Stephen Smith says the system is broken for recent migrants and people seeking asylum who are unable to return home
The Scottish government has warned that its immigration policy “will fail to meet Scotland’s needs”, after last year there were more than 11,000 applications for asylum from people in Scotland.
Stephen Smith, the justice secretary, has told Holyrood’s justice committee that the current system “is not meeting the needs of the people who are applying for asylum in Scotland”.
Smith said that of the 57,000 asylum applications in 2016-17, 13,000 were from women and 5,500 were from men. The remainder of applicants were made up of girls under 16, boys, adults and family members of those already in Scotland.
He said the numbers showed Scotland had the highest proportion of adults applying for asylum and indicated that some very vulnerable people were coming to Scotland seeking help.
However, refugee groups, including Migrant Rights Network, Children’s Aid, the Refugee Council and Amnesty International, have rejected the suggestion that a new system was needed.
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Smith’s evidence was not unanimous. The Green MSP John Finnie said: “The democratic processes here in Scotland make a positive contribution to how the asylum system is operated and we as parliamentarians want to see those processes improved.”
The committee had received more than a quarter of a million representations since 2012, many of which had centred on the programme of new routes for immigrants. These included family routes that had opened up since 2012, the latest of which is to encourage the spouses of high-skilled migrants to come to Scotland.
Last year more than 2,000 people requested asylum in Scotland through the family route – an increase of nearly 450% on 2013.
Smith said: “Family migration should be available to those who truly have no alternative [in Scotland] and to help provide and integrate those who have made [sic] a brave journey.”
However, he was challenged by Green MSP John Finnie, who has been critical of the new family route to increase investment and create more opportunities for skilled migrants.
Finnie said: “It doesn’t matter what the person’s skills or qualifications are; they are accessing a relatively scarce resource as any family migrant’s journey here is very challenging, it can take 10 months or more to get the leave to stay and you are not allowed to work here until you get the leave.
“One of the reasons these people come here is that the visa enables them to work in the majority of the professions here, in the thriving voluntary sectors, healthcare and the whole of UK.”
Smith replied: “More migration is one of the best things that can happen for Scotland, particularly for the skills shortage we are facing. There will be instances where a family is in need of a skilled migrant but they might be not be in a position to move away.
“But we also know that the family migration programme is offering some incredible opportunities to people who have made a journey to Scotland. It has led to an increase in the number of immigrant applications coming into Scotland, at a time when people in Scotland have been falling out of employment and home ownership is at a 17-year low.”
Finnie said the SNP government had overinvested in the family migration programme, but there was “widespread distress” over the ability of those in need to apply for asylum.
Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader, said the government should consider raising the cap on the number of refugees it could take from the refugee status determination programme (RSDP) without waiting for the European council to settle the implications of the Brexit agreement.
He added: “There are more than 2,000 asylum applications in Scotland and the criteria that are used to understand the country from which that is coming needs to be revisited.”