A post-detention Scotland?

Scottish Detainee Visitors | Unlocked19

Image courtesy of Scottish Detainee Visitors and illustration by @carcazan

With a declining occupancy in Dungavel, the only Scottish detention centre, Kate Alexander, director of the Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV) is imagining what Scotland would look like post-detention and what it would mean for the visitors who have a well established and effective strategy.

At a recent visit to Dungavel, my colleague and I were told that as part of a programme of refurbishment, prompted by criticisms in the second Shaw Review and the latest inspection report, capacity at the centre had been reduced from 249 to 125. No announcement, no fanfare, just quietly halving the capacity of Scotland’s only detention centre.

It is not an entirely surprising decision. Government statistics show that the last time more than 200 people were detained there was in 2015 and since early 2018, the number of people detained has been under 100. As visitors to the centre, we have been aware of low occupancy at Dungavel for some time. It is one of a number of changes in the landscape of detention that SDV will need to think about as we embark on our strategic planning process for the next three years.

Not only are fewer people being detained, they are being detained for shorter periods. In previous years, our visitors visited people who were held in Dungavel for many months and sometimes years. One man I visited in my early days in SDV was detained there for over four years. Currently, the longest anyone has been detained in the UK is two and a half years. Being detained for this length of time is clearly unacceptable and unjust but compared to the situation at the end of 2011 when one person had been detained for over six years, it is progress.

How does change impact on visitors’ work?

These developments are the result of successful campaigning by people with experience of detention and the organisations that work with them such as Detention Forum and its members. The Government is under sustained pressure to detain fewer people and to do so for shorter periods. There has already had an impact on the experience of visitors. We know that one of the most positive experiences people gain from visiting, is building long term supportive relationships and friendships with people they meet in detention, and these relationships are now shorter and less frequent. It’s an odd position to be in. We are obviously pleased that change is happening, but for our visitors, that change comes at the cost of a changing visiting dynamic.

In her blog for Unlocking Detention a couple of weeks ago, Ali McGinley of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID), considered the impact that a time limit on detention might have on visiting groups. She argued that with a 28 day time limit, visiting would change to one-off support sessions rather than long term supportive relationships. This is something we have already had to give some thought to. In 2016, when the Government announced its plans to close Dungavel and replace it with a short term holding facility at Glasgow Airport, we faced the prospect of redesigning our services to work with people who would be detained in the new centre for a week or less before removal, or more likely a move to another centre in England. That did not happen and Dungavel remains open, but we are again thinking about how to respond to change. Our thoughts now are more positive. I have never been more hopeful that a time limit will be introduced in the short to medium term. This will be a major step forward for people in detention and those at risk of detention, but we will have to think about what that means for us and our visitors and how we work with people who are no longer held indefinitely.

Alternatives to detention

Discussions of a time limit have always gone hand in hand with discussions of alternatives to detention. Campaigning on detention reform has argued that it is possible for the Government to manage immigration without the use of detention. The Home Office is now committed to a series of pilots of community based alternatives to detention. We have consistently argued that Scotland is the ideal place to introduce alternatives. It has a devolved Government with wide powers and a more positive approach to immigration than at Westminster, a strong and vibrant voluntary sector working on migration, and now it only has capacity to detain 125 people. Furthermore, the Scottish Government has made no secret of its desire to hold another independence referendum. Like last time, any such move is likely to come with a pledge to close Dungavel in an independent Scotland, which means any new administration would have to consider alternatives.

But something SDV, and other organisations like us, will have to ponder as we continue to make the case for alternatives is that they are not about detention at all. They are about moving to a system with no detention. And so, as we look toward the next three years, we might be looking to a time when detention will no longer exists in Scotland and will need to think about whether there will be a role for SDV at all in a post-detention Scotland.

It’s a rather thrilling prospect!

Visiting people held in Dungavel immigration detention centre

Abigail, SDV | Unlocked19

To close this year’s Unlocking Detention by a ‘visit’ to Dungavel and reflect on what’s next, we have asked volunteer visitors of Scottish Detainee Visitors, ordinary people doing extraordinary job of witnessing what’s happening to people locked up in Dungavel, to share their experiences.

