ON March 18, thousands of anti-racists will assemble in George Square in Glasgow for the Resist Racism Scotland Demonstration, Scotland’s contribution to the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They will march under the banners of campaign group Stand Up to Racism (SUTR), the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) and the many trade unions and community campaigning organisations that are backing the demonstration.

Alongside the Trades Union Congress (TUC), SUTR is holding sister marches in London and ­Cardiff on March 18. The Scottish demonstration has been called under two slogans: “Justice for Sheku Bayoh” (in support of the justice campaign for the ­Scots-Sierra Leonean man who died in police ­custody in Fife in 2015) and “Refugees Welcome Here”.

The demonstration is also pledged to the fight against Islamophobia, antisemitism and all other forms of racism and xenophobia.

Campaigners say that the national mobilisation comes at a crucial time for the anti-racist movement in Scotland and across Europe. Only one week ago, a small boat carrying around 200 refugees broke up on the Italian coast near the city of Crotone.

Authorities are still trying to ascertain how many people drowned in their desperate attempt to enter a European Union that has shut its doors firmly against them. However, it is feared that more than 100, most of them fleeing the horrors of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, have perished.

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In the UK context, campaigners argue that the ­British Conservative government’s policies and rhetoric against refugees have emboldened racists and fascists. They give the example of the far-right violence at a hotel housing refugees in Liverpool on February 10.

Here in Scotland, SUTR has been active in ­countering the attempts by the neo-Nazi hate group Patriotic Alternative to ramp up a racist campaign against refugees being accommodated at a hotel in ­Erskine. Add to that the continuing campaign for ­justice for Sheku Bayoh – whose death is the ­subject of an ongoing public inquiry – and there is, ­campaigners say, a compelling case for building

the biggest possible demonstration in Glasgow on March 18.

Talat Ahmed – a member of the STUC Black ­Workers’ Committee and a leading figure in Stand Up to Racism in Scotland – is one of the organisers of the protest.

“The shocking and appalling loss of life off the coast of Italy highlights graphically the horrors and perils that refugees face,” she told the Sunday N­ational.

“These are people who are escaping persecution, escaping some of the most miserable conditions on Earth,” she continued. “Yet, when they approach the shores of the European continent they are faced with a Fortress Europe that has racism at the heart of it.”

Ahmed – who is also a member of the Universities and Colleges Union and a recent biographer of ­Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi – argues the UK Tory government has played a despicable role in fomenting racism against refugees and migrants. “This is the most multiracial British government in history, yet it is also one of the most racist,” she says.

She accuses Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman (both of whom are of South Asian heritage) of providing cover for racist policies that are whipping up ­hatred of asylum seekers and refugees and ­leading to death by drowning in the English Channel.

“Sunak and Braverman may have the same skin colour as me,” she continues, “their families may have their origins in the same part of the world as mine, but, unlike them, I and Stand Up to Racism stand for anti-racism and welcoming people. Sunak and Braverman stand for hate.”

Ahmed shares the widespread disgust at the actions of fascists and racists who have targeted refugees in places like ­Liverpool and Erskine in recent weeks and months. She believes that the Tory government at Westminster shares a ­responsibility for such events.

“The British government’s policies of scapegoating refugees provide the oxygen that encourages racism on the streets. It leads directly to what we are seeing today with the systematic targeting of refugees by fascist groups like Patriotic ­Alternative and Britain First.”

In particular, Ahmed is outraged by the UK government’s designation of every refugee who tries to come to Britain by way of the English Channel as an “illegal immigrant”.

“No human being is illegal,” she ­insists. “There is no such thing as an ‘illegal ­immigrant’, there are only illegal and ­immoral governments.”

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That is a message that is echoed by the STUC, the TUC and the many individual trade unions that have sponsored and built the March 18 events in Glasgow, London and Cardiff.

“The list of trade union sponsorship is extraordinary,” says Ahmed. “We’ve had so much money from trade unions, it ­really is amazing.”

INDEED, the list of individual ­supporters of the Glasgow demonstration, from across Scottish politics and public life, is impressive. Politicians calling for people to join the march include Glasgow Kelvin MSP Kaukab Stewart (SNP), who was the first woman of colour to be elected to the Holyrood parliament. She is joined by ­fellow Glasgow MSP Paul Sweeney ­(Labour) and SNP ­Glasgow ­councillor Roza Salih, who was, in her youth, ­famously one of the group of ­asylum rights campaigners known as the ­Glasgow Girls.

Qasim Sheikh, the former Scottish ­national cricket team player who has, alongside fellow cricketer Majid Haq, spoken out about institutional racism at Cricket Scotland, is giving his backing to the March 18 mobilisation.

In a video recorded for SUTR, he said: “I’m pledging my support to Stand Up to Racism... Hope to see you along there on March 18.”

Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar – who provided legal counsel to Sheikh and Haq in their successful campaign over racism in Scottish cricket, and is the ­lawyer for Sheku Bayoh’s family – is ­another prominent supporter of SUTR. He will be a speaker at the March 18 rally.

