Stories from visits to detainees at Dungavel 2023

Rev John Carswell regularly visits the only immigration detention centre in Scotland and has shared stories from some of his encounters with the people there. In these accounts , we are challenged to put ourselves in the situation of those we encounter, and unpack any preconceived ideas, privilege, judgement and stereotypes that we might have.

Anadia (name changed)

I don’t meet many women at Dungavel because it is a dedicated men’s facility.  Women who arrive at Dungavel will be detained only a few days before they are moved to the women’s facility in Derwentside, near Durham.  I was very glad to spend time talking to Anadia and I remember her story as she was so inspirational to me and my cohort.

Anadia was from Pakistan and had come to the UK for an arranged marriage with a man she’d never met.  Her two elder sisters had done the same and now had permanent right to remain.  When she arrived, Anadia spoke no English.  Coming from her rural village in Pakistan, she had very little education.  It wasn’t long into her new marriage that she discovered her husband was abusive and for a time she endured a life of domestic violence.  Eventually, she decided to leave and, having made contact with one of her sisters, she left her home.  This was to be a temporary arrangement because, as she explained, ‘My sister has her own husband and family and didn’t really have room for me in their house.’  Sometime later, she moved to live with her other sister in a similar, temporary arrangement.

To her credit, Anadia was determined to learn to speak English and so had enrolled in an ESOL group (English for Speakers of Other Languages).  It was during one of these classes that she was arrested and held for detention.  She argued vehemently with the police that her case was under review with the Home Office, and she shouldn’t be detained.  Unfortunately, at the time of her arrest, the police were unable to make contact with her lawyer, and so she was held.

As an asylum seeker, Anadia has very few rights in the UK.  She cannot take a job or hire a flat or open a bank account or apply for a driver’s license.  She is entitled to a very small stipend of £37 per week for the duration of time it takes for her asylum application to wend its way through the Home Office courts, a process that often takes months or even years to complete.  Until she is granted refugee status, she is wholly dependent on the kindness of others for her day-to-day survival.  Additionally, divorce in Pakistani culture carries a heavy stigma, especially for women, so she struggles to find place, even amongst her own countrymen.

She is a strong, intelligent and independent young woman who now speaks fluent English and is determined to remain in the UK.  Going back home, she argued, would be impossible and would deny her the opportunity for further education.

‘What would you like to be?’ we asked.

‘I want to be an immigration lawyer.’

As someone who has been through the system, I can think of no better candidate.

Hasan (name changed)

‘If I was sent back to my country my government would kill me.’

Not an ordinary opening line when meeting someone for the first time, but this is how Hasan introduced himself when we met at the detention centre.

He went on to explain that he was Kurdish and, many years ago, in his home country of Iran, he was passing out leaflets in protest of government policies.  He was alerted to the fact that several of his friends had already been arrested and that he must literally flee for his life.  He managed to escape to Turkey and then on to France, where he ended up in Calais before getting to the UK on the back of a lorry. 

“If you want to help people, you should go to Calais.  They are all desperate to get into the UK.  I managed to get onto a lorry, but it wasn’t the first time I tried.  People there will keep trying, ten times, a hundred times until they succeed.”

Talking to Hasan was like seeing the morning headlines in flesh and blood.  I remember the persecution of the Kurdish people some years ago and of course, I’d heard about Calais, but have never been there.  Talking to Hasan brought it all home to me as very real.

Hasan has been in Britain for 16 years, but in that time, he has never managed to get full asylum status and consequently lives in the shadow economy, struggling to make ends meet by working illegally, often at car washes, where government inspectors regularly turn up to arrest and detain illegal workers, like Hasan.

He was in Dungavel as a “foreign national offender,” meaning someone who is detained following a prison sentence.  “I had to steal to survive, and I got caught.  There was no other way.”

Foreign nationals who serve a prison sentence of more than 12 months are automatically sent to detention following their term.  Only a quarter of them are informed of this fact prior to their release and they end up going straight from prison to detention.  I have spoken to many who have been through that experience and invariably they say the same thing, “I would rather be in prison than being here.  At least in prison you know how long you have left.”  I’m told that in prison you count down to your release; in detention, you count up.  Britain remains the only country in Europe that has no time limit on detention.  Many spend months, and some a year or more waiting for release.  In Europe, there is a 28-day limit to detention.

At the time of writing (February) Hasan remains in detention, still awaiting the outcome of his most recent appeal to the Home Office.  He is learning to work as a barber.  After leaving Iran, Hasan learned that his friends had been put to death by the government, lending credence to his initial introduction and his claim for asylum.

Reflection: Visiting at Dungavel invariably leaves me thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, here.’  I feel inadequate for the task, ill-equipped and under-resourced, but then, it’s not about me and my little anxieties.  It is simply being present to one who is detained against his/her will.  This is gift enough.  It is a disarming feeling and one that brings me face to face with the discomfort that comes with following a crucified Saviour.  I heard it said once that, beneath the cross, there is no level ground.  In other words, it’s not supposed to make us feel comfortable or comforted; if we are not horrified by the cross, we are missing the point.  But we go anyway, not because we want to, but because we have to, because we are called to go.  I go to Dungavel (and in truth, to all acts of compassionate service) not because I want to, but because I need to.  It is a costly grace that has been shared with me and, while Christ still suffers, naked, hungry, imprisoned, a stranger, the call remains, ‘go.’  I can’t fix their problems but strangely, they help fix mine by being kind enough and vulnerable enough to share their often-agonising stories.  In doing so, our roles are reversed; it is they who welcome me.