On 18 May, UK immigration minister Damian Green announced there would be no more child detainees at Dungavel, Scotland’s immigration removal centre.
Good news you might think? Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister has welcomed the announcement, allowing him to make the high moral claim that no children are imprisoned in Scotland. But the consequence for refugee families is a traumatic removal to England in sealed vans. Families will be isolated from their friends, and personal relationships with solicitors are lost, weakening appeal prospects.
Dawn raids stopped
There has been a strong campaign to support refugees in Scotland, including the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, the Unity Centre and Positive Action for Housing.
On 15 June, these groups and others met in Glasgow to discuss the complexities of the situation for refugee families, and campaigning priorities. They included Jean Donnachie and Noreen Real who co-ordinated the campaign that stopped terrifying dawn raids to remove refugee families from the Kingswood area of Glasgow.
Their activities earned them the award of Scotswomen of the Year in 2009, and more importantly in their opinion, the titles of Auntie Jean and Auntie Noreen amongst families in the neighbourhood. Though successfully stopping dawn raids, they feel that problematic removal of families from Scotland to England has forced them to take their campaigning back to “square one”.
Noreen remembered the attempted removal of Mary Semirimu and her two year old twins when the Home Office called in 2006. At first the children had been too frightened to come to her, trusting no one. Mary had escaped to the safety of her next door neighbour. Dozens of neighbours and campaigners arrived within the hour, making the raid untenable.
Mary, who now has leave to remain, spent a day at Dungavel and nine days with her children at Yarl’s Wood in England. She was also at the meeting and described the conditions as unhygienic with most children experiencing skin disorders and other health complaints. Her own children, though toddlers at the time, are still fearful of strangers and run away from men in uniforms.
Pinar Asku and her schoolteacher Lesley Atkins also spoke to the meeting. Lesley talked of refugees being caught up in “legalised destitution” and of her dismay at having to assemble and post school work to Pinar during her two-month stay at Yarl’s Wood.
Pinar described the trauma of her family’s removal from their beds at 6am, with her younger sister crying because it was her birthday. Now school captain at Shawlands Academy, she summed up her detention experience as a “total waste of time”.
Kathy Galloway from the Iona Community talked of the upset her own daughter felt when her school friend was deported back to Kosovo. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and the Church of Scotland are both unequivocal that child and family detention must stop immediately, with the EIS describing the unacceptability of children “disappearing” from classrooms.
Around 1,000 refugee children are detained in the UK each year with 50% of these later released – in 2009 the figure was 1,065 with 520 removed.
The government has announced a review, accepting that the situation is not working and there are pilots for alternative arrangements, such as the Solihull project.
Phill Jones from the Unity Centre was concerned that the aim was to speed up the processing of asylum seekers, giving inadequate time for cases to be presented. He considered this a problem already, recalling a woman’s case being submitted on Christmas Eve, only to have it rejected on 10 January – police reports proving domestic violence arrived too late to be considered. Jamie O’Neil from Positive Action for Housing said that the entire process for child refugees needed to be reviewed; for example, it was unacceptable that children should miss school in order to register at the immigration office on a fortnightly basis.
Over the border
The Scottish situation is now even more difficult. On removal to England for detention there is a small window of time in which to appeal. Finding themselves in a different legal system and with no solicitor, families have insufficient time to apply for legal aid and are forced to pay top fees for poor and inadequate access to the law.
Families are isolated, hundreds of miles away from their friends and trusted supporters. Clare Tudor summed up on behalf of the Scottish Refugee Council: though a government review is welcome, the Home Office has the power to stop the detention of refugee families with immediate effect while giving free and fair access to the law, health and schooling.
The hope is that the review of provision for refugee families will coincide with lower numbers detained.
There will be a protest at the Home Office the Monday following news of the next detention.