and Glasgow City Council have declared housing emergencies.

I am particularly interested in the position that the committee has taken in relation to housing—specifically, the use of hotels and guest houses for housing asylum seekers. As a Parliament, we have not taken a position on housing children in temporary accommodation, but we should look at that across portfolios. Members will know that I have consistently raised the issue of the number of Scottish children and families living in temporary accommodation and the lack of support services that are provided.

As I have said, the committee heard specific concerns about the use of hotels and the inspection regime around them. The committee agreed with the evidence that hotels and other forms of institutional accommodation are inappropriate and should be used only as a temporary measure where necessary. There is learning for all our housing policies in that. The committee also noted a significant negative impact that that form of housing has on the mental health and wellbeing of families and individuals. The report makes it clear that ministers have to be up front about the housing challenges that Scotland faces.

The report highlights evidence that mental health issues are widespread among people fleeing conflicts abroad and that those issues are often exacerbated as a result of those people living in unsuitable and destabilising accommodation. The report warns that by housing people in that way we risk seeing a significant negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of not only individuals but the wider family unit.

I very much agree with Dr Koruth’s points about mental health. It is crucial that we understand that many people who come to Scotland have a vastly different understanding of mental health issues from how we see them in this country. We should help people to realise that they can seek support for mental wellbeing. That should always be advertised, and people should know that they can speak out.

Will the member take an intervention?

Yes. I am happy to, if I have the time.

Stuart McMillan

On mental health, more asylum seekers are coming to Scotland and there is no financial resource coming to assist them. Surely, if the UK Government provided financial assistance for them, that could help with the mental health aspect. Asylum seekers have very little by way of money and very little by way of engagement with local communities.

I can give you the time back.

Miles Briggs

I agree with the sentiments that have been expressed by the member. Those who are tasked with providing support services, especially mental health services, need to do that on a case-by-case basis. In some communities, an additional barrier often arises with regard to interpreters, who need to be funded. That is something that should be considered. Health boards often find it difficult to provide interpretation services.

We need to do more to educate people on where they can find mental health services. That was an important part of the report.

Another concern, which was highlighted by the convener, was around delays in processing information on asylum seekers and safeguarding children. I agree with the points that were raised on that. Some age assessments of asylum seekers can take months or years to process. In the meantime, children are often placed unaccompanied in accommodation with adults, which raises serious safety concerns. We should acknowledge that, and UK ministers should be mindful of that.

It is important that the UK Government and the Scottish Government develop a new policy around age-disputed individuals who are currently being housed in adult accommodation services and what a different model of accommodation would look like. I am not sure that we have the right model for Scottish families and Scottish children in temporary accommodation, so we need to consider a different model.

On human trafficking and modern slavery, we are all aware that asylum seekers and refugees are among the most vulnerable to that abhorrent practice. The committee’s recommendation that we should uphold protections for all victims is one that we obviously agree with. The Scottish Refugee Council has made a number of recommendations in that area, which I think that Parliament should consider within our devolved competence.

I have already noted that support for asylum seekers is a reserved matter. Nevertheless, the suggestions for change that the committee has made are important for both Parliaments to consider. It is essential that we genuinely take into account the needs of asylum seekers in Scotland and how those can be supported.

The report has found that more can be done to protect people in our asylum system in Scotland. It is clear that the UK Government and the Scottish Government should co-ordinate a better network of support, especially when we are working with our 32 different local authorities on hosting people in the asylum system.

That would mean having proper funding for alternative accommodation sites and that the overreliance on hotels and emergency accommodation would have to change. It would also mean making additional resources available to our third sector organisations, which do so much to support asylum seekers and offer so much. Furthermore, it would mean considering how we can reform our public services to meet that challenge.

I reiterate that I welcome the work of the committee and I thank it for its report. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.

I advise members that we have a little bit of time in hand for the debate.


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. As other members have done, I express my party’s sorrow at the news that a person who was seeking asylum has lost his life on the Bibby Stockholm barge. As the minister said, we do not yet know the circumstances of the incident, but we hope that the Home Office will undertake a full and frank investigation to understand what has happened. Our thoughts are with all those who are connected with that incident.

I thank my fellow members of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee for their work on the report, as well as all the parliamentary staff and clerks who work behind the scenes on conducting a committee inquiry and producing such a report. That requires a team approach, which was very much the committee’s sense when we were developing that piece of work. Scottish Labour welcomes the report into the challenges that asylum seekers face. It is a strong and important piece of work on how we can better support asylum seekers through their experience in Scotland.

I am sure that it is hard for us all to imagine having to leave our homes and our families because of the horrors—both natural and man-made—that this world can contain. For many of us, having to make the decision to travel great distances for the sake of our own and our family’s safety, and then take a chance on asking for help from others in a state that we might never have been to before, is unthinkable. That is the context in which we must always approach the issues that the committee sought to explore in its inquiry. We heard that story so many times, both from asylum seekers themselves and from the organisations that support them, in the course of taking evidence for our report. I thank all the individuals and organisations involved for their full and frank engagement with the committee and for sharing their stories and their work. Asylum seekers’ stories were often very personal and, I am sure, difficult to share time and again. We are very grateful to everyone who did so.

It is incumbent on us to do all that we can to support people who are seeking asylum. As a bare minimum, we owe it to people not to make their lives more difficult, stressful and exhausting. Unfortunately, as the committee heard at plenty of points in our evidence taking, we do not always succeed in that task, both here in Scotland and across the UK.

Today, we meet to debate the committee’s report in the context of the strategy of a callous Conservative Government that is currently tearing itself apart over its inhumane and ineffective plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. It is a Government in chaos, which cannot and will not deliver an asylum system that works in the humanitarian interests that I have mentioned. That is off the back of the shameful Illegal Migration Act 2023, which it introduced. We have previously debated the challenges that that act poses. We have heard members from across the chamber say that they do not agree with what the Government is seeking to do, and that it will not build a system that is rooted in the humanity that I spoke about; in fact, it will do the complete opposite.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

I appreciate the comments that Mr O’Kane is putting on the record. I agree entirely with what he said about the failures of the Conservative system and its approach to all of us. Does he think that we have reached a moment where, strategically, the United Kingdom has got to get to a different position on the question of migration? We need to acknowledge that we are short of people in this country and that we could benefit from the expansion of the population, and particularly the working-age population. There are ways in which that can be done, through taking a completely different approach to the failed way that the Conservative Government has adopted, but we will need to change attitudes and views in our approaches towards migration. I think that the Scottish Government is up for that agenda. Does Mr O’Kane share my view?

I can give you the time back, Mr O’Kane.

Paul O’Kane

I will come on to speak about why we need fundamental change in the system. We need a completely different approach to migration to the United Kingdom and to those who come to our shores to seek refuge and asylum. Labour has outlined in a five-point plan the fundamentally different approach that we would take if we were to form the next Government. It would not seek to do many of the things that are currently happening, as I have outlined.

We need a broader conversation. Colleagues from across the Parliament have mooted different suggestions about what might work by looking around the world; one example is the Canadian model of looking at regional variations in migration—we could consider that in relation to the needs in the workforce in different parts of the United Kingdom. We are very open to those concepts.

I want to take some time to reflect on what we can do in Scotland to ensure that we continue to improve the experience of asylum seekers. We must ensure that we develop trauma-informed approaches and training for anyone in the public sector who works with asylum seekers. We must ensure that there is adequate funding and support for asylum support organisations across the country. We heard in the committee about the need for better access to support services for people who live in rural and island communities and who do not live in close proximity to our urban centres. Many of the issues that we covered in our report are in the gift of the Scottish Government or in its sphere of influence.

Although we are seeing progress at last on some issues, we have more to do. One item that I am sure that colleagues will comment on is access to public transport and bus travel in particular. I know that the Government has made a commitment on free bus travel for asylum seekers. We will wait for the detail in the budget before coming to firm conclusions on the delivery of that. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my colleague Paul Sweeney for his many years of campaigning work, along with other members from across the Parliament, in order to secure that commitment from the Government. I hope that the minister will continue to engage on that and on how it will be delivered.

Members were keen to hear more about the Government’s plans on mitigations to the Illegal Migration Act 2023. The minister and I have had an exchange on that before, so I would be keen for her to say more, now that we are a little further along than when we last debated the issue, about how some of the significant issues might be addressed in line with the calls from the Scottish Refugee Council and others.

I said that I would say something about Labour’s plans on shadow immigration at UK level. We have outlined a five-point plan for dealing with the asylum system and small boat crossings. It is focused on cracking down on smuggler gangs—we know the issues that are at play—clearing the backlog and ending hotel use. We have heard much from colleagues already about hotel use, particularly for women who are pregnant, and the issues therein. There are also issues around new agreements, safe returns, family reunions and tackling humanitarian crises at source. I am conscious of time, and so I will not get into the detail of that—I am sure that that will happen as we progress the debate.

I praise the report and the work that has gone into it. I hope that, in responding to the debate, the minister will be able to provide more detail on the recommendations that we have outlined as a committee—not just to repeat old promises and warm words but to ensure that there are concrete solutions that we have control over in Scotland, which will help people who are fleeing violence and other terrible situations to ensure that they are not faced with the same challenges here in Scotland.


Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I have very much enjoyed today’s debate, which has fostered a largely consensual tone, and I congratulate the committee on its work on the report. I remind members of my interests: I am a member of the homes for Ukrainians scheme and we hosted a Ukrainian refugee in our home for nine months. I share the sentiments expressed by members from across the chamber about the tragedy on the Bibby Stockholm. I hope that investigations will proceed with haste.

Presiding Officer, imagine the scene. You have just washed ashore on the beach at Dover, and the leaky craft that you crossed the Channel in would not have lasted much longer. You have just had to watch as the boat carrying your brother and his family sank beneath the waves five miles from shore, with the loss of all hands, but you have made it. The promise of a new life away from the religious persecution that you were running from is finally in reach. The year is 1685. For centuries, unseaworthy boats have ferried from France people seeking safe harbour in our islands.

The scene that I have just described refers to the Huguenot exodus from France following the removal of the law that allowed people to practise their Protestant faith without fear of persecution and murder. Their arrival saw the adoption of the French word “refuge”, and, by extension, “refugee”, into the English language, as a description of our new guests. In response to the Huguenots’ persecution, the Parliaments of England and Scotland passed a law called the Declaration of Indulgence, which allowed the freedom to practise any religion. That feels surprisingly welcoming, even progressive, for the 17th century, when you consider the current debate in Britain around refugees and immigrants.

As we speak, members of Parliament in the House of Commons are preparing to vote on the second reading of the bill on the Conservative Government’s Rwanda plan, about which we have heard so much in the debate, to send plane loads of people who have sought refuge and asylum on our shores 4,000 miles away to a country that the UK Supreme Court last week deemed to be unsafe for asylum seekers.

Instead of backing down, Rishi Sunak is attempting to pass a bill that states that Rwanda is a safe country, that prevents judges from ruling otherwise and that lays aside key aspects of our human rights legislation. That would bypass the Human Rights Act 1998 entirely, undermine the independence of our courts and damage our reputation internationally. Even if the bill clears its first hurdle tonight, further trouble will only be stored up for the amendment phase, when the factions of the Tory party, not content with the damage that they have already done, will undoubtedly attempt to make the bill even more extreme. The entire scheme has felt doomed from the start, and that has to be a good thing.

Liberal Democrats believe that we have a human duty to offer protection and safe legal routes for people who are fleeing torment. We want the Government to create a dedicated unit to make asylum decisions quickly and more fairly. We have a backlog of nearly 250,000 cases. That is a policy decision to try to break the system and deter others from coming.

However, this was always about so much more than simply stopping the boats. The legislation is an attempt by Rishi Sunak to heal a rift in his party and to prevent the rise of another by so doing. It was designed in part to placate the right wing of the Tory party. At the same time, it is an effort to neutralise the impact of the ascendancy of the anti-immigration Reform Party. All that has laid bare the ignorant and inhumane attitude towards asylum seekers of some sections of the Conservative Party, such as Tory party deputy chair Lee Anderson, who suggested last month that asylum seekers should be sent to “remote Scottish islands” while they wait for their applications to be processed. It is as though he is suggesting that they are some kind of malevolent actors. I remind members of the words of the poet Warsan Shire, herself an asylum-seeking refugee, who said that nobody chooses to exchange home for the water

“unless home is the mouth of a shark”.

All that is part of the Government’s wider anti-immigration narrative, of which we have heard so much during the debate. A new policy was recently introduced to increase the visa salary threshold for migrant workers to more than £38,000 a year. That had clearly not been thought through, because key workers from exempted professions or professions that earn more than that say that they will have to leave because their partners are no longer allowed to stay.

I turn to the bill that is being debated in—

John Swinney

Before Mr Cole-Hamilton leaves that point, does he recognise that the proposed approach, whereby spouses cannot accompany people in coming to this country, will have a catastrophic impact on the availability of people to work in our economy, particularly in our public services and caring services? Does he recognise the urgent necessity for a strong parliamentary expression of the importance of the dangers that we face as a consequence of that measure?

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I welcome John Swinney’s intervention, and I agree with him entirely. He is absolutely right. That would have a catastrophic impact on key workers whom the Government sought to exempt from the new rules. It did not remember the partners who come with them and the fact that nobody would choose to work in a country in which their spouse was not welcome.

I believe that that suggestion was mooted during our time in government, and we helped to put a stop to it, not least because the Ministry of Defence raised serious concerns about the fact that it had armed services personnel returning from overseas with new spouses from the countries in which they had been deployed. They could not hope to bring their partners over because of the income threshold. It is an ill-thought-out and ideology-driven policy that would have far-reaching consequences, as Mr Swinney rightly identified.

This is all about trying to heal the rift in the Conservative Party. We must understand that the rule of law matters. I am so glad that it still appears to matter to certain elements of the Conservative Party. I hope that they will vote with their conscience on the issue tonight.

I agree with the Law Society of Scotland’s president, Sheila Webster, who said that the society was

“very concerned about this bill, and particularly sections that would undermine the independence of our judiciary, along with the UK’s commitment to human rights and international law. Our international reputation is in jeopardy.”

Those are her words. That is fundamentally what is at stake. That matters, and it should matter to all of us.

I will conclude by saying what the Liberals would do. We would immediately scrap the bill; fix the broken asylum system; allow asylum seekers to work, as I suggested in my intervention in Kaukab Stewart’s speech; ensure that decisions are processed quickly, fairly and with a degree of humanity; provide safe and legal routes to sanctuary for refugees from all countries; and expand a properly funded resettlement programme.

Our island story is a tapestry of cultures and traditions. When someone is offered a chance of a new life, they will repay that opportunity many times over. I was taught that by my Canadian immigrant mother, who was a descendent of the Huguenots who fled to North America for much the same reasons as those who came here all those centuries ago.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Like others, my thoughts are with all those who have been affected by the events on the Bibby Stockholm this morning.

Amid headlines about Tory in-fighting, international law being broken and a carousel of Home Secretaries, we would be forgiven for thinking that the UK is fast becoming inhospitable to those in the international community who need our help the most. What started as Theresa May’s hostile environment policy escalated to Suella Braverman referring to refugees as “invaders” in a statement last year. Westminster has thoroughly demonised those who are fleeing from conflict and persecution, and it has actively pushed that vulnerable cohort into destitution. I fully reject those dehumanising policies of the Tories, and I reiterate that every asylum seeker and refugee should be treated with the utmost dignity and compassion.

In the past two years alone, we have seen massive international crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, which have led to large-scale resettlement efforts. Many of those who have fled the conflict in Ukraine are now settled in my Coatbridge and Chryston constituency, where they have integrated with the community and been welcomed by their neighbours during what must be the most difficult period of their lives. Although the circumstances are tragic, I am proud that Scotland has made real efforts to help to shelter and integrate people who have fled real danger and conflict rather than pushing them away and attempting to ship them off to Rwanda.

I have held several events that have been aimed at the Ukrainians who have settled in Coatbridge, and I was absolutely delighted to welcome them to the Parliament—their Parliament—just a couple of weeks ago.

