Cutting through the Scotch mist. The truth about asylum in Scotland
David Brown says that Scots are now also being affected by insane asylum ‘policies’
North of the border a tense row rumbles on. So intense has it become that even devolution has come under scrutiny in the unfolding political drama. Debate focuses on the “barbaric” treatment of asylum seekers within the now infamous Dungavel centre. A former hunting lodge, Dungavel was converted and opened by the Home Office as a short term immigration and removal centre in September 2001 but only recently has it become the centre of the political battleground. The main crux of the matter is the treatment of the nine children within the centre and this has been highlighted as an example of the Home Office’s ‘inhumane’ treatment of asylum seekers. Campaigners claim the state has no right to detain the children of asylum seekers as they have committed no crime and furthermore, if they must be held, they should receive an education. But the lack of clarity, unison or even a proper acknowledgement of the problem from the government has infuriated many and caused divisions to open up within the increasingly fractured Scottish Labour party.
The Scottish Executive has so far refused steadfastly to comment on the issue, saying only that immigration is a policy matter reserved to Westminster and administered by the Home Office. The Home Office in turn has robustly defended Dungavel as a ‘necessity’. Education, however, is the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, and no one can decide where on the overlap the issue lies. In the meantime, an independent committee of MPs has ensured a basic education provision of English, Maths and History is to be taught in conjunction with the local education authority. However, the silence and inaction from Holyrood has been seized upon by campaigners to manipulate the truth regarding the treatment of the detainees by way of deliberate lies and misinformation. Picking up on this, the ensuing media circus has done little itself in the way of unbiased reporting.
Instead, they have succeeded only in whipping themselves up into frenzy while the public, although concerned to begin with, has now grown increasingly wary and largely unmoved. Nonetheless, it has continued to become the focal point for a cross party section of Left-wing politicians and campaigners, who, highlighting the detention of children as a gross abuse of human rights, have united to condemn it as little better than a Nazi concentration camp. Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan has branded the centre “shameful”, while human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar claimed the government’s policy was “one of fascism”. Director of ‘anti-racist’ charity Positive Action, and ubiquitous Left-wing voxpop, Robina Quershi, described Dungavel as “an ugly scar on Scotland’s conscience”. The sudden media attention and flood of horror stories led to an initial burst of public sympathy, culminating in protest demonstrations at the centre’s gates.
The largest to date was organised by the Scottish Trade Unions Congress. Buses were laid on from Glasgow’s George square to ferry passengers to the South Lanarkshire countryside and even passersby were encouraged to journey with tales of hideous cruelty. The event was neatly planned to coincide with the second anniversary of the centre’s opening and was said by the organisers to reflect the Scottish public’s concern at the treatment of asylum seekers. STUC secretary Bill Spiers raised the stakes further when he declared that Dungavel represented an unacceptable violation of human rights and had become ‘Scotland’s Guantanamo Bay’. But while the rhetoric about Dungavel continues to verge on the irrational, the glaringly obvious fact, which refuses to be acknowledged by those on the Left, is that Dungavel is a removal centre. It is standard practice that those seeking asylum in Britain are simply not detained while their application is being processed. The empowerment of detention occurs only when the request has failed; when those in question have been asked to leave but have refused.
In other words, those detained at Dungavel are the hardcore and inflexible illegal immigrants at the very end of their appeals process; people who the government states have exhausted all legal avenues and are at risk of disappearing unless they are held. Those individuals who have children in Dungavel have made a personal decision to do so. It is the aim of the Home Office to keep families in the centre for only a short time until their deportation, and it is not bureaucracy which stalls this process, but the purposeful delaying tactics of the adult detainees. Reports of opportunist human rights lawyers scouring for business amongst the detainees have become commonplace.
