Why this woman's story shames Scotland

Source: The Scotsman

HUMAN rights campaigners and churches last night demanded the closure of Dungavel Removal Centre - Scotland's "Guantanamo" - saying the imprisonment of vulnerable women and children behind a wire fence was unacceptable in 21st-century Scotland.They also said it was time the Scottish Government stopped saying immigration was a Westminster matter and found a solution for injustices happening on Scottish soil.

The fresh outrage came after The Scotsman revealed the harrowing testimony of Corellie Bonhomme, 35, a Canadian national, who told of her despair inside Dungavel, and of how she was pinned down by immigration officials and had her two-year-old daughter, Fi, snatched from her.

Last night, the Canadian government stepped in, sending a fax to Ms Bonhomme, promising assistance. The former model- pictured before her child was taken away - said this only came after weeks of painfully slow communications.

John Scott, a leading human rights lawyer and chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland, said: "Dungavel is now a name like Guantanamo in the field of human rights. While the conditions may be those of "a three-star hotel" and there is no interrogation or torture, it represents an outpost of questionable ethics, foisted upon the Scottish people and yet not properly accountable to us.

"Given the drip-feed of stories like this one that have come out of Dungavel for the past six or seven years, it is clear we need to find a different and more humane way of dealing with people like Ms Bonhomme."

She has been in Dungavel for five weeks, since having her daughter taken from her as she boarded a ferry to Scotland in Belfast.

Ms Bonhomme accepts her visa had expired, but insists it was an honest mistake - and that she now has no intention of staying in Scotland and wants to return to Canada.

"Yes, I was arrested on immigration grounds because my visa had expired and I was renewing my passport - but the brutality of how I was treated and being separated from my daughter is beyond cruelty," she wrote. "A member of staff told me that I could be here for two years and I just could not stop shivering with fear and panic."

Mr Scott said: "It appears we choose to treat badly those who cannot fend for themselves. To that end, the closure of Dungavel should happen in order that we are forced to treat people as we should."

Church representatives have in the past joined protests outside Dungavel, in Lanarkshire, and yesterday they reiterated their demand for it to close. A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: "It is almost inconceivable that conditions such as we are now hearing about can exist in 21st-century democratic Scotland.

"They display an alarming disregard of any consideration for human dignity. Immigration is a reserved power, but maybe the time has come for a Scottish solution for a humanitarian scandal on our soil."

Ian Galloway, convener of the Church of Scotland's church and society council, said: "The Church has consistently expressed deep concern about aspects of asylum policy and the conditions in which people are held in Dungavel. The General Assembly has called on Her Majesty's Government to close Dungavel for use by families and children.

"We would also encourage the Scottish Government to do everything in its power to influence the UK government in its practices in this matter."

Ms Bonhomme told The Scotsman of the frustrating bureaucracy inside Dungavel, the difficulty in finding a phone to get a solicitor - often only to find they were all "oversubscribed" - and the lack of any idea of what was happening with her case, because immigration and the Home Office appeared to have problems with communicating effectively.

Detailing the emotional impact of her detention, she said: "I am scared that I am becoming invisible and no-one knows I am here. I feel quite suicidal and only the thought of Fi keeps me going. It is shocking and very emotionally draining to be locked in the system, and locked up with your tools of communication taken away or blunted."

John Wilkes, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said: "Detention, even for a short period, is traumatic and inhumane and can have a serious impact on the physical and mental health of the children and families involved, and also on the wider community they leave behind. It is hard to see how it exists in a 21st-century Scotland.

"The Scottish government has spoken out firmly against the detention of children. Scottish Refugee Council has proposed alternatives to the Home Office. It is time for the Home Office to act and end this inhumane practice before more vulnerable people suffer unnecessarily as a result."

Aamer Anwar, a solicitor who has campaigned against the detention of families in Dungavel, said: "Dungavel has been shown to be dehumanising and barbaric. In opposition, the SNP called for its closure and are now in power. It is time to show this country still has a conscience."

