We drive long, winding country lanes, empty of other cars, through rolling green hills, over model railroad bridges, trees stretching to the early evening sky. Our destination: an old 19th century hunting lodge deep in the countryside. A group of men stand outside smoking, surrounded by midges in the cool June air, looking out over the vast landscape….
…from behind a barbed wire fence. Welcome to Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre, Scotland’s indefinite detention centre, deep in the arse-end of nowhere.
Swirling barbed wire and cold grey fencing surround the forgotten lodge, as we huddle in a cold entranceway for just slightly too long for a guard to let us in. Locked doors at every turn. We’re fingerprinted and patted down and then we enter the visitation room.
At least it’s indoors. There’s a coffee machine. The guards are nice enough, y’know, just doing their job, just following orders, that old justification. We call some people down to make sure they have lawyers, to make sure they’re ok. I listen, we chat about our lives, we even chat about bloody Love Island. There are over 200 people currently being held here, with women drastically outnumbered by men. I can’t go into people’s individual stories. But I can talk about indefinite detention.
Bear in mind that in France I was dismayed when the National Assembly doubled their maximum detention period from 45 days to 90 days. In the UK, people who are detained are detained indefinitely. That means, you do not know when you are going to get out. It could be days, weeks, months, years.
Immigration detention is designed as a holding facility for administrative purposes – whether to facilitate a person’s removal from the UK, to ensure that they don’t run away while a claim is being resolved, or to establish somebody’s identity. It is an administrative process rather than a criminal procedure, and so it is the Home Office, not judges, who have the power to detain. The UK has one of the largest detention estates in Europe, and is the only European country with indefinite detention.
Detention should not have to exist at all. It was designed as a last resort, but is increasingly being used as a holding facility for people who don’t even need to be removed from the country. Of the 27,809 people who left detention in 2017, 52% were released back into their communities. Therefore, in the case of around 14,000 individuals – I’ll say it louder for people in the back, that’s fourteen thousand people – detention was probably not justified. And the rest? The other 14,000? Victims of trafficking and slavery, sent back to countries they no longer know. Homeless European nationals. Students who overstayed their visas, or arrived on the wrong one. People who just showed up for a standard check-in at the Home Office, as they have to do every week or sometimes every day, or those who failed to make it to a report due to lack of funds or illness. People seeking asylum, spat out by the system. People who have been transferred into detention after already serving the punishment of a prison sentence.
The mental strain is palpable. People count the days, not knowing how long they’re going to be held in for. Whether they’ll be taken away from their families and lives. When that might happen. Some feel that prison would be better – at least they’d know when they would be getting out. Tears burst to the surface easily. And, increasingly, people who are let out are released into homelessness and destitution, with no support.
Time flies, but not in here.
There are a small number of people who have been held in detention for over 3 years. But any length of time is too long. Dungavel is “one of the better ones”, but that doesn’t make it ok. We need to tear down these unnecessary holding facilities, starting with an end to indefinite detention. Diane Abbott has recently called for a time limit which would be a huge step in the right direction, and the fact that the opposition party is taking a stance on this will hopefully get that snowball rolling…slowly, slowly. Caroline Lucas is taking an even stronger stance, rightfully calling out Yarl’s Wood – the notorious women-only indefinite detention centre – as a place of psychological torture. But we need practical alternatives – community-based alternatives which work for the individuals caught up in the broken system, which eventually remove the need for detention at all.
Detained Voices blog: stories, experiences and demands by people held in UK immigration detention centres
Scottish Detainee Visitors (the group I am currently volunteering with in Glasgow)
And on a different, but related note: