I have worked with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow and the west of Scotland for many years. Some have ended up in Dungavel immigration removal centre and some in Yarl’s Wood. These individuals are the embodiment of the word vulnerable. They live in poor housing, are maintained with very little income and frequently have only a basic knowledge of the web of legislation and bureaucratic processes that determines whether they stay in the United Kingdom.
Many have children who attend local schools, while the lengthy process of deciding asylum claims is played out, but they frequently have a perseverance and bravery that would put the rest of us to shame. One source of strength is the network of support offered by local communities and charities when asylum seekers arrive in their area, and I would like to pay tribute to the work of three organisations in my city: Unity, the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees and St Rollox church in my constituency.
These people also establish networks among fellow asylum seekers housed in the same buildings and with parents at their children’s school. That entire network of support is removed at a stroke by detention, particularly in the case of those taken from Scotland to be detained in England, where there is a different legal system and absolutely no chance of retaining support networks because of the distance. Detention is costly and, I would argue strongly, an unnecessary step in the asylum process. If the Government are convinced that a case is without merit, and if all the available legal routes of appeal and tribunals have been explored, they have both the address of the asylum seeker and a venue where they regularly have to attend and report to the UK Border Agency. They therefore have ways to effect a removal without resorting to detention.
It is not easy for anyone to abscond and stay on the run for any length of time. It is a million times harder for someone from another country. Let us think about it. If I want to go on the run—I sometimes want to in this place—I will have friends and family right across these islands. The average asylum seeker has only those in their local community, and they are mostly other asylum seekers who also have next to nothing. That makes it far more difficult to go any further than their local area. How would they survive? I have money, things I could sell, I have family, I am allowed to work, and I have a credit card. The average asylum seeker has none of these things. Just surviving would take a momentous effort every minute of every day. Anyone who does that does it because they know that the alternative is far worse. And what about children? It is one thing for an adult to go on the run, but how on earth do they do that with children in tow? It is almost impossible. Those who do take that route are in a minority.
Detention is a costly burden to the state and a damaging experience for the immigrant, especially if they are particularly vulnerable. I visited Dungavel, Scotland’s only immigration removal centre, while a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I was there to visit a family who had asked for my help. These places are what I imagined prisons to be. I was questioned, I was fingerprinted, I was escorted by a uniformed person with a massive bunch of jailer’s keys. I felt nervous. I could barely concentrate on what the family were telling me, from looking out the window at the high walls and the barbed wire surrounding us. I could see the children staring wide-eyed, no doubt wondering what on earth they had done wrong to end up in there.
Of course, we no longer detain children, but that does not mean that we would not do so in future, so it is important to talk about it, in case it should come back. I want to talk about a nine-year-old boy I knew who spent months living in Yarl’s Wood with his mother. I watched this shy but happy little boy almost fade away. Physically, he lost 10 lb in the first three weeks; mentally, we scarred him for ever. “Mummy”, he whispered one day while in Yarl’s Wood. “I don’t want to be here any more. It would be better if we died. Please, mummy—please can we die?” I was very close to this little boy and in constant contact with his mum. This is not a made-up person to illustrate a point; those were his exact words. I will never forget them and nor should anyone in this place. And what of the women who have suffered sexual abuse in their countries of origin, as many Members have mentioned today, and then find themselves locked up with male warders? Can we imagine the terror that they experience?
If the Government are not swayed by the benefits to our fellow human beings, perhaps the knowledge about the effect of investing at the refusal stage, as countries such as Canada and Sweden do, should convince them. If they say today that they will not accept the recommendations of the report and not consider anything that those on the Opposition Benches have discussed, they should at least be honest and admit that detention is about political ideology. It is about warning new asylum seekers: “This is what could happen to you and your children, so stay away.” I hope they prove me wrong on that, I really do.