By Kate Alexander, director of Scottish Detainee Visitors.
It’s been a funny few months. Just a month before the beginning of this year’s Unlocking Detention tour of detention in the UK, the Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, announced that Dungavel, the only detention centre in Scotland would close ‘towards the end of 2017’. You might think that this would be a cause of unalloyed celebration but from the announcement it was clear that there was no intention to end the detention of people in Scotland (or anywhere else in the UK). At the same time, the minister announced the intention to build a new short term holding facility at Glasgow airport. And of course, there would still be eight other detention centres in England where people living in communities in Scotland could be taken to be detained.
And then the message changed a little. In October, the Minister said that the closure of Dungavel was dependent on planning permission for the new centre being granted. Maybe he knew something the rest of us didn’t know because a week after he said that, in a surprise decision, Renfrewshire Council rejected the planning application for the new centre.
The Government has a right to appeal that decision and immediately after it was made they said they were considering their position. And then there was silence. But on 24 November, in response to parliamentary questions from Gavin Newlands (the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North), Robert Goodwill repeated that the government were considering their position about an appeal but also that ‘the intended closure of Dungavel immigration removal centre is dependent upon a successful planning application for a new short term holding facility.’ So it sounds like they will consider somewhere else if they can’t build the centre they planned at Glasgow airport.
A short term holding facility, wherever it is located, would bring with it the prospect of people being routinely moved to England after being detained for a few days in Scotland. Clearly that will mean that people’s legal representation will be disrupted. This is of particular concern because of the different legal systems in Scotland and England. It will also mean disruption to people’s family, social and community support – all vital lifelines to people in detention.
In addition, there are concerns about protections for people detained in Short Term Holding Facilities. The Detention Centre Rules (2001) do not apply to Short Term Holding Facilities and the Government has never published an equivalent set of rules for them. The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) has called this ‘a huge protection gap that leaves many at risk’
Dungavel remaining open, in the short, medium or long term brings with it a continuation of the concerns about detention that many other organisations and individuals in Scotland have long campaigned to raise awareness about and challenge
So here we are, in a state of uncertainty about the shape of detention in Scotland, but with the UK Government clinging on to its policy of holding the threat of indefinite detention over people living in our communities.
Anyone who has been in detention, known anyone who has been detained or read any of the excellent and revealing blogs that have formed part of Unlocking Detention this year knows about the harm that indefinite immigration detention causes. Detention damages people’s physical and mental health, destroys family relationships and leaves communities scarred and weakened.
It also doesn’t do what the Government says it does. More than half the people leaving detention in the UK are released back into the community, not removed. In Dungavel it’s 75%. And it costs £35,000 per year to hold someone in detention. In the words of 2015’s parliamentary inquiry into detention it is “expensive, ineffective and unjust”.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There is increasing evidence that working with people subject to immigration control within the community using a case management approach, based on early intervention and tailored to the specific needs of different populations is more humane, cheaper and more effective. The Detention Inquiry report highlighted a number of examples of community based alternatives to detention from Europe and the United States, and argued that a shift to such alternatives would encourage better decision making and move the UK away from its focus on end-stage enforcement. More recently, research from Detention Action has also shown that community based alternatives can be successful even with ex-offenders, reducing re- offending and delivering very low rates of absconding.
That has to go alongside better decision making in immigration cases. We know now that the vast majority of people leaving detention from Dungavel come back into the community. In the third quarter of 2016, 199 people were released from Dungavel into the community. Just 88 were removed. So why were they detained? Better decision making would stop this waste of money and the damage it does to the people and communities concerned.
Better post-sentence planning for foreign national ex-offenders is another piece in this jigsaw. Around 40% of people in detention are there because the Government wants to deport them after they have served a criminal sentence. Their detention is often prolonged because there are significant barriers to removal. This could all be sorted out before their sentence ends. Where there are barriers to removal, or voluntary return, people could be released and any risks managed in the community, as they would be for UK nationals.
For certain categories of people (families with children since 2010, and pregnant women since 2016) there is strict time limit of 72 hours on detention (or a week with ministerial approval). With all of the above elements in place, there is no reason why this strict limit couldn’t be extended to other people, meaning that we might truly see detention used as a last resort and very infrequently.
Surely now, with its plans to build a new centre in disarray, rather than floundering around ‘considering its position’ it’s time for the UK Government to take a positive decision to commit to this approach.
Scotland, with its Scottish Government committed to progressive migration policies, its separate legal system, and its wide range of civil society groups and individuals working with migrants, is the ideal place to start.