Please note transcripts are automatically generated, so may feature errors.
S03E05 – Alison Phipps
[00:00:00] Rebekah Widdowfield: Hello, and welcome to the RSE Tea and Talk podcast series, a programme inspired by the coffee houses of the 18th century, where great thinkers would come together to discuss ideas and matters of the day. I’m Rebekah Widdowfield, and I’m chief executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which is Scotland’s national academy.
Our mission is to advance learning and make knowledge useful. And to do that, we are holding conversations with some of our fellows and other leading experts in Scotland to talk about important issues and the challenges that we face as a society. You can find out more about our work on our website at RSE.org.uk or follow us @RoyalSocEd.
Today I am speaking with professor Alison Phipps, professor of languages and intercultural studies at the University of Glasgow and UNESCO chair of refugee integration through languages and the arts. As well as teaching refugee studies, Alison has a long history of engagement on refugee matters and is currently chair of the New Scots Core Group for refugee integration and an ambassador for the Scottish Refugee Council. Who better to speak to us today on asylum seekers and refugees?
Alison, I know you’ve had a long history of working in refugee matters in both a personal and professional capacity. And I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about what originally got you interested in the whole area of refugees and asylum seekers?
[00:01:26] Alison Phipps: Oh, lovely. Thanks, Rebekah. Yeah, so I think I have to go back to my grandfather, actually.
My grandfather was a personnel manager at British Northrop the loom makers in Blackburn in Lancashire. He was responsible for really settling people into their work when they came over in the post-war period from the Indian sub-continent. And through that, he suddenly realised just how disorienting life was for people who had no family.
So my mum grew up in a home where there are always people from very diverse backgrounds, and at that point, you know, really quite unusual backgrounds for Blackburn in the 19… in the late 1940s and fifties. And through that, he then also ended up taking people in who were refugees from the Prague Spring.
And again, Christmas was a time where we’d get these Christmas cards, and my grandparents would get these Christmas cards from all over the world, from a whole variety of faiths, certainly not necessarily people who kept Christmas, just thanking him and keeping him up to date on their news.
And my mum now gets those cards from people who are still alive, who my grandfather was part of helping. And I think that was just always there in the background. The stories were in the family. And then when I, when I did my PhD, well, with my first degree and my PhD, I looked a lot at Holocaust studies as my German degree and the period of the rise of national socialism – second world war.
And then my PhD was looking at the theaters that grew up after the second world war in Germany. When a third of the population of Germany was basically a refugee population, it was internally or externally displaced into Germany. And I was really interested in how theater was part of a sustained ongoing place of integrating people into a new life and imagining a future.
[00:03:28] Rebekah Widdowfield: I mean, that’s really interesting and interesting that you’ve had such longevity, not just in your own life, but through your family’s life as well. I mean, when you’re just talking about theater, it was making me think about sometimes I think when we’re talking about refugees and asylum seekers and indeed other disadvantaged groups like homeless people, we very much focused on very basic needs of food, shelter, water, which of course are all important, but can you say a little bit more about why that wider things like certain and culture is so important to people’s lives in that context?
[00:03:58] Alison Phipps: I mean, so two things there, I think Rebekah, for me. One of them is, you know, through my life with refugees, you know, I live in a home that is full of refugees.
And, but also through my work that’s in this area, I have realised that there is a profound issue right across the sector of burnout. And that focusing only on needs and trying to address needs without sustaining a flow of hope, of joy, of the delight of life. So when you’re really only focusing on the things that will stop people from being destitute or being close, potentially to the risk of losing their lives, you end up in a place that can become very quickly, very depressed, very cynical, very unsure about the value of anything. And I realised, and I saw in the sector, the people I really admired, some of them really starting to burn out and just be exhausted by it or being very bitter and angry, noticing words coming out of their mouth that I wouldn’t want to come out of mine.
And therefore, just thinking, so what is it that might sustain me? And what do I see in the evidence is sustaining other people. And of course, that took me back to my PhD, but also, you know, to the extraordinary amount of work that goes on across Scotland’s communities to provide and use the arts as a way of helping people.
Make something that isn’t only about the story of a very hard period in their lives, but might be about the story of integrating, the story of raising children, the story of things they’re interested in that aren’t just that aspect of life.
