June 7 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Inside Scotland’s ‘barbaric’ detention centre

Refugees who have been denied asylum in the UK are held at the Dungavel Removal Centre near Strathaven. We hear from the Catholic activists protesting outside, and visiting those held inside.

Margaret McGowan

“Dungavel is built as prison system. It is not a detention centre. That is the first thing you should know.”

These are the words of Makielokele Nzelengi Daly, who fled war-torn Angola with his wife and was held at Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre for a month in 2005.

Dungavel is a 19th-century hunting lodge and was a summer retreat of the Dukes of Hamilton.

In 2001 it was converted to be used as a holding facility for asylum seekers whose applications have been refused and are awaiting removal from the UK.

When it was realised that children were being held at Dungavel, Justice & Peace activists, primarily from Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire along with a group from Ayrshire, became involved in what has become a long-running protest campaign.

At that point Motherwell Diocese Justice and Peace Group became involved.

Before it was opened, we attended a gathering there. We asked our Bishop, Joseph Devine, for a statement to be read out.

He supplied a brief but succinct statement: “I stand full square with those protesting outside Dungavel today. There is no place for Dungavel in the civilised society in which we live.”

What were our first impressions of Dungavel? For a start it was isolated but surrounded by beautiful grounds.

There was a sparse bus service there from Hamilton bus station, but at not very convenient times, so most people travelled by car.

The grey Victorian building with its turrets resembled a castle, but instead of a moat it had a five-metre-high steel fence topped with razor wire and CCTV cameras (below).

There is always a strong police presence outside filming us. However, during a recent protest there were very few police and they paid little attention to us.

Initially the people inside could come to the window and wave to us. They could see that we were there.

However, after activists at one large protest (despite being advised not to) hit the fences with sticks creating a terrible noise, residents are now held until protest gatherings are over.

The surrounding fences also have gotten higher and a system which reminded me of Auschwitz Concentration Camp came into operation.

When gifts are handed in to those inside a main gate is unlocked. The person then enters a small rectangular area surrounded by the same high fence with razor wire, while the gate behind them is locked. Another gate to the outside is unlocked and the gifts are received.

When Dungavel first opened, the Motherwell group with our spiritual adviser Br Gregory took every opportunity to question Jack McConnell, who was First Minister at the time of its opening, about breaches of human rights and the detention of children.

His answer was always that the Scottish Government has no direct authority over Dungavel, as asylum and immigration are matters reserved to the UK Parliament.

Also around that time, the then Bishop President of Justice and Peace John Mone, on a visit to Dungavel, was appalled by what he discovered.

He helped organise and then handed over to the home secretary a 21,089-signature petition against the detention of families with young children at Dungavel.

The detention of children was stopped in 2010 but statistics unearthed last week show that children are still being detained almost a decade later. There is work still to be done.


Margaret Donnelly

When Dungavel first opened it was called the ‘Detention Centre’ not, as now, a ‘Detention and Removal Centre.’ Most of the people detained lived in the Glasgow area and at first it seemed that many of the people held were from the Roma peoples.

The only way to visit those in detention was to become an official visitor. But a group in Ayrshire, called Ayrshire Friends of Refugees, who had protested outside the site since being told what use it was going to be put to, received information from a person who had been detained about some of the people inside, including names of families who were detained.

This enabled members of the group to visit these people and from them obtain further names.

At the time detainees received £1 per week as an allowance, although they could increase this by doing some jobs like cleaning.

Phone calls to solicitors were free but many people did not have a solicitor.

Our group managed to pass on names of people inside to groups who could help them.

Friends of Refugees Ayrshire (FREA) would buy BT phonecards to pass out, as well as provide shoes for people, especially trainers for the young men who seemed to spend most of their time playing football.

I remember once searching through Boots for a hair dye for a lady who was detained inside.

Among our group we tried to have three people visiting at the same time as this meant that in the visiting room we could meet three different people or families at the same time making one big group.

After a time, we were prevented from doing this and we were told that each of us could only speak to those we were named as visiting.

There were some lessons for school age children in Dungavel but for the teacher it was very difficult as all the children, whatever their age, were being taught together.

The EIS teachers’ union, through a teacher who took part in protests outside Dungavel, became involved but the UK Government argued that the teaching inside was adequate.

Teaching was stopped once detention of children stopped, however recent reports suggest children are still being detained.

I kept in touch with some families after they were released from Dungavel but they later left Scotland and moved to England.



Bishop William Nolan of Galloway

IN 2017, we rejoiced in the news that Dungavel was to close. It seemed that all the years of protest had paid off. But it was not a victory: the authority’s intention was only to move the problem elsewhere.

And indeed Dungavel still remains and the protest against it still continues.

May I commend all those who have been campaigning for many years over the injustice and inhumanity of this place.

Dungavel is a blot on the Scottish landscape, for we want our country to be a place where migrants and those who seek asylum are met with compassion and understanding.

They should not be locked up and treated as criminals, but allowed to live in the community where they can be supported while their cases are being assessed.

Your presence in support of those who are detained is a sign to them that they are not forgotten, and that the people of this country do care.

Your presence is also a thorn in the flesh to the government, prodding them to have a change of heart and a change of policy.

I express my admiration for your concern, your commitment and your perseverance. I commend all those who have been campaigning for many years over the injustice and inhumanity of this place.


Frances Gallagher, Justice and Peace Scotland

One of the most stressful and cruel aspects of immigration detention is the fact that people experiencing it have no idea when it will end as there is currently no time limit on immigration detention.

Of the 25,487 people who left detention in 2018, 200 people had been detained for over a year.

This is barbaric and must end. At the very least, it’s time to introduce a 28-day time limit.


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