Lots of people are worried about refugees fleeing to Europe at the moment, but the numbers are actually quite low:
Q: So why are the numbers higher than ever?
A: They're not - according to the EU's own figures, there were 672,000 EU asylum applications in 1992 (when there were only 15 members of the EU), compared to 626,000 last year (when the EU had grown to 28 members with a total population of 500 million). It is true, however, that numbers had dropped substantially in the interim.
Q: How many actually apply for asylum in the UK?
A: According to the latest government statistics: "There were 25,020 asylum applications in the year ending March 2015, an increase of 5% compared with the previous year (23,803). The number of applications remains low relative to the peak number of applications in 2002 (84,132)."
It's actually an absurdly low number -- even the 2002 figure works out at something like 0.13% of the UK's population (or 66 refuges per town of 50,000 people). The real problem is probably that people can't tell the difference between refugees and immigrants, and that most countries aren't very good at integrating their new inhabitants.
I wonder whether a different approach might work better. There was an radical proposal in an article in The Telegraph recently:
Today, 195 sovereign countries are recognised around the world. But we need one more: a country that any refugee, from anywhere in the world, can call home. A country where each citizen has the same legal rights to reside, work, pursue an education, raise a family, buy and sell property, or start a business -- rights that most people have but may not cherish. A country where everyone is an equal citizen, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or any other personal status. A completely inclusive and compassionate nation, in which every refugee is automatically granted citizenship.
I'm not sure this would work, to be honest. The new refugee country might quickly tire of receiving all the refugees of the world and start asking other countries to do their bit, too.
It's possible, however, that sending refugees to new towns would work better than trying to squeeze them into existing cities. I started thinking about this when I read about the history of Store Magleby south of Copenhagen:
Dutch immigrants [were] invited to the country by King Christian II in 1521, because he had a vision of growing vegetables and improve the farming on the Island of Amager just outside Copenhagen. [Many of these lived in] Store Magleby, known as the “Dutch Village”. The reason was that it was a much closed society that held the privileges they had since arriving in Amager and which had been confirmed by each new king. [...] The privileges meant that the village had total autonomy after Dutch model. This included both the local and internal, as well as the judicial and ecclesiastical matters.
I believe Store Magleby didn't lose its special status until the middle of the 19th century, so the arrangement lasted for more than 300 years.
That's perhaps taking things to extremes, but in theory it wouldn't be too hard to build a new town for 100,000 people somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, fill it with refugees from Syria (preferably from one ethno-religious group), and not make their permanent residence permits valid outwith this town for the first ten or twenty years. The schools could teach a mixture of a Syrian and a Scottish curriculum at first but gradually shift to the normal Scottish one. Slowly people from New Aleppo would probably start moving to other parts of Scotland, and ordinary Scots would take their place, so eventually it would probably become like any other Scottish town, but it would be a gradual process that wouldn't upset anybody.
Another advantage of building new towns for the refugees would be that there would be lots of jobs available -- like any other town it would need doctors, teachers, builders, shopkeepers and so on.
I'm of course not suggesting that all refugees fleeing to the UK should be housed in Scotland every year, but surely Europe is big enough that ten new refugee cities could be built in various locations every year.
Would this model work better than the current model? Or would it have unforeseen consequences?
Lots of commentators -- mainly, but not exclusively, based south of the border -- seem to have got into their heads that the SNP and UKIP are quite similar. Apart from the inescapable fact that both party names end in the letter P, the only similarity I can think of is that they're both excellent at articulating people's antipathy towards Westminster.
On the other hand, one of the biggest differences between the SNP and UKIP is their stance on racism and xenophobia.
The SNP is extremely open and tolerant. Nobody ever criticises me for being Danish; in fact, people are keen to hear how things are done in Denmark. The SNP is also full of people who have foreign relatives or have lived abroad. Some of the party's most popular MSPs are Humza Yousaf and French-born Christian Allard. It's not anti-English, either -- for instance, several of the party's parliamentarians were born in England -- it's just that the criticisms of the corrupt Westminster system at times get misunderstood.
The wider Yes campaign is if possible even more xenophilic than the SNP, given that the other political parties involved are the Greens, the SSP and the most progressive parts of Labour.
UKIP on the other hand is clearly blowing the racist and xenophobic dog whistle so hard that my ears hurt. They might be trying to appear respectable in public, but anyone who has seen their recent election posters knows exactly what they're thinking. It's a horrible party -- if possible even more repugnant than Denmark's Dansk Folkeparti.