[00:05:45] Rebekah Widdowfield: I was reading an article that you’d written recently, and I thought there was a lovely sentence in it. I was going to ask you to say a little bit more about it. You said, “Good integration is not camps, it’s not aid, it’s people living in flourishing communities where everyone can contribute.”
I wonder if you could just expand on that a little bit, particularly in terms of what for you and your experience, both personal and professional, do you think is key for effective integration?
[00:06:09] Alison Phipps: Yeah, so I, I mean, I tend to focus a lot on those small everyday things that continue. I remember in 2015, we were hearing from one of the Congolese refugees, who’d been resettled through the UK gateway program. And he spoke at a meeting of politicians and policymakers in Scotland in a moment of crisis while we were responding to heightened public awareness about refugees following the publication of the photograph of Aylan Kurdi. He said, “Oh, you people, you are very different. You do not speak to us in the street.” And he then described, and it was quite funny, described the way that when you walk down the street in Scotland and it’s pouring with rain, and you’ve got your hood up and your umbrellas blowing inside out, and you just, you don’t necessarily say, “Ah, hello, how are you? How are you? I’m well, thank you. And is your auntie still well?”
And the ways in which people in the global south and in much warmer climes than we live in will stop on the street and take time to greet. And I’ve thought a lot about those aspects and those elements of what Rowan Williams speaks about as necessary for good neighbourliness across all walks of life, but particularly where people are fearful or potentially prone to depression coming out of traumatic situations. Or where people are afraid of people who’ve been in those situations, which is a very common experience in integration and, and Rowan Williams says you need to meet, greet and eat together to create good, strong social bonds.
And it’s something we’ve definitely seen through the pandemic. You know, one of the really beautiful things has been neighbours’ WhatsApp groups, Closes getting together, people making do, and meeting and greeting and checking in with each other. And for refugees who’ve just arrived, for asylum seekers in society, these things matter so much more.
And starting there and then moving out and making sure that we don’t just apply deficit models, which is so often a danger. And you’ll know this Rebekah from working with homelessness; many of the people that I work with and live alongside are fantastically skillful, knowledgeable people with resilience and an ability to survive that make our other comfortable middle-class lives look quite ill resourced.
And so, for me, really focusing on replacing deficit models with models of plenty, models of resourcefulness and then nurturing those aspects of people’s lives that have meant that they’ve arrived here in the first place. And that they’ve actually managed to keep themselves alive. There are so many who don’t, who have drowned in the Mediterranean, for example, that those aspects I find really important to sustain and that needs to be with a good measure of, of what, in my, in my UNESCO team, we say it is holding the bowl of tears, making a space that’s safe for the grief that is part of these lives of separation, but also expanding the space for joy. And if we can do that, then that’s good for everybody. It’s good for us too. Cause we’re party to something that is safer and stronger of our making but also is fuller and more exuberant, more abundant than what was there before.
[00:09:52] Rebekah Widdowfield: That sounds a really positive way of approaching things that doesn’t negate or be dismissive of the experience that people have had but goes beyond that. I mean, for those of us who maybe – you know, you’re obviously steeped in, you know, refugees and asylum seekers and have a huge number of connections that you say that you’ve got there, you’ve got refugees in, in your house.
But for those of us who are maybe in parts of communities where we have less connections and certainly less day-to-day connections with asylum seekers and refugees, although, of course, we may never know the people we pass on the streets. What would you say to those of us about the key issues for you facing refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland today and some of the challenges they face?
[00:10:32] Alison Phipps: Do you know, one of the things I come back to most regularly is something that’s also present in campaigns around bringing justice in rape cases. There’s something really important about believing people’s stories as they present them to you. And I think this is true in other areas. I think it’s something you’ll have found with, with, with homelessness as well.
Just dignifying people’s stories with a listening ear and not interrogating those, not believing you might know better. But actually, just letting yourself be a person who holds the story rather than questions the story. And I think it’s true to say that academics aren’t good at that. You know, we are thoroughly trained to question everything and those of us in the arts, humanities and social sciences to question it at least twice and from many angles.
But I have found increasingly that it, and it’s almost a role that comes with… That, that I see also in wise elders, the ability to sit with a story, however heavy or hard that might be, for what it is. For the story that’s being presented, to believe it and not to say, “But are you sure?” And, “But don’t you do things like this?” But to actually say this experience matters, you know your experience well.
