Dungavel: Scotlands Asylum Shame

Natesho Muse celebrated her third birthday on Saturday. Her younger sister Nasra was one year old last Wednesday. The two young Somali children spent their respective birthdays behind the fences and closed doors of Dungavel detention centre, a fomer Scottish prison which now serves as an immigration removal centre administered by Premier Detention Services (PDS), a private company which runs the facility on behalf of the British Home Office.

Only the most deluded optimist could believe that there would have been much in the way of birthday cheer for the Muse family. The children who were taken into detention with their mother in August, have seen their mother’s request for asylum rejected because of an earlier claim for residency made in Holland. Mrs Muse (who says she was raped in Mogadishu) is now appealing the ruling on human rights grounds, as her husband has been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

Mrs Muse made the Scottish news last week when she had her weekly allowance of £3.50 withdrawn for a serious of “offences” in breach of the de-facto refugee prison’s rules. Her crime? To take Weetabix breakfast cereal from the dining hall to feed her children outwith the three PDS set meal times of 8am, 1230pm and 5pm. The Glasgow based Herald newspaper reports that according to Dungavel’s “incentives and earned privileges scheme”, the concerned mother’s behaviour was considered unacceptable because of her “bad attitude” to staff and “not taking responsibility for her children”. One can only presume that the PDS “Cultural Adviser” whose task it is to advise the “Centre Manager” on cultural and religious matters including dietary requirements had the day off.

Refusing to confirm the penalty imposed on Mrs Muse, the Home Office would only confirm that the consumption of food in rooms was in direct contravention of immigration centre rules. Detainees are prohibited from consuming food in their rooms on the grounds of health, safety and hygiene reasons. Parents of small children are allowed to feed their babies in their rooms; but only with bottles of milk which are kept under the lock and key of their PDS jailors. Jim Dawson of the Prison Officers Association of Scotland has called the treatment of Mrs Muse “an insult to the humanity of this country”. The silence from Scotland’s First Minister, Jack McConnell, has been deafening. Thus far, The Scottish Executive have shamefully batted all Dungavel enquiries by claiming that policy on detention and welfare and education arrangements for children held in detention centres is a matter for Westminster and the Home Office.

Natesho did receive a birthday present of sorts in the form of a temporary stay of reprieve which saw the family’s deportation postponed from September 8 to September 15. Nasra and Nasteho are just two of between 16 to 22 children currently being held at the holding centre which has consistently made the headlines for all of the wrong reasons. In August, Kurdish asylum seeker Yurdigal Ay and her three daughters and son were deported to Germany after having been held at the detention centre for a year in prison like conditions which openly breached Article 37b of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that:

“No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

The family lost their application for asylum appeal after spending almost thirteen months in conditions which proved harmful to the children’s education, welfare and development. Professor Harry Zeitlin, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry at University College London who met the Ay family in Dungavel, concluded that the three of the four children required psychiatric treatment as a result of their lengthy confinement. He also noted that, had they been British children, “issues of child protection” would most certainly have been raised.Not content with flouting one fundamental article of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the stewards of Scotland’s best and only de facto refugee prison set about moving through them in chronological order.

Article 38c goes on to state that “[e]very child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.” Someone might like to bring that to the attention of Premier Detention Services. Of course, it must be said in fairness to PDS staff, that nowhere does the Convention make any explicit reference to breakfast cereal consumption.

In deporting the Ay family to Germany, the British Home Office rejected their pleas that they will be persecuted or even killed as ethnic Kurds on their eventual return to Turkey. Commenting at the time on the Ays prolonged imprisonment at Dungavel, Karl Kopp, Director of European Affairs at German human rights NGO Pro-Asyl, said “we are astonished and shocked that you [United Kingdom] have detained a family for more than one year.”

