Diary of a Dungavel Detention

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Alison Phipps. Alison is Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow, and Convener of Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet) and is a member of Right to Remain’s management committee.

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Friday May 8th 2009

11am: The colleague opposite me was talking about performance indicators for postgraduate study in the arts and humanities and how we would ensure appropriate audit. Another day in the University of Glasgow and the birth of another form, with another tick box to ensure accountability. I’m a little on edge and distracted. A young girl, staying with us for protection as our foster daughter, has to report to the UK border agency in Brand Street, Govan, for the first time and my partner has gone with her. There is a slight pause at 11 am between items on the agenda for colleagues to refill their coffee. I checked my phone for messages:

Received: 10:46, 08-05-2009. Message from home. click. “She’s in Dungavel. Deportation in a week unless solicitor can stop it.”

All the clichés are true. time and space slow down. There is a sudden shaking in my hands. The sound of colleagues talking about submission rates fades and I feel surround by silence. My fingers are heavy. I can’t get the phone to close. My fingers are shaking. I drop the phone. Pause. Breathe in. Turn to the colleague on my right – a gentle man – and make some stumbling apology about needing the phone home. In my feet, the blood from my face. On the stairs my partner picks up:

“It went about as badly as is possible.”

“I’m coming home.”

At home there are what the press teaches us to call ‘emotional scenes.’ I’m trying to get practical, trying to hear the story, trying to understand, trying to concentrate, moving into rapid action. Moving into tears. “We have to take her things up to Dungavel.” His face is drawn. There is more to come later, more to be told of the questioning at Brand Street. The moment when the key turned in the locked behind her and he felt he’d betrayed her, handed her over to the authorities. The only box on the forms for what we do, as hospitality, it seems, is trafficking.

My partner is in shock at the questions he has been asked and from his experience at the Home Office. I proceed to pack her belongings into her tiny suitcase. She doesn’t have much and quite a bit of what she has she has been given in the last couple of months. Pictures drawn for her by young children at church, Easter eggs and cards. We begin initial phone calls and emails, starting with our own near friends, neighbours, family. I’m shaking as I pack. I’ve visited Dungavel for years as a befriender with Scottish Detainee Visitors and had recently ceased visiting to attend to the hospitality we were offering at home more fully. Dungavel is a prison. It is no place for a 16 year old girl.

We speak to her lawyer. I go back and teach my Friday afternoon classes and by the time I get home she is in Dungavel. We borrow a car and drive the hour south of Glasgow to Dungavel with her belongings. Much of what we have taken up – the Easter Eggs, the nail varnish and hair oil, her belt and scarves, we cannot leave for her. They are bagged up in HM prison bags for us to collect on our way home. At last we are able to enter the visits room and she meets us, sobbing. We all are. Apparently she’d been told in the UK Border Agency cell, in Brand Street, that she didn’t need to worry because ‘Dungavel is like a big cinema.’

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Saturday – after a sleepless night – we began to piece together the possibilities of a campaign.

Sunday – a breathing space. A visit again.

We get used to the Dungavel road. As luck would have it I am on annual leave for the week so on Monday morning I begin contacting our MSPs, MP and her solicitor, and all those we know in the asylum campaign networks. Out goes the first request for action and support. The response is incredible. Letters and emails begin to pour in to the politicians, responses come, creative ideas – the resourcefulness of good people is alive and escaping and full of hope. Driving up the Dungavel Road every evening that week I listen again and again to the words of singer songwriter Tim Spark’s album, Nikko Fir, and these words of injunction echoing down the centuries.

Give shelter to the homeless
Feed the hungry
and you shall rise like the dawn.

What does it mean, I wonder, I still wonder, to rise like the dawn? To this day I cannot drive that road without hearing the traces of that times, and his song.

By Thursday we have an application in for a Judicial Review with release. By Friday we have an advocate. In between times we learn via the networks into the home office that she is to be moved on 19th and deported on 21st.

Friday night: Text from her in Dungavel: “22:53. Hi alisn this crazey peple talk to me to get ready on 20 min to move and I refes them. good night love u by.”

And that was the last message we received from her before her sim card was taken too and she no longer had any means of contacting us. Saturday was a crazed day of searching Scotland for a lawyer to prevent the movement south and out of the reach of the Scottish Judicial Review. We were thwarted. On Sunday she was moved to Yarl’s Wood, near Bedford, and then served her removal papers. Now, of course, we would have to pay for a lawyer, as she had moved jurisdictions.

As is typical of these cases she was eventually released, granted refugee status and given a life in the UK.

Another colossal waste of money and energy, another person with no way of trusting bureaucratic processes and officials ever again.

And another ex-detainee who would compare Dungavel to Yarl’s Wood and say in Dungavel there was at least some tiny modicum of respect shown but in Yarl’s Wood “people cry all the time.”

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