GLASGOW, Scotland – Critics of Britain’s policy of detaining immigrants and asylum seekers celebrated a small victory this month, in a case that highlights the political shifts taking place after the Brexit vote.
The U.K. Home Office’s plans to replace Scotland’s only immigration detention center, Dungavel, with a new “rapid-removal center” near Glasgow Airport were derailed when the local Scottish council unanimously refused planning permission. Nearly 300 activists and local residents had petitioned the council to reject the facility.
“We are disappointed by the decision of the planning committee,” a Home Office spokesperson told Refugees Deeply. “We are considering our next steps.”
It means that Dungavel, which anti-detention campaigners call “Scotland’s shame,” may yet remain open. However, some Scottish advocates hope the decision will encourage other activists around the U.K.
“Saying no to detention in Scotland could set the standard for U.K.-wide resistance to the practice,” said Polly Urquhart from the group Stop Detention Scotland. “There are anti-detention groups right across the U.K., and if we can show that it’s possible to generate enough pressure in one place, then maybe we can pressure the government to end it altogether.”
The case highlights the many – and sometimes contradictory – ripple effects of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June. The referendum took place amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, and has pushed the ruling Conservative party to take an even tougher line on immigration.
Yet, it has also reinvigorated debate in Scotland, where a majority of people voted to stay in the E.U., about independence from the U.K. Meanwhile, Scotland has become more vocal about policies imposed by the British government in Westminster, including on immigration.
Surveys show that public sentiment is more favorable toward immigration in Scotland than England, and a majority of Scots say the most important decisions on immigration policy should be taken by Scotland’s national parliament.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which dominates Scottish politics, opposes immigration detention. The party committed to ending the practice in Scotland if they won the 2014 independence referendum, which ultimately failed but is back on the political agenda after Brexit.
“It was clear that the local community didn’t want any part in the U.K. government’s inhumane and ineffective approach toward immigration detention,” SNP M.P. Gavin Newlands said after the November 8 rejection of the Glasgow Airport facility.
“The prime minister should take note of this decision and rethink her government’s approach toward immigration detention – a system which detains pregnant women and allows the indefinite detention of some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” he said.
Some 30,000 people are held across Britain’s 12 immigration detention centers each year, nearly half of them asylum seekers with pending or rejected asylum claims. The British government argues that detention is a vital tool to process and return people “with no right to be in the U.K.”
But the system has come under severe criticism. Unlike other European countries, Britain has no time limit on how long people can be detained. Some people whose embassies won’t provide travel documents, such as Iranians and Eritreans, are left in limbo.
Last year, a group of British M.P.s from different political parties called the system “expensive, ineffective and unjust.” British Prime Minister Theresa May, then home secretary, commissioned an independent review of immigration detention in the U.K. which in January called on the government to “drastically reduce” the number of people detained and end the detention of pregnant women and victims of rape and sexual violence. The government, now headed by May, has yet to commit to any of these recommendations.
Advocates warn that people locked up in the centers are acutely vulnerable, especially those who suffered torture or abuse in their home countries. Last year, the number of suicide attempts in U.K. immigration detention centers averaged more than one every day, according to official figures.
The U.K. Home Office is “not just destroying one person’s life, they are destroying the whole family, the relationships, the love,” said 25-year-old Hamde* in a recent telephone interview from inside Dungavel, where he had already spent over a month. “The people I’ve seen in here are just broke down.”
Scotland’s Dungavel is an imposing structure, located in the middle of a woodland, far from any population centers. Surrounded by a 15ft barbed-wire fence, the approximately 200 detainees there could hardly be more isolated.
“I’m not an animal, I’m not a criminal. I just want to be treated like a human being,” said 31-year-old Iqbal in an earlier interview from Dungavel. He spent nine years in the U.K. before he was detained, and has since been deported to Bangladesh.
While Scots may have stopped the U.K.’s efforts to replace Dungavel with the Glasgow Airport facility, some campaigners fear that growing anti-immigrant rhetoric since Brexit will harm long-term efforts to end immigration detention in the U.K.
“Already the U.K. operates one of the most draconian systems in Europe, falling well below European standards as a result of practices such as indefinite detention,” says Ciara Bottomley, spokesperson for the campaign group Detention Action. “So, while Brexit is unlikely to change the mechanics of detention, there is a risk that anti-migration policies could lead to an increase in detention and deportation of migrants, including E.U. citizens.”
Some of these developments in Britain have parallels across the Atlantic in the anti-immigrant platform of President-elect Donald Trump.
“Racism is rising at the moment with Brexit and Donald Trump,” says Pinar Aksu, a Glasgow-based refugee advocate who was locked up in Dungavel as a child when her family first arrived in the U.K.
“It’s scary times, but that’s why we need to continue what we do,” she says. “If there is no hope, then we’re all doomed. We need to stay hopeful and cherish the victories that we have.”
*Name changed to protect identity