I am one of the committee members who were involved in the powerful inquiry. In taking evidence, we heard about the overwhelming damage that the UK Government’s language has done for those seeking asylum. It was noted that more compassionate language was needed. That is something that the UK Government has actively drafted policy against. In April this year, Graham O’Neill of the Scottish Refugee Council asserted to the committee that

“since ex-Prime Minister Theresa May coined the term ‘hostile environment’ as official public policy ... Asylum has been one of the casualties of the hostile environment.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 25 April 2023; c 9.]

In May, when criticising Suella Braverman’s use of the term “invaders”, Savan Qadir of Refugees for Justice told the committee:

“If we did not have that type of language, we probably would not need more officers to deal with the tension that comes with it.

The UK Home Office is creating this environment in which communities are being set against each other.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 2 May 2023; c 26.]

While the committee heard a huge amount of criticism regarding the language of the UK Government, there was even more criticism of the actual policies that it has inflicted on asylum seekers. Not only was the Illegal Migration Bill seen as draconian and dehumanising, but the committee heard about the huge number of negative consequences that it could have. The Simon Community Scotland noted it would create a “rough sleeping crisis”, with charities and services being “overwhelmed”. The Children and Young People’s Commissioner commented that the bill would, in effect, embolden those who are involved in people trafficking. The Grampian Regional Equality Council simply said that the bill would

“make matters worse at all levels.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 2 May 2023; c 5.]

I will quote Graham O’Neill of the Scottish Refugee Council again, as I believe that the vast majority of us in the chamber will agree with his sentiment—at least, I hope that that is the case. He said:

“we regard this Illegal Migration Bill as morally repugnant, and we also think that it will be practically unworkable.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 25 April 2023; c 5.]

Although the evidence that we heard was valuable and also unsettling and worrying, we were unable to hear from the UK Government, as the Westminster Tory Government failed to respond to the committee’s invitation to take part. The lack of active engagement from Westminster further underlines the sentiment that the Tories’ seeming obsession with immigration and unworkable policies exists simply to placate the increasingly far-right wing of their party. The UK, and indeed those who are fleeing danger, should not be held hostage to that fringe.

In looking at how Scotland can—once again—mitigate the worst consequences of vile Tory policies, we are limited in what we can do, because, as we all know, immigration, asylum and visas are reserved issues. However, “Ending Destitution Together: A Strategy to Improve Support for People with No Recourse to Public Funds Living in Scotland 2021-2024”, the “Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy” and the Scottish guardianship service are three further interventions that reflect Scotland’s long history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. Caroline O’Connor of Migrant Help summed that up to the committee when she said:

“I recognise that asylum seekers are coming to Scotland because they feel that the services and support here are better.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 16 May 2023; c 30.]

As I said, immigration and asylum are reserved issues. However, we did not undertake an inquiry just to identify that and state what we cannot do. Those people who spoke to us expect us to do what we can. We have heard a wee bit about that this afternoon. For example, the people who spoke to us said a lot about transport. There is a lot of evidence that connecting people is really important. I know that the minister is working on that and that we have the pilots, but I encourage the Government to do more work in this area. We heard that it can be as simple as ensuring that people can get to the gym.

We also heard a lot about ESOL, which the committee’s convener started to talk about earlier. Again, that is very important, but there is not enough coverage in some places. In that regard, I pay tribute to a great piece of work in my constituency: the International Conversation Cafe in Summerlee, which is run every second Saturday. I went to visit it a few weeks ago and it is an absolutely fantastic project. I thank Khadija Hadji, who is an ESOL lecturer at the Coatbridge campus of New College Lanarkshire, and the other volunteers. However, it should not just be down to volunteers to do this work—we should have a well-resourced national programme.

I am running out of time, but I also want to mention the importance of people being involved in decision making and of having a rights-based approach, as set out in the “New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018 - 2022”. People told us that they want to be involved in those things.

I had so much to say because the committee’s inquiry was very powerful, as I said, but I will need to skip some of it in the interest of time.

We heard a wide range of voices in our inquiry. We heard that current UK Government policy has created increasing community tensions, and we heard about some of the harrowing consequences that would result if current Tory policy was passed at Westminster. The new Scots approach that we promote here in Scotland was commended, but it was acknowledged that, without full control of matters that are currently reserved, we are hamstrung in our attempts to support and shelter asylum seekers while showing them the respect and compassion that they deserve.

I inform members that we have probably exhausted most of the time that we had in hand.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am pleased to contribute to a debate that covers a number of issues that I encountered throughout my time as a member of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee.

I welcome the fact that the committee launched the inquiry and published its report. Although immigration and asylum are reserved to the UK Government, the committee has made a number of recommendations that are relevant to both the Scottish Government and local authorities. I therefore hope that today’s debate can be about what the Scottish Government can do to improve the lives of asylum seekers here, in Scotland.

One of the key issues that the committee considered was housing and the on-going shortage of new affordable homes. The supply of such homes has decreased over the past 12 months. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has highlighted that the strain on supply is coming at a time when demand is increasing. That is creating problems when it comes to finding suitable accommodation for asylum seekers and is leading to the use of hotel accommodation, guest houses and emergency accommodation becoming too common.

When an asylum seeker receives a positive decision on their application, the lack of affordable housing is still creating problems for them and they might find it hard to find a place to live. Migrant Help was able to highlight that effectively.

We know that the housing crisis has consequences that go beyond the impact on asylum seekers. However, it is clear that an ambitious approach to Scotland’s housing crisis will be required, as hotels and the other types of accommodation that I mentioned are not the best facilities in which to place these individuals. The committee recognised that, as did the individuals who gave up their time to speak to us.

Another issue that the committee identified was the lack of suitable training for those who engage with asylum seekers. There have been various reports of that being a significant problem, which is perhaps to be expected, given that those people might often be housing officers or hotel staff. Sometimes, they are not best placed to help these individuals because of that.

It is important that anyone who engages with asylum seekers is given appropriate training, but the opportunities to receive training are difficult to come by. A written submission from the Mears Group highlights some of the training that their welfare support officers currently receive. That includes mandatory courses to help identify asylum seekers with mental health issues and training in how to de-escalate difficult situations when necessary. Many of these individuals find themselves in difficult situations. As we have already heard today, some asylum seekers did not believe that they were in Scotland. That major issue needs to be addressed. Positive action needs to be taken to support these individuals. The committee is right to recommend that the Scottish Government should help to develop specific training for all those who work with asylum seekers and in the asylum system.

The committee has also received helpful evidence from Police Scotland during the inquiry, and it is clear that the police play an important role in engaging with—

Will Alexander Stewart give way?

Of course.

Does the member agree that, given that asylum speakers are dispersed across the UK, the UK Government should provide funding to help with the training that he is asking for?

Alexander Stewart

The member makes a very valid point. Co-operation is required—that should take place. There might well be a need for the money to follow the process. If that could help the process, I would certainly support that.

Police Scotland gave the committee various ideas. Trust in the police may be second nature to us here, but that is not always the case for asylum seekers who come from very different cultural backgrounds, in which the police are not seen to be supportive. A certain amount of buy-in is required to get full co-operation from asylum seekers, and it must be recognised that such engagement can require significant commitment from police officers.

A key part of that engagement is the use of third-party reporting centres, which have been set up by many organisations and individuals. There are now more than 400 of the venues across Scotland, and they are run by experienced third sector organisations. The centres are an important part of the support network for asylum seekers in Scotland. They also allow asylum seekers to engage with the police and with others who provide support. Police Scotland has said that more and more organisations are coming forward to be involved in the process, which includes high street venues such as coffee shops. That is very welcome. Going forward, it is important that Police Scotland continues to be supported to break down the many barriers that asylum seekers face and that it has the opportunity to do that.

As we have heard today, asylum seekers face a number of challenges when they arrive in Scotland. The committee’s report has shone a light on all that is happening in this area. As well as tackling the on-going housing crisis, it is important that the Government does what it can to support the police, local authorities and the numerous hard-working third sector organisations that continue to provide support for asylum seekers. I pay tribute to all those who have taken the time and used their talents to do that.

If the Government takes an approach that tackles those issues, I have no doubt that it will find support from many parts of the chamber. We all want to support individuals who come here by giving them the best start in a new world so that they can move forward.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I welcome the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s report. It is not the first time that a committee of the Parliament has produced a report of this nature, but I very much welcome it.

