By Kate Alexander, coordinator of Scottish Detainee Visitors (a member of the Detention Forum). This article originally appeared in Open Democracy’s Unlocked series.
Scotland may have a different relationship with immigration from the rest of the UK, but at least for now, Dungavel, which has been detaining men and women migrants since 2001, remains open.
Forty-five minutes south of Glasgow, six miles from the nearest village of Strathaven, along a winding, country road cutting through the rolling South Lanarkshire countryside, lies Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre. Here, effectively in the middle of nowhere, up to 249 people are detained, indefinitely.
Dungavel is the only centre of its kind in Scotland, where we have a different relationship with immigration from the rest of the UK. Between 2001 and 2011, Scotland’s migrant population grew faster than in other parts of the UK but it is still relatively small. Although falling well short of positive, Scottish public opinion on immigration is less negative than elsewhere in the UK and there is, at least at Scottish Government level, acceptance that future immigration, particularly of working aged people, is necessary to the Scottish economy. The recent referendum campaign even raised the possibility of a more humane asylum system and the closure of Dungavel.
But in the end, the Scottish population said no to independence and, at least for now, Dungavel remains open.
It is an outlier in the immigration detention estate. The closest immigration removal centre (IRC) to Dungavel is Morton Hall in Lincolnshire, 270 miles away. There are also two short-term holding facilities slightly nearer, at Manchester airport and in Larne in Northern Ireland. Dungavel’s remote position, as well as its status as the only IRC in Scotland, presents the men and women incarcerated there with particular challenges.
People are brought to Dungavel from all over the UK, taking them far from their families and the social networks they have built up. It is not on a bus route and the nearest train station, in Hamilton, is 14 miles away, so even people who have been living in Glasgow before their detention struggle to see family and friends regularly. For people who have no car, the journey to Dungavel can be lengthy. And for people coming from the south of England or the north of Scotland, a visit to a detained partner, parent, relative or friend necessitates an overnight stay.
As visitors to detainees in Dungavel, my colleagues and I frequently talk to people whose families and friends are unable to afford to visit them. If it were not for us, they would see nobody apart from other detainees and Dungavel staff for many weeks, and sometimes months and years.
For detainees applying for bail, this difficulty is amplified. It is not possible for a guarantor (or cautioner in Scotland) to give evidence by video link at their local Tribunal. They are required to attend in person in Glasgow. This is despite detainees having no option but to make their application by video link. Furthermore, there are no provisions for cautioners to attend later in the day, so they often have to travel early in the morning or the night before to appear at court for 9.30am. This can make the prospect prohibitively expensive for many. We regularly listen to detainees who are upset and frustrated that their bail application has no chance of success because their cautioner is unable to get to Glasgow.
Immigration law operates throughout the UK, but in Scotland it works within a separate Scottish Legal Aid Board, a separate legal profession of solicitors and advocates, and a separate court system. This has a number of impacts for people who are detained in Dungavel.
The 2012 Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which has severely restricted access to legal advice for detainees in other parts of the UK, does not apply in Scotland. This means detainees, while they are in Dungavel, are usually able to engage a solicitor to represent them. However, the centre’s remoteness means solicitors are unable to visit their clients regularly. Communication, where it happens, is often by letter or phone, which is further complicated by poor mobile reception. We often have concerns that detainees have not fully understood their legal position or the advice their solicitor has given them.
Our observations in the visits room also suggest that the isolation of the centre can cause difficulties for detainees needing access to interpretation services. We have seen other detainees being brought into the lawyers’ consulting room to interpret for friends. On one occasion, a solicitor asked one of our visitors to interpret for him.
Detainees, wherever they are detained, are subject to frequent and apparently unnecessary and arbitrary moves around the detention estate. This is an issue that the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) expressed its concern about last year, in its evidence to the UK Parliament Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into asylum.
These moves are disruptive and disorienting to any detainee and can compromise, and potentially frustrate, their ability to protect their fundamental rights. But when the moves are between Dungavel and centres in England, the disruption can be catastrophic because of the differences in the legal systems. Our experience is that a move to England often takes place just before an attempt is made to remove a detainee. It may then not be possible for the detainee’s Scottish solicitor to make representations on their behalf in England and they may not be able to find an English solicitor in time to challenge a possibly unlawful removal.
The position of women in detention has been the subject of considerable scrutiny in recent years. Research by Women for Refugee Women focusing on the stories of asylum seeking women in detention found that rape and torture were common experiences, and the allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood have again highlighted the vulnerabilities of women within the system. While attention, quite rightly, is focused on women in Yarl’s Wood, it is easy to forget that women are also detained in Dungavel.
Their situation is a cause for concern. There are just 14 bed spaces for women compared to 235 for men. Over the years that we have visited, it has not been unusual for just one or two women to be resident in the centre. This can be particularly isolating and frightening. In a film made by SDV, one woman who had been detained there described it as being “like a chicken surrounded by dogs”. A former detainee recently told me of his disquiet that women were detained in such an environment. He said unwanted attention and remarks from male detainees were commonplace. The histories of detained asylum-seeking women, as described in the Women for Refugee Women research, would make this experience particularly painful.
It is exacerbated by the accommodation available for women. Dungavel’s most recent inspection report notes that inspectors’ previous recommendation that women detainees should have access to single and double rooms rather than dormitories had not been met. The centre had made a funding application to UKBA (now the Home Office) to build more appropriate accommodation but this had been unsuccessful. The report notes that women find the large rooms unsettling, particularly when they arrive, often in the middle of the night.
People may have heard of Yarl’s Wood or Harmondsworth because scandals and disturbances occasionally bring such centres to the top of the news. Dungavel has been detaining people in Scotland since 2001 and I still get blank looks from some people when I mention it. It carries out its business in a way that generally does not bring it to public attention and its location, far from public view, can make it invisible. But it is as much a part of the UK’s cruel and increasingly challenged system of indefinite detention as those other centres.