Detention is pointless

Visitors provide hope beyond high-rise fences, barbed wire and barricades!

A blog by Miranda Reilly, Director

Visiting Immigration Removal Centres for the first time is a confronting experience. Since starting at AVID, I have visited three – Brook House near Gatwick, Dungavel outside of Glasgow and Derwentside in County Durham. On the visit to Brook House I accompanied Karris, Senior Advocacy Co-ordinator at Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group. Karris told me how she decided to work in the sector after her experience as volunteer visitor and remembered the shock on her first visit as she sat opposite the person she was visiting and heard their story. It is hard to ignore the injustice of the system once you have seen first-hand its impacts.

Fiona and I visited Dungavel IRC with Kate who works at Scottish Detainee Visitors(SDV). On the drive there, I asked Kate if she had ever met with someone for whom she could see a reason for why they were detained. She responded that – in her nearly 20 years of visiting - she had not:

“In the early days, I often met families with children in Dungavel and the inhumanity was so obvious and stark. Since then, largely due to the campaigning of people with experience of detention and their supporters, we’ve seen a number of reforms to the system. But still, we know it doesn’t work, even on its own terms. And the damage it does to the people who are detained, their families and their communities is incalculable. We see that every week. And we all know what the answer is: move to a system based on engagement rather than enforcement, using a range of community-based alternatives to detention. There’s just no need to lock people up.”         Kate, Director at SDV 

Our visit to Dungavel IRC confirmed the senseless use of detention as we met with a number of men who explained their situation to us. In the visiting room, we met one man who had been detained for a number of months. He has been granted bail however is still stuck in limbo whilst he waits for the Home Office to approve his accommodation. Another man wished to return to his country of origin and yet – still – he was being held, waiting for removal directions, without communication from the Home Office on the reason for the delay. Someone else we met had been in the UK for 17 years, over half of his life, explained “my heart is in the UK” as he contemplated the potential of deportation. Particularly sobering was the experience of one of the men who, prior to being detained had served a prison sentence of a few months. He had been uprooted from the asylum accommodation he was staying in and, in the process, his belongings he believes to be lost. We sat in silence when he explained that this included unreplaceable family mementoes.  

Despite the destructive nature of immigration detention, there is a lack of public awareness in no small part because the centres are kept from public view. Immigration Detention Centres are often in operation in remote areas of the UK. Both Dungavel and Derwentside were a 45-minute drive from Glasgow and Durham respectively, with no way to reach there other than by car. The ex-hunting lodge (Dungavel IRC) and former Hassockfield training centre (Derwentside IRC) are both surrounded by a high wall, their oppressiveness in juxtaposition to the surrounding landscapes. When we arrived at Dungavel, we were kept waiting outside for 15 minutes to be let in which gave us a lot of time to take in the signs which forbid taking photographs or videos.


The remoteness of IRCs does not always ensure public tolerance as has been seen with the controversy of Derwentside IRC, a centre built solely for women towards the end of last year. Fiona, Gee and I visited Derwentside to meet with the centre staff and build a better understanding amongst the centre staff of volunteer visiting and encourage referrals to our newest member, the Durham Visitors Group. It was clear the efforts that had been made to maintain a certain standard and promote an image that can be endorsed by the public. The staff are friendly, there is a gym, art room and community kitchen. The relative comfort, however, does not negate the fact that the windows only open so far, the women are provided with the same grey tracksuit for clothes and the rooms are safety proofed because of high rates of self-harm caused by detention. Most perturbing was the existence of a nail bar in this context – is this what was meant by “this is a detention facility for women and has been designed specifically for women and is responsive to their needs”? A nail bar seems little consolation when you are held for over five months, as was the case for one of the women who had been there since its commencement. Especially when you consider the failure to provide legal advice for women who are at the centre which is currently only being offered over the phone.   

It is easy to feel helpless when faced with the magnitude of the immigration detention estate and its convoluted bureaucracy. In contrast, going on visits with our members was a reminder of the importance of sitting side-by-side with people who are in detention, demonstrating solidarity and bearing witness to what is happening inside detention centres. When speaking to the individual who has been detained for six months in Dungavel, Kate told him “There are people who are against this; people outside who are resisting.” With surprise, he responded “Really? You can change this?” I thought back to a couple of weeks earlier and the movement that prevented the first flight to Rwanda from taking off, and thought,

“Yes, we can bring about a change in the system;a society is possible that promotes engagement not enforcement.”