I affirm that every asylum seeker and refugee should be treated with dignity and compassion. Along with colleagues, I express my sadness at the death of the asylum seeker today, and I send my condolences to those affected. Asylum seekers are people just like you and me—the only difference is that they come from a country where they were no longer safe. That can be because of war or persecution or for reasons relating to their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership of a particular social group.

Although this is not included in the official definition of a refugee, many people flee their homes because of climate damage. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the climate crisis is driving displacement and making life harder for people who have already been forced to flee. That demonstrates that the climate emergency is also a social justice issue to be addressed.

I am proud that Scotland has a long history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers, recognising that it is a human right to be able to seek asylum in another country. My Greenock and Inverclyde constituency, like others across Scotland, rallied round to support Ukrainians who had fled their homes following Russia’s illegal invasion of their country. Many of those Ukrainians now feel able to make a new life for themselves in Inverclyde, having been welcomed with open arms by the community.

More recently, the UK Government situated asylum seekers in the Holiday Inn Express in Greenock. In response, the Greenock Baptist church opened its doors to provide a safe space in which asylum seekers can socialise and spend time outside the hotel, in the community. Local charities donate items to ensure that asylum seekers do not go without essentials such as warm clothing and toiletries. Since 2017, Your Voice, which is a third sector organisation in Inverclyde, has been running its new Scots project, which welcomes families and individuals from multicultural backgrounds as they navigate their new home.

The word “home” is important, because people seeking asylum are looking for a new home—somewhere to put down roots as they look for work and, potentially, raise a family. However, sadly, the UK Government’s hostile environment approach to asylum seekers and refugees is quite the opposite of Scotland’s sense of welcome.

Labour’s language around migration also leaves much to be desired. In a recent interview, the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, Liz Kendall, said that Labour agreed with the Tories increasing the salary threshold for overseas workers. That will have a hugely detrimental effect on my constituency, which already faces population decline.

Yvette Cooper has also come out with a number of quotes. In October 2023, she said that net migration was too high; in November 2023, Labour pledged to raise the salary bar for a skilled worker visa; in May 2023, she said that Labour would put time limits on hiring overseas workers to curb migration; and, back in May 2013, she said that immigration “must come down”.

I go back to the committee’s report. Those seeking asylum are some of the most vulnerable people across the world, and they should be protected and welcomed. Last week, the Prime Minister held a press conference on his asylum plan, and the House of Commons will vote on the new Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill tonight. Where was his press conference on the cost of living crisis, high inflation or mortgage interest rates? Those issues affect every person who lives in the UK. As asylum is a dog-whistle issue for his party’s base and back benchers, he sees it, sadly, as his primary focus. Sadly, Labour once again appears to support the Tory Prime Minister on this.

Paul O’Kane

Stuart McMillan seems to be suggesting that Labour somehow supports the bill that is being discussed in the House of Commons today and, indeed, the UK Government’s rhetoric. In my speech, I clearly outlined Labour’s approach to immigration and what a future Labour Government would do. It is clear that Labour MPs will oppose the Conservatives’ bill in the House of Commons tonight.

Stuart McMillan

Mr O’Kane needs to go back and look at the Official Report. I did not say that Labour supports the bill.

Putting the issue front and centre perpetuates the notion that asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants are to blame for the issues that the UK faces. I reject the policy and language that the UK Government has used in recent years.

I note that the committee heard

“extensive evidence ... around the ‘hostile’ narrative.”

Members should remember that it was the former Prime Minister Theresa May who coined the term “hostile environment” as the official public policy in 2012. In no uncertain terms, that is a deliberate ploy by the Tories to degrade the rights of asylum seekers and to dehumanise them. The Tories want to create an environment in which people are not welcomed, in the hope that those who seek asylum decide to go elsewhere instead of building a life for themselves in the UK.

That shows how utterly out of touch the Tory UK Government is and why the Supreme Court was right to shut down its inhumane and morally bankrupt Rwanda policy. Sadly, that policy will come back to the Commons for a vote tonight. Instead of creating a culture war that attacks the most vulnerable, the Tories should invest in clearing the backlog and creating safe and legal routes for people who are fleeing war and persecution.

To provide some context to the debate, I will comment on two myth-busting facts from the Refugee Council’s website. First, in contrast to what the Tories want people to think, the UK is home to approximately 1 per cent of the 27.1 million refugees who are forcibly displaced across the world. Secondly, refugees make a huge contribution to the UK. For example, around 1,200 medically qualified refugees are recorded on the British Medical Association database.

I note that the report calls for more funding for the third sector to provide a whole-systems approach. We are all only too aware of the challenging financial picture that the Scottish Government faces. However, I agree that the third sector needs to be involved with the development of policy and funding mechanisms at Scottish and UK Government level. As I have already mentioned, third sector organisations in my constituency play a key role in helping refugees and asylum seekers to feel part of the community.

The UK Government’s callous approach to asylum is at odds with Scotland’s desire to provide sanctuary for the most vulnerable. Only with independence can we establish a compassionate approach.

I remind members that speeches should be of up to six minutes.


Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The Conservative UK Government sank to an all-new low when it unveiled the newest iteration of its asylum policy, which is devoid of humanity and empathy for people who have fled persecution and war.

Today’s tragic news from the Bibby Stockholm underscores that heartbreaking situation. A person who had come to the UK in search of sanctuary has died in a place that was designed to demonstrate our cruelty and hostility to people such as him. We had every means to help him, but we chose not to. It should be a mark of shame on us all.

The details of the case are not yet clear, but the rate of suicide and self-harm among people seeking asylum has soared in recent years. A system that is designed to strip people of all hope and humanity is beneath us and creates huge risks to life. It is shameful that, instead of welcoming people who seek asylum, the UK Government wants to ship them off to Rwanda, ignoring human rights concerns, and is intent on making things as difficult as possible.

The asylum system that is presided over by the Home Office is woefully inadequate. Processing takes an excruciating amount of time, and asylum seekers are prohibited from getting a job, even though their skills and expertise would be welcomed in the labour market in the UK. As the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s report claims, local authorities and the Scottish Government have it within their grasp to ease the pain of people who seek asylum and to do more to address the issues in Scotland.

I welcome the committee’s recommendation that the Government should extend the concessionary bus travel scheme to people seeking asylum, which the Government has adopted. Alongside the Voices Network and the Maryhill Integration Network, I campaigned with cross-party colleagues for around two years on the proposals. It was powerful to have support from my colleagues across the Parliament set out in the report at an important juncture in the campaign. I thank in particular my colleagues Ms Stewart, the member for Glasgow Kelvin, and Mr O’Kane, a member for West Scotland, for their advocacy on the matter in the committee.

As I mentioned, asylum seekers are unable to work and are forced to live on just £6 a day. Indeed, it is as little as £1.36 for those who are put up in hotel accommodation. In my region of Glasgow, an all-day bus ticket can cost in excess of £5, which means that asylum seekers must choose between eating or travelling to their various legal and medical appointments. Extending free bus travel to people seeking asylum will ease the burden of making such difficult decisions, and I am glad that, after a long campaign, the Scottish Government has seen the potential in that practical intervention to improve people’s lives. I look forward to the funding commitment being set out more fully when the Deputy First Minister presents the budget to Parliament next week, and to hearing more details about how the scheme will be delivered in the coming months.

The committee’s report also raises the issue of asylum seeker and refugee mental health. People who have fled horrendous situations and have gone through terrible ordeals will, of course, be at heightened risk of experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. As the report suggests, in addition to what we do already, efforts should be made to make it easier for those people to access mental health services in Scotland.

The British Red Cross, in its report “Far from a home: why asylum accommodation needs reform”, highlights that asylum seekers who are housed in hotels “do not feel safe”. It says that many spend extended periods in rooms that often have no windows, which can trigger trauma from the experiences that they have fled. Again, that has negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing. There should be greater effort to educate people who are seeking asylum on how to access mental health services. Indeed, the issue goes beyond mental health. We must ensure that more is done to educate asylum seekers on their rights to healthcare and especially how to sign up to a GP practice.