And that element of being believed by people who come from countries that have persecuted them often for their beliefs or have not believed their reasons or ways of life to be valid. Who’ve passed through third countries where they have not found people of faithful, listening to their stories or who have trusted them or believed in them.
Who haven’t been entrusted with the right to work, who haven’t been entrusted with the right to live with their families again, together, who are still living separated from their families to bring as much trust to bearers as possible. To me is one of the most important things we can do.
And it’s not resource-intensive. I mean, most of the things that do really good integration work, the greeting somebody over the fence, saying hello. Popping around with a cup of sugar. You know, the old cliches of neighbourliness, but also the sitting and listening when you hear a story. And even when you hear it on the media, just believing what people are saying as the first point and letting them take you into the journey, not insisting that you know where this journey has to go as a story, or even as a set of evidence.
To me, that’s really important, and I know of refugees who I have known well, very well. Some of them are members of my own family, whose stories I do not know at all. And I haven’t asked for those stories to be the basis of our relationships or the basis of my trust, any more than I would do with colleagues who will also potentially be sitting with very difficult things in their own circumstances and patterns.
But I don’t feel that I need or have a right to know any of that or define them by those labels. But if time permits and if the occasion presents itself, and if something happens, that means that I’m alongside when people might wish to talk, then that’s as it is. And if I’m not, then that’s as it is.
And that holding rather than questioning, I found incredibly important. And I think that’s something that anybody in society can do. I think there are statutory responsibilities that we have. We have them in Scotland as part of the New Scots refugee integration program, that are, like education, like health, like you know, social services, legal support, those kinds of things that are part of statutory structural enabling of people to live good lives as full members of Scottish society. But the other things, which are about culture and cultural justice and social justice, they’re much more about trusting people and believing people.
[00:14:44] Rebekah Widdowfield: I mean, it’s, it struck me that some of the things you were saying there actually could apply to lots of other groups that are disadvantaged or have come from very difficult backgrounds.
Whether it’s women fleeing domestic violence, or homeless people, as we were just speaking about, and you know, it strikes me, it’s about being human, about empathy, about listening and about hearing as well. But I mean, you just mentioned there the New Scots refugee integration delivery project, which is a scheme, that’s helping refugees settle in Scotland.
I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit more about the New Scot strategy that proceeded that. And how it came about and what it was intended to achieve because it strikes me that it’s been sort of at the heart of quite a lot of what’s happened in certainly in recent times.
[00:15:23] Alison Phipps: Yeah, absolutely. So another Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Alastair Ager and my colleague Dr Alison Strang at Queen Margaret university did a huge amount of work academically on thinking about what would be good indicators of integration in a society that resettles refugees or to, or into which people come claiming asylum.
And from that, they identified a number of indicators; so education, health, employment. The integration of asylum seekers from day one is one of the indicators in Scotland and then also cultural bonds, social bonds, language. So these dimensions – housing – have been very important as indicators of integration, that if we can get people into the right structures, into housing, into employment, into schools, into education, into restarting normal life, nothing extraordinary, just normal life. That’s a good indicator of integration.
And then a lot of work has been done since then on the scholarship of that, but also on how to enact that in policy terms and my predecessor as chair of the New Scots partnership, Alison Strang, set up a framework for New Scots for 2018 to 2022 that was fundamentally based in human rights. So the human rights framework underpins every dimension of the New Scot strategy. Say, for example, integration of asylum seekers from day one article 14 one, everyone has the right to seek asylum and to you know, to enjoy integration into society.
And yeah, everyone has a right to education. Everyone has a right to housing to, you know, dignity at work. So all of these elements that are in the universal declaration of human rights and in the European human rights frameworks are now bedded into the New Scots policy. And that is now. Yeah, we’ve got another, another year and a bit to run, and we were absolutely delighted last year to be successful in the award of the first major amount of money to help us do the work of the policy group.
Up until then, it was largely voluntary work from wonderful people working in these sectors of education and housing and asylum refugee council and, and many others. But we were awarded, I think, 4.5 million pounds from the European Union to run a program of delivery under the rubric of New Scots and also to be able and the part that I’m responsible for leading in that project to be able to do some serious research into how Scotland’s refugee integration strategy stands up, and also why it’s really been a bit of an international beacon.
We were the first this country to have, as far as we know, to have a full integration strategy. Yeah, others have followed on since there’s now a strategy in Wales. There’s one in England. But also there are strategies being developed in places like Canada, Germany, obviously since 2015.
