Refugee organisers of a Glasgow protest in support of asylum seekers have accused Police Scotland of failing to adequately protect them against far right groups.
It is claimed that a failure by police to clear the city’s George Square of loyalist protestors meant they were left vulnerable to attack, then forced into a small space where social distancing was made impossible.
The refugee demonstration was to support asylum seekers removed from their flats and housed in hotels more than three months ago with all support stopped due to coronavirus.
Asylum seekers attending were left distraught by the actions of the so-called “counter protest”. After less than an hour the group was forced to leave the square because they felt unsafe while far right groups, who had been allowed to roam across the space, remained.
Following violent scenes on Wednesday 16 June, Nicola Sturgeon was amongst those to condemn the “racist thugs” tweeting that all should unite to say that “welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to part of who we are”. Six arrests were made and police claimed “known football hooligans” were identified.
Yesterday a statement from the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), which suggested the peaceful protestors were as much at fault as the loyalist aggressors and that no demonstrations should take place under coronavirus rules, was widely condemned.
Those supporting asylum seekers said they were “horrified” by the suggestion that, despite working closely with police, their rally had been branded “unacceptable” by the SPF.
The End Hotel Detention Now rally, held in solidarity with asylum seekers who were refusing food in McLay’s Guest House, had originally been planned for Saturday 13 June.
But, in consultation with police, organisers from campaign group No Evictions Network took the decision to reschedule, due to the heavy presence of loyalist groups in the city’s public square who claimed to be protecting the cenotaph from Black Lives Matter protestors.
Another rally reportedly by the National Defence League, potentially a rebranding of the far right Scottish Defence League (SDL) which had “concerning” links to neo Nazis, was then called an hour earlier.
It came just two days after disturbances in the public square. Violence then followed a call by Loyalist Defence League, which is understood to have organised demonstrations last summer that led to riots in Govan, for its supporters protect statues, including the city’s cenotaph.
when we got to the square, the other protest was still going on. Police did not clear it. There seemed to be no proper plan. It was terrifying, really. Ako Zada, refugee protest organiser
Ako Zada, a refugee activist from Kurdistan leading the protest, told The Ferret: “We had been working with the police liaison officer who said we were legally allowed to protest. They said they would work with us to keep us safe.
“But when we got to the square, the other protest was still going on. Police did not clear it. There seemed to be no proper plan. It was terrifying, really.”
Protestors supporting the asylum rally gathered on a corner before walking to George Square at 6pm, Zada said, heading to the corner furthest from the cenotaph. However, as police shouted at them to move to a grassy area half way across the space, they were separated and targeted by the loyalist group.
Riot police moved in and the asylum rally was contained on a small grassy space, behind a police cordon. Some right wing protestors and football casuals patrolled the police line separating them from the rest of the square, singing “Rule Britannia”, gesticulating abusively and shouting racist and sectarian slurs.
“It was really horrific,” Zada added. “We were like chickens, all cooped up and confused by the time we were allowed on to the grass. There was no space for us to socially distance.
“Police kept asking when we wanted to leave. They did not ask the other group.” A “safe corridor” was later created by police to allow the rally to march away from the square.
Zada, a volunteer supporting asylum seekers in Glasgow hotels through Kurdish community organisation, Zagros, said he was extremely concerned about the mental health of many people there.
Mears Group has claimed that asylum seekers were moved out of flats and relocated to city centre hotels as part of its covid-19 response to reduce movement. But asylum seekers say there is still no update of when they will be moved, or have asylum support reinstated.
They claim that food is inedible and of an increased health risk by being forced to eat meals communally. In May Adnan, an asylum seeker from Syria, was found dead at the hostel after struggling with his mental health.
Zada said about five asylum seekers from hotels attended the protest and left deeply upset. “Mentally it was very damaging for some of us [refugees],” he added. “One guy [an asylum seeker] told me he was terrified. He couldn’t believe this could happen. He was panicking and felt powerless. Their situation means they already feel no-one cares about them.”
The No Evictions Network said in a statement: “The decision was taken to continue with the demo as planned in order to not be silenced by the threat of fascist opponents. Despite the attempts at disruption, people from the hotels were able to make their voices and demands heard, loud and clear, throughout the square. We will not be scared off.”
The campaign group also claimed police took “an oppressive role” in events, adding: “For the hour before our demonstration, the police allowed a group of far right protestors to assemble and made no attempt to disband their protest.
“Instead, the police contained the End Hotel Detention demonstration in a tight space, where it was impossible to practice physical distancing, whilst allowing the fascist demonstration the rest of George Square to be in.
“The End Hotel Detention group decided to march away from the square. We are under no illusions of the police’s role in protecting the fascists in this situation.”
In a statement, Chief Superintendent Hazel Hendren, divisional commander for Greater Glasgow, said “the disgraceful scenes” in George Square were “completely unacceptable”.
“Police Scotland will not tolerate this type of threat to public safety or the appalling physical and verbal abuse suffered by our officers,” he added. “We will police peaceful, lawful protests appropriately, however the thuggish behaviour by those intent on causing violent disruption will simply not be tolerated.”
He claimed “anyone breaking the law or becoming involved in unlawful protest” should expect to be arrested.
In response to concerns raised by No Evictions Network, Police Scotland said it made “every effort” to accommodate its requests and suggested that the small area was identified because it did not know how many people would attend.
Earlier that day, police had urged protestors to “find alternate methods to protest in order to minimise any risks to public safety or health”.