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SNP accused of betraying refugees

The Sunday Herald 24 May 2008

THE return of dawn raids on asylum seekers has provoked an angry attack on Alex Salmond and his SNP government for failing publicly to denounce the Westminster policy of seizing refugee families at their homes in the early hours of the morning and then detaining mothers, fathers and their children in immigration holding centres.

The SNP campaigned against dawn raids and detention of families in opposition, but in government, say their critics, their silence has been deafening.

The UK Border Agency said 750 immigrants had been forcibly removed from Scotland since the SNP came to power. This figure includes immigrants found working illegally, as well as those subjected to dawn raids. It does not include those who left voluntarily.

The agency added that the government was made aware of all dawn raids. "We don't have to tell them, but we do let them know when it is happening," a spokeswoman said.

A Sunday Herald investigation reveals that dawn raids are once again a fully-fledged tactic in Scotland despite much protest by the public and pressure groups.

Refugees, support groups and opposition MSPs have all called on the SNP to denounce the tactics and demand that Westminster cease such actions on Scottish soil. The Scottish government claims it has been raising the issue with Westminster behind closed doors. However, after learning of criticism directed at the SNP for its silence on dawn raids - as a result of the Sunday Herald investigation - senior nationalists said the party would shortly be issuing a public statement condemning the practice.

Scotland's Children's Commissioner Kathleen Marshall said she was worried that dawn raids and removals of children to detention centres were happening again in Scotland. She said she was in dialogue with the Border Agency over the tactics, adding: "There should be independent scrutiny of all such removals, which feed the climate of fear in which many children and families live."

Zodwa Mbali speaks through her tears. Her story is horrific, a bleak life of pain and suffering. A victim of rape in South Africa, she was left HIV-positive and pregnant by her attacker. An illiterate single woman, she was an easy target for persecution and fled her home, seeking a new life in Scotland.

Earlier this month the Home Office decided that her time was up. Her home in Drumchapel in Glasgow was "dawn-raided' by eight immigration officers. Mbali was dragged from her home with her six-year-old son Ameldo and taken to the Dungavel Immigration and Detention Centre. After a few days, she was driven to Yarlswood detention centre near Bedford.

Immigration officers move refugees from Scotland to England as soon as possible because of the anger the imprisoning of entire families has caused. Yarlswood has seen hunger strikes and mass protests, including an attempt to burn the building down.

After a week in custody in England, Mbali was taken to the train station, given a ticket for Glasgow and told to go back to Scotland. Officials added that she would be deported from country soon. "I am very very scared now," she says. "I don't know when they will throw me out. Life is very painful."

The words that Mbali wants to say are directed at the SNP government. She wants to ask Alex Salmond and his ministers why they no longer seem eager to help her. In opposition, the SNP continually attacked the policy of dawn raids and the detention of families. Immigration is controlled by Westminster, and the SNP used dawn raids and the detention of children as a stick to beat the London administration and the Labour-controlled Scottish executive. Now, in government, however, the SNP appears to have ditched its high-profile public campaign for women like Mbali and her young son. The party has restricted its fight against dawn raids and child detention to behind-the-scenes talks with Gordon Brown's government.

Another refugee living in Drumchapel, Bridget O'Koro from Nigeria, with her three-year-old daughter Osa, who was born in Britain, was taken by immigration officers to Yarlswood this month.

In Nigeria O'Koro, a Muslim, fell in love with a Christian man. Her father was the head of the Islamic Council, and he and other men beat her. "My father believed I had dishonoured the family. He threatened to kill me. My baby has never seen her father," she said.

From her cell in Yarlswood, O'Koro called on the SNP to speak out on her behalf. "They must speak. If they do not. then they are just playing politics," she said. "What has happened to us is not right. My daughter is terrified ."

Margaret Woods of the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees is troubled by the SNP's apparent change. "I want the government to publicly condemn dawn raids as it did in opposition, and for it to make every effort to stop this practice," she said. "If this was an issue worth discussing when votes were changing hands, it is worth discussing now. A year down the line, the SNP hasn't managed to change much."

A senior government source said: "The SNP in opposition and government has condemned dawn raids at every turn, and we will make that position clear until they are brought to an end. The cabinet secretary has raised the issue of dawn raids with the Home Office immigration minister, in person and in writing, as recently as this week."