Dungavel: Scotland’s Shame

In recent days, the question over how to handle refugees and asylum seekers has reached a boiling point. With the far right in ascendance all over the world- from Hungary and Poland, to the USA and UK- and refugees from war, famine and climate change likely to increase, it seems that the victims of circumstance are going to be left in an increasingly hostile world with nowhere to go.

In the US, Trump’s nativist rhetoric might be shocking to some, but far more damaging to immigrant communities have been institutions like ICE that have existed for longer than Trump’s administration has allowed him to put his rhetoric into practice; founded under Bush Jr, later expanded and used by Obama to enforce mass deportations of groups like the Haitian community, under Trump ICE has been accused of enacting sterilisation of immigrant women in concentration camps. A disgusting practice that is currently being investigated by the US government, but hardly surprising considering Trump’s own comments on refugees and asylum seekers, all in the backdrop of the USA’s long history of bigotry.

This isn’t to say that the American public are, to a number, happy with the policy of their government; cries of “Abolish ICE” have been heard at protests across America, and an attack on an ICE facility was carried out in 2019.

In the UK the debate over what to do with asylum seekers is being answered by the Tory party, an organisation with it own long history of racism that had attempted to rebrand as a modern party under David Cameron, but now led by Boris Johnston, a man prone to bigoted statements that won his election with a manifesto that specifically targeted British Roma by promising to seize their property. Perhaps a party winning an election on a promise to target an ethnic group that was a prime target during the holocaust should have raised more of an alarm among the public, but now this party is the one in charge of determining the UKs policy concerning asylum seekers.

The answers these amoral ghouls are coming up with are as suitably evil as you would imagine: Priti Patel considering shipping asylum seekers to Ascension– an island in the South Atlantic with a population of just over 800, that’s closer to Brazil and Nigeria than it is to the home isle- was a particularly egregious highlight. Being around 6400 kilometres from the UK, the primary reason this was argued against wasn’t on the moral grounds of turning an island in the middle of nowhere into a concentration camp, but instead the costs involved in the morally vacant venture.

The idea of having offshore detention centres to process migrants is heavily inspired by the Australian system of processing migrants, and the idea itself appears to be gaining traction in the UK, despite the failure of the Ascension plan. The idea itself is not without controversy with any such plan meaning the UK would need to withdraw from both the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights to avoid violating the law. The fact that a policy that is widely detracted as based on racism and denying basic human rights violations is being calmly debated simply because another English speaking nation has already put it into practice demonstrates just how far into xenophobia the UK has fallen.

What then about Scotland? We have always portrayed ourselves as the more humanitarian part of the union but how much does that really hold up to inspection? These tensions between those who want to welcome immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees and those who would instead embrace xenophobia definitely exist in our own nation. One saving caveat, at least, is that our government is not seeking to ignite these tensions for political gain. For example, after the tragic attack in June this year by asylum seeker Badreddin Abadlla Adam the Scottish government’s response was to challenge the Home Office for the way it had been treating asylum seekers.

Nicola Sturgeon even chimed into the debate down south around the possibility of offshore detention centres by saying that “They [Westminster] can rest assured that any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me”. Is this true however? 

In South Lanarkshire, near Strathaven exists Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. This facility is operating on Scottish soil, for profit by a private company in the name of the Home Office, housing those who have had their asylum pleas rejected, while they wait for deportation. Currently the capacity of the site has been reduced from 249 to 125 at the start of the year, but this might already be too little too late. A recent outbreak of Covid-19 has resulted in fresh calls to close the facility by refugee rights groups, who say the facility has a history of poor treatment for the people it houses, evidenced recently by the death of a man in the facility in 2017. With detention already putting a strain on a person’s physical and mental health one can only imagine the stress a covid outbreak could cause in a facility like this. I would also like to remind readers that these people haven’t broken any laws, they have simply been denied asylum by the Home Office, and that nearly two fifths of the people housed in this facility are reported as being vulnerable. At the time of writing the Home Office have not released the numbers of those infected by and who might have died from Covid-19 at this facility, and even refuses to give exact numbers on the total number of people held there currently.

If Scotland wants to maintain its reputation and self image as a land of tolerance and understanding we have to confront the reality of Dungavel, because a tolerant society can not tolerate a facility like this on its own soil.