However, Scotland after independence won't be run by the Yes campaign or even just by the SNP. Labour will probably get into power at some point, and it's likely Scotland will also develop a right-of-centre party at some point. So why should Scotland in the longer term continue its tolerant trajectory?
Apart from the fact that the Yes side will be in the ascendency after a Yes vote and will be able to infuse Scotland with its values, there are several reasons to believe Scotland will be very different:
Firstly, Scotland has a great history of tolerance. For instance, as Frank Angell wrote in the Jewish Chronicle:
[O]ur history is at least unstained by anti-Jewish discrimination, rare among European nations, and our 14th century independence Declaration of Arbroath contains the statement: “There is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman.”
Secondly, as I've discussed before, Scotland has never been a homogeneous country, it’s always been a country of immigrants and emigrants, and the native use of English is a good bulwark against parochialism. This means that right-wing politicians can't appeal to memories of the "good old days" when everybody spoke one language and belonged to one religion.
Thirdly, most of the UK hasn't actually had that much immigration, but the fact that most of the mainstream media are based in London makes many people overestimate the actual amount of immigration that has happened. In an independent Scotland, the media would be basing their reporting on Scottish statistics, and they would be located in Scotland, so they would reflect the actual reality, which should make immigration debates less fact-resistant.
Of course nobody knows the future, but the likelihood is that Scotland after independence will be an open and tolerant country. However, so long as we're part of the UK, we'll keep receiving the BBC's UKIP propaganda, and if a future UK government decides to close the borders, it's Scotland's economy that will suffer the most (because we need immigration more than the rUK).
This is the first ever guest blog on Arc of Prosperity, written by Ed "The Guero".
Ed is a thirty-something professional from Hamilton who has been travelling for the better part of 15 years in pursuit of work, love and life -- though not necessarily in that order! He is a proponent of assisted healthy living for children and improved social welfare. He tweets as @EdTheGuero.
Case studies, case studies, case studies. As an expat it pays to pay attention to case studies especially when preparing to return home accompanied by your foreign-born spouse and/or children. I say "foreign-born" in reference to those not of the EEA (European Economic Area) or the EU. One has to be mindful of the rules ensuring we dot all of the i's, cross all of the t's and, after what we assume should be a relatively straight forward process, we can expect our spouse to be granted a visa and welcomed to the UK as a well received extension of ourselves. After all -- this is what we should expect from 'Team GB' right?
Not so fast!
This piece is not an attempt to vilify Westminster nor is it an effort to sway a vote in the referendum, but my own situation grants me insight into what we might do better should Scotland be free from the overriding control of a Westminster, so out of touch that it leaves many of its citizens yearning to simply come home with the person they love.
Much has been said lately in the mainstream media and social networks regarding UK immigration policy. In recent years policies have been pushed, pulled and contorted in an effort to protect the UK from an influx of "benefit tourists" and relationships of convenience whilst at the same time providing an avenue for asylum seekers in their pursuit of security. The UK, in the latest policy change, seems to have adopted a rather elitist approach and in Westminster's efforts to "protect" they have cast a net so fine that British expats find themselves wrongfully affected, unable to feasibly come home with their family in tow.
Evidently, we are of secondary importance, an issue being missed in the haste to close Britain's doors to immigrants. Statistics, explanatory documents filled with tables, appendices, diagrams and equations can all be readily found should you feel the need, but as a Scottish expat married to a beautiful lady from some unspecified Latin American country, I can tell you that it comes down to nothing other than money.
There are minimum requirements to be met regarding finances and accommodation as you would expect. What irks me are the countless stipulations and the unrealistically high-set bar which take no account of economic relativity and engineers a scenario in which families are separated indefinitely. In the most common type of family member application, £18,600 is the magic number. As my wife's sponsor I must earn in the months prior to and after my wife's application £18,600 gross annual salary or have savings which supplement my income, have worked for my employer abroad for 6 months minimum and have a contract on the table back home. If I have savings - subtract £16,000, divide by 2.5 and that gives you the number I can add to my gross annual income to meet the minimum requirement. Who has enough savings to subtract £16,000 then... Never mind.
Basically you need a lot of money and now is a good time to point out the cost of application -- a whopping £851. When you struggle to meet a minimum requirement of £18,600 and face set-up costs back home, who has £851 (non-refundable on refusal)? You had best be certain your case is clad in iron.
