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Image: Dungavel -  what next?

06/01/2017
In our first blog of 2017, Margaret Donnelly, J&P Commissioner for the Diocese of Galloway, gives a personal reflection on a long standing campaign

 

The photo shows Justice and Peace activists at Dungavel


Once it was a hunting lodge and summer retreat for the Dukes of Hamilton and then the 13th Duke’s home. After the Second World War, the South Lanarkshire building took on less glamorous roles. It was sold on, first to the National Coal Board before the government took it over as an open prison.

Then in 2001, Dungavel House opened as a detention centre for up to 249 asylum seekers whose applications had been turned down. Shortly before the first detainees were taken there, a community activist in Irvine heard that children's toilets were being installed. It was realised that this information could only mean one thing – children were among those who would be incarcerated there.

Reaction was immediate: a meeting was arranged in Irvine and the Bishop of Galloway asked the Justice & Peace coordinator to attend and keep him informed of the situation. This led to Justice and Peace activists, primarily from Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire, becoming involved in what became a long-running protest campaign.

Vigils were held, with campaigners gathering outside Dungavel Removal Centre. Over the years, they kept up their peaceful protest as mothers, babies and young children were held there, sometimes for over a year, before being deported.

The group in Ayrshire became known as FREA (Friends of Refugees Ayrshire). They were given names of people who were detained and were able to go and visit them. Once we had visited, we gathered the names of others who were detained.

It was a harsh system. Detainees received £1 per week to buy personal items and make phone calls to their lawyers. Through the generosity of friends we were able to buy them phone cards and we became go-betweens when people wanted to speak to a lawyer.

As protesters, we saw the site racist and inhumane and lost no opportunity to say so..

We campaigned for the provision of schooling and got the EIS (Education Institute of Scotland) involved. We were also were lucky that one of our main supporters was Linda Fabiani, a local MSP. Support also came from the Bishops of Motherwell and Galloway and of a group of lawyers in Glasgow.

Asylum and immigration are matters reserved to the UK parliament, and so the detention centre has been a preserve of the Westminster Government. 

That isn’t to say that official voices north of the border have not been raised. The Children’s Commissioner for Scotland called Dungavel  "morally upsetting" and threatened to report the situation to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The SNP Government protested that such a place existed in Scotland, but did not have the power to close it down.

We hoped to stop children being detained, but our protests only resulted in families being taken to England. The Coalition Government established after the 2010 election announced it would end the detention of children under 18 at Dungavel. In September of this year, the Home Office said that the centre would close this year..

The follow-up plan is to build a short-term 51-bed holding facility at Glasgow airport. Most ‘removals’, as Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill calls the expulsion of asylum seekers whose applications are turned down, leave from London airports. This new facility would cost less and provide ‘easy access’ to London.

Renfrewshire Council has refused planning permission but I have no doubts that the Westminster Government will appeal and try to push through the plan.

Like the Scottish Government’s Communities Secretary Angela Constance, I fear this new centre would make it more difficult for asylum seekers to pursue their cases, and the stress would impact on their mental health.

The journey since 2001 has been difficult. I am of course happy that Dungavel is to close. But moving the problem to a soulless concrete building at the airport, which supporters will find difficult to access, is not a welcome alternative.

The hardening of hearts against refugees and asylum seekers gives us little cause for hope, but our prayers continue to be with the asylum seekers and we remain proud of our history of protest



Image: Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees – A Silver Lining in the Black Clouds of Anti-Refugee Rhetoric?

30/12/2016
A personal reflection by Grace Buckley

 

Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees – SFAR for short – a bit of a mouthful perhaps but a straightforward title for a network of faith communities seeking to act in support of refugees in Scotland.  It tries to do what it says on the tin.


SFAR began in 2015 as a Church of Scotland initiative in response to the upwelling of public sympathy and support for refugees, resulting (ironically as it seems now) from media reports of the refugee crises in Syria and Iraq.  That initiative developed rapidly into an ecumenical, then an interfaith network, bringing together Christians of various denominations and representatives of the Jewish and Moslem faiths as well as Interfaith Scotland.

From the outset, SFAR has had no intention of replicating the work of other organisations, although it has developed links with the main players and co-ordinated action with them.  Instead, its focus has been to harness and channel the talents of the faith communities in Scotland, along with their generosity and desire to help. It also brings together their voices in response to issues affecting refugees and migrants – to let it be seen clearly that the faith communities care.

In the 12 months since it got under way in November 2015, SFAR has developed a website (www.sfar.org.uk ) which provides resources, news, lists of events and information on what people can do to help refugees both in their area and nationally.  It has held one-day conferences in Edinburgh and Aberdeen to give people an opportunity to hear from refugees and those working with them about the issues that concern them , and to talk and network with others.  

And it has responded to developments on the political front and in the media.  The sad thing is that while a positive and sympathetic media in some measure started off the SFAR project, by the time SFAR really started work, some sections of the media were using the arrival of a small number of Syrian refugees into the UK, and larger numbers into mainland Europe as an excuse for inflammatory headlines and negative articles.  