And it’s been really interesting too, for me as someone who used to travel extensively to sit in meetings about refugee integration all over the world. The question regularly asked which countries we should look to for a good integration strategy, and people saying, well, it’s not really a country, but Scotland, you should have a look at what Scotland are doing.
And then usually they’ll ask, they’ll mention Canada or Germany. But, you know what we’ve done, particularly the human rights framing of this has been seen to be really quite commendable.
[00:19:31] Rebekah Widdowfield: I was interested in that in the sort of the human rights framing because it actually connects to the conversation I was having last week with Theresa Shearer and Nick Watson around disability, and some similarities and parallels in terms of a human rights-based model of care and support for people with disabilities.
I mean, when I was growing up, I think human rights were thought of as something that happened over there in other countries. I mean, how far do you feel that sort of human rights sort of thinking and approaches is becoming embedded in Scotland as the way we do things.
[00:20:01] Alison Phipps: I mean the work of the human rights commission to look very seriously at the legislation and legislative possibilities across the devolved responsibilities in Scotland, I think has been really quite a phenomenal piece of work and to identify which pieces of legislation might be brought into the Scottish legal framework you know the incorporation of the rights of the child for me was a marvelous moment. You know, not least because my own foster daughter was an unaccompanied minor. But with falling out with many of these dimensions and just know that some of these legal frameworks are being put in place, it’s a real safeguard.
So I think we’ve done very well and I think there’s plenty more we can do. I think symbolic actions that then translate into concrete policy changes within what is possible in the devolved framework is important, and I would really highlight there the work of the young academicians, Pinar Aksu and the group that she was part of leading with the Scottish refugee council and others on securing the right to vote for refugees.
I knew this was important, but it wasn’t actually until the Scottish elections of 2021, the Hollywood elections of 2021 and when my phone was just alive with refugee friends messaging me and say, you won’t believe it, but I’ve just voted and what that means. And particularly when for some of them, I do know some of their stories.
I know that they were human rights activists in their own countries. They fought for the right to vote, to vote on the streets and through non-violent means. Some of them were expelled violently from their countries because of advocating for democracy or for human rights.
And, and I just think, I remember vividly when those refugees who were from Commonwealth countries were given the right to vote in the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland. And I remember YAS fellow young academician Debra Kayembe speaking to a mass gathering of the refugee council at our AGM and just saying really memorably she said so much blood lies underneath the right to make a cross on a piece of paper. Take it seriously. I don’t care how you vote. And then she said, actually I do but, but she says, sounds like Deborah, she does indeed. But she said, take it seriously, use your vote. And I remember that on every election since she said that, I remembered it myself, but particularly this year where I saw refugees granted the right to vote.
[00:22:57] Rebekah Widdowfield: There were some lovely stories at the time on the BBC that sort of were really powerful, actually.
And people sort of saying why it was so important. I think one of the things that is flagging up again is just the real importance of having that input from refugees and asylum seekers and the policy and practices that impact their lives. And I know that was quite an important part. Development to the New Scots strategy that I wonder if you might sort of expand on that a little bit about why you feel it’s so necessary that policy and practise is informed by lived experience.
[00:23:27] Alison Phipps: Absolutely. I mean, we talk quite a lot in the arts, humanities and social sciences about turns, which is, I suppose, our word we use for a paradigm shift. And I do think there has been something of a turn towards advocating for a much broader definition of what we mean by knowledge and what we mean by evidence.
And that has, I also think, allowed much more qualitative data to be part of the production of the kinds of evidence that will then inform policymaking. Or inform you know work of, work of organisations, and that people have realised that white middle-class women like ourselves, who are often sitting on many a board, have a very white middle-class way of understanding the world.
That’s where we stand it’s, it’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It just is what it is. And it’s partial and that the acknowledgment of partiality and positionality of where we stand and the biases that we will naturally have as a result of our education, our background, our upbringing things that have happened in our lives will not translate and cannot translate to the experience of someone who has sought asylum in the UK.
Or to the experience of someone who has experienced torture and that to really build a society that’s inclusive, we at times will be asked to and required to speak on behalf of those people, because therefore it will not be safe or sensible or adequate for them to do so, but where it is possible and where that capacity is in place in organisations and in, within, within individuals.