A spokesman for the UK Border Agency said: "We do not comment on individual cases. The government has made clear immigration detention is a measure of last resort and alternatives must be considered before a decision to detain is reached. Such detention is not, therefore, a matter of routine. Detention plays a vital role in maintaining an effective immigration control."

Years of controversy over site for '24-hour psychological terror'

DUNGAVEL removal centre has been a constant target of criticism since it was first used to lock up failed asylum seekers nearly seven years ago.

The treatment of people detained at the former prison has triggered a fierce campaign to close the Lanarkshire facility.

Close Dungavel Now says men, women and children are "psychologically terrorised 24 hours a day" in what is, in effect, a prison, despite having committed no crime.

The psychological impact of incarcerating immigrants was highlighted four years ago, after a Vietnamese man took his own life at Dungavel.

Concern has also focused on the experience of entirely innocent children kept there, often having been snatched from their homes in terrifying dawn raids.

Scottish ministers have repeatedly spoken out about the incarceration of children at Dungavel, sometimes alongside hardened foreign criminals.

Last year, it emerged that Dungavel was being used to house money-launderers, fraudsters, paedophiles and rapists.

Child trafficker Gilbert Deya - the preacher extradited to Kenya who claimed to be able to make couples fertile through prayer - was a Dungavel detainee.

The Scottish Government has no direct say over Dungavel, as immigration matters are decided at Westminster. The centre is operated by a private security firm on behalf of the Borders and Immigration Agency, an arm of the UK government.

There were more than 120 children detained at Dungavel, Scotland's only detention centre for foreigners, in 2006, slightly up on the year before.

There are growing calls to close Dungavel and instead accommodate failed asylum seekers and their children in open, hotel-style accommodation.

Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, has held talks with Home Office minister Liam Byrne over a possible alternative to Dungavel.

In a critical report published in 2005, Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, described provision for children at the centre as "inadequate".

She said she was "extremely concerned" about the welfare of children in all Britain's immigration removal centres.

Dungavel was also criticised for the lack of legal advice given to detainees, with only half of them saying that they had a legal representative.

However, in a separate report last year penned by Ms Owers, the 190-capacity Dungavel was described as "the best-run immigration removal centre we have inspected".

She said 3 per cent of detainees reported verbal or physical racial abuse, compared with up to 12 per cent at other removal centres.

Michael Howie

'We need to know that no-one is left there forgotten and unhelped'

IT WAS with a sense of shame but, sadly not surprise, that I read in The Scotsman yesterday about the plight of Canadian citizen Corellie Bonhomme, held at Dungavel Removal Centre in the heart of Scotland.

Immigration is not a devolved area. Nonetheless, some of our MSPs have questioned practices in Dungavel, especially the detention of children. Our Children's Commissioner pointed out that, devolved matter or not, the locking up of children was a proper concern for us all wherever it happens.

From our MPs, however, we tend to get the party line about the need for a firm immigration policy, with everything else said to flow inevitably from that. The recently reinstated practice of dawn raids to lock up families is similarly shrugged off by politicians who want to be seen as tough on immigration. Often the parents are blamed for what happens to the children. For those with a conscience, it is not so easy to slip off responsibility.

Ms Bonhomme's daughter is not locked up with her. She is in care and will remain there while her mother is locked up to await an inevitable removal from our country, a removal which she herself wants. Ms Bonhomme is an articulate woman who speaks English and yet she has struggled to obtain what should be regarded as basic rights for those in such a situation. Think how much worse is the plight of those without her persistence and advantages. We need to know exactly who is in Dungavel and why they are there. We need to know that no-one is left there forgotten and unhelped.

Otherwise, we cannot be satisfied that our immigration laws are being applied fairly, as they ought to be. The only way to be satisfied about this is to have an independent investigation. Transgressing our immigration laws does not entitle us to punish people by preventing access to legal advice or other contact with the outside world, and yet this seems to be what is happening in our name.

If Ms Bonhomme wants to return to Canada, she should be allowed to go on the next flight.

John Scott is a leading human rights lawyer and director of the League for Penal Reform in Scotland.