There are two approaches here -- have your spouse apply whilst you are both overseas or whilst separated with you in the UK. I know it may be an arbitrary number to some but I earn a good salary and live comfortably abroad -- I still earn less than £18,600 per year! My wife earns similarly to myself, but that is not considered a factor in her application, and that leaves us with only one option.
If I want to come home I need to find a job in the UK and then have my wife apply for her visa from overseas when conditions are right. There is a golden ticket which we do not have, £62,500 in savings (subtract the £16,000, divide by 2.5 = £18,600) so it falls to me to accept that we may be apart a minimum of 6 months, realistically up to a year for some.
Are we to believe that this approach is suitable for a country with such disparity, where in London I can expect to earn X% more than in Glasgow or Y% more than in Inverness? Worth noting is of the 422 occupations listed in the 2011 UK Earnings Index, only 301 were above the £18,600 threshold. That's a lot of discrimination and one should consider the fact that Scotland traditionally has a lower average income than the South-East of England. According to the 2012 salary survey by the Guardian, care workers, hairdressers, bar staff, pharmacists, chefs, travel agents, florists, beauticians, cooks, fitness instructors, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers all earn less than the £18,600 minimum and that's before filtering by region.
The obvious conclusion is this: The further South & East you live, the more savings you have and the higher profile your profession, the easier it is for your spouse to obtain a visa.
Accommodation is a similar story, unfortunately. You are expected to either a) have a place set up and ready to accommodate your family or b) have someone provide you with accommodation. I don't know about anyone else but I am short on friends with a spare room, a letting agreement which allows them to sub-let, or an owned property with enough space so as not to constitute overcrowding.
So that's the crux of the thing. A British citizen's difficulty in obtaining a family visa from within the UK or without is long and arduous but the fun doesn't end there. We have the added anxiety in knowing we must do it again 2.5 years down the line because the road to a permanent visa is a 5 year process. Who can plan so far ahead as to know their circumstances will match those at time of original approval and what of a failed application? Is it acceptable that if already in the country many families find themselves separated due to the UK's insistence upon a refused applicant applying from outwith the UK? How does my partner support herself back home in such circumstances? What if she is the sole provider? It goes without saying that money spent on sending my wife to her country of origin only compounds the issue by pushing us farther from the minimum requirements. Then there is the frankly ridiculous "Life in the UK" test which, if the mock test is anything to go by, is as relevant to living in the UK as a Tunnock's tea-cake in France.
The UK immigration system is convoluted, irrelevant, discriminatory and not fit for purpose. The system in place seems to be upside down -- devised to inconvenience those "undesirables" who may not qualify to settle in the UK before serving those with a right to.
There is currently a legal challenge in progress concerning the minimum income threshold which has resulted on all applications that do not immediately meet the criteria to be put on hold indefinitely pending the outcome of legalities. Right now there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of families separated by British immigration policies and the best response on offer is: "I am prepared to consider whether we can put in place some rules that are not vulnerable to abuse" (Mark Harper, until recently Minister for Immigration). I propose that the level of abuse and method of controlling it should not take precedent over the rights of British Citizens and their families!
In my opinion there can be no abuse of such significance that keeping families apart for indefinite periods of time is justifiable collateral. Isn't it our right to return home, to bring with us our loved ones? I cannot accept that the abuse of a few should weigh so heavily against the rights of the many and it seems straight forward to me than even if I come home, my partner and I face an uncertain 5 years where we cannot feasibly plan for a settled life.
So what then?
Scots are travellers by nature and we ought to be allowed to return home, our families treated to the same rights and privileges as ourselves, not assessed on the basis of net burden! Perhaps an independent Scotland can see a future in which common sense and versatility are the tools used to sculpt a system whose primary objective is to protect the rights of its own whilst, secondarily, providing for the well-being of those who wish to join us. Perhaps through inclusion we may deter the "abuse" Westminster fears so diligently.
To restrict the movements of a spouse is to restrict the movements of a British citizen. The result of such a hard handed approach to international couples is simply that many expats who wish to return home are forced to consider alternative destinations. We have for instance considered returning instead to the Republic of Ireland where we would be free of the stress the UK immigration system causes.
If we want this country to be a progressive, modern and caring place to live, surely it would serve to pay attention to the welcome mat we present at the door, especially when it is a member of our family who comes calling.