Immigration: how Scotland sees itself and how migrants actually experience it

Immigration: how Scotland sees itself and how migrants actually experience it


The UK government has come under fire in recent weeks for its “hostile environment” immigration policy, which many consider a contributing factor to the tragic deaths of 27 migrants attempting to cross the English Channel in November. But what about countries which adopt a pro-immigration stance and politics? And how does a state presenting itself as inclusive impact migrants’ experiences of life in it?

In Scotland, there is a popular notion that the country is open, inclusive and outward-looking. In the last 50 years the country has voted for more centre-left political parties, leading to a widespread sense of “no problem here” when it comes to racism. This forms the basis of what we term “Scottish distinctiveness” in our latest research.

But this doesn’t always have an entirely humanitarian basis. Previous research has highlighted how a pro-immigration political stance has been used in numerous nationalist sub-state regions – such as South Tyrol in Italy, Catalonia in Spain and Quebec in Canada – to gain political advantage. This has allowed minority nationalist political parties to present themselves as more caring and progressive than the larger state government, which is typically responsible for setting immigration quotas.

Where Scottish distinctiveness comes from

While Scotland does not have the authority to set its own immigration quotas (this is a reserved UK government matter), our research has found that political groups in the country have been able to use policies and public speeches to position the country as more open and progressive than the rest of the UK.

For example, the New Scots Strategy 2018-2022 is designed to support the “vision of a welcoming Scotland”. Our analysis of political speech has also shown evidence of this trend. In a Scottish National Party conference speech in 2016, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said:

Inclusion is the guiding principle for everything we do. It encapsulates what we stand for as a party and it describes the kind of country we want Scotland to be. A country where we value people for the contribution they make.

In another example, in April 2019, Sturgeon stated:

In Scotland, we know … that the Westminster approach to migration – as well as being deeply inhumane – poses an existential threat to our future prosperity.

Politicians talking about inclusivity is always to be lauded, but these examples demonstrate how immigration policy and the economic contribution of migrants are often aligned. In Scotland, this is because the country has an ageing population and negative population growth and is in need of migrants to work in public service jobs to secure the future economy. So although politicians present Scotland as inclusive towards migrants, this is often based on the country’s economic needs.

But crucially, Scotland’s pro-immigration narrative also has a profound effect on how migrants relate their experiences of the country.


When we spoke to young adult migrants living in Glasgow, we found that the idea of Scottish distinctiveness placed a number of expectations upon them. For example, it led interviewees to discount the seriousness of their experiences of racism. To them, calling this out would be seen as talking down the country’s reputation and make them appear ungrateful in the eyes of the Scottish public.

Participants recounted traumatic stories of racial discrimination. One young Roma man from Glasgow told us that he had been repeatedly attacked by an anti-immigrant gang at school in the south-side of the city. The prevalence of anti-Roma sentiment in Glasgow has been well documented.

In another instance, a bus driver repeatedly refused travel to a young refugee and and called the police to verify their age. Participants also told us that they could not claim to be Scottish without first “looking or appearing Scottish”. Many felt that as people of colour and without a Scottish accent they were unable to claim this identity. This is a finding which contradicts the Scottish government’s One Scotland message.

Confirming the narrative

Despite these barriers and traumatic experiences, the young adult migrants we spoke with strongly believed that Scotland was welcoming to everyone because the country “needs more people” and because they had been given equal opportunities to study and work. Some arrived as refugees in Scotland and were notably thankful to escape the persecution they had experienced in their own countries. This may explain why they did not want to appear critical of any racism or discrimination they experienced.

Some justified their view of Scottish distinctiveness with the opinion that Scotland was more welcoming to migrants than England, which was perceived as intolerant and more racially segregated. One told us:

When you come to Scotland and you hear it’s a welcoming place it kind of puts your mind at ease. It’s much easier than going to London or some places down south … [where you hear] about knife crime and hate crime and stuff like that.

The city motto of “People Make Glasgow” was also used as an example of the welcoming and open nature of Scottish people. Participants typically attributed racist attitudes to a minority of the population – usually older people and football fans.

These findings suggest that the idea of the special Scottish distinctiveness embraced by many Scots plays an important role in shaping the opinions of migrants living in Scotland. But their actual experiences reveal that the country is not as tolerant as it likes to think it is.

In the coming years, we are likely to see further claims of Scottish distinctiveness as the SNP government seeks to gain support for a second independence referendum. While it is encouraging that Scotland embraces a pro-immigration stance, we should also be aware of how the issue can be used as a political tool.

The Conversation

Marcus Nicolson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.