Carol (not her real name)

I had heard about Scottish Detainee Visitors from my daughter (who used to be a visitor) but did not think there were visitors from Edinburgh. Have considered volunteering with Freedom from torture but couldn’t find a way to do it. Eventually went on a course with Scottish Refugee Council, which lead to joining SDV.

I was quite unsure about what I would be doing and how I would speak to the people I visited when my visiting started. I am not quite sure what my expectations were, but found it difficult knowing what to talk about, and aware the people we visited were wanting us to help them get out which we could not do so rather frustrating. Having to talk to a person through a glass window, as she was not allowed into the visiting room, was a bit of a surprise.

Another surprise was that the UK detains and often deports Europeans who have committed a crime and served their sentence, rather than releasing them after their sentence.

Before each visit, I make sure I have identification, English money* in case needed, enough paperwork, and pens. If organising visit, I decide who to visit, and phone and text them.

(*Scottish Detainee Visitors give a small cash gift to people who are being removed. They have learned that if the give them Scottish notes, they can be difficult to exchange, so visitors go to a bank that will issue bank of England notes.)

On the way there, we often discuss who we are to visit, and the political injustice that leads to people being detained. On the way back, we are usually talking about the problems and injustices we have just encountered. It worries me there is very little we can do. Nothing encourages me.

Since I started visiting, my view of the UK has changed. I did not realise what an unwelcoming country we are. I did know there were problems for asylum seekers, but never realised the extent of the desire of the government to get rid of people who have families here, and have worked here for many years.


I saw Kate Alexander at Scottish Refugee Council whilst i was volunteering there and got interested in visiting after hearing about how much of a difference it makes to people in detention. My son was once in detention so I identified with the need.

I had visited my son in detention once and so I had an idea of what detention was like- prison like. I expected Dungavel to be just like Morton Hall or worse but I found it to be better although the fence outside was not what I expected. The fence made it look like a maximum prison.

The most memorable positive experience was when a person I was visiting gave me a playing card case that he made at one of the handcraft sessions with a flag of Zimbabwe and a statement “Abigail Thank you” painted on it as well.

Being a visitor has taught me to have unregarded positive response, that is accepting everyone who comes down to see us when we visit as they are and not being judgemental towards those who would have come having served prison sentences. I just see them all as people who need to be valued and supported the best way we can.

I am sure people who have never visited Dungavel do not know that you cannot take certain things like food, old CDs or DVDs, books, toiletries that have an alcohol ingredient in them etc.  You cannot hand over directly whatever you take for people in detention. Just like visiting a prison, visitors are subject to security checks. Whilst visitors are seated with people they are visiting, there is always an officer watching their every move. People visited cannot use visit room’s toilets. There is however refreshment kiosk machines that visitors and the people visited can obtain snacks from.  The provision of dining tables in the visitors’ room is good although I may not know how frequently they are used.

Before visiting, I check the rota days before to see who is visiting with me and also to see if I am driving. I need to make sure I have my ID so I am not stopped from visiting.  If I am organising a visit, I print out previous visit reports and people’s list.  I collect all the necessary paperwork to give to people in detention.  If I have read on the visit report of individuals confirmed for removal, I take £30 for each person so when they get to their destination they have a bit of cash with them.  I make sure I have used the convenience room before I head off to avoid being desperate whilst waiting outside the gate.  I have found it helpful to phone the people on the visit list so they can expect us and be waiting near the visit room.

It feels good on the way to Dungavel as I think about the good cause of visiting people in detention but can be very stressful on the way back at the realisation that there is not much we can do as visitors to get people out of detention. It is not a good feeling when during the visit you learn that a person has been given a ticket to be removed to their home country where they will face danger or even death on arrival.

But when we are informed about the release and grant of bail for people we had visited, that is encouraging.

My view of the UK has changed since visiting people in detention in the sense that I thought the UK observed human rights but I have found the Home Office to be a law in themselves especially regarding the indefinite length of stay for people In detention.

If I had the chance to meet the Home Secretary, I would say, stop the inhumane system of putting people in immigration detention centres. And close all detention centres and find an alternative way of managing people’s immigration statuses.


I applied to become a volunteer visitor after volunteering in Calais because I wanted to do something to support people affected by the UK’s “Hostile Environment“.

