FRIDAY afternoon and I am in a room full of eagles. Fierce in their protecting instincts, strong in their spirits and full of grace to soar up on the currents of the air that might keep them alive and take them to a place where they can thrive.

“A long time ago, when I had just learned to read and write, my dad bought me a story book which was called ­‘Scotland’s Eagles’. I cannot remember the whole story, but I remember that I learned that Scotland has very cold weather, there is snow all year round, and no lives there except eagles.”

The 13-year-old girl, who is the sister of this story’s author, has illustrated all the stories.

The organisation Freedom from ­Torture organised this celebration of ­Stories of Hope published in a booklet. It was part of Scotland’s Refugee Festival and it was launched, as was the Refugee Festival itself, by the Minster for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie MSP, herself a woman of strength and spirit in the face of adversity and long sustainer of those who have sought refuge amongst us.

It is an adage that in August the world comes to Edinburgh and its long-established festivals.

But in June the ways in which the world is already here and amongst us are the focus of celebration, alongside the international human rights laws which are the root of the events of Scotland’s Refugee Festival. The events of Scotland’s Refugee Festival 2022 have been times of grace and soaring spirits, when eagles truly gather.

World Refugee Day takes place on June 20 each year and it is now the occasion for celebrations worldwide marking the signing of the Refugee Convention. Where states have taken up their responsibilities to uphold the Convention people who have fled persecution have been able to avail themselves of the universal right to protection, and to make new lives.

This year 120 events have taken place across communities in Scotland focused on the theme: “What’s your story?”

The Refugee Festival Media Awards ­acknowledged those journalists ­prepared to do the challenging work fighting against the grain of decreasing press freedom in the UK and an often highly xenophobic press, to discover the truth.

It also brought together those who shared their stories with those who ­authored the stories – creating a sense of belonging, achievement, and togetherness for speaking up. Was it the journalists or their story exposing subjects who were the prize-winners? The answer was in all the smiles on stage together.

The Refugee Festival Launch held at the Scottish Youth Theatre not only brought people together from various communities across Scotland, but it also invited those who write policies and also the representative from UNHRC to the UK. It was an evening of celebration, highlighting talents from diverse communities, and sending out messages about journeys and the need for resistance and resilience. There was dance, song, and moments to remember those we have lost, including veteran campaigner, host, and scotch pancake maker Sally Beaumont.

Joy erupted in the celebrations for the 21st birthday of Maryhill ­Integration ­Network (MIN), one of the key ­organisations in Glasgow established to bring ­asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, and the community of Glasgow together. Since 2001, MIN have been developing projects which support positive social change by investing in communities and providing a welcoming and much-needed safe and inclusive space with opportunities for collaboration.

The event included live music from Glasgow African Balafon Orchestra (GABO), Joyous Choir of MIN, Newroz Ensemble, and SambaYaBamba Youth Band. It was a special event for everyone as guests also included those who are still stuck in limbo in hotel accommodation in Falkirk. People were able to enjoy the spirit of solidarity, compassion, and care.

The event highlighted the intercultural methods of community development to bring people together as well as creativity to share songs of joy and solidarity. Not just integration but integration as ­restoration for all.

THE Scottish Parliament too held a debate for World Refugee Day led by the Minister Neil Gray MSP which focused on celebrating the many ways that Scotland has supported those seeking asylum to make a home and to have their rights protected.

During the debate Kaukab Stewart MSP highlight the many achievements of New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy but also that Scotland can and must do more. This opened the floor for cross ­party interventions including Paul Sweeney MSP’s campaign for free bus fares for those seeking asylum as an aid to dignity, recovery, and integration.

At times, the debate risked veering into complacency, even though the pride is well placed. This is not to diminish the achievements but to highlight the fact that all the gains of New Scots ­Integration Strategy and the amazing celebrations across the Refugee Festival are fragile. Like eagles, they are being hunted in a hostile environment. All these events have taken place against a backdrop of the long ­shadow cast by the UK Government’s plans to implement its inhumane and ­cruel Rwanda Plan.

The Rwanda plan has created a ­national and international spectacle out of people’s lives and suffering, placing those who are the most in need of our protection at the mercy of a new law, the legality of which is yet to be determined.

Opprobrium has been poured upon the UK. In an unprecedented move ­UNHCR made legal representations to the ­European Court of Human Rights (not an institution of the European ­Union) as part of a request for an interim ­injunction to stop the deportations because of fear that irrevocable harm may come to those being deported and concern that ­insufficient safeguards were in place.

The Rwanda Plan forms part of the highly controversial Nationality and ­Borders Act 2022, which comes into force on June 28. It places the human rights of those seeking safety under great threat, including criminalising people for seeking protection, creating a two-tier refugee system, removing age assessment protections previously in place for unaccompanied minors and placing powers at the ­discretion of the Home Secretary to deprive UK naturalised citizens, their children, and their grandchildren, of their citizenship.

