THE refreshed New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy is due to be published in 2022/23.

It builds on the work of nearly 10 years of the Scottish Government, Cosla – the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities – and Scottish Refugee Council working in a unique partnership to ensure that the right to asylum, education, health, culture and community, language, housing and employment are all respected from day one of arrival  in Scotland.

Much that sits within our public discussion and debates about integration in Scotland is framed through the lens of the delivery of scarce and pressed public services. The discussion operates on a constant deficit model of there never being enough to look after everyone.

Ten years of New Scots belies this toxic idea, which has a deep hold on our public imagination. Working with the people in this world most destitute of rights and resource and hope, Scotland still shines like a beacon of hope internationally.

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I travel widely and whenever the subject of integration is discussed, the New Scots strategy is held up as an example.

As the independent chair of the group steering the strategy, I know it is far from perfect and that during the pandemic in particular it suffered from the overwhelming need to just ensure people stayed alive in dire, dire circumstances. “Strategic delivery” became a fond hope.

As we gather ourselves again, I witness a sector of committed, professional workers in a multitude of organisations under great pressure and burning out under the constant onslaught of multiple attacks on those seeking asylum or granted refuge, from the Westminster Government.

From the Nationality and Borders Act last year to the egregious and illegal bill on migration making its way through the Lords last week, it is the hardest of times.

Survival is now the key question, even beyond the constant need to oppose the violations of law and dignity.

Every single day it’s hard to know which way to turn and what to try to halt, or even bring some reason and accuracy into a public debate so out of control and bloated with the myth of scarcity.

I could line out the facts again in this piece. I’m tempted. The numbers we take in the UK are so miniscule compared to our status as a major albeit rapidly declining economy. I could point out how many millions are currently sheltered in the Horn of Africa alone.

And how many more will be pouring out of Sudan who have all been rejected as ineligible for refuge in the UK because the Home Secretary is now unashamedly operating an Islamophobic, anti-African policy on refugees.

But I want to tell a different story. Because service delivery, important as it is politically, is not the deep, entangled, relational story of New Scots integration. The deep story is told in communities changed and changing and integrating into new wholes. The deep story is not of New Scots as “integrees” and Old Scots as “intergraters”. The deep story is both simpler and more complicated at one and the same time.

Mine goes like this. A few weeks ago, my father and mother-in-law passed away within days of each other. Both were “New Scots” having moved from their beloved home, where they had raised a family full of love and been extraordinary, generous and committed makers of community.

From developing fair trade when it was in its infancy, to enabling people with severe learning disabilities to communicate through ancient BBC computers, to working for environmental justice and chairing multiple community committees, my parents-in-law lived lives of service and goodness.

The National: Alison and her familyAlison and her family (Image: Alison Phipps)

As they began, at different rates, to suffer the ravages of dementia, they moved to be with us in Scotland and to live their failing, and at times anguished, last days, near to us, and to their granddaughter and great grandchildren.

They were awkward “New Scots” in many ways, reluctant to give up on a time when they had been so active and fully of the life of community and church and children, as we were to see this fade. Reluctant to leave an England that – though under so much threat just now – was such a wholesome place and full of so many things which we should cherish – the NHS, state education, union protections, the right to protest and, where they were in the Midlands, a vibrant multiculturalism which puts our own, in Scotland, to shame.

The debates around independence were bewildering to their strong belief in togetherness and mutual aid and their largely liberal democratic politics. They loved Scotland, had honeymooned here and holidayed with us many times, but integration did not come easily to them in their twilight years. 

The Glasgow accents were not immediately comprehensible, tenement living was strange to them, shared closes and bin stores, and laws with which they were unfamiliar. Especially for my father-in-law it was hard – after years as a head teacher in England – to fathom the school system and exam periods and names.

Though none of this stopped them joining in and joining up in Scotland – with my father-in-law on the community council and a happy and active member of a church through his late 70s and  80s until Covid and then deeper illness struck.

One of the best guides to living in Scotland was their granddaughter. In her 20s when they moved up, she delighted in having her grandparents close at hand. She loved taking them out for pizza or ice cream and sharing stories of her own arrival in Scotland several years prior, well before their own.

Laughing lovingly at words she hadn’t understood, or weird food she had come to love. My father-in-law and daughter navigated bits and pieces of “service delivery” together, not least as our daughter was moving out from the family home as her grandparents were moving to be with us.

And it made me wonder, too. Integration, we say, is a two-way process. But it’s so much more than that. We are all changed by new relationships, at all levels – family, street, community, town, city,  nation state.

Our daughter had grown up in Eritrea. Now a UK citizen when she first arrived, she was also bewildered by food and systems, and education and rights. In the way she drew closer and closer to her beloved grandparents, a critical dimension of life lost “back home” – that of the presence of elders – was restored to her, and through her, to us.

As a “not-as-new-a-Scot” as her grandparents, she took on the critical role performed by so many refugees as so-called New Scots, in the communities where the new people come, first.  Often this happens with speakers of the same language or from the same place, but because integration is into places, primarily, into how they work and are organised, then most integration works at the local level.

It’s no accident that the most successful and enduring integration networks in Glasgow are all named after the immediate localities – Maryhill Integration Network;  South West Integration Network; North Glasgow and in other iterations Cranhill; Pollock; Govan and Craigton.  We see the same patterns in the new places of resettlement, too, in the Highlands, on Bute, down in the Borders.

The places conjure belonging. It may be fraught, and in many of these places of multiple destitution, it still is. When integration becomes a battle of identities or a competition in “who can be the most Scottish the quickest”, we are entirely missing the intercultural processes which are constant and on-going in community development.

THE health of my parents-in-law deteriorated. The family gathered and on a Sunday afternoon in late March, and surrounded by the wonderful nursing staff, his three children, his granddaughter and myself, our father-in-law died. A few days later, his beloved wife of 62 years followed.

And a father, mother, granddad, granny, great granddad and great granny showed us – through the excess of love that is grief – something of the deep story of integration.

As hard a time as it was of separation, it was also a time of profound integration. Ritual, sacred edge moments are. The unitings of grief and the stories of love that flowed showed that salt water is actually thicker than blood.

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Our daughter’s mother gained her first ever passport in Sweden, where  she had been granted refugee status after fleeing herself, and as happens so often in the flight from persecution, the family had become separated itself.  Her first act of solidarity with our grief was to book a flight to the UK and come to be with us all – for the time in 15 years – for the funeral.

New Scots, Old Scots. The terms are good because there is a playful element within them that does not pertain with the gravity of the label “refugee”. The lightness is important. But within the stories of time, of life and of death, there are held realities like the one I speak of here. People finding love and family again, augmentations which shine through in the times on the edges of life and death and take us beyond labels into being human, and in relation.

At heart, this is the extraordinary ordinariness which helps us in integrating families and communities, in integrating places, every day, anew.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow