The Unity Centre is tiny – the opposite of a Tardis – a corner shop space crammed with people, computers, filing systems, sofas, chocolates and a whole lot more. It is unique because of how it is organised, what it does and how it came into being. Unity Centre volunteers Jane and Phill helped me to understand more.
The Centre’s origins can be traced back to the 2005 anti-G8 mobilisation in Scotland, where one of the focuses was the Dungavel detention centre and the No Borders campaign.
In 2005, a member of Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees started a small weekly vigil outside the Brand Street Immigration Centre. Someone from “No Borders” put out a solidarity call and the Saturday vigils took on a permanence, developing a special character that helped to decrease the isolation felt by asylum seekers.
Vigil members and refugees built relationships. Children would run to meet the vigil and their guarantee of a welcome and a sweetie; the alienating experience of reporting to the Home Office was being undermined. Even the culture of the Immigration Office was changed. Phill explained how they became friendlier and even started giving out sweets too!
While standing in Brand Street experiencing the miseries of the Scottish winter (the vigils started up in October), someone spotted a “To Let” sign on a nearby shop front. Property in the area is cheap, so a lease could be signed and the Unity Centre was born.
Entirely self-organised, Unity’s origins are firmly rooted in direct action. In 2006, the police still engaged in dawn raids to instigate deportations. Families lived in terror of being removed from their homes, with no notice, in traumatic and shocking circumstances.
A series of public meetings were co-ordinated in parts of Glasgow where the Council had placed large numbers of asylum seekers, with up to 200 attending. From there, UNITY: the Union of Asylum Seekers was created, with one of its aims being to stop dawn raids.
500 asylum seekers (and a smattering of UK citizens) demonstrated in Glasgow’s George Square. After an incident where a deportee was injured, the police stopped supporting dawn raids and earlier this year the Union too wound down its operation.
Currently, Unity concentrates on supporting asylum seekers mainly through the Centre.
Nowadays, if a family is to be deported, they are usually detained when they next report at the Immigration Office. So, before attending their weekly appointment, families call into Unity for a catch up and also to sign in. After reporting at Brand St, they come back to Unity to sign out. This way, Unity knows if there has been a detention and can instigate action to try and prevent the deportation during the five days window available before removal takes place.
Legal advice is not given by Unity, but people are directed to organisations that can help with particular hardships. The Centre is run entirely by volunteers, including asylum seekers.
1500 people have registered since opening and more than one hundred families have been returned to safety after detention by the Home Office. In the past, Scottish Socialist Party Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) have assisted with casework. Since the SSP lost their seats, other MSPs have continued to take forward cases.
Unity has developed an awareness of who the best lawyers are. Phill explained how immigration lawyers who make mistakes are fortunate because their mistakes (ie deportations) immediately disappear from view.
A side effect of Unity’s work is the increased visibility of immigration lawyers’ reputations. Knowing that your lawyer is reliable makes a huge difference to families who have been denied control of their lives and whose future safety is in the hands of the legal system.
Another development has been Scotland’s recent refusal to detain children awaiting deportation. Child detention became a big issue in Scotland, largely because of the disproportionate numbers of refugee families who find themselves placed in Glasgow.
Phill explained how Glasgow City Council accepts large numbers of refugee families, allowing legacy high-rise housing developments to be utilised, that might otherwise have to be demolished. The end of child detentions in Scotland has had the consequence that families are now taken to England for detention before deportation, making it much harder for cases to be followed up.
The Home Office continues to insist that asylum seekers will be safe in their country of origin, when common sense dictates otherwise. For example, recently a young unmarried mother from Pakistan has been refused right to remain in the UK. As a single parent, she is in danger from her family. The Home Office advice to her was that as Pakistan is a large country, she can return to another area where she doesn’t know anybody; an impractical solution with dangerous repercussions.
Situated in Glasgow’s Ibrox, home to Rangers football ground, community relations haven’t always been easy. But Unity’s shelves and cupboards are crammed with clothing, shoes and useful items that are hard to obtain when you are living on around 30% less money than UK citizens receive from the benefits system. Many donations come from local people. Unity’s latest venture is the launch of a separate wing with charitable status; a charity shop is opening shortly in nearby Govan. Jane explained how, as well as helping to fund Unity’s work, the shop will be a bridge to the local community while providing a useful local service.
Volunteers are not in short supply. Jane described how there was much interest at a recent taster evening, where eighteen people turned up. Jane sees the centre as an example of what anyone or everyone can do to support each other.
It isn’t run by specialists – it doesn’t give legal advice. Anyone can do it. Rents might not be as cheap in other big cities, which would make a similar enterprise very difficult. But the spirit of people working together can be replicated anywhere.