When the UK’s first planeload of Syrian refugees landed at Glasgow Airport last December, it sparked a small media frenzy. Since then, however, most of the 400 refugees who have sought shelter in Scotland – having come via camps in Lebanon – have been left alone and allowed to get on with rebuilding their lives, dispersed across 16 different council areas.
All, that is, except the 15 families who were placed on the Isle of Bute, the island of 6,000 nestled in the Firth of Clyde. Partly the mythologised view of life on “remote” Scottish islands and partly the ease of tracking the refugees down (in an otherwise near ethnically homogenous community) has led to a situation where they can’t even visit the local Londis without being jumped on by day-tripping New Statesman writers. But while most coverage has been sympathic, some have had other ideas.
Step forward the Daily Mail. In December, just days after the refugee families had arrived, the newspaper despatched a reporter to the island to tell the story of a “small society that risks being fractured”. Try as they did, the paper struggled to come up with anything earth shattering – a few anecdotes from disgruntled locals and pointedly passive questions aside: How will they possible adjust to the weather? Why are they getting such special treatment? How will they possibly learn the value of money? The refugees themselves, reportedly on advice from the local council, refused to speak to the Mail reporter or the Arabic translator they took along with them. “Inevitably, this wall of silence fosters resentment,” the reporter presumptiously surmises.
But the Mail wanted an interview with Bute’s refugees and, eventually it seems, their persistence paid off. On Monday of this week, the paper splashed with a follow-up article alleging that two of the refugee families on the island are unhappy living there. The implication, of course, being that they are ungrateful, that they should go back to Syria if they hate it so much, that Bute is the kind of picturesque idyll that Home Counties Mail readers dream of retiring to, so how can they possibly not be happy… and so on.
Regardless of whether the quotes included in the article were manipulated or mistranslated, as some have alleged, if the recent settlers on the island aren’t having the time of their lives on Bute it should not be news. They are from a country that is being torn apart by a brutal war and where many of their friends and relatives still live. Moving to a new town or city is disorientating at the best of times – but in the context of fleeing conflict, it must be unimaginable. Take in the culture shock, religious and language differences and lack of any existing Arabic-speaking community and it’s not suprising if some are feeling isolated, or even depressed. Nor is Bute some kind of paradise. The island faces the same social and economic problems seen across Scotland – alienation, low pay, bad jobs, service cuts – with the added factor of geographic isolation.
The only people who have acted shamefully here are the editorial staff at the Mail, who have cynically fed these quotes to their audience in full awareness of how they will be interpreted. While the article doesn’t pursue the same line of passive questioning as last December’s hitpiece, that’s only because it doesn’t need to. The dog whistle is loud enough.
The far-right in Scotland – pathetic as they are – are already trying to capitalise on the situation. Various UKIP figures have spent this week gleefully tweeting the Mail article. Earlier this year, the remnants of the Scottish BNP boasted of sending targeted mailshots to Bute residents, purportedly in a bid to canvass their views.
Fortunately, islanders are fighting back against the hatred being peddled by those with an outside agenda. A Facebook post by someone from Bute has gone viral this week, slamming the Mail for their “shocking abuse” of trust in the situation. Tellingly, a couple of members of Rothesay’s new Syrian community have commented on the post. “I am so happy to live here on the island, it’s very beautiful place to live in, with the nice and friendly people we are already in our new home. Thank you for your good hospitality,” one writes.
The stirring up of resentment and division in a small community is not plunging any new depths for the Daily Mail. However, it’s up to all of us to challenge their bile.