A friendship to treasure

Visiting | Unlocked19

Image by @Carcazan

This blog post, about “an unlikely friendship, forged behind barbed wire and in the shadow of indefinite detention” was written for Scottish Detainee Visitors, and has been republished by Unlocking Detention with their permission.  It was written by Giovanna Fassetta, Chair of SDV.

IMan Tajik Photography

I first met Simon in Dungavel in August 2010. He was detained for a long time and little by little, the two of us became friends. It was an unlikely friendship: he a young man in his early thirties, with a taste for rap and bling, and me a woman of almost fifty, with no taste for rap or bling.

We had some fun visits with Simon. He was always upbeat, even after months of constant disappointment and frustration. He had served a prison sentence (having been involved in a drunken fight) and this was how he had been found not to have papers. So, after a few months in prison, he had been sent to Dungavel. We spoke on the phone between visits, and I trailed the shops trying to find a pair of trendy but cheap jeans that would be low enough in the waist for the look he was after (he wanted to keep his HMP denims, as he said they would fetch a good price on ebay).

Simon had arrived in the UK as a teenager with his mother, having left a country with a dreadful human rights record to which the Home Office had suspended returns. However, he was born in a country deemed safe and it was to that country that the Home Office was determined to send him, after he had spent half of his life in the UK. Telling the authorities that he knew no one in his country of birth, having moved away as a child of three, and that all his family was in the ‘unsafe’ country, made no difference.

Having spent almost two years in detention, with no end in sight, he eventually decided that going back to Africa was preferable to the life in limbo he was living and that at least in this way he could regain some control over his fate. So he was sent to the ‘safe’ country of his birth and, for a while, he disappeared. I was very concerned for him, and kept trying to get in touch with him via email and on Facebook.

Eventually, in June 2012, almost a year after he’d been ‘returned’, he resurfaced. He had slowly made his way to the unsafe country, and he had managed to get in touch with his family. He was ok, he reassured me. Simon is a fighter.  I should not have worried, but I was very relieved. We are still in touch and occasionally he writes an email, when he manages to get access to a computer.

A few months ago, I happened to notice his status update on Facebook. It read:

“Giovanna Fassetta I will be forever thankful for your hospitality, it meant a lot to me that you were there during tough times!! God bless!!!”

This is a friendship I treasure.

Like a chicken surrounded by dogs

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.

Immigration Detention and the Scottish Referendum

Image courtesy of Scottish Detainee Visitors

This post was written by Detention Forum Scotland, in response to the Detention Forum’s question of ‘what are your hopes for the detention inquiry in light of the ‘NO’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum?’  This post originally appeared on the Detention Forum website on 29 September 2014.

Many organisations working within the field of migration, and the individuals whose lives are affected daily by UK immigration policy, waited with baited breath for the result of the recent Scottish Referendum. Emotions ran high, the air was tense, everywhere you turned there was talk and arguments laid out for one side or the other. A Scotland with a new and progressive immigration system seemed possible.

For the Detention Forum Scotland and the people held in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre (Scotland’s only detention centre) the promise that, ‘In an independent Scotland, we will close Dungavel’ (Scotland’s Future, p271) was encouraging. Like every other policy change and promise the Scottish National Party (SNP) put forward in the run up to the referendum, there was scepticism and unanswered questions regarding what closing Dungavel actually meant for the people held there. What would the future hold for people whom Scotland still planned to remove? Nonetheless, it was a hugely progressive promise. A promise that moved Scotland’s potential immigration policy far from the attitude that prevails in Westminster. A promise that could show what more humane attitude towards immigration policy throughout the UK would look like.

As Scotland voted to remain part of the UK with a majority of 55%, this promise must not be left to fade away into a distant memory. The organisations and individuals who were waiting hopefully for change must keep hoping, talking, and raising awareness of immigration detention. The parliamentary inquiry has thus come at an opportune time. We see that this Inquiry is the place where these memories can be kept alive.

Detention Forum Scotland has held two meetings to discuss some of the submission of evidence from Scotland. From these meetings organisations including; Bridging the Gap (a community organisation in Glasgow), Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV), Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet), Scottish Refugee Council, and the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group will be submitting written evidence. There have also been individuals who feel strongly about detention involved, including an immigration solicitor, community members and former detainees.

Some of these organisations have also supported individuals who are currently held in Dungavel to tell their stories. For SDV, supporting current detainees to get their voices heard was more problematic than was first expected. For some detainees the task of giving evidence was too emotionally draining. The detainees who wished to submit evidence faced a number of barriers in getting their voice out. Language barriers prevented them from writing submissions, poor phone reception prevented visitors from being able to talk over the phone to detainees and record their evidence. This left the detainees having to give evidence to an SDV visitor in the centre’s visit room. A room in which there is no privacy, officers are present at all times. It is deemed neither a safe space nor a confidential one in which detainees are able to give a full account of their experiences.

It is crucial to acknowledge these issues both in relation to the barriers that immigration detention creates in allowing the voices of detainees to be heard, but also as elements of immigration detainees’ daily, lived experiences. These conditions will be familiar, wherever people are detained in the UK. But for a while, we in Scotland were able to experience those conditions in the hope that they might come to an end. For some of us, this referendum was not about nationalism, but about something more hopeful and inclusive. This Inquiry now carries forward that hope.