THE UK Government was yesterday accused of trying to “extinguish the beacon” of sanctuary Britain has always been for refugees, following a damning report into detention centres.
An independent review commissioned by Westminster found more than 30,000 people are detained at immigration removal centres at some point during the year, with more than 3,000 currently in custody. The Shaw Review raised concerns over accommodation and the damaging use of open-ended detention, with three of those held at Dungavel, Scotland’s only such facility, said to have been there for more than one year.
The six-month study called on the Government to reduce the number of those held “boldly and without delay” and to introduce a presumption against detention for sex crime victims and people with post-traumatic stress disorder or learning difficulties, and a complete ban for pregnant women.
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Commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May, the paper was turned over to the Government in September but has only now been released to the public.
Last night SNP Immigration spokesperson Stuart McDonald called for urgent reform on the same day that the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) attacked May for her stance on refugees.
Speaking at the SRC annual general meeting, policy head Gary Christie said more than 800,000 displaced people had reached Europe by mid-November, 84 per cent coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Iraq. He said the crisis “requires a re-evaluation and reaffirmation of how we should welcome and give sanctuary to refugees [but] not a re-evaluation in the way that Theresa May would like to see.
“That is to attack and seek to tamper with the life-saving UN Refugee Convention. And seek to portray the few refugees who claim asylum in Britain as somehow less deserving of protection than refugees who remain in camps.”
Calling for political parties to enshrine protection for refugees within their manifestos for the forthcoming Holyrood election, he went on: “Theresa May wants to extinguish the beacon that this country has been for the displaced, tortured and persecuted. Our principles... propose a fundamental re-think that is grounded in fairness, equality and empowerment.”
In his report, former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales Stephen Shaw said it is “striking” that the public knows so little about official detention centres, and he called for a reduction in the number of detainees “both for reasons of welfare and to deliver better use of public money”.
He found Dungavel to include a “surprisingly large number” of men detained over alleged sham marriages in Liverpool or Manchester, stating: “The questions they said they had been asked by caseworkers to ascertain whether their marriage was a sham included their knowledge of their wife’s National Insurance number, the colour of her underwear, and her bra size.
“If this was indeed the case, it is questionable whether such questions were either appropriate or useful.”
The distance from friends and families in England was found to have “a real impact” on detainee welfare, and accommodation for women was “cramped”.
Shaw said: “If Dungavel is to have a long-term future within the immigration estate, the living accommodation should be refurbished to more acceptable standards, with particular attention paid to the sleeping arrangements in the women’s dormitories.”
Responding, Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said: “The Government accepts Mr Shaw’s recommendations to adopt a wider definition of those at risk, including victims of sexual violence, individuals with mental health issues, pregnant women, those with learning difficulties, post-traumatic stress disorder and elderly people, and to recognise the dynamic nature of vulnerabilities.
“It will introduce a new ‘adult at risk’ concept into decision-making on immigration detention with a clear presumption that people who are at risk should not be detained, building on the existing legal framework.”
He added: “A stronger focus on and momentum towards removal, combined with a more rigorous assessment of who enters detention through a new gate-keeping function, will ensure that the minimum possible time is spent in detention before people leave the country without the potential abuse of the system that arbitrary time limits would create.”
However, McDonald said: “The UK detains significantly more people than any other EU country and is also the only country without a specific time limit on detention.
“Other countries have shown that there are more effective, more humane, and indeed cheaper alternatives to the routine use of detention – it is time for serious reform.”
Last night the SNP backed SRC calls to devolve asylum powers to Holyrood but said its manifesto had not been finalised.
Kezia Dugdale said Labour wants to ensure newly-arrived refugee families “stay welcome” but gave no comment about the party manifesto.