Immigration detention policy in Scotland attracts criticism from those familiar with it, but goes unnoticed by much of the wider population. Kate Alexander illuminates the various issues associated with current policy and argues that recent studies and reviews make an overwhelming case for change.
The death of a Chinese man in Dungavel detention centre in September, the third death in detention in less than a month, brought to public attention an institution that more usually remains hidden from view. Located 45 minutes south of Glasgow, six miles from the nearest town of Strathaven, and along a winding country road, Dungavel is effectively in the middle of nowhere. Here, up to 249 people are detained, indefinitely, for immigration purposes.
Dungavel is the only centre of its kind in Scotland and one of nine across the UK. Its purpose, according to the UK government, is to remove people with no right to be here from the country. This is reflected in its official name of Immigration Removal Centre (IRC). Dungavel and the other IRCs can together detain over 3,000 people at any one time and approximately 28,000 people pass through them every year. Yet they remain relatively low profile, only occasionally coming to the attention of the public when hit by scandals, such as the recent deaths and revelations of abuse at Brook House.
As an organisation supporting people who are detained or have been detained in Scotland, Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV) sees, on a weekly basis, the harm detention causes to individuals, families and communities. Our volunteers visit people detained in Dungavel, twice a week. Our Life After Detention group provides peer support, case work, and a space for creative activity for people who have been released from detention.
We meet people from all over the world: from countries with long established communities in the UK such as India and Pakistan, from war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria, and increasingly from European countries, especially Romania. They are diverse in terms of their immigration status and include asylum seekers whose applications have been refused, people who have overstayed their visas, people who have breached the terms of their visas, people who have been refused permission to enter the UK, and foreign nationals who have served a prison sentence and have been issued with a deportation order.
Despite their diversity, the people we meet share a sense of shock that they have been deprived of their liberty on the authority of a civil servant at the Home Office. This is an aspect of the UK’s immigration detention system that is little understood. People are detained for the administrative convenience of the state and there is no judicial oversight of decisions to detain. People we meet who have had no contact with the criminal justice system are shocked to find themselves locked up in prison-like conditions. Those who have served a prison sentence are also shocked that they face the double punishment of detention rather than being released.
THE UK: AN UNENVIABLE EXCEPTION?
The UK is the only country in Europe that has no time limit on detention. Nobody entering Dungavel, or one of the other detention centres like it in England, has any idea of how long they will stay there. This makes immigration detention a uniquely stressful experience. People experience two contradictory fears simultaneously. On the one hand, they fear that they will be immediately removed to a country from which they have fled, or with which they have no current connection; and on the other hand, they fear they will be in detention for many weeks, months, or even years. And it can be a very long time. At the end of June 2017, well over half of the 3,000 people in detention had been detained for more than 28 days (about 1,700 people). Eighty had been detained for over a year. One man had been detained for over four years.
Nobody entering Dungavel, or one of the other detention centres like it in England, has any idea of how long they will stay there. This makes immigration detention a uniquely stressful experience.
This stress has real mental and physical health impacts. As visitors, we witness the people we visit deteriorate before our eyes under the strain of indefinite detention. People like Pablo, who we visited in Dungavel for more than two years. He had come to Scotland as a teenager from Africa. As an adult, he formed a relationship with a Scottish woman and had a family. A brush with the law led to a prison sentence and subsequent deportation order. As is not uncommon for people in this position, the Home Office faced intractable barriers in their efforts to remove him. So he remained in detention for three years.
During this time, he made the decision to stop seeing his family. The journey to Dungavel was difficult for them, he did not like his children seeing him in detention, and not knowing when or if it would be possible to resume normal family relations was stressful for all of them. As he put it: ‘you have to isolate yourself from everything that makes you human to survive detention’.
Then one day, after three years in detention, he was released. More than two years later he is still living in Scotland, with his immigration situation unresolved. On the positive side, he has been able, slowly, to rebuild his relationship with his children. But he is still unable to plan for the future. And he will never be able to get his three years back.
In fact, more than half of the people leaving detention every year are, like Pablo, released back into the community, raising serious questions about why they were detained in the first place. The cost to the public purse is high – an average of £86 per person per day. But the human cost is far higher.