Housing for asylum seekers is inadequate. The privatised Home Office accommodation contracts do not supply enough housing, and the likes of barges and military barracks have had to be used to house asylum seekers for extended periods, which is unacceptable. The blame for the poor housing and accommodation situation lies firmly at the door of those horrific and cynical Home Office contracts. However, the Scottish Housing Regulator could be better used to monitor and raise the standard of accommodation that is provided for people seeking asylum across Scotland.

The report from the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee is welcome. It shows that, although the Conservative UK Government is managing the asylum system poorly and cruelly and is intent on making it even more inhumane, the Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland have it within their power to make practical changes to improve people’s lives today. That is a moral obligation that we cannot deny. The report shows that the usual excuses of a lack of power under the devolved settlement are insufficient. The committee sets out exactly what can be done now to help asylum seekers in Scotland. The Scottish Government can and must introduce a comprehensive plan so that people seeking asylum can access the housing, education and healthcare that they need. There is an obligation on everyone in the chamber to see that that happens.


Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

First, I echo the sentiments of my colleagues in the chamber in condemning the latest round of Westminster immigration policies. Human rights legislation sets out that the protections that it provides, including the right to seek asylum, are universal. To deny those rights to anyone is barbaric. My thoughts are with the friends and family of the asylum seeker who sadly lost his life on the Bibby Stockholm.

In Scotland, we know how important it is to offer refuge to those who are forced to flee their homes and seek sanctuary here, which is a decision that is never taken lightly. We have also seen what amazing contributions asylum seekers, refugees and migrants can make in our communities—that has certainly been the case in my Stirling constituency.

Integration into their communities is important for asylum seekers’ wellbeing, and language is a huge part of that. The Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s report highlights that asylum seekers who cannot speak English tend to shop in local cultural stores. Although that makes things easier, those shops are often more expensive, which means that the asylum seekers’ already minuscule allowance does not go so far.

I was pleased to see a focus on that in the committee’s report and its recommendations on provision of English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—as we have already heard. Asylum seekers are eager for that. In previous engagement, asylum seekers highlighted the barriers that prevent participation, such as childcare and access to transport.

Free bus travel for asylum seekers is to be welcomed, and access to ESOL classes is one of the many benefits that it will bring. However, ESOL provision is inconsistent across different regions. Research from COSLA shows that local authorities are innovative and inventive in their delivery of ESOL, and that is to be commended. However, reading the committee’s report and hearing from local Stirling organisations working in that area, I can see that provision can be very patchy. Language skills that are learned through ESOL programmes can make a huge difference to wellbeing and community integration, but learning a new language obviously takes time.

In my constituency, a grass-roots organisation has recognised that there is much to be done. HSTAR Scotland provides advocacy services and counselling in 10 languages for women from a range of backgrounds, including asylum seekers and refugees. The organisation engages with service users with an understanding of how mental health is viewed in their faith and in their culture. It provides practical support and opportunities for community building, and it ensures that women who are seeking asylum across Scotland can access support, regardless of the language that they speak.

HSTAR Scotland also works with survivors of gender-based violence who are seeking asylum here. Women who are forcibly displaced and are seeking asylum are disproportionately likely to experience gender-based violence. Those experiences are compounded by barriers to reporting and accessing support, including social isolation, language barriers and a fear of being deported. HSTAR provides them with counselling as well as helping them to access justice through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

The service is much needed and it has had a great deal of success. More than 65 per cent of its users said that they became more active and open to their local community, as well as more confident and active citizens. HSTAR also reports a decrease in feelings of isolation, stigma and loneliness in its service users.

No recourse to public funds, which prevents people from accessing most mainstream social security benefits, homelessness assistance and other services, is applied to asylum seekers. The NRPF Network highlights that there are significant gaps in statutory support for many victims of domestic abuse, with no recourse to public funds. Organisations such as HSTAR fill some of those gaps with great success. However, being a small charity, HSTAR is facing many of the same challenges that the committee highlights in its report on the availability of resources to fund its work.

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

You can take an intervention if it is very brief. I hope that you will conclude in about 30 seconds.

I commend the member’s local example. The evidence in our report suggested that ESOL provision was patchy across the country. Does the member agree to call on the Government to review its ESOL policy?

Evelyn Tweed

I absolutely agree with the member on that point.

I was just about to conclude, Presiding Officer. I echo the committee’s calls for consistent and timely ESOL provision. I also ask the Government to continue to think creatively about funding to ensure that asylum seekers have access to the services that they need and that those services are delivered in their local communities.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I thank the committee for its comprehensive report on the human rights of asylum seekers in Scotland. The findings are truly shocking. I challenge anyone to read it and not to feel compelled to act, because it is painfully clear that the Westminster Government has chosen to inflict unimaginable cruelty on people who are seeking refugee protection. We have seen the Prime Minister threatening to break international law and offshore refugees to Rwanda. We have seen refugees forced into wildly inappropriate accommodation, from army barracks to floating prisons.

This morning, we heard the news of the death of a person on the Bibby Stockholm, which is a huge tragedy for that person and for all the people who loved them. That is somebody who will never see the freedom that they dreamed of in coming to this country.

People have been stuck in hotels in Scotland as well, sharing rooms with people they do not know for months on end and unable to access the support that they desperately need. They are fragile and traumatised, and they need mental health support.

I was struck by the minister’s comment at the beginning of the debate, when she recalled that there are some people who do not even know that they are in Scotland. I find that so sad. That has to change, and we have to welcome these people to our hearts.

There is a huge increase in the number of people who are forced into homelessness after being granted refugee status. The Home Office is evicting some people with barely a week’s notice to find somewhere new to live. We should remember, however, that such hostility to people who are seeking refugee protection did not start with Suella Braverman or Rishi Sunak, and it is unlikely to end with a change of guard at Westminster.

With powers over immigration, Scotland could do so much better than that. We could do far more to protect the rights of refugees, people seeking asylum and all those who choose to make Scotland their home. We could choose to build a system that is based on compassion, empathy and solidarity—not on cruelty, hostility and inhumanity.

Although we might want to dismantle the hostile environment in its entirety and start again, we cannot legislate to do that in the Scottish Parliament—not yet, at least. Right now, we remain limited to mitigating some of the worst impacts of the Tory Government’s assault on the right to asylum. That is our serious responsibility, as a country that is committed to human rights, and which is proud to protect refugees.

The Scottish Government has shown leadership in protecting people who are seeking asylum through the limited powers that are available to us, and the committee’s report outlines where we have already taken steps in that regard. However, the report and the evidence from witnesses make it clear that the assault on asylum is so stark that we need to use all the powers that we have within our devolved competence to protect everyone who comes to Scotland in search of safety.

With the stakes so high, we must do more, go further and be braver, because people who are seeking refugee protection are facing unimaginable hardships right now, in our communities. They are banned from working and from accessing mainstream social security benefits, and they are forced to live on just over £6 a day for all essential living needs. That includes clothing, travel, staying connected with loved ones, toiletries, school supplies for their kids, food and so much more. The amount that they get is barely 60 per cent of what I, or other members, would receive in universal credit. Those who are living in hotels receive only around £1.40 a day.

A recent survey by Asylum Matters of 300 people seeking asylum found that 91 per cent did not have enough money to buy food; three quarters could not afford the medicines that they need; and 95 per cent were not able to travel where they needed to by public transport. That is exactly what Just Right Scotland has described as “state-enforced destitution”.

The committee also heard from witnesses about the impact of that enforced poverty on people seeking asylum, and it heard calls from within the refugee community that Scotland could do more to alleviate that hardship.

For the past two years, campaigners at Maryhill Integration Network and the Voices Network have been calling for the expansion of concessionary bus travel to people who are seeking asylum. Alongside colleagues on all sides of the chamber, in particular Paul Sweeney and Bob Doris, I have supported those inspiring campaigners, so I was delighted to see the committee’s report echo our call for change.

Since then, we have managed to secure a £2 million commitment from the Scottish Government to finally grant concessionary bus travel to people who are seeking asylum—a measure that Patrick Harvie announced last month. I look forward to working closely with colleagues and the two ministers, and with campaigners, to get that delivered within the next year. That is just one example of how we can use the powers that we have within our devolved competence to protect everyone who comes to Scotland in search of safety.