Then hearing the voices of people with experience and getting used to that being part of our life just means we have a much richer pool of evidence. And I think that goes with what’s often talked about as a decolonial turn as well. We’re seeing a lot about decolonising higher education, decolonising the curriculum, decolonising museums, everybody’s decolonising at the moment, and there’s a lot of critique around it.
It’s like, oh, this is a bandwagon. People are jumping on. Yeah, for someone who’s worked in the field for nearly 30 years of scholarship, I’m so delighted, more people are asking these kinds of questions, and more people are being hospitable to a wider range of knowledge, which includes, for me being more hospitable to statistical and data-driven knowledge and big data.
Cause that’s my edge as the thing I might just go, do you know, honestly, seriously haven’t we counted enough. But for other people to say, do you know, that was a really powerful story. Why is that? Why is it that’s resonating? But I do think lived experience is a really important part of it. And I mean, in RSE, particularly the ARAR and the YAS schemes in what that has brought is breadth and depth to our understanding and our policymaking.
[00:26:36] Rebekah Widdowfield: And just for those who might not be familiar that this is a scheme that the young academy of Scotland runs enables at-risk academics and refugees to be part of the young academy. And they’re actually the first year academy in the world to actually do that. I mean, the whole question about knowledge, obviously, is that it’s really important to the RSE. You know, our mission is knowledge made useful. And one of the things that the post COVID futures commission has been trying to do as part of a journey is trying to think about actually how do you bring together those different forms of knowledge? And I think one of the things that is also trying to get away from the sense it’s lived experience or more formal evidence, and really see the power and the value of bringing together these different forms of knowledge and experience.
And one of the things the commission talked about was just. The importance of organisations like RSE and some of the universities and the ability they have to help amplify voices as well, and maybe a responsibility to do that.
[00:27:31] Alison Phipps: Yes, absolutely. And I think that I’m so excited about the movement towards a more generous understanding of what counts as knowledge and what counts as evidence.
And I think it’s something that’s always been with us, you know? The arts and humanities going back right back within Europe to Greek theater; this Greek theater was a repository of knowledge of what society knew about itself. What’s society knew to be its tragic weaknesses, its flawed characters.
The sustaining of a chorus in these were, this was where we placed knowledge and where we saw knowledge come to the public square and then be received by a public who would cogitate and think and wonder about it and talk about it. And it would flow into conversation. And I do think, I remember a very senior member of our university saying to me back in 2016, I think it was – but honestly, at the end of the day, the arts and humanities really, Alison, they don’t change anything. Do they? And I just took a deep breath. And I said back in September 2015; somebody published a photograph of a boy who had drowned on a beach in Turkey, who was a Kurdish refugee and the whole of policy and civil society across Europe.
And the world changed. Don’t ever say that the arts and humanities, they’re not catalyzing a change in society. They are hugely powerful. And one of the reasons why propagandists and marketers are so keen to recruit, recruit people out of shape subjects, social science, humanities, arts, philosophy education is precisely because of the power to Marshall, to curate to store knowledge to interpret knowledge and also to change language, you know? So it’s where the role of our refugee poets, in particular, I find extraordinarily exciting. I mean, partly because I’m a poet myself, but I just love hearing language that refugee poets will bring shows me myself, shows me what the world is like, shows me what my failings are. Rather as I think of a friend Burton from DR Congo, who said, but you do not speak to us in the street. And just that opened up a world that I hadn’t quite taken stock of before.
[00:30:07] Rebekah Widdowfield: I mean, it’d be interesting to talk forever at some point about this of different understandings of knowledge.
One of the things that actually attracted me to RSE was the fact that it brings together in the fellowship the breadth of academic expertise. So everything from the arts and humanities to the very hard physical and life sciences, but also that it brought in practitioner experience and expertise as well, which was again, a different sort of knowledge and not an, obviously one of the ways that we tried to bring together that different forms of expertise is in bringing together working groups to respond to government consultations. And, and you led one very recently for us on developing the society’s response to the UK government’s consultation on reform of the asylum system. I mean, it was a very weighty consultation, lots of issues in that. But what for you are the key issues that came out of that, that you think as a society, as communities, as countries, we need to be reflecting on.
[00:31:00] Alison Phipps: I mean, the fundamental issue that came out of that and from what to me was really an immense privilege of convening, a group of experts who are fellows and younger kind of missions and experts by experience as well as academic or, or legal scholars was the profound weight placed upon the refugee convention and what it means to be a signatory of that.
