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by Louise Wilson
14 September 2022
Sketch: Neil Gray defends Boats for Ukraine scheme

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Neil Gray defends Boats for Ukraine scheme

Scotland welcomes refugees. Throw open the doors and let them stay. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… and we’ll shove them on a boat in the Firth of Forth. We love refugees so much, we’ll call them new Scots. And then we’ll get a second boat for the west coast and leave a few hundred more of them there, on the rather ironically named MS Ambition.

“The feedback we’ve had from Ukrainians has been very, very positive about the way they’ve been welcomed on board the ship,” insisted Neil Gray, the minister with special responsibility for refugees from Ukraine. Those lucky Ukrainians, getting a minister with special responsibility for them, as he waves them into the tiny bunks of a cruise ship that will be their home for… well, as long as the government thinks they can get away with.

When will they be given actual, real homes with non-spherical windows, fewer seagulls and less chance of being seasick? Gray shrugs. “I don’t want them to be there than any longer than they absolutely have to be. We’ll come forward with those proposals as soon as possible.”

You’d have thought the Scottish Government would have put more effort into the whole programme, insistent as they are that Scotland is a welcoming place. Turns out, refugees are only welcome to our out-of-use vessels, not our bricks and mortar. Hey, perhaps those rust buckets currently sat at Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow could be repurposed, since they’re no use as actual ferries at the moment.

“There’s been concern and there’s been an element of discussion around the appropriateness of the ship,” acknowledges Gray. Who could have foreseen that people would be shocked to find out the Homes for Ukraine scheme was actually the Boats for Ukraine scheme. “I’ve seen for myself, I’ve been on board, and I can see for myself the services and support available there,” the minister adds. Sorry, but you’ll maybe understand if we don’t take your word for it about how top notch it all is.

Ah, but you see, the problem here is that the government’s super sponsor scheme has been too successful. The scheme was set up with the main aim of “getting people here as quickly as possible, then allowing them to rebuild their lives, to find longer term accommodation”. Is it the government’s fault if people thought there would be a shorter time period between refugees arriving here and then them beginning to rebuild their lives? Of course not!

“Obviously, we’ve got challenges in terms of temporary accommodation.” No shit. “That’s what we’re working through, that’s what the pause was for, to ensure that we can work through how we can make the scheme more sustainable.” Never crossed the minister’s mind to make sure it was sustainable before pushing ahead, apparently. Because what use would a resettlement scheme be if it actually resettled people? This way the government can crow about how great it is, win plaudits, and never have to lift a finger to make people’s lives better. It’s the SNP way.

So, if we aren’t allowed to see it, can the minister at least tell us a little about what it’s like on the boat? “There are large communal areas, large restaurants, support services are on board,” says Gray. He studiously avoided the question on what size the bedrooms were, instead adding: “I think similar to hotel accommodation, people are using the communal areas as their living room and their bedrooms they’re only using to sleep in.” Has Neil Gray ever stayed in a hotel? Who uses the lobby area, ever?

Imagine, just imagine, what a field day the SNP would be having if it was the UK Government placing refugees – who have just made the incredibly tough decision of fleeing their home country – on cruise ships and then just leaving them there without a timescale for getting out.

“The homes are being checked, are being worked through,” says the minister. “The super sponsor scheme has been incredibly successful. You can see that we’re beyond double our population share of people arriving from Ukraine here in Scotland.” Aye, because the fact there are even more people needing homes that you’ve had to get a second boat involved is actually a big victory for the Scottish scheme.

“I want to make sure that we can communicate the opportunities that there are beyond the central belt and ensure that people have the opportunity to rebuild their lives wherever they choose,” adds Gray. Indeed, because it’s the refugees’ fault for being too picky about where they want to live. Mock Priti Patel all you like, but at least she was honest about her approach to refugees and people arriving on our shores by way of small, inflatable boats. Here in Scotland, we’ve just made the boats bigger and more seaworthy.

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