The result is that the families pointlessly string out the appeals process and end up confined for even longer periods, benefiting no-one but the lawyers. The Home Office has publicly declared it regrets that families with children have to be detained but “Sadly the actions of the adults in the family make this necessary… It is not typical for families to be detained for a long period of time”. And recent changes implemented by the Home Office now require “express ministerial authorisation” for any child to be detained longer than 28 days. However, this was not the case for the Kurdish Ay family and which ignited the current media frenzy. The Ay family set new records for time being held, detained for just over a year. Campaigners seized upon the children’s detention as definitive proof of the centre’s callous regime.
But what wasn’t recognised was that the family had made and lost a series of applications for refugee status to gain entry here from Germany over a span of 11 years since they first arrived from Turkey. After all applications failed they came to the UK, hidden in the back of a lorry, in June 1999. Moves to remove the family began after it was discovered that the Germans had repeatedly dealt with their application. In August last year the family were finally deported, amongst scenes of staged hysteria by the Scottish Socialist Party, leaving the taxpayer to pick up their tab for their stay estimated at £500,000. Behind them they left also the apparent “victims of Scotland’s shame” – granted freedom of movement and association with unrestricted access to use the host of facilities that reads like the itinerary of Oriana’s upper deck: cinema, gymnasium, games room, multi-lingual library, hosting of multicultural events, bingo, karaoke, five-a-side football, satellite television, English classes, internet access, supervised crèche and dining facilities serving a multi-national variety of foods.
Emotions were stirred again in March when the Home Office confirmed plans to expand the centre with the construction of a new £3m unit to accommodate a further 43 single males. The project is due to be complete by August 2004 and will increase Dungavel’s capacity to 193 detainees. Critics branded news of the expansion “a disgrace”, a somewhat predictable and tired riposte, displaying a wearying in the fight against the centre’s existence. Instead, the media spotlight moved onto the case of three failed asylum seekers who stitched up their mouths and went on hunger strike in Glasgow.
The Kurdish men arrived in Scotland three years ago but their appeals for refugee status failed and were told they would be sent back to Iran. They claimed to be political activists, in fear of their lives if they should return to their homeland. The hunger strike lasted a full four weeks during which the men fell unconscious and were rushed to hospital, gaining widespread and sympathetic media coverage. Although at first declining to comment on the matter, First Minister Jack McConnell eventually made a plea for the men to end their protest, stating simply that the asylum process needed a bottom line and the decision must be accepted. Encouraged by what supporters claimed was “overwhelming and widespread” public support, the men called off their protest.
They were evicted from their council-funded accommodation at the end of April with one of the men vowing to continue his fight in “other ways”. In the face of largely unfair media criticism, Glasgow City Council maintained the eviction was their only option by law. However, it was not the first time the council had come under scrutiny for its handling of such matters. With the population of Scotland in decline, the official stance of the Scottish Executive has been to attract migration north of the border. But the ‘Not in my back yard’ attitude has been prevalent and until recently, Glasgow was the only council in Scotland willing to accept refugees. As such, the city has become a key location in the government’s drive to disperse asylum seekers away from the south east and now accommodates the highest concentration of asylum seekers outwith London. The city council currently has in place almost 6,000 asylum seekers in 64 different areas of the city. Many of these areas are already crippled with extreme social deprivation; circumstances unfair on the indigenous and refugee populations alike.
And furthermore, at the outset, neither the government nor local authority provided any additional resources or planning for the surge in population to these areas. The most notable of these was Sighthill, where the majority of refugees were initially housed. In 2001, tensions escalated to the extreme, whereby a 22-year-old Iranian was fatally stabbed and riot police had to supervise demonstration and counter-demonstration. The council finally appointed a mediator to liase between both sides in an attempt to diffuse tensions and bring the communities together. A Social Research Paper investigating the asylum process in Scotland pinpointed “a lack of communication between the council and local residents” as the main reason for friction. But as the numbers of asylum seekers continues to increase rapidly throughout the country, the problems of assimilation do not; a testament to the Scottish people rather than the Executive.
Derek Turner, 37 year old journalist and editor of .....
- That is sadly no longer with us.
An independent, London-based magazine of politics, ideas and culture set up to articulate unfashionable and politically incorrect ideas of all kinds.