That will make an enormous difference to the lives of people who are rebuilding their lives in Scotland, and go some way towards mitigating those hardships that are inflicted by the Home Office. The committee’s report must be a wake-up call. We are witnessing an all-out assault on the rights of refugees in the UK, and our actions here must match the scale of that threat. We must stand up for our friends and neighbours, and make sure that Scotland does everything that it can to be the welcoming nation that we strive to be.


Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

First and foremost, I express my profound regret at the sad news from this morning about the loss of life aboard the Bibby Stockholm. I offer my condolences to the family and friends of the asylum seeker whose life was lost.

As a member of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I often witness the tireless work of organisations and individuals to embed humanity into policy, and I am consistently reminded of the profound responsibility that we hold. The stories of asylum seekers in Scotland, as detailed in the recent human rights report, are not just abstract accounts; they are vivid realities that demand our attention and action. The work that we undertook to gather people’s real-life experiences on a personal level will stay with me forever.

I have been thinking about how easy it is to take it for granted that we live in a country free from conflict, and about what would happen if that ever changed. How would the world react to us if we ever needed to flee and seek refuge? Perhaps that thought is more profound at this time of year, coming up to Christmas, knowing that, across the country, many children will be re-enacting a very familiar story of a family and their unborn child seeking refuge.

The lived experiences of asylum seekers, as highlighted in the committee’s report, must guide our policies. Each individual brings a story—a narrative of loss, resilience and hope. Those are not mere tales; they are a reflection of our shared humanity.

The UK Government’s approach to immigration not only lacks compassion; it denies the rights of, and dehumanises, those seeking refuge, as they are entitled to do under article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On Sunday, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of that declaration, and next year will mark 70 years since the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees came into force.

A Conservative minister recently made the assertion that asylum seekers risking their lives crossing the Channel had “no excuse” and were “breaking into our country”. That is not just insensitive—it is a stark dismissal of human rights. That is dog-whistle politics at its worst, and it serves only to marginalise further those vulnerable individuals who are seeking safety and refuge. It ignores the complex and often harrowing reasons that compel people to undertake such perilous journeys.

Our response should be inclusive and supportive, not merely tolerant. For example, the need for mental health services is critical, as is underscored in the committee’s report. Many asylum seekers carry the scars of trauma and require culturally sensitive and accessible mental health care. Similarly, the importance of language assistance cannot be overstated. As has been noted, many asylum seekers struggle with language barriers, which hinder their ability to integrate and to access vital services.

We should consider the potential of concessionary travel for all asylum seekers, a policy that embodies dignity and freedom, allowing them to explore and to integrate into our communities. That is not just about policy; it is about sending a clear message: “You are a part of our society, and you are welcome.”

It was plain to see that the core need for the provision of accurate information was essential. Asylum seekers must be aware of their rights, particularly in healthcare and legal services. That is not just a policy imperative; it is a moral one. It ensures that everyone who arrives in Scotland is treated with the respect and care that they deserve. Our approach must be rooted in kindness, empathy and a commitment to human rights. Every policy and every number represents a human story that deserves to be heard and acted upon.

We can lead by example and show the power of compassion in asylum and immigration policies. We must not be swayed by political pressures or bureaucratic convenience. Instead, let our actions be guided by the warmth of our humanity and the strength of our convictions. We need a distinctly Scottish path—one that is marked by understanding and by respect for human dignity. For example, that path could take the form of a new humanitarian strategy, as proposed by the Scottish Refugee Council, emphasising a “protect not penalise” approach, with anti-poverty and mental health initiatives to address the threats posed by serious and organised crime.

Although immigration and asylum remain reserved matters, there is much that we can do within our devolved powers. We can find innovative accommodation solutions, extend support to third sector organisations and ensure access to essential services such as ESOL and healthcare.

As I conclude, I ask for our response to asylum seekers to be more than only a policy one: it must reflect our values as a society. It is about building a future in which compassion and human dignity are the foundations of our approach to those who seek sanctuary on our shores. As we move forward, we must remember that our policies and words have the power both to uplift and to harm. Let us choose kindness and respect and let us reaffirm our commitment to being a society that welcomes, supports and values every human life, regardless of where they come from or where the journey that they endured to reach us began.

We move to the closing speeches.


Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

I also express my sorrow at the distressing news of the death of an individual on the Bibby Stockholm earlier today. My prayers are with their family and friends.

Scotland should be a welcoming and safe place for asylum seekers. In the past few years, the UK Tory Government has created a hostile environment for those who come here seeking asylum. As my colleague Paul O’Kane noted, the UK Government is, as we speak, debating an inhumane bill that seeks to ship those seeking asylum in the UK off to a third country. We also have the Illegal Migration Act, which may force many vulnerable asylum seekers into the hands of human traffickers and criminal gangs. That goes hand in hand with the newly announced salary threshold for skilled workers visas, which Alex Cole-Hamilton, John Swinney and others rightly condemned. As Fulton MacGregor said, the UK Government’s hostile legislation has led to the UK being painted as a country that does not welcome those who most need our help.

Will the member accept an intervention?

Foysol Choudhury

I have a lot to get through.

That is why Scottish Labour supports the conclusions that were reached by the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s inquiry. That inquiry sent a strong message that we should be using the powers within our devolved competence to improve the lives of asylum seekers in Scotland.

Integration is important to that. As Kaukab Stewart said, the Scottish Government must use its devolved powers to ensure that asylum seekers are able to integrate fully into Scottish society. I look forward to the Scottish Government’s plan on how asylum seekers can be included in concessionary travel schemes, which is something that my colleague Paul Sweeney has been working on.

The Illegal Migration Act 2023 can amend the powers and duties of the Scottish ministers to help victims of human trafficking under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015. Miles Briggs commented that asylum seekers are among those who are most vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation.

In October this year, I hosted a round table on the impact that the Illegal Migration Act 2023 may have on human trafficking and how it will interact with the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015. We heard from representatives of the Scottish Refugee Council, JustRight Scotland, Maryhill Integration Network and many more organisations about how the Illegal Migration Act has made life harder for survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Under the act, survivors of trafficking who have received an initial reasonable grounds decision can be removed. Unaccompanied children arriving in Scotland can be subjected to mandatory scientific testing, including MRI scanning, to try to determine their age. If they refuse that, they will be processed as adults. The committee’s investigation makes clear that the Scottish Government can act within its devolved powers to mitigate that impact of the cruel Illegal Migration Act 2023—as it must. We need to concentrate action on that to protect victims of human trafficking and uphold, wherever possible, the right to seek asylum in Scotland.

The latest Home Office data shows that 662 asylum seekers were housed in hotels across 10 Scottish local authorities. In addition, 4,558 asylum seekers were living in dispersal accommodation. We must not forget the Ukrainian refugees hosted on temporary boats because suitable accommodation could not be found for them.

Those are not solutions. Currently, we face a housing crisis. The Scottish Refugee Council has warned that Home Office policies, such as giving people just seven days to leave asylum accommodation, mean that it could be a matter of time before someone dies on the streets due to a lack of housing. Let us be clear: that is not the fault of asylum seekers but is caused by a housing system that is not fit for purpose. The Scottish Government must provide a long-term housing plan. It must act on the conclusion of the inquiry to mitigate the damage of those inhumane Tory policies and ensure that asylum seekers are protected and welcomed in Scotland.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Many speeches this afternoon began with the sad news about what has occurred on the Bibby Stockholm. I echo the comments that have been made by many members and the calls to investigate what happened.

Today’s debate has been robust. Many contributions have outlined what the Scottish Government can do within devolved competence to improve the lives of asylum seekers in Scotland. The committee’s report outlined many important issues that we have discussed, including the slow rate of processing asylum applications, the financial challenges that asylum seekers face, the current housing crisis, and how local authorities support those who can claim asylum here in Scotland.

There were many points on which members found consensus—and, of course, there were areas of disagreement, whether in relation to reserved powers or to the UK Government’s plan to tackle illegal immigration. The report states that committee members disagreed on the UK Government’s approach to tackling illegal immigration. There is a real human cost when it comes to illegal immigration and the criminal activity that exploits so many vulnerable people. However, I appreciate that the topic is emotive and that it will cause a difference of opinion. I will pick up on some of those points shortly.

When I joined the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, members were concluding the report after taking weeks of evidence on the topic. That is not an ideal time at which to join a committee, because there is a feeling of disconnection from those who gave evidence and shared their personal experiences with committee members. However, what was undertaken produced an important piece of work, which sought to improve the lives of asylum seekers in Scotland. I hope that we can all agree on that.

I also hope that the Scottish Government will start to record data on human trafficking cases in relation to outstanding court backlogs. I was concerned that, recently, in a response to Rachael Hamilton, the Minister for Victims and Community Safety, Siobhian Brown, advised that the Scottish Government currently does not hold that information. Although that was not in the report, I believe that it is crucial to maintain data if we are serious about ending the exploitation of vulnerable people in Scotland.

Members across the chamber raised several points that were in the committee report. The committee convener spoke about the real-life experiences that were crucial to the report, which outlined the challenges that asylum seekers and refugees face. Paul O’Kane echoed that view and highlighted how difficult it must be for people to leave their homes to seek asylum in another country.

Kaukab Stewart mentioned free bus travel for asylum seekers, which is an issue that Paul Sweeney has previously brought to the chamber. The report asks the Scottish Government to develop and report on plans for a Scotland-wide roll-out following the pilot schemes in Aberdeen and Glasgow. I am sure that MSPs will hear more on that when the Scottish Government develops its plans further.

Miles Briggs and Alexander Stewart raised the housing emergency that we currently face in Scotland. We know the number of homelessness applications and the number of children who have been assessed for or threatened with homelessness over the past financial year. Of course, we also know that 6,000 families are stuck in temporary accommodation for more than a year, and 450-plus people have been refused temporary accommodation from 2020 to 2023. I was therefore pleased that the committee’s report sought clarification on the steps that the Government is taking to address the overall housing crisis that we face, because it is urgent. If we want more people to come to Scotland, we need to have affordable homes available. As Alexander Stewart rightly said, the housing crisis has consequences, especially when it comes to hotel accommodation for asylum seekers.

The report discussed the slow rate of processing of asylum seekers. I accept that and agree with colleagues that that must be rectified at haste, not just to alleviate the report’s concerns but to ensure that people are not stuck in the system after fleeing an already difficult and often traumatising situation in another country.

Mental health is another big topic that was raised and debated by many members, and it is a vital part of the wraparound care that the minister mentioned in her opening speech. Services are available for people to access here but, as we know, they are under severe pressure. Although I accept that we need to raise awareness so that asylum seekers can access those vital support networks, we need to ensure that there are no language barriers and that we tackle the challenges that exist across all our mental health services.

I am running out of time. Many other topics were raised today, including the support that local government can provide. However, local government is another area that is under severe financial pressure just now, which restricts the support that it can give to asylum seekers and refugees.

There is clearly a cross-party appetite to do more to help those who claim asylum in Scotland. Like many members who made contributions today, I await updates from the Scottish Government in relation to the report’s recommendations. There has been an important and overarching argument made here today that we need to improve the lives of asylum seekers in Scotland.


Emma Roddick

I thank members for their contributions to this important debate and, again, I thank the committee for its work on the inquiry and for raising the UK asylum system issues that are impacting on people in Scotland’s communities. I reaffirm the commitment that I gave in my opening speech to responding to the committee in full in writing, in due course.

Our “Building a New Scotland” paper on migration was launched on 3 November. It not only sets out the positive vision that we have for a humane and welcoming migration system in Scotland following independence, but comes from the position of our having already taken steps to do things differently within existing powers, particularly through our new Scots strategy.

I will reassure Paul O’Kane and others about new Scots. Members will be aware that work is under way to develop a refreshed strategy, which will be published next year. Engagement with sector professionals and refugee leaders took place in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as online, in early November, and lived experience engagement will take place until the end of February. An action plan will follow publication of the strategy, which will set out the work that partners will progress to support refugees, people who are seeking asylum and others who have been forced to seek safety as members of our communities.

Paul O’Kane and others requested some detail. One example that has been discussed thoroughly throughout the debate is the £2 million that has been set aside in next year’s budget to support asylum seekers to access bus travel. The Minister for Transport recently met third sector representatives and agreed to set up a working group to consider how asylum seekers who are unable to access existing schemes can best be supported. That is important work and we must ensure that we do it in the most sensible way. I will continue to engage with the minister on that.

Of course, in the meantime, we do not discriminate against asylum seekers. Those who are aged under 22, those who are over 60 and those who are disabled can access free bus travel, like the rest of us, through the existing concessionary travel scheme.

Has the minister any knowledge of the composition of the working group?

Emma Roddick

I am more than happy to get that information. I will refer the member’s question to the Minister for Transport, who will get in touch with him.

I also appreciate the points that have been made about ESOL. For context, the new Scots partnership previously received £6 million from the European Union’s asylum migration and integration fund for our £6.6 million project to support integration. That included more than £500,000 in targeted funding for two of the highest-priority areas, which are ESOL and employability. Because of Brexit, that funding comes to an end this month, but ESOL remains a priority area that is raised in the new Scots engagement process. Committee members will not be surprised to know that many people have directly raised ESOL issues with me. I know how important language is to integration, so I am taking a personal interest in the matter and seeing what more we can do. I am happy to commit now to looking into the specific ESOL issues that have been raised in the committee’s report.

Would the minister consider coming to the International Conversation Cafe at Summerlee, which I mentioned in my speech, and speaking to the folk there.

Emma Roddick

I would love to do that. I look forward to receiving the member’s formal invitation. I am currently speaking to staff in my private office about getting out to do more in-person engagement on ESOL and figuring out where best practice is already taking place.

Information to support refugees and asylum seekers to access healthcare in Scotland is available on the NHS Inform website. That includes links to general practice registration cards, which have been designed to support anyone who needs to register at a new general practice. They set out information on rights to accessing healthcare and were developed with people who are seeking asylum, as well as with those experiencing homelessness and with Gypsy Travellers, to support them to access services and promote the fact that they have the same rights to do so as anyone else.

On Miles Briggs’ and Kaukab Stewart’s points, we take our responsibility to asylum-seeking children very seriously, in terms of our legal and our moral obligations. In April this year we launched Guardianship Scotland, which is a statutory service that provides specialist support to all asylum-seeking children who arrive alone in Scotland. It currently supports around 800 children. There is still a shortfall in the funding that the Home Office provides to local authorities for hosting unaccompanied children, but we remain committed to working with it to find solutions to the acute pressures that are being faced. Much of that is down to having adequate funding, but other measures, such as ensuring that communication happens well in advance, could be helpful.

I was glad to hear from Fulton MacGregor that he has picked up on the trend of people actively seeking to come to Scotland because they have heard that support is good here. That is really positive, but I worry about the impact that the UK Government’s policy will have on people’s impression of Scotland, and other countries in the UK.

Paul O’Kane will be aware of the difficulty that we face in providing information on mitigations to the provisions of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 ahead of getting from the UK Government details of the act’s commencement and implementation. However, we continue to work across Government to consider all options that are available to us within our devolved powers and the law. We will continue speaking to stakeholders, as we have done since the legislation was introduced.

Paul O’Kane

I raise this issue time and again when we debate such matters because of the Scottish Refugee Council’s calls for a comprehensive piece of work. What interaction has the minister had with the Scottish Refugee Council on those points and on its calls for a clear mitigation plan?

Emma Roddick

I engage regularly with the Scottish Refugee Council—most recently this morning. I am always happy to have such conversations with Paul O’Kane and his colleagues, as well as with our stakeholders, with whom—as I have said—we engage extensively.

There is currently a campaign going on to dehumanise asylum seekers and, indeed, all migrants. That is why it is important that when there is news coverage of loss of life because of lack of safe and legal routes—from the events of centuries ago that Alex Cole-Hamilton set out, to the news today—we feel that loss, whether it is because of boats collapsing or people completing suicide while going through the system. Many people out there will react differently to those news stories solely because the victims are asylum seekers, and there is perhaps a tendency to remove ourselves to protect ourselves.