A report published by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in August (based on an October 2002 inspection) called for the detention of children only in exceptional circumstances, and then only for a matter of a few days. It goes without saying that one year old Nasra and three year old Nasteho have already spent longer in Dungavel than the recommended few days. “It is clear that staff in the centre, and the authorities co-operating with them, aimed to provide the best possible service to children within their care, within the constraints of a secure facility” wrote Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons. The report also highlighted the “child friendly atmosphere” in the family unit – that is, the family unit where families are locked in and have to ask a warden to be let out.

Ghazala Ahmed, a lawyer representing 22 year old Kurdish asylum seeker Donus Polat – whose 18 month old child was finger printed and photographed on arrival at Dungaval – has also raised concerns about detainees access to foodstuffs for their children: “I’m very concerned because although the authorities say detainees have access to milk 24 hours a day, it is kept in a locked room, and there is no interpreter.”

Responding to the HMP Inspectorate of Prisons report into Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre, Home Office Minister Hazel Blears trotted out the party line about commitment to detainees right to respect and decency, only to add the caveat that, ”[i]t is regrettable that any families with children have to be detained at all, but it is sadly the actions of the adults in the family that make this necessary. It is not typical for families to be detained for a long period of time. Those that are have often strung out the appeals process and have exhausted all legal right to remain in this country.“

Friends of Refugees in Ayrshire (FreA) have expressed concerns about the barriers put up by Premier Detention Services intended to deter visits to detained asylum seekers. All visitors are finger printed and photographed. Visitor attempts at leaving gifts of food or clothing are blocked by PDS staff. Typical PDS subterfuges aimed at obstructing visits to detainees include visitors being told that “[he] is not here”, “is away to his bail hearing” and “we do not have a record of him”. This jars with a PDS submitted memorandum to the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs led Home Affairs Report (Appendix 30 – Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence) which includes the proud boast “we encourage access for interested organisations such as the Scottish Refugee Council and Immigration Advisory Service.” Moreover, Premier not only “recognises the individuality and dignity of all detainees” but “operates an inclusive regime and involves detainees in various aspects of the management of the Centre such as Race Relations and Activities.”

Announcing plans to table a “unity motion” to the Scottish Parliament on Thursday calling for the transferral of centre authority from Westminster to Edinburgh, Scottish National Party leader John Swinney claimed that the issue of Dungavel would not go away – “That will be his chance to speak [Jack McConnell], either as First Minister, or, as he did in the Iraq debate, as leader of the Labour party.”  Speaking to a 2,000 strong rally to mark the two year anniversary of the centre’s opening on Saturday, Mr Swinney told protesters that  “the scandal of Dungavel’s imprisoned children is a direct result of the Little Englander mentality of London ministers.” 

Labour MP for Falkirk East – and vocal critic of the centre – Michael Connarty, has warned his Scottish Labour party colleagues that “this is turning into a nationalist cause, something that is seen to be an English run establishment inside Scotland, not answerable to Scots law.”

A Scottish Trade Unions Council organised public petition supported by Action Together of Churches in Scotland, Amnesty International and Save the Children has called on the Scottish Parliament and Executive to express its opposition to the  “unacceptable practices in Dungavel” and to “meet its own devolved responsibilities with regards to the protection and education of all children in Scotland.”

To paraphrase Glasgow Roman Catholic Archbishop Mario Conti, there must be an alternative to locking up those seeking asylum, leaving families isolated and children without educational provision. It is perhaps a fitting irony that one year old Nasra will be able to boast in later life that her first birthday fell on the same day that the Home Office appointed Life in the United Kindom Advisory group published its report and proposal findings (see alsohttp://counterpunch.org/macdougal0925.html). Immigrants applying for British citizenship from next year will face compulsary citizenship and language testing before being granted a passport. According to the group chairman, Sir Bernard Crick,being British means “respecting the institutions, values, beliefs and traditions that bind us all together in peace and legal order.” Admirable sentiments if they weren’t quite so obviously  risible in light of the UK’s current disrespect for universal human rights.

For what it’s worth, one year old Nasra was born in Glasgow

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