And to take that responsibility seriously. And to be trusted with that. I think that was the fundamental issue and what was coming out of our work on both the consultation and the advice paper that we’ve produced since, and that came up time and time again was how important it is that we take the refugee convention seriously, that we protect it from every possible angle of knowledge.
So those members of the working group who were experts by experience, who have themselves experienced torture, who have themselves experienced destitution, who have themselves experienced detention. We’re speaking from that point of view of the knowledge from within when you need people to advocate, you need a convention to protect your life, and that of your families and others were speaking from years of work and the law on what it means to uphold the convention and where the loopholes are, where the problems are, where it needs improving, what that improvement might be, but a very serious care for the convention, I think, was at the heart of the issue identified and the flaw, a fundamental flaw identified in the government’s new plan for immigration.
We’ve seen this being discussed extensively in the press. Not least, for example, the provision in the bill that’s beginning to make its way through the UK parliament at the moment to remove people who claim asylum in the UK. So who have potentially entered the UK with documents that might have been problematic and who have a right to do that if they are claiming asylum, that is not you know, as part of administrative justice, that is something for which there’s a provision, but who would, who were listening this week to the possibility that people would be placed in camps in Rwanda until such time as their papers had been processed, we’ve seen this kind of policy and acted in Australia with Manus Island and Nauru we’ve seen that UNHCR has said in the case of Australia and Manus Island and Nauru and now in the case of the UK that this seriously jeopardises the convention potentially represents a breach.
And that the UK government needs to consult fully with the United Nations and to use the instruments of the United Nations to ensure the protection of the refugee convention. That was not just an element in our working group response. It was fully worked out from every possible angle. And I think for me, this was a strength of the RSE working group compared to the many different groups that I’m part of in civil society life.
You know, through faith groups who were also bringing their responses from their perspective. But for me, the RSE working group was really able to bring a weight and an academic rigor to the report. That was, that was unprecedented. And I’d add to that. A second weighty issue that we identified was the lack of evidence and the lack of published evidence from the UK government.
So no academic sources that we could, we could find we, we weren’t party in looking at the consultation to the evidence that was leading to this fundamental change of policy and to potentially risking the refugee convention. For all of us, this also meant as, as scholars, as people working to make acknowledge useful as fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, that it was very important for us to request more evidence, to point out the holes in the evidence, but also to offer evidence from the many different people who’d worked and who were on the working group, producing evidence of what works in integration, what works in refugee resettlement, what works in humanitarian assistance and why lawmakers previously and lawmakers up to, to 2021 and the 70 years of the convention have sought to uphold it and strengthen it and make sure it’s held by people who can be trusted to make sure that that continues.
[00:36:00] Rebekah Widdowfield: And where do you see this going now? I mean, are you feeling positive that things will be changed or are you sort of looking sort of warily at a development?
[00:36:11] Alison Phipps: Yeah, both. And interestingly, I, on the one hand, and I take my cue here from some very good lawyers working in the field, much of what is being proposed I see as unworkable, and I believe will be unworkable legally, but also potentially unworkable practically with civil society organisations. I now see, and it’s really quite a new moment, but a lot of legal cases are being prepared, and with, I suppose advocacy organisations. Yeah. I’m seeing people regrouping to think about what needs to be done to make integration a stronger process and to make sure that even if people are offshored, even if we do see, I mean, all kinds of things have been suggested from Ascension island to Rwanda, to a remote Scottish island.
I’ve seen every possible plan. And I see that the advocacy groups doing particularly care work with, with detainees, thinking again about what to do, taking soundings from people who visited on Manus Island and Nauru to thinking about how visits might be sustainable, especially thinking about digital access to people who are detainees, so that everybody has the right to access justice.
And that that is upheld. And that is, of course, one of the big issues, when people are held off shore or in detention, is making sure that that continues to flow. And I suppose, yeah, for anybody really wanting to read a bit more or think a bit more about this, I mean, obviously read our advice paper but I would really recommend my colleague’s book, ‘No friend, but the mountains’, which he wrote on a mobile phone, award-winning book, he wrote it on a mobile phone by text message to his translator, Omid Tofighian from Manus Island. And Behrouz was resettled eventually well was granted asylum in New Zealand after he’d been granted a visa to speak at the book festival in New Zealand. And he is, he is quite a remarkable man. He and I were, were able to be in conversation when I was living and working in New Zealand in 2019, early 2020, just after he arrived in New Zealand, and his testimony, his witness and the film that he has made, and his book are some of the most – they are some of the most powerful, artistic and literary artifacts and also journalistic artifacts that the refugee Canon of the 21st century has produced.