“We are living in dangerous times,” ­Anwar told the Sunday National. In the UK, he argues, “we have the most racist, right-wing Tory government we’ve ever had”.

The lawyer is concerned that, in the ­absence of serious action to tackle the cost of living crisis, far-right hate groups can benefit from attempts to blame refugees and asylum seekers for the problems in society. “We are seeing a vacuum being opened up which the far-right are trying to step into,” he says.

Anwar supports the efforts of SUTR and others to counter far-right and ­fascist activity, as in recent protests against ­Patriotic Alternative in Erskine. He ­contrasts the rhetoric of “illegal ­immigrants” that the UK government uses against refugees from places like the Middle East and Central Asia with its ­response to the war in Ukraine.

The National:

“If you turn the clock back to when there were millions of people fleeing ­Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan, we were told that there was no space,” he ­remembers. “We were told that we faced a ‘refugee crisis’.”

By contrast, he notes, “a year ago, when similar numbers were fleeing Ukraine, Europe was able to open its borders ­within 24 hours, offer spaces, and Ukrainian flags were flying from our buildings. There was huge momentum from politicians and the mass media to support that effort.”

It turns out, Anwar comments, “we didn’t have a ‘refugee crisis’, we had a racism crisis.” It isn’t difficult to explain, he continues, the difference in ­European governments’ treatment of white ­Ukrainian refugees and non-white people fleeing war in the Middle East.

There was, the lawyer observes, a “wave of compassion” that swept Europe after the drowned body of the two-year-old Syrian child Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. He is ­saddened, however, by how quickly that compassion subsided.

He observes that many thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean and ­other seas around Europe since that little boy’s tragic death. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that more than 25,000 people have drowned trying to enter ­Europe since 2014.

HRW points out that Frontex, the ­European Union’s border and coast guard, conducts aerial surveillance in ­order to intercept and return ­asylum ­seekers to the African and Asian ­countries from which they are believed to have come. Frontex does not use its resources to facilitate rescue of ­stricken migrants.

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THE family of Sheku Bayoh are ordinary people who have been forced to become human rights campaigners in order to try to get justice for their dead loved one. “Kadi Johnson, Sheku’s sister, called Sheku ‘Scotland’s George Floyd’,” Anwar comments, with reference to the African-American man murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020.

“A few years ago [following the murder of George Floyd], thousands and thousands of people marched in this ­country to say that Black Lives Matter,” the ­lawyer continues. “In the case of Sheku Bayoh, there wasn’t one police ­officer, there were at least six police officers ­involved in ­restraining him.

“His family has asked the question time and time again: ‘Do black lives not matter in Scotland?’”

Like SUTR, the Sheku Bayoh Justice Campaign has received strong support from the Scottish trade union movement. Liz McGachey, a Scottish member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the civil servants’ union the PCS, told the Sunday National why her union is ­supporting the demonstration on March 18.

“The PCS has worked for many years with Stand Up to Racism to try to tackle racism in the workplace and in the wider society,” she says. The PCS is “proud”, she adds, to be part of SUTR’s mobilisations for World Anti-Racism Day.

“Unfortunately, the UK Government is a very racist government,” says McGachey. “They are making it easier for racism to come out in society.”

Her union “is very clear”, she ­continues, “that no human being is ­illegal.” McGachey is proud to be part of the PCS NEC that voted to launch a legal challenge against the Boris Johnson ­government’s policy of using the Royal Navy to “pushback” refugees arriving on the south coast of England (a policy that the Tory administration ­withdrew just days before it was due to face judicial review).

She is equally proud that her NEC also launched a court challenge to the widely condemned Tory policy of seeking to ­relocate people seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda. “It’s absolutely disgraceful,” the trade unionist adds, “that policies like these are even thought of at all.”

She points out that PCS members are on the frontline when it comes to being expected to enforce Tory policies that they consider to be racist. She gives the example of PCS members working for Border Force (the Tories’ renamed UK Border Agency).

“They want to put our members in the waters, on jet skis, to turn people back, risking our members’ lives for a policy they don’t agree with.” Tory border policy is, she says, “inhumane and dangerous” and responsible for the deaths of refugees in the English Channel.

“They need to realise that people aren’t just jumping on a dinghy to come over here for the sake of it or to get a few quid on UK benefits. These people are putting their lives at risk because staying where they are is the worst option.”

MCGACHEY also points to the hypocrisy of Fortress Europe closing its doors to desperate refugees from countries such as Afghanistan and Syria – like those who died off the Italian coast last Sunday – while welcoming those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“It’s not difficult to see what the difference is” between Ukrainian refugees, on the one hand, and people fleeing conflict in Central Asia or the Middle East, she comments. “It is racist,” she says of the very different attitudes taken by the Conservative government and much of the right-wing media towards these two distinct categories of asylum seekers.

“I encourage everyone to get along to the event on March 18,” says ­McGachey. “It is important, and not just on that one day, to support the ­fightback against racism.”

The Resist Racism Scotland Demonstration assembles at George Square in Glasgow at 11am on Saturday March 18: standuptoracism.org.uk