The health impacts of detention are exacerbated by concerns about the quality of the health care in detention. Care is supposed to be equivalent to the NHS, but people tell us that paracetamol is offered for everything, and that it can be difficult to get an appointment with a doctor. A woman we visited recently was very distressed to be taken to hospital for an appointment in handcuffs. Her distress was increased by the officer accompanying her failing to leave the room during her consultation, making her extremely uncomfortable.
Our experience is that a move to England often takes place just before an attempt is made to remove someone. It may then not be possible for a 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.
Wherever they are detained, people are subject to frequent, and apparently unnecessary and arbitrary, moves around the detention estate. These moves are disruptive and disorienting to anyone 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 much more serious 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 someone. It may then not be possible for a 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.
Safeguards to prevent vulnerable people being detained are ineffective. We regularly meet people who tell us they have been trafficked, or have been tortured. We also see people with serious mental health problems, people who appear very frail, and people with disabilities.
The position of women in detention has been the subject of considerable scrutiny in recent years. 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. 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”.
Women are also detained in Dungavel. 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.
Anyone who has been detained lives in fear of it happening again. Many people in our Life After Detention group report to the Home Office regularly to comply with the conditions imposed on them. Each time they do that they worry they will be detained again. As Miriam, one of the group says: “Because of detention I can’t sleep for a week before signing at the Home Office in Glasgow”. That fear ripples out to their families, friends and whole communities, and is felt by people who have never been detained.
A PUSH FOR CHANGE
Over the last few years, advocacy and campaigning focused on immigration detention in the UK has resulted in the issue being pushed higher up the political agenda, with major inquiries, parliamentary debates, and research calling for urgent reform. The Detention Inquiry report of 2015 concluded that the UK detains too many people for too long, and that the system was ‘expensive, ineffective and unjust’. It recommended a time-limit and a move towards community-based alternatives to detention.
The 2016 UK government commissioned Shaw Review into the detention of vulnerable people echoed many of the findings of the Detention Inquiry and called for a drastic reduction in the number of people detained, and the length of detention. In response, the government said that it accepted the broad thrust of Shaw’s recommendations and would introduce reforms to the system that would result in less use of detention and a reduction in the length of detention.
The Immigration Act 2016, although very much an extension of ‘the hostile environment’ in terms of immigration, did actually introduce some limited reforms to detention. This included a new process for managing vulnerable people in detention, and the introduction of automatic bail hearing after four months in detention – the first time judicial oversight has been brought into the system. It also limited the detention of pregnant women to 72 hours, mirroring the situation for families with children, which has been in existence since 2010.
What’s not happened has been the ‘drastic reduction’ in detention envisaged by Shaw. In September 2017, Sir Stephen Shaw began a follow up review, and in a perhaps not unrelated move, the Home Office announced in October that The Verne, the 580-place detention centre near Weymouth, would close in the new year. It is certainly welcome that the Verne will close, but fundamental and radical reform is needed to address the growing concerns about the use of detention.
Working with people subject to immigration control using a case management approach is more humane, is cheaper and has been shown to be more effective.
There is increasing evidence from both home and abroad of the advantages of community-based alternatives to detention. Working with people subject to immigration control using a case management approach is more humane, is cheaper and has been shown to be more effective. Linking the development of such alternatives with better end of sentence planning for foreign national ex-offenders could dramatically reduce the numbers of people being detained.
These measures would need to be accompanied by a strict time-limit on detention. The 2015 Detention Inquiry recommended a maximum of 28 days, a call subsequently supported by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. SDV believes such a time limit would represent a vital first step, but also that there is a case for greater ambition, and the extension of the 72-hour time limit from families and pregnant women to all people at risk of detention.
Immigration is a reserved matter. But Scotland has a devolved parliament with wide powers, a separate legal system, and a generally more progressive approach to immigration and asylum than the rest of the UK. We believe that makes Scotland the ideal place to pilot the new approach described above. It’s time we did so.
Unlocking Detention, a three-month social media project shining a light on immigration detention, is currently taking place. Each week, the spotlight falls an individual detention centre. The tour will be taking place through tweets, Facebook, photos, blog posts and other interactive material. It will ‘visit’ Dungavel between 11 and 17 December. Join in using the hashtag #Unlocked17.