Two men detained by immigration enforcement officials have been freed after an eight-hour standoff with local residents and protesters.
At around 9.30AM on Thursday, immigration enforcement officers removed Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh from their home in Pollokshields, on the south side of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. They bundled the men into a police van – but were prevented from driving off when a local resident climbed underneath the van. He remained under the van until 5.20PM, when it was confirmed that the two Sehdev and Singh would be freed back into their community.
Over the course of the day, hundreds of south side residents had surrounded the van – forcing back police lines and facing off with dozens of officers. Police had deployed around 20 vans, horses and vehicle removal units to the scene.
After the initial blockade of the van, word spread quickly on social media, and the crowd began to swell. As worshippers left the local mosque, where the neighbourhood’s large Muslim community had been celebrating Eid, they joined the lines.
Protesters sat in the road blocking police who attempted to clear the area and refused to move.
Behind the scenes, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and SNP Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf were heaping pressure on the Home Office. By 5.20PM, an agreement was secured for the two men to be freed without charge and escorted to the local gurdwara, within a police cordon.
When the news was announced, the crowd erupted in cheers. These were only eclipsed when the van doors were opened, and two faces – exhausted, but overjoyed – emerged from the darkness. “I am so glad that my fate brought me here to Glasgow, where the people are so connected they will come out onto the streets to help one of their own,” Singh said after his release.
Singh is a mechanic and Sehdev is a chef. Both are in their 30s and have been in the UK for 10 years without indefinite leave to remain.
For many in the crowd the demonstration was about showing their disgust at the UK government’s “hostile environment” immigration policy – a set of measures designed to make life so difficult for migrants without indefinite leave to remain that they “voluntarily” leave the country.
“The city has a proud tradition of resisting dawn raids and welcoming refugees, going back to the Glasgow Girls,” said Ruby Hirsch, a south side resident who is an organiser for Stand Up to Racism in Glasgow. In 2005 seven schoolgirls campaigned to save their classmate Agnesa Murselaj from deportation, and the “Glasgow Girls” have become part of the city’s folklore.
“We thought we’d got them [Immigration Enforcement] stopped, and now they’re re-starting, and the whole community’s come out en masse in a really amazing way.”
At Thursday’s demo one local man, Zak, tried to force the officers surrounding the van to account for their actions. “You’re fucking abusing your power,” he shouted at them. Speaking to VICE World News afterwards, he said: “They’re at it. Someone is being told [to return to] a land which is absolutely decimated. I’m Scottish, but I’m British, I personally believe that we’re there for every single country when they need help, when they need aid. It’s disgusting. People are scared to think they’re going to come through their homes.”
Zak said Sturgeon, who is the local Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) as well as the country’s First Minister, should “come to her senses and stop thinking about the election and actually come down here”. MSPs were being “sworn in” for the new parliamentary session as the demo took place, and Sturgeon did not make an appearance on Kenmure Street. However in a series of tweets, she expressed her opposition to the Home Office’s actions and said she was “seeking urgent answers” from UK government ministers.
Shortly after 3PM, a police line advanced on the growing crowd, shouting for protesters to stand aside and then shoving them violently. “Sit down!” someone shouted, and the crowd obliged. Unable to advance further, the officers retreated and the crowd became more buoyant.
There were speeches from MPs Chris Stephens and Alison Thewliss, and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, who lives nearby, addressed the crowd down the phone. Mohammed Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, said to wild applause from the crowd: “The British state tell people from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to ‘go back home’. You have destroyed our homes.”
Then the mic was handed to campaigning human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar. “What the hell do they think they are doing?” he bellowed. “There is only one way that this is going to end. That the two men in the van are allowed to go home to their families.”
Glasgow’s south side is the most ethnically diverse part of Scotland. In Pollokshields, more than one in five residents is of Pakistani origin. Nearby Govanhill is home to the vast majority of Scotland’s Roma community – and more than 53 languages are spoken across 13 housing blocks.
Poverty, slum landlordism and overcrowding are rife – and just hours before the immigration raid, Pollokshields was named the COVID capital of Scotland.
Like many working-class areas in major British cities, Glasgow’s south side has also undergone significant gentrification in recent years. Kenmure Street itself has been progressively smartened up – but many students, artists and newcomers to Glasgow have chosen to move to the south side precisely because of its multiculturalism and spirit of solidarity. And when they saw their neighbours facing deportation, they turned out in force.
The far-right has frequently sought to stir up racial tension in the south side – including through allegations of child sexual exploitation, most of which have been found to be totally unsubstantiated. In last week’s Scottish Parliament elections, Sturgeon was challenged in the constituency by Jayda Fransen, the former deputy leader of far-right party Britain First.
Sturgeon told her: “You are a fascist, you are a racist and the south side of Glasgow will reject you.” Sturgeon was re-elected by a landslide, and Fransen received just 46 votes.
The events on Kenmure Street illustrate the constitutional conflicts at the heart of British and Scottish politics. Immigration policy is “reserved” to Westminster, but policing is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. So while the border officials in the first van were accountable to the government in Westminser, the hordes of officers that turned up subsequently answered to Edinburgh. The latter, said Sturgeon, were “in an invidious position – they do not assist in the removal of asylum seekers but do have a duty to protect public safety”.
Matt Kerr, a Glasgow Labour councillor who attended the demo said, “There is a genuine clash of laws here. The remit of Police Scotland is to enforce Scottish civil law.” He believes it would have been in the interests of public safety for Police Scotland officers to step back and disengage from the beginning rather than guarding the van in which the men were imprisoned, and intimidating the crowd.
The Home Office defended the operation, saying: “The UK government is tackling illegal immigration and the harm it causes, often to the most vulnerable people by removing those with no right to be in the UK.” Police Scotland said the men had been released “meantime” to ”protect the safety, public health and well-being of all people involved in the detention and subsequent protest”.