Sunday, 20 July 2014

Glasgow Girls and inspiration to campaign in UNISON

I challenge anyone not to have been moved by the Glasgow Girls story on BBC Scotland last week. The way that these young women, girls at the time, campaigned, organised and made a real difference to how asylum seeker children were treated, was nothing short of inspirational. (Still available for 6 days at

After all that so many of them had been through, it must have been terrifying to then see friends dragged from their beds in dawn raids, often separated from parents in the process and effectively 'disappeared' by the immigration services. In what other circumstances would we allow children to be seized, locked up and no notice given to schools or other services?

As their just as inspirational teacher Euan Girvan put it: "Children could be snatched from right under your nose and you are not told what has happened to them."  

It was not only the effect on the children directly affected, but also on the other children who watched it happening, lost friends, felt the insecurity and who began to wonder what kind of country they lived in.

Powerless though they must have felt, the girls found the determination to campaign and make a difference, not just for Agnesa but for many, many others to follow. Asylum seekers and indigenous young people campaigned along with a community of all ages with a tenacity that took them to the very centre of government power. As you see from the film, it wasn't easy but they stuck to it.

In 2005, a fellow UNISON activist and children's rights officer, Kate Ramsden, raised the issue of the Children (Scotland) Act principle that the child's welfare is 'paramount'. How did this fit with what these children were being put through in dawn raids, she asked? She was determined the union should take this issue forward.

That set years of campaigning into motion. UNISON Scotland unanimously backed a campaign in December 2005 to underline that all children in Scotland had the same rights of protection under the law, to end dawn raids, to seek an amnesty for people in Scotland for over a year and for our members to do all they could to maintain the rights of asylum seeker children.

Critically, the policy stated: "UNISON members would not be implicated in the removals process and would not put a human face on inhumane practices."

UNISON Scotland's Social Work Issues Group threw its weight behind the campaign. Kate and I produced a joint UNISON/BASW ethical guide, along with Ruth Stark of BASW, for social workers working with asylum seeker families and unaccompanied asylum seeker children.

This explained the law, gave advice on defending children's rights, understanding and meeting their needs and underlining that important principle that we would not put a human face on inhumane practices and that children should not be separated from their parents on immigration grounds.

This was important because the Scottish Government was bringing forward a 'protocol' to ensure asylum seeker children had a 'named person' to safeguard their welfare and we did not want them to be part of 'dawn raids-lite'.

Sadly, despite this, the dawn raids continued. When eventually the protocol kicked in and children were not allowed to be detained at the Dungavel detention centre, the evidence was they were still being taken to Yarls Wood in England instead.

But eventually in 2008 there was an amnesty (although were not allowed to call it that) for 1,400 families who had been here since 2004.

We had our first encounter with the Glasgow Girls when we shared a platform at a Social Work Action Network conference in Glasgow in 2007. I recall really nervous young women waiting to speak. But when they spoke it was with the confidence that comes from people who know and believe and have lived what they are talking about and can put it into words that everyone could understand and feel. They were inspirational and gracious and genuinely appreciative of the encouragement we gave them afterwards.

Initially, it had been hard to get people to listen. I remember the reticence of some of UNISON's national lay leadership about campaigning for humanitarian changes when the union's policy was against all immigration controls. That was like saying we won't bother about change in the meantime, we'll stay pure and go for the unachievable long game.

A less than inspiring meeting with the union's lawyers (who had clearly forgotten about it) turned into an unhelpful lecture on the Children (Scotland) Act which, as social workers, we all knew inside out in the first place.

But, thankfully, helpful opinion eventually came and other voices came on board. We took the Glasgow Girls' message out to colleagues across the UK and engaged in complex and difficult debates about what the union and the social work profession could do to ensure children's rights remained as paramount as both Scottish and English legislation trumpeted they should be.

Back at the beginning, Matt Smith, then Scottish Secretary of UNISON and now a member of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, arranged a meeting with top Scottish civil servants to let us put our case. It was clear at that meeting that Jack McConnell, then first minister, was sympathetic but was hidebound by UK immigration laws and practices.

One memory of that meeting, however, was a fantastic 'Yes Minister' moment. A civil servant told Matt he would send him a draft letter from the first minister. Matt asked if this meant he had a veto. I still giggle at the answer: "I think the first minister would like you to have a letter you were comfortable with", said the civil servant.

We then had meeting after meeting with often helpful Scottish Government officials and secured a view from them - and from Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People - that the Children (Scotland) Act did apply to all children in Scotland, irrespective of where they came from. There was no doubt that the political line from Labour and subsequently from the SNP, was to cooperate as much as possible with that principle. Putting it into effective practice was another matter.

The trouble with human rights is that people, including lawyers, tend to believe they only apply to grown-ups. It was difficult to present the concept to even sympathetic immigration lawyers but to be fair, they were also faced with the contradictions and 'Catch 22s' of immigration legislation. For example, if you lost the right to stay, the whole family did. If you won the right to stay, it only applied to you.

The plan to set up a Scottish Action Group of social workers, lawyers, trade unions and other organisations did not come off but the links made with all of these groups brought more information and strategies to keep the pressure up.

Many initiatives carried on, not least giving evidence to the IndependentAsylum Commission's Review of the UK Asylum System and making submissions and public statements on the issue to a range of bodies, taking the issue into the STUC and to the national union through motions and a fringe meeting. These are links to some sample publications
amongst others at work/

There was movement from governments too. We welcomed key issues like a review of removal processes, an independent inspection of immigration services and  movement on issues like enhanced disclosure checks for all immigration staff in contact with children which, unbelievably, was not in place. We met the proposed inspector to lay out our expectations.

Unfortunately a plan for a national conference in London on the issue fell through but we went ahead with a visit with some of the Glasgow Girls to London to put their case to the union's head of policy and other senior officials - which they did eloquently as usual. This was readily financed by the national union and branches and it kick-started the long tortuous road to an England asylum guide alongside the Scotland one.

Eventually, after many meetings and initiatives failed to get a joint England and Wales guide with BASW like the Scotland one, UNISON produced one itself which we in Scotland coordinated, part wrote and edited.

The girls were a pleasure to be with in London, even though the generation gap was writ large when I was off to my bed at the same time they were getting dressed up to go out!

I remember they insisted on buying us dinner from the expenses we had given them. And they also went with my preference for a curry when I strongly suspect pizza was their preferred option!

Eventually, in 2008, Kate and I presented workshops at UNISON's national social services seminar on the now completed England and Wales guide. The BBC had been kind enough to allow us to use their documentary on the Glasgow Girls. I hadn't seen the documentary and it had such an effect I was too choked to introduce the next bit. It was a feeling that came over me several times watching the BBC film last week.

I remember telling Emma, Amal, Agnesa and Ewelina outside the London HQ of UNISON that part of our visit to London was a thankyou from UNISON to them for their inspiration.
I'm sure I speak for the whole union when I say we thank you again.

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