HUNDREDS of protesters held a rally at the controversial Dungavel immigration detention centre yesterday calling for its immediate closure.

More than 200 campaigners from across Scotland gathered at the Shut It Down protest, organised by campaigners from the We Will Rise group.

Protesters sang over the noise of machinery as staff cut the grass inside Scotland’s only detention centre, which currently holds 249 asylum seekers and refugees while their immigration status is decided.

Demonstrators lined the perimeter of the South Lanarkshire centre, shouting and chanting messages of support while pounding the metal fence.

Michael Tsonga, a former Dungavel detainee who was among the protesters, said of his time in the centre: “I did not know when I would be released. The bedrooms were overcrowded and I couldn’t see my family. I had done nothing wrong but it felt like prison.”

Another ex-detainee, Daniel, said: ‘I don’t believe those places exist, if I hadn’t been in there I wouldn’t believe it. All of a sudden you are just locked up for no reason. Then you get treated like an animal.’

Campaigners described the event as part of “the growing movement to end immigration detention across the UK”.

A spokesman added: “It is not time for a time limit. It is time to shut them all down. Locking people up due to their immigration status is wrong.”

Staff inside the centre grounds appeared to follow the crowd as they moved round the fence. Despite the sound of machinery, chants of “Shut down Dungavel, no-one is illegal” rang out, while activists held up banners with messages including “End Detention Now”.

One group climbed the hill at the back of the site, waving in at detainees who were at first-floor windows. Some protesters wrote their mobile numbers on large sheet, holding them above the barriers and encouraging detainees to call for help.

Yasmine Clara, from the We Will Rise group, said that Dungavel has “no place in the UK”.

“I have received reports about incidents of guards beating detainees and two suicides since the summer," she said. "There is no way to operate a humane or safe detention system. We don’t want to see a time limit cap. Detention of Asylum seekers has no place in the UK.”

Although many former detainees were at the protest, some stayed away, saying that they could not face going back to the site. A woman who asked to be called Aisha (not her real name), decided not to go to the protest yesterday, saying the building “brings back bad memories and flashbacks”.

She said: “It’s the bad place to be. It’s more or less like prison, being with an immigration issue makes somebody feel like a criminal, makes us feel like criminals.”

“Guards and staff are very cheeky, treating you like rubbish. You cannot do things on your own, there’s no freedom, no personal freedom.”

Organisers said they held the event in solidarity with campaigners at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, who are also campaigning for an end to the facilities.

In June, hundreds of protesters went to the centre in Bedfordshire after a Channel 4 broadcast of undercover footage revealed the allegedly racist and aggressive attitudes of staff.

The Dungavel facility has been the focus of criticism since it opened near Strathaven in South Lanarkshire in 2001.

In March this year, 70 people protesting against their indefinite detention began a hunger strike. In July, more than 300 people gathered to protest against the Home Office-operated site.

The government department faced criticism from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees when it was claimed Home Office officials were failing to follow guidelines, with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons inspectors also raising concerns about the “unreasonably long” periods detainees were held. The report found that vulnerable people, including rape and torture victims, were being detained in contravention of rules designed to protect them from detention,

At the time, the Scottish Refugee Council’s head of policy Gary Christie said: “The procedures to identify those who have been detained who are vulnerable are not working."

Christie insisted on a 28-day time limit for detention and highlighted the £100-a-night cost to the taxpayer to hold an individual in detention.

Earlier this months calls were made to ensure Dungavel does not lift a ban on detaining children after the Tory government pushed ahead with plans to speed up the deportation of refugees refused asylum. Ross Greer, Europe spokesman for the Scottish Greens, made the plea after Home Secretary Theresa May urged other European Union countries to “up their game” in returning people to their home countries – including Syria and Afghanistan – who have had asylum applications rejected.

Greer said: “The detention of children was supposed to have been halted but we know from investigations that some children have been wrongly classified and locked up in adult detention centres. As the UK Government ratchets up its appalling anti-immigration rhetoric, we must insist asylum claims are dealt with fairly and humanely and that children are protected.”

The Home Office were contacted about yesterday’s protest but have not issued a comment.

The National View: Time to end cruel detention of those seeking sanctuary