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About 200 people attended a sometimes confrontational, always informative meeting at Elgin Town Hall last night about the asylum seekers at the Eight Acres Hotel.
On the podium were representatives from the council, the NHS and the police who have each been working directly with them since their arrival.
Karen Birse, the council’s refugee and resettlement officer, said the meeting was being held to try answer questions that the community had, as well as to “dispel some myths”.
She apologised that it had taken so long but added that, on the advice of the police, it had been delayed until after the anti-immigration demonstration and counter-demonstrations on the Plainstones the weekend before last.
Ms Birse said her role had originally been focussed solely on Moray’s Ukrainian and Afghan refugees.
However, that changed suddenly during April when the Home Office informed Moray Council that it would have to take up to 50 asylum seekers.
The audience was told there are currently 45 housed at the Eight Acres.
All male and mainly aged between 18 and 25, they come from Iran, Iraq and the African country of Eritrea, having arrived in the UK on small boats.
After being given security and health checks at processing centres in the south-east of England, they were issued with ID cards and told they were being sent to Elgin.
Each of the asylum seekers are now individually applying for refugee status which, if successful, will allow them to live and work where they choose within the UK.
Due to backlogs in the system, the meeting was told this process would likely take an estimated 12 months, during which time they would continue to be looked after in the hotel.
The asylum seekers include a chemistry teacher, a shoe shiner, university graduates, mechanics, a barber, a scaffolder plus painters and decorators.
Some have good English, some barely speak a word.
They receive three meals a day at the Eight Acres, which are at set times, and they have to return there each night.
The hotel has security guards, however, the meeting heard from several nearby residents who questioned how often the site is patrolled.
At one point during last night’s meeting, the manageress of the Eight Acres also stood up to dispute claims from the floor that all the hotel’s female staff had been issued with panic alarms.
Inspector Claire Smith from Police Scotland denied there was any evidence that the asylum seekers posed an extra crime risk.
Instead, she stated that since their arrival there had been five incidents within Moray – three of which she termed “hate crime” – in which they had been the victims each time.
Insp Smith added: “Some of them have been tortured, locked up and persecuted in their homelands. They haven’t come here because they fancy a holiday, or because they want to raid the benefits system.”
Liz Tait from NHS Grampian said the asylum seekers had been divided between the Maryhill, Linkwood and Lossiemouth medical practices, but added they were not getting preferential medical treatment.
She added: “I was glad when I heard that they were all young men. The paediatric and maternity service at Dr Gray’s is already under enough strain.”
The asylum seekers receive £9/week from the government and they are banned from working while their applications are ongoing.
Therefore, it was stated that volunteering opportunities are being sought so they can integrate into the community and keep themselves occupied during the months ahead.
However, it was stressed that these opportunities can’t involve them doing jobs which would deprive others from being paid.
A representative from The Oaks talked warmly of the work they had already done on tidying up the outside of the Elgin palliative day care centre.
Dave Allen, who was the driving force behind the building of the Gleaner Arena astro turf pitch beside Elgin City, then spoke of how some were now playing football.
A call also went out during the meeting for retired teachers to come forward to help with language lessons.
There are currently 150,000 asylum seekers applying for refugee status across the UK. About a third are being put up in asylum hotels such as the Eight Acres. The rest are either staying with friends and family or in asylum housing.
Contact email@example.com to volunteer your services or to find out more. That same email can also be used by former hotel gym members who are still to get their money back.