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