One of the first actions of SFAR was to challenge a “cartoon” in a well-known national newspaper.  SFAR’s formal complaint did not get the response it hoped for but it did, we believe, get the message out there that the faith communities of Scotland were not prepared to let this sort of behaviour pass unchallenged.

The Brexit campaign has raised the political and media stakes considerably, with much of the Leave Campaign focusing on immigration concerns and making claims that were based on questionable figures. It did not differentiate between EU migrants and refugees.  It has been almost inevitable that there has been an increase in anti-migrant actions/reactions which will affect refugees as well.  For this reason, SFAR is now in the process of producing an information leaflet on refugee issues for dissemination among faith communities to answer their questions and enable them to speak out.

On reflection, it was probably to be expected that the great tide of positive public response would begin to fall back.  The Brexit campaign and the terrorist acts on the European mainland greatly contributed to its weakening.  However, the SFAR network had time to get itself established and allow its members to become used to working together before the increase in hate language and actions started.  

The focus now is not only on helping those who have sought refuge in our country but on presenting a united front to those who would try to build walls between us in any way.  Perhaps what we have done so far have been the easy and obvious things – the website with its information and the networking – but they have been valuable for our communities to see. 

Now the challenge is to decide how we build on this foundation, because I believe the faith communities working in unity cannot easily be brushed aside.

 



Image: The Christmas Message

23/12/2016
In our blog, Commission member John Seenan urges activity for Justice and Peace as one way of responding to the Christmas message.



 

The perpetual cycle of seasonal change once again brings us the feast of Christmas, seeing out the old year as it draws to its close and welcoming in the new with renewed optimism and a sense of hope.

Despite the material temptations with which the commercial world overwhelms us, Christmas thankfully retains a particular significance for those of us who staunchly adhere to the age-old message centred on the lowly stable in Bethlehem, which remains the central focus of our celebration. Traditionally a time we spend, where possible, with family and friends, it lends itself to reflection of the cycle of life itself; those who have gone before us to their eternal rest and the new born, embarking on life’s journey.


As we look back over the last year at the numerous conflicts that have pre-occupied the media, it would be all too easy to overlook the advances that have been made in science, technology, and medicine, not forgetting the tireless work of unsung heroes who, in their own quiet way, perpetually strive for peace and harmony in the face of almost impossible odds.   However we cannot ignore the tragedy that has unfolded in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, which has become the new benchmark by which many of us will judge the depths to which nations and individuals will stoop in pursuit of supremacy.  With numerous major conflicts currently taking place across the globe, tragically, Syria is not an isolated case. The appalling loss of life, the horrific injuries inflicted by indiscriminate bombing, the consequent displacement of millions of innocent civilians resulting in the largest movement of refugees the world has ever known, and the consequent break up of families, many left as orphans, is all too familiar. We watch and listen in disbelief and anger as those engaged in the conflicts blatantly ignore pleas to bring an end to the suffering.  At times it seems that, rather than encouraging peace, such pleas incite the protagonists to inflict even greater pain and misery as each side tries to outdo the other.  


We have reached a tipping point where the physical and psychological trauma being inflicted on an entire generation of innocent men, women and particularly children, can no longer be tolerated.   As Christians we have a duty to make our voices heard above the political rhetoric, loud enough to drown out the attempted justification for the perpetration of these atrocities.  The time for watching and listening has to be replaced by action aimed at drawing a halt to this barbarity.  Our focus should be on supporting the innocent victims whose pleas for mercy are met with barbed wire and armed militia set on restricting their pursuit of peace and freedom from the hellholes from which they have fled.  


That’s easier said than done, you might justifiably say, when world leaders seem powerless in their attempts to broker a cease fire.  How can we possibly make the slightest difference?  Might I suggest that there is already a well-established, organisation which is capable of delivering the message? And it’s right here at the disposal of every diocese, parish and parishioner.   I refer, of course, to the Justice & Peace Movement.  With members throughout the length and breadth of the country, and with affiliation to the Commissions in Europe and beyond, it is well placed to act as the catalyst in pursuit of this worthy objective.  The cessation of war and the substitution of peace lie at the very heart of the organisation. The movement also embraces issues regarding migrants, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture.  


The extent to which the Justice & Peace movement promotes and achieves its underlying objectives in the Catholic Church varies from diocese to diocese depending on what congregations see as their priorities.  Some are very active on a broad range of fronts, others less so, but it only takes one committed member to impart a Justice & Peace ethos on their own parish.  What better time than Christmas, traditionally associated with peace and harmony, to regenerate the organisation.  Think of the collective power that the voices of every parish in the land could bring to bear on those who have the responsibility for ending these atrocities.  Think of how the energies of those troubled by what they are witnessing could be mustered to bring about peace and settlement.


Let us take time this Christmas to contemplate the innocent, homeless babe in the crib that it might inspire us to start the New Year with a resolution to ensure Justice & Peace is active in your parish. 


If you would like more information, please contact us either by e-mail or telephone and we will be more than willing to respond.  


Members of the Commission wish you Christmas blessings and extend their warm wishes at this joyous time.


        


 




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