[00:38:59] Rebekah Widdowfield: I’ve written it down and will add it to my reading list. It sounds, sounds fantastic. And I guess with things like that, it’s trying to sort of educate and not in a formal way, but get people to better understand the experiences.
I know one of the things I was going to ask you about. When we’re talking about legislation, we’re talking about things going through parliament is actually how you, again, support that sort of wider understanding from people who may not, they may, but may not always have those interactions. And I was going to ask you if you could say a little bit about the witness-bearing visit you led in 2015 with one of the UK Parliament’s committees to the refugee camps.
I think it was in Calais, and I can’t remember the other place, but tell us a little bit more about what was what, what prompted that and what was the impact of it?
[00:39:45] Alison Phipps: So it was actually prompted by a phone call from my friend and colleague Joe Brady, who at the time was working for the Scottish refugee council. Saying, Alison, I need to talk to you. Can you talk? And I said, well, I’m actually standing by the bins store outside since an Alowishus walking home through Ghana, Ellen Glasgow. But go ahead. And the next thing I knew, the two of us were on the phone really thinking about how do we design a witness-bearing visit, and we chose the word witness-bearing visit deliberately. That would not be a photoshoot of Eurostar. We were watching politicians and celebrities flying in and flying out in their high-heeled shoes and pristine shirts into refugee camps. And I just know from my, my daughter’s experience in the Calais camps and from many I’ve known. who have been through that, but it makes them feel like they’re in a zoo, and it’s really undignifying, and it is counterproductive in many ways because people see the celebrity, not the story. And then actually we also needed to be enabled to enable for new parliamentarians with portfolios, from the Scottish National Party to in immigration and human rights, in the welfare of women and children and the sort of shadow home office portfolio we needed to enable them to be capacitated, to deal with. What is the horrifying experience of hearing people speak about being refugees for the first time? But also to be able to sustain other newly elected parliamentarians from Scotland in what would be 80% of their constituency work in some areas, particularly of Glasgow looking at immigration issues and, and knowing what to do and where to go with these.
And so we decided what was probably needed was something where before parliamentarians were shattered or accompanied by four people who were used to gathering and dealing with difficult evidence. So Helen Baillot, who used to, and has done a lot of research and consultancy work with the Scottish refugee council author of many and reports of witness statements from women who are survivors, survivors of sexual violence within the asylum system and the refugee system. So she accompanied as Theresa Piacentini, who is an ethnographer and sociologist at Glasgow University, who has worked for many years with people resettled to Glasgow, again, as a translator as well, listening to hearing stories through translation. Myself from the work I’ve done as an ethnographer.
Again, listening to witness stories around the world, and then again, to experts by experience, one of whom was Pinar Aksu. The other… One of the Glasgow girls. And we just felt it was vital that there was a balance there that those with experience and professional training, in holding difficult stories, hopeful stories, but also holding the knowledge that actually there’s nothing you can do for these individuals.
And being honest about that was really important. Giving a four-day visit, not a four-hour visit to really deepen the experience, to think about groups that we might speak with, but also to fit in the restaurant that was in the camping nor the camp in the north that was run by Afghans and to eat food together.
So that meeting, greeting, eating element. To be part of it. And that is part of the human life of politics as well. You know, and it was, it was tough. It was hard going, and it was there were, there were moments where we were very, very deeply shaken by what we were experiencing. And we also spent a lot of time.
We were, we were hosted both by BioMed medicine on the frontier, by the work that they’d been doing. And the way they decided that even though they shouldn’t engage in Europe with Médecins Sans Frontières normal mission, just as you were saying about human rights was over there Médecins Sans Frontières.
We’re saying here within Europe, the provisions should be that we don’t have camps like this, but we’ve now got a camp like this. So we’ve got medical emergencies, and we need to deal with this and doing a lot of work with them as well. And just listening to and hearing what the stories were, what the trauma was.