I was nervous about how to speak with people in detention as somebody who’s in a privileged position by comparison. However, I found it much easier to chat with people in Dungavel than I’d feared.

It’s hard to say what my most memorable experience has been but I was really moved when, during our last visit before Christmas, we were given a beautiful card for Scottish Detainee Visitors signed by all the people we’d been seeing and who were still in Dungavel at that time.

Surprisingly, it has been uplifting to meet people in detention – some of them having been detained for many months and who are very scared of the possibility of being removed – who provide wonderful emotional support to others in Dungavel and look out for new and particularly vulnerable people there.

Following the Panorama expose of staff brutality against people detained in Brook House and evidence of very abusive, inhumane actions in other detention centres, it can be easy to imagine that many or most people working in detention centres have a racist attitude and engage in abusive behaviour. That doesn’t seem to be the situation in Dungavel, where people routinely say that “the staff are fine – it’s the Home Office whose fault it is we’re here”.

Instead, at Dungavel, we’re seeing an inherently oppressive and abusive system (abusive in terms of detaining people indefinitely simply because of their immigration status) being implemented by people who’re perfectly ordinary and friendly and who may think they’re helping the people they help keep locked up. That in itself seems very depressive – although, of course, it would be far worse if there were staff behaving in such an appalling way as happened at Brook House.

I think people who don’t know about immigration detention need to know this.

Firstly, people are forced to waste months if not more of their lives, locked up with nothing to do and no control over their lives and future. Secondly, people’s spirit and mental health are being eroded as the weeks and months pass by in immigration detention. And thirdly, it is an oppressive system that is entirely arbitrary and Kafkaesque.

When I organise a visit, I spend time looking through the last visit report and people’s list and writing out two lists of who I’ll ask for – a minimalist one to hand to the staff and one with more info for the visitors. I try to phone as many of the people to see as possible and leave messages – and make sure we have money for anyone getting removed and enough paperwork between us. During the journey, if somebody missed the last Edinburgh visit, we update him/her and share anything important to know. But otherwise, we have nice chats about family, holidays, etc.

When I started visiting, I was really worried about my future status as an EU-27 citizen because of Brexit and had a great deal of stress involved in getting Permanent Residency (before the easier Settled Status applications were announced). Although my situation couldn’t be compared to that of people in immigration detention, it felt as if the Home Office cast a shadow over a lot of my life. Even more so because we were hosting an asylum seeker at the time who’d been in Dungavel before and was at high risk of being detained again.

I wouldn’t want to meet Priti Patel (who was the Home Secretary before the General Election). How could I speak with somebody who basically doesn’t believe in the common humanity of people wherever they come from and for whatever reasons they are here – and who displays no empathy in her speeches and decision-making.


I had started reading about immigration in the UK and found out about detention, which before that I didn’t even know existed as I think many people still don’t. I found that lots of detention centres have visiting groups and I had a look to see if there was one in Scotland and then found out about Dungavel and Scottish Detainee Visitors.

I was nervous about visiting for the first time and really didn’t know what to expect but when you reach the gates and barbed wire fences it does still shock you at how intimidating a place it is. Then I felt guilty about that because at least I got to leave.

Lots of the stories about how many people are treated by the Home Office are very memorable for the wrong reasons. But the great positive memories are meeting friends who I made in Dungavel in Glasgow for coffee or lunch after being released and especially when one friend got his leave to remain and we chatted about how great it was to spend time just like normal friends and most people get to do daily and completely take for granted.

I think most people even if they have heard about immigration detention don’t know where Dungavel is. It is completely isolated and in the middle of nowhere so for people that do have families it’s very difficult for them to visit, especially if they don’t live in Scotland.

On the way to a visit I try to keep and open and positive mindset but I worry about it if I’ve had a bad day at work before setting off or I’m feeling tired but knowing how lucky I am to even be able to work and not have to worry about deportation, immigration policy or many other issues that people in Dungavel have to deal with motivates me.

I worry a lot more about the UK and the way the immigration system currently works but also feel so lucky and so guilty that I benefit from so many privileges that come with simply being born in the UK.

If I met the Home Secretary, I would tell her to speak to actual people affected by policies but using compassion and humanity instead of treating everyone as if they are lying.