In doing so it breaches the Refugee Convention. It does not stop there. The newly proposed Bill of Rights or Rights Removal Bill threatens everyone. By removing the word “human” the government will be ­dehumanising our rights. It creates what Antonin Artaud called a Theatre of ­Cruelty, not with actors, with real ­people’s lives and suffering.

Against this Theatre of Cruelty comes a Theatre of Resistance in Scotland and a Festival of Resistance theme as part of the stories told during Scotland’s own Refugee Festival. As lawyers worked round the clock, and protesters and interventions happened to prevent the deportations to Rwanda a new verb was coined. “You Kenmured it” – said Lucy Cathcart Fødën. And that is certainly how it felt to those of us intimately bound up in this struggle.

Scotland’s Refugee Festival has also been a time to celebrate stories of this spirit of resistance and change.

In our work we see the day-to-day ­positive impact of the UK’s decision to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and to uphold its principles and provisions for those who seek asylum and for those who are granted refugee status. We see the rich ways in which all communities are given the opportunity to grow in diversity and interculturally, through the ­provisions in the New Scots Refugee ­Integration ­Strategy

It was in 2020 the Scottish Elections Bill passed into law which enabled the right to vote for people with ­refugee ­status in Scottish elections. Led by ­Scottish ­Refugee Council, Maryhill ­Integration Network and the Voices Network, the people navigating the asylum process were able to share their experiences and voices to contribute to a policy change in Scotland. And yet, people in the asylum system still do not have the right to vote, although some people have been in the process for over 10 years. Such campaigning is demanding work and once one gain is made the next campaign begins.

In Scotland, MIN Voices group has been campaigning for the Right to Work since 2019 by joining the Lift the Ban ­coalition. Providing the right to work and a change in policy would result in an estimated economic gain of £181 million per year for the UK Government and would mean people seeking asylum are not forced to live on £5.84 per day in a state of poverty, often for many years.

Reducing the cost of the asylum system by allowing the right to work and enabling asylum seekers to contribute through NI and taxes would help ease the concerns of some about the economic costs of the asylum system and address misguided anti-immigration sentiment.

Today, 62,000 people have been ­waiting more than six months for a ­decision on their asylum claim, according to the ­Government’s latest immigration ­statistics. Furthermore, analysis from 2021 by the Refugee Council showed over 30,000 people waited more than a year. Forcing people into inactivity is at odds with government policy which in most instances aims to move people away from welfare dependency and into work. This wastes public money, and makes no sense, at a time of labour shortages.

Right to Work is Right to Freedom. A sentence which is being used by the ­people who are banned from working while seeking asylum. Only after one year can people apply for the right to work; however, it must be within the Shortage Occupation List.

Being dependent on organisations is a tiring process for the people. Having around £40 of asylum support on a weekly basis means having to choose between travelling, buying food, and essentials.

As Scotland’s Refugee Festival ends, we sense a renewed commitment to what those seeking asylum in Scotland need. Namely:

  • The Right to Work
  • The Right to live without fear of destitute
  • The Right to seek asylum in this country to be upheld
  • To live without fear of deportation
  • To Right to accommodation from which to begin their lives again – an end to hotel accommodation
  • The Right to education and a home from which to be educated, not a hotel room or squalid outsourced housing
  • The Right to health including mental health and well interpreted medical information
  • The Right to a fair asylum process including the right to well interpreted legal information and judgements which understand linguistic complexities of translation and interpretation
  • To live without being excluded from the cultural or digital world.
  • The Right to speak their mother languages and sustain them alongside new languages in Scotland – English, Gaelic, Scots, BSL
  • Finally, the possibility that the full powers of the Scottish Parliament might be used and tested to ensure that those responsibilities that are devolved are fully utilised for their protection.

We need solidarity, compassion, care, fairness, and justice for people seeking asylum and refuge. We need to understand the threat of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 as well as the Rights Removal Bill.

And we need the stories of hope from Scotland’s eagles; birds hunted at times to extinction – as with the sea eagle and the osprey – but reintroduced through acts of parliament that seek to ensure there is real diversity amongst us, in our wildlife.

Acts of Parliament which make it illegal to hunt species to extinction, but work to build and repair and protect nest sites so that homes can be made, and chicks can be raised.

As with eagles, so with people. May Scotland indeed be like the story, full of eagles. Strength, Grace, Refuge.

What’s YOUR story?

Pinar Aksu is a campaigner and PhD Scholar with the UNESCO Chair at the University of Glasgow

Alison Phipps is UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and Arts and the University of Glasgow and an Ambassador for the Scottish Refugee Council