Around 9.30am on Thursday 13 May I checked my phone for messages, as I was about to start making preparations for Eid dinner later that evening. One of the No Evictions Network activists had posted a photo of an immigration enforcement van in Kenmure Street in Pollokshields and said that he was going to investigate what was happening, and asked others in the network to come down to support him. As more and more members of the network arrived, it transpired that immigration officers had raided the home of two men, Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh, and put them in the van. The immigration van couldn’t leave because it was surrounded by activists, and one of them had got under the van (and would stay there for eight hours to ensure it wouldn’t go anywhere). Activists reported that Police Scotland were helping immigration officials by trying to persuade the activists to disperse. In solidarity, thousands of Pollokshields locals as well as people from across the city gathered to prevent this immigration raid. The two men, both migrants from India, were eventually released.
Throughout the day I was reading news reports and comments on social media about how friendly and welcoming the people of Glasgow are to newcomers, as if that was enough explanation for the overwhelming solidarity against this particular immigration raid. Whilst Glasgow has a reputation for being friendly, it also has a history of racism going back to the days of empire and the attacks on black seamen in 1919. I also read reports crediting the release of the two men to the actions of individual activists.
This is mistaken.
Individuals and friendly Glaswegians no doubt had a part to play, but the real reason for the huge solidarity shown on the streets of Pollokshields and the release of the two men must go to the grassroots infrastructure that the city has built up through its history of migrant solidarity since it became a dispersal city for refugees in the asylum system in 2000.
The UK Government’s pursuit of austerity saw the creation of asylum dispersal areas, with Glasgow being the only one in Scotland. Once dispersal to Glasgow began, the racist British National Party began to make violent threats to the newly arrived refugees seeking asylum. The murder of Firsat Dag, a 25-year-old Kurdish refugee in the Sighthill area of Glasgow, led activists to form the Campaign to Welcome Refugees. The Home Office began dawn raids in 2005; these were immigration raids carried out in the middle of the night without prior warning, during which families were woken up and taken in immigration vans to detention centres just wearing the clothes on their back.
The Glasgow Girls was formed in 2005 when one member of a group of school friends was dawn raided. The Unity Centre, which is part of the No Evictions Network, was established around 2005 by activists opposing dawn raids. It is important to note that dawn raids were made possible because the Scottish police assisted immigration officers. Consistent and determined activists influenced a decision by the police to stop this cooperation, thus ending dawn raids in 2006, though immigration raids on workplaces continued.
The No Evictions Network came into being in 2018 after Serco, the then provider of asylum accommodation in Glasgow, announced that it intended to change the locks of 330 people in the asylum system, thus making them destitute. The Network is made up of the Unity Centre and Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment (MORE). They were established to oppose the proposed evictions, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and over 400 refugees in the asylum system were moved into hotels, their focus changed to support those in hotel detention. The network supported them by campaigning for the re-instatement of the asylum allowance which had been withdrawn for healthier and appropriate food, and provided phone top ups so people could keep in touch with their loved ones. This led an increasing number of people in the asylum system to join the network and become activists themselves.
Thus, the racist and violent actions of the Home Office’s immigration system have galvanised a generation of activists and created a culture of anti-racist migrant solidarity in Glasgow.
When the No Evictions Network discovered that the Home Office had once again carried out a dawn raid in Glasgow at the end of April 2021, it was able to act quickly alongside partner organisations. A demonstration was held in George Square on 1 May 2021 with over 400 people attending. We held a meeting with UK wide anti-raids groups in order to develop strategies, and Haringey Anti-Raids group provided training on what to do when a raid happens just the night before this attempted immigration raid. So when that activist saw an immigration enforcement van on Kenmure Street on the morning of Eid, he knew what to do. Soon there were over a thousand anti-racists on Kenmure Street: shop keepers provided free food and water throughout the day, a Muslim bakery brought an Eid cake, young girls dressed up in their new shiny Eid clothes joined the demo with homemade placards, whilst neighbours put signs up in their windows and a local gym said protesters could use their toilets.
What happened in Kenmure Street was a genuine example of anti-racist solidarity. When people came out to stop the possible deportation of Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh, no one knew their names or where they were from, and no one questioned their right to be in Glasgow.
Real solidarity doesn’t create barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’; it places no conditions on those we support and stand with. Instead, everyone on Kenmure Street recognised the injustice of an oppressive, violent and racist immigration system and rejected it. Moreover, we questioned the role of a devolved Police Scotland upholding such a racist system.
The victory of Kenmure Street was many years in the making. It is heartening to see that a long history of migrant solidarity continues to produce younger activists who share our deep feelings of wanting to act when we see injustice. It also sends out a clear message to the Home Office to not come back to Glasgow, because you will only find resistance.
Image credit: Daily Record.
Blog post by Smina Akhtar, University of Glasgow, UK
Explore other relevant Identities articles:
Containment, activism and state racism: the Sheku Bayoh justice campaign
Revisiting histories of anti-racist thought and activism
Racism, ‘second generation’ refugees and the asylum system
Moving racisms, shifting targets: comparing racism experienced by mothers of mixed-parentage children with racism experienced by young people seeking sanctuary in Britain