We were there just as they were bulldozing one of the camps, and there were a lot of riot police and security police there from the French government. We were there, you know, in the ongoing emergency laws that are in place and, and France, riots were part and parcel of the life of the camp with the police guards.
It’s a fraught place. But what I have seen that witness-bearing visit do is as well as producing witness stories in the press from people who went is witness stories in parliament. I’ve seen the parliamentarians who accompanied us be very diligent in referring back to those times, but also in staying in touch with Kathakali Médecins Sans Frontières building those connections and understanding that as a country, we pay for some of the fences that keep people into the camps in the Calais area. And certainly at that time, and that we have our responsibility under human rights. And so, I’ve seen that producing a deeper strand of policymaking than I think comes from the media pressure. And each of the parliamentarians was clear.
This is not about us doing media in Calais with this is out of the light of the cameras. And that was a hard one to do because people obviously want photos. But we managed more or less to hold that line. And I think that that was just important as a, it’s a very small thing, but it says, these are lives. We wish to dignify with privacy and with care and with time rather than click it’s a photograph.
[00:46:08] Rebekah Widdowfield: And it almost seems to bring us back full circle to where we started, I think in terms of with your grandfather and the balloons of the Northwest of England in terms of actually the experience. Being with different people, understanding where they’re coming from, understanding the experience that they’ve had.
I mean, you’ve given, I think, Alison a really, really positive presentation of some of the challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugee seekers and, I guess, quite a dynamic environment in terms of all the good stuff that’s going on. And so the better support for integration. The greater dialogue about what’s important, the bringing of different voices to the fore the collaboration across different organisations.
But I guess just the final question is if there was one thing you could do that you think would make a real difference in terms of the next steps that would really improve the quality of asylum seekers and refugees lives in Scotland, what would it be?
[00:47:03] Alison Phipps: So right now, that would be to devolve immigration and decision-making to the Scottish government. That would make a huge difference. I think there is a will and an appetite for human rights led, understanding of immigration policy, and many of the things that are affecting asylum seekers and refugees within the UK are a product of a particular set of policies within the UK home office.
And within that, one example of that would be we ended up with a lot of people here who are deemed to be here illegally because aged 18, they didn’t realise they weren’t born as UK citizens and aged 18 they find themselves in a position where they have to pay 1,600 pounds to apply to be citizens of the UK.
They might have been here since they were two years old, and then they find themselves detained and potentially deported to a country where they don’t speak the language. And why they have no cultural or familial connections. And simply because that bill is unpayable for many, many people. And so devolving and changing that legislation would make a material and practical difference straight away.
The other thing I always say in this context, in terms of what would make a difference, I mean, a lot of people say safe passage, safe passage. I say arms treaters. I say, reduce, keep working to reduce the causes of war and persecution. And the two things there are your arms treaties and intercultural education for peace.
We, we don’t teach people how to make peace and how to live with conflict. Worldwide. We don’t really know what a world would look like if we did. We do know within some of the experimental work we’ve done within New Scots integration and the communities in Mary Hall integration network through the UNESCO spring school, through the refugee festival.
We know what happens when we do. We know it’s joyful, it’s exuberant, it’s funny. It can hold the pain, but we don’t educate in those ways intentionally. And I would love, I’m a, I’m a new grandmother I’ve lived alongside and my refugee daughter. Up until the 29th of June this year, just two days ago, when I was part of her citizenship ceremony.
So she went into Glasgow city chambers, a refugee. She came out a UK citizen, and we just celebrated in the square with kilts and music and ice cream and all the things that go with that extraordinary moment of witnessing somebody who was stateless all her life. Becoming someone who has a document that says she can have a passport that says that when, when conditions allow she’ll be able to travel.
And, and at the same time as her, this was also happening for here. Johannes, one of our YAS scholars who has written an exquisite blog about his experience of becoming a rights-bearing subject of the United Kingdom and what that has meant for him at this moment in time. And I think easing that transition just makes normal, normal life really easy.
And so that it’s my granddaughter jumping up and down and muddled, muddy puddles. I’m not thinking, oh my goodness, what might happen? You know, is your mum safe? Will she still be here? But you just get to live in freedom and without fear, and then I’d want that for everybody.
[00:50:44] Rebekah Widdowfield: Well, what a lovely note and a lovely story on, on which to end Professor Alison Phipps thank you so much for sparing the time to talk to me today about asylum seekers and refugees. Thank you.
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