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History also tells us that governments like nothing better, when their backs are to the wall economically or politically to divert attention away from the mistakes of their own making, and to focus instead on the problem of the others. And history also tells us when Government think “the others” are a problem they also find solutions, sometimes final ones


Back in the day, I can remember a parade of eloquent and committed teachers, urging us to consider history as a subject for advanced study and maybe even a post school discipline. Among the many arguments the one that stuck with me, and which continues to have currency, is that a proper and thoughtful study of the past not only can help us make sense of the present (on the assumption that in most things there is very little new under the sun) but that with a critical and questioning eye it can help us avoid the mistakes of our forbears (if that is our bent) or indeed repeat their folly with alarming regularity (should we so choose). In either scenario knowing how certain courses of action have played out in the past, we can make a decent stab at how actions today will play out in the future. And like a hall of reflecting mirrors we can see that pattern repeat and repeat into infinity.

You don’t have to be a genius of physics or quantum mechanics to understand  that doing the same thing over and over again in the same fashion and expecting a different outcome, may indeed be madness, but is also just incredibly stupid and arrogant. Which is why Politicians and governments are the biggest culprits of this infantile belief in their power (or indeed god given right)  to do something truly original and different.

And so we  have seen in the last week or so a series of stories relating to the treatment and singling out of refugees and migrants that has chilling resonance back to  1930’s Germany. First asylum seekers in Middlesborough, it transpired, were being housed in accommodation with distinctive red doors, ostensibly so that their landlords the government contracted private security company G4S could find them! One might have assumed they had a list (and maybe some maps). But of course at the same time as their housing officers could find them so could other people in the city with an agenda of harassment and intimidation. And they did find them with alarming regularity, with the asylum seekers reporting graffiti sprayed on their houses and dog shit and used condoms pushed through their letter boxes. While G4S have agreed to replace the doors with a more neutral colour akin with their neighbours, their attitude in conducting this little social experiment in the first place is telling. Despite being paid to deliver a contract to provide safe and secure housing for people going through the  asylum process, they put the convenience and needs of their staff beyond that of those in their care. It shouldn’t have taken the media and concerned citizens and a directive from Her Majesty’s finest to make them stop the process, they should have just known it  was a bad idea. Stars of David on windows anyone?

No sooner had the red door debacle died down when Cardiff announced it was their intention to force asylum seekers to wear red wrist bands in order to get fed. When it was pointed out that the wearing of said bands was opening the men and women to racial abuse and hate crime, the answer was pretty much, tough. No band, no dinner! A similar outcry of the lily livered liberals amongst us (I’m getting in that slur before the Daily Mail does!) has resulted in that policy being “re-thought” and overturned. But the real question is who in heavens name thought it up in the first place. Pink triangles ring any bells people? Once again the interest of the asylum seekers and the duty of care the local authority have for them is way down the list of priorities

And we wake to today’s news that in a Denmark very very far away from the land of Borgen, Danish asylum seekers will have to part with cash or personal effects that they have brought with them be they family heirlooms or treasured possessions, before they get support, in order to “pay” for that support, although those good hearted Danes are allowing people to keep their wedding rings….for now. So far there doesn’t seem to have been a directive on gold fillings. Anyone who has visited Auschwitz  and Birkenau and heard the stories of the warehouses  called “Canada” (because it was a place of abundance) where personal effects were removed, sorted and distributed, might be feeling a little queazy at the moment. And there is absolutely no justification for this brutal action other than to humiliate, demonise, and punish people taking up their legal right to seek protection in a country nominally signed  up to the UN Convention of Refugees. Of course  EU member states the UNHCR are up in arms about this, but then the UK, Ireland and Denmark have an automatic exemption for ALL EU wide asylum policy guidelines and directives so frankly the EU can go on about it as much as they like, the UK, Ireland and Denmark will continue in their own sweet way thank you very much.

And  it’s not so long ago that the shadow of the transit trains fell across Glasgow. When the housing contract for asylum seekers was moving from the Glasgow Housing Association  – into which Glasgow Council’s owned social housing had morphed – to yet another private contractor, it looked like many asylum seekers across the city would have to undergo forced removals from one badly insulated, run down council house on a sink estate to another. They were told in a letter from the private profit driven accommodation provider – in a chilling parallel to  instructions given to Jews across Europe from 1939-44 that they could take “only up to two suitcases each” despite the fact many had lived here for years and had accumulated the same detritus of their lives that we all do. In the event the housing swap didn’t mean a move for most people, but all the same the callousness in which the instructions were given and the tone and content of the letter made  this refugee support worker and others write stiffly to the Home Office and the accommodation provider. We are still waiting on an apology for the insensitivity. But then where does sensitive handing of vulnerable people stand against the profit driven self interest of the people at the top of the procurement tree?

And we continue, in the UK, to ignore the recent history of refugee settlement (less than 40 years ago) in the most amazing way with the forced dispersal of the Syrians coming in from camps, to the far flung corners of the UK (over half the local authorities in Scotland for example) to places that in many cases have no specialist services, history of supporting or understanding of the issues facing traumatised vulnerable people. The numbers in each area are tiny, so people get lost in a system that wasn’t designed for them in the first place. The isolation they are feeling, the confusion and ineptitude of some local authorities is exactly what happened in 1979 when a then newly elected Tory Government in its first few months  of power (a co-incidence…I don’t think so) had to deal with the Vietnamese boat people. Instead of housing people near to areas of the country that have the services, expertise and support that is needed , people are being spread to ease in he Home Offices words the “burden”. (I’ve seen the poweRpoint!)

The outpouring of sympathy across the Europe for the plight of the asylum seekers coming across the Med and overland was extraordinary, and at that point people didn’t see “them” as a burden, But I said at the time  that this humanitarian response would  fade, and that in its place would develop self interested harsher regimes dolling out tougher measures all geared, not to support the vulnerable huddled masses, but the governments and local authorities  where they settled. even if only temporarily. And I said that, because history tells us that this is always the case. But history also tells us that the mass movement of people is a historical phenomena, that borders shift, and that some are no more than recent drawings in the sand. History tells us that  it has happened before and that it will happen again, so we need to get smarter, better and more humane in dealing with it. History also tells us that governments like nothing better, when their backs are to the wall economically or politically to divert attention away from the mistakes of their own making, and to focus instead on the problem of the others. And history also tells us when Government think “the others” are a problem they also find solutions, sometimes final ones.

And for those of you that think this doesn’t affect me. I’m not an asylum seeker or  a refugee. Well lucky you, but you might be old, vulnerable, poor, unemployed,  weak, sick or have people in your life that are. History tells us when governments want to demonise the other they start with the people that look different, sound different, dress different; then they move onto those that pass amongst us as one of us. A voice from the crematorium years of the last century should not be ignored

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemoller

Maggie Lennon is founder and Director of the Bridges Programmes working to promote the social and economic integration and inclusion of asylum seekers refuges and migrants in Scotland