Every now and again, almost like Victorians hunting the source of the Nile, we rediscover a part of our own country. Not on purpose, of course, but by highly publicised accident. These days it isn't an encounter between Dr Livingstone and Mr Stanley which focuses our attention on savage lands, but the murder of a Nigerian boy here, or a Kurdish immigrant there. Teams of reporters and politicians make tracks for the local vicars, no-good boyos and inspectors of police.
What we have discovered, surely, is that asylum-seekers are not the problem. Sighthill is not a dump because of asylum-seekers and Burnley is not poor because of Pakistanis. Glasgow City Council may be wise to appoint a mediator to assist in reducing tensions in Sighthill, but the mediation that is needed is not between Scots and foreigners, but between the hopeless and the rest of us.
Sometimes when I write something like the above, a letter or an e-mail will arrive asking me whether, as an affluent journalist, I would be so bloody happy to have 1,200 asylum-seekers arrive in my area? This is always a misconceived question, because, first, the residents of Camden include far more asylum-seekers than that; and, second, it does nothing to challenge my real prejudices. I would far rather have 1,200 asylum-seekers than 1,200 residents of Sighthill. I could happily imagine a population exchange in which we swapped half a million Afghans, Kurds, Turks, Palestinians etc for every BNP voter, sending them off to the land of the Taliban. We would get all those women desperate for education, and they would get the violent, boastful boys and shell-suit hippos of Paulsgrove and Oldham, with their total resistance to the idea of being schooled.
There they are, too apathetic to vote, and yet they managed on Monday night to hold their first demo – not demanding a new school, or rights for workers, or better public transport – but to moan about "favouritism" for asylum-seekers, one of whom had just been stabbed to death. They were envious, not of the bourgeois or of the rich (after all, pop stars deserve their money, don't they?) but of just about the only people in society who had less than they did.
Of course you can blame outsiders who try to exploit the situation by stirring up jealousy and anger. And here I am not talking about the BNP, but about the popular press and the more careless sections of the broadcast media. As revealed on our front page yesterday, the Scottish Daily Record, fresh from its anti-homosexual campaigning, decided this week to blame the victim for the crime. The murdered Mr Dag was, it could reveal, "a conman who came to this country to make a fast buck". Oh yes. Presumably his early morning assailants were members of an ultra-sophisticated vigilante group who could divine the difference between a self-professed Kurdish militant and an alleged Kurdish fruit and veg salesman from the Turkish city of Gaziantep.
There are less lurid, but just as revealing, examples. Let's take one from yesterday's Telegraph, reporting on organised crime in Britain. "900 crime gangs thrive on drugs and migrants", ran the front page headline. Now, drugs, we know, are a social evil. So are crime gangs. And so it appears, by association are migrants. In fact, the reporter wrote that "the vast majority of these gangs are British" and they make money from "drug trafficking, immigration rackets, fraud and money laundering". So why was the headline not "900 crime gangs thrive on drugs and fraud"? Because it ain't as sexy.
Or the inside story from Sighthill, headed, "Tower block tenants' fury at hand-outs for refugees". According to unemployed local resident Steve, 38, "They [asylum-seekers] have £150 mobile phones, drive Mercedes cars, carry knives and are all trying to cop off with 14-year-old girls on the estate." This sounds more like Steve's wish-list than a proper charge-sheet, but now note the lack of quotation marks in the headline. Are the asylum-seekers really given hand-outs of phones, cars, knives and special pheromones designed to attract Scottish teenagers?
Elsewhere they were credited with washing machines. Washing machines! And "hi fi systems"! Whereas, of course, the Sighthill residents do not have washing machines or hi fi systems or TVs or mobile phones. "They've all got new stuff," one single mother told journalists. "There's nothing in my house that's new. I got given nothing by the council." Really? No flat? No extra child benefit? "They get all the money, all the help, all the attention," said another resident, sounding like the perpetual adolescent that many of these people seem to be.
The facts are that these asylum-seekers, subsisting on vouchers, were "dispersed" to an area where the accommodation wasn't just hard to let, it was impossible to let. Empty flats were redecorated for them, and some furniture was purchased. Well, how were they going to buy it? And investment in asylum-seekers is, on the whole, money well spent. Many of them are educated or actively wish to better themselves, and anything they're given doesn't end up disappearing into the voracious maws of loan-sharks. As the local vicar said: "The children have been a godsend to the schools round here because they are lifting the standards." Sighthill is a sight better for having asylum-seekers.
Which makes some reactions to this week's events quite baffling. Like this: "The anger, violence and callous behaviour," wrote a correspondent to our letters page yesterday, "... should more properly be directed at the council and the central government politicians who placed the Kurds there." No, it shouldn't. The Kurds are no reason for locals to be angry at all. Nor can we just blame "divisions in society begun by Mrs Thatcher and perpetuated by Tony Blair", as another correspondent did. As a student, I lived on a sink estate in Manchester two years before Mrs T was first elected. I shall never forget it.
In those days we blamed architects. It was their fault, we said, that the pavements in the sky had turned into elevated crime corridors. But take an Erno Goldfinger London tower block that was due for demolition, and sell it off lot by lot to the wealthy who want the view, and all of a sudden the architect doesn't look so villainous at all.
Sighthill went from desirable to sink estate in 25 years. The estate was caught in a downward spiral of poverty, ignorance and hopelessness. There were drugs, vandalism, high crime rates, truancy, family breakdown, domestic violence, teen pregnancies and zero social capital. But the key was the sheer geographical concentration in one place of too many people with social, familial and educational problems.
Contrary to the easy complaints, there is much being done about social exclusion, and a lot of it is very detailed and small-scale. But one much more radical step needs to be taken (as it has in some parts of the US), and it's one which would really test our tolerance. I am talking about dispersal, into my neighbourhood and yours. And not of asylum-seekers.Reuse content