However, from meeting asylum seekers and former asylum seekers across Scotland, I know that every life lost was the life of someone who could have been a business owner in Inverclyde, or volunteering full time for a charity in Glasgow, or treating people in our NHS. Every one of them could have been a new Scot and a valued member of our community.

I agree with reflections on the hostile narrative, including on the careless offhand proposal to send asylum seekers to—I quote, because I would not use those words—“some remote Scottish island”, the Orkneys, or even uninhabited islands, where there would be no local support system for those marginalised people.

The Rwanda plan is absolutely baffling. There is not much else to say about it. Members’ comments were right: it is a horrendous policy that is wrapped up in dangerous rhetoric.

The UK should be upholding the refugee convention and looking at the real problems in its immigration system, from decision-making timescales to working with Scotland to make use of migration to challenge our depopulation issues. Instead, it is pressing ahead with yet another nasty piece of legislation that is so incompatible with the rule of law that the Government needs to remove human rights from people in order to make it work.

Karen Adam was right to highlight that words can uplift as well as harm, and I will be sure to consider that in the wording of my response to the committee, knowing that it will be read not just by colleagues but by the people who are affected by the policies.

It is impossible to assess our abilities to support asylum seekers in Scotland while ignoring the context, actions and words of the UK Government. They limit our ability to act and they poison the impression that asylum seekers across the UK have of how welcome they are, often without distinction, and they destroy our good reputation internationally. However, I will continue to engage in seeking concessions where they can be made and, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Refugee Council, in finding solutions to many of the biggest issues that asylum seekers face today in Scotland.

I call Maggie Chapman to wind up the debate on behalf of the committee.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

As deputy convener of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I am pleased to close this important and, in many ways, heartbreaking debate on the committee’s behalf. I am grateful to all members for their participation this afternoon and for the commitment and co-operation that have been shown.

I echo Kaukab Stewart’s thanks to my fellow committee members, to our clerks, to the Scottish Parliament information centre and to the participation and communities staff, who ensured that our inquiry ran smoothly and that we were able to foreground the voices of those directly affected by the asylum system. I also associate myself with the comments made about the tragic death today on board the Bibby Stockholm.

As we have heard, among the aims of the committee’s original inquiry was to find out more about what it means to be living in Scotland while seeking asylum; how the system impacts the daily lives of people seeking asylum, local communities and agencies; the human rights issues engaged; and, in particular, the implications of the UK’s Illegal Migration Act 2023. We heard evidence from a range of bodies and agencies, including third sector organisations, local authorities, the police and many more, and we held two informal evidence sessions with asylum seekers and refugees themselves. I thank everyone who contributed seriously and candidly to our inquiry, especially the refugees and people seeking asylum who shared their time and experiences so generously, speaking of matters that are inevitably intensely personal and painful. We welcome you to Scotland and we are deeply sorry that your experience, in so many ways, has not been what it ought to have been.

The committee’s report covers a wide range of issues and concerns, many of which have been highlighted by members this afternoon. I will highlight and summarise just some of the principal themes that the committee considered and that we have discussed here today. The minister, Evelyn Tweed, Mark Ruskell, Stuart McMillan and others highlighted the valuable and immensely important contributions that asylum seekers and refugees have already made and will continue to make to Scotland. Many colleagues have been right to point out that, here in Scotland, in the asylum and refugee space, we seek to do something different from what we see happening at Westminster.

We should all keep in our minds our international obligations under the 1951 refugee convention, as well as other international treaties and conventions that speak to human rights, but none of us can ignore the massive and fundamental difficulties that are caused by the fact that immigration and asylum are reserved matters. The committee heard widespread and serious concern about the way that the UK Government has legislated, including in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Act 2023, or the refugee ban bill, as it was widely known.

Graham O’Neill of the Scottish Refugee Council spoke of the UK turning its back

“on the most desperate people in the world”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 25 April 2023; c 10.]

with lethal consequences, while Baroness Helena Kennedy described the criminalisation of people seeking asylum as a breach of international law. Foysol Choudhury and others highlighted the fact that experts agree that the act will make it much easier for traffickers to prey on vulnerable people and much more difficult for them to be brought to justice.

Alex Cole-Hamilton made a powerful point about the importance—from the point of view of human dignity and of the economic and social benefit of Scottish communities—of giving asylum seekers the right to work. As a member of the Scottish Greens, I, like Mark Ruskell, wish that the UK Government would grant that right or devolve the powers to this Parliament to allow us to do so.

We heard about the underlying UK-wide and international issues that are contributing to the situation in Scotland. Those include the global rise in the number of people seeking asylum as a result of increasing and intensifying war and conflict, and the UK Government’s choice to make stopping the boats a central focus of its agenda, building on Theresa May’s hostile environment policy and on what Graham O’Neill and others have described as a general erosion of the right to asylum over the past 15 to 20 years.

We heard about Home Office delays that are so severe that a decision process that should take six months can now last 10 years. Some people who gave evidence to the committee would find ironic—perhaps that is the kindest word that I can use—Miles Briggs’s comments about legal routes to seeking asylum. We heard very clearly from experts and from asylum advocacy groups that no such routes now exist under the UK Government’s policies.

Paul O’Kane’s excoriating assessment of the UK Government’s Rwanda scheme, the scene from centuries ago painted by Alex Cole-Hamilton and the horrendous narratives of trauma that has been experienced by asylum seekers that Karen Adam outlined laid bare some of the doublespeak that is going on this afternoon. We would all do well to remember Karen Adam’s statement that

“words have the power both to uplift and to harm”.

The use of institutional accommodation, especially hotels, not just as temporary measures but as an increasingly normalised policy, was a central issue in our report. The committee looked at reports from Asylum Inquiry Scotland and heard from Baroness Helena Kennedy, who led that inquiry. It focused on events at the beginning of the Covid lockdown and found that the Park Inn incident was an “avoidable tragedy”. Its findings reflect evidence heard by the committee about unsuitable food, insufficient space and resources for babies and toddlers to play and develop, barriers to accessing healthcare, especially mental health support, and safety concerns about vulnerability to far-right intimidation and to trafficking and exploitation.

Linked to that, as we heard from the minister and others, it is vital that we do whatever we can, in partnership with local government and third sector organisations, to support the integration, from day 1, of asylum seekers into our communities. Institutionalising people in hotels that could be anywhere is no way to treat anyone, never mind vulnerable asylum seekers.

Issues of money, poverty and destitution are central to the experiences of people seeking asylum. Those in institutional accommodation where meals are provided receive only £9.58 per week for all their other needs. Most people seeking asylum are not allowed to work, which has devastating effects on psychological, social and economic wellbeing.

Delays in decision making add to financial pressures—Andy Sirel of JustRight Scotland spoke of “state-enforced destitution”—and the asylum decision itself, whichever way it goes, frequently triggers eviction, homelessness and further trauma.

We heard much about access to support and services. Some of that has been covered by Paul Sweeney, Evelyn Tweed, Fulton MacGregor and others.

I want to pick up on just one issue: interpreter provision. Issues relating to a lack of access and a shortage of quality interpreters were raised. We were told that interpreters

“don’t always interpret the words said”

and that

“They forget so make stuff up”.

One person said that when

“every word counts in a person’s asylum journey ... it must be accurate. Any inaccuracy creates further delay and frustration”.

I welcome the consensus this afternoon that we need to up our game on all those issues.

Finally, the committee considered the role of devolved Scottish legislation and policy, including the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015, the new Scots and ending destitution strategies, the guardianship service and tuition fee funding. We heard urgent calls to do all that we can to mitigate the damage caused by UK policies. That could include the kind of radical humanitarian strategy argued for by the Scottish Refugee Council, together with initiatives such as free bus travel for people who are seeking asylum. As we have heard, that has been championed by Paul Sweeney and Mark Ruskell.

I conclude by urging all members to read the full committee report, which contains invaluable information and insights, including much that is deeply shocking. Some of the evidence was conflicting, and members did not agree fully on all points, but there was a very high degree of shared consensus. That committee consensus represents deep concerns and anxieties but also a determination to do all that we can within our devolved powers to protect and enhance the human rights of people who are seeking asylum in Scotland. We look forward to the minister’s response to our report in due course.

My final words are for those who seek asylum here: we are honoured by your presence, inspired by your journeys and enriched by our shared humanity.