Media Briefing: Glasgow Girls

The policy of detaining children for immigration purposes was ended by the UK Coalition Government in 2010.  The Glasgow Girls’ campaign was an instrumental catalyst in the process towards this important change in policy.

Glasgow and asylum

Until the 1990s only a small number of people sought asylum in Scotland – they came from Vietnam, from Chile fleeing Pinochet’s military coup or were expelled from Uganda by Dictator Idi Amin. In 1992 Scotland ran a programme for Bosnian refugees and in 1999 we supported hundreds fleeing war torn Kosovo.

 Later that year the UK Border Agency started its dispersal programme, allocating asylum seekers to areas around the UK on a no choice basis. Glasgow City Council was the only local authority in Scotland to sign a contract with the UK Border Agency.

 Suddenly, people fleeing torture, war and persecution were arriving from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan. The city was changing. By the end of 2001 Glasgow had 8,000 new temporary citizens – many of them children - seeking sanctuary in Scotland.  About 80 per cent of asylum seekers in Glasgow were families with children.

At the same time, the laws governing asylum were tightening as various acts of parliament were passed to making it harder to claim asylum than ever before. For those who managed to make a claim, life was tough with support only available in the form of vouchers.

The detention of children

It is in this context that the Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre opened in 2001, both with a facility to detain children.  Detention – mostly preceded by a dawn raid – happened to families throughout the asylum process, though it was in theory a last resort. In their 2005 research, Save the Children estimated that a total of  2000 children a year were detained in both these facilities, some for several months.

In 2003/4 the Ay Family – parents and four children all under 15 were detained. The public outcry in Scotland, helped by media coverage, led to calls for change to what the then Children’s Commissioner Kathleen Marshall called a “morally distressing” practice. Meanwhile Catholic Bishop John Mone spoke out against the “shame on our country” brought by detaining children.

The then Scottish Executive was not immune to this criticism and struck a deal with their Westminster colleagues – there would be a 72 hour time limit to detention of children at Dungavel.

Enter the Glasgow Girls

And then in 2005, Agnesa Murselaj a 15-year-old pupil at Drumchapel High School in Glasgow, was dawn raided and detained with her family. She could have been just another statistic, but her school friends, many of them fellow asylum seekers, decided that enough was enough. The Glasgow Girls were born.

The girls galvanised community and media support, and kept the issue on the agenda. Grassroots campaigners from groups including the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees and Positive Action in Housing, who had been active in campaigning for other families got behind them, calling for the end of both dawn raids and detention. In Kingsway, where the girls lived, the community started taking direct action, holding candle-lit vigils outside the tower blocks to prevent families being dawn raided.

Meanwhile, the girls set their sights on political change. They publically challenged First Minister Jack McConnell and he promised he would end detention in Scotland. When it emerged that he was unable to follow through on this, there was bitter disappointment.

However, it was this meeting that helped lead to the Scottish Executive agreeing a package of measure around asylum and detention with the Home Office in March 2006, which included attempts to find a more humane method of returning families whose claims had been refused.

Policy changes

Refugee and Children’s charities – including Save the Children, the English, Scottish and Welsh Refugee Councils and Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) - also took up the mantel, launching a campaign – No Place for a Child – in 2006. In the course of the campaign 150 MPs signed an Early Day Motion in support of ending the detention of children.

In 2009 the Liberal Democrats make a manifesto commitment to ending child detention. At Christmas, volunteers dressed as Santa were not admitted to deliver presents to children in detention, causing a wave of media backlash.

In May 2010 the new Coalition Government made good on the Lib Dems promise and announced the detention of children for immigration purposes. The practice ceased with immediate effect at Dungavel, where in practice no child had been held for many months. In July Yarl’s Wood’s Family Unit was also closed.

The new reality

While the new policy did not meet all the campaign demands, no child has since been incarcerated in long-term detention for immigration purposes.

A small number of children are still detained at the end of the asylum process, after their case is heard by an independent panel, in Cedar’s Pre-Departure Accommodation. It is run by private companies G4S with welfare services provided by Children’s Charity Barnardos.  This ‘open’ facility is designed as a last resort, before families are removed to their countries of origin. But there are still concerns about the affect its use has on children – many of whom are sent from Scotland on their way to their countries of origin.

In addition, some children who have been wrongly age assessed as adults find themselves detained, often for long periods of time.

Scottish Refugee Council still feels there are fundamental issues that must be addressed to ensure that child welfare is paramount throughout the asylum process. We are calling for a more child-friendly asylum process with special attention to children’s welfare to be guaranteed during the removal process

We also want to see better legal advice from the outset, ensuring that families are properly informed about the asylum process, know their options and are able to prepare their cases to the best of their ability.  Better decision making is also needed – one in four are granted protection on appeal and other slip through the net. Young people should be properly and lawfully age assessed to ensure they are protected.

Legacy of the Glasgow Girls campaign

The Glasgow Girls didn’t just help end the detention of children in Scotland. They also helped create a climate in which important steps were taken towards a more child-friendly asylum process, both in Scotland and across the UK. 

In 2007, asylum seeking children, many of whose parents had languished in the asylum system for years, were allowed to go to University. The following year, the UK Government finally allowed refugee children to benefit from the rights in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And in 2009, the Government put a requirement on the UK Border Agency to ‘promote and safeguard the welfare of children’. Now we need to make sure that is upheld.

Asylum in Scotland today

Seeking asylum continues to be stressful and challenging. The system is unfair and unjust, and support is severely restricted. The profile of people seeking asylum has also changed – now almost 80 per cent of some 2,000 people sent to Glasgow by the UK Border Agency are single. As a result, some of the issues that Scottish Refugee Council sees most often have changed.

While refused families in the mid 2000s were dawn raided and detained, the single refused asylum seekers of 2012 find their support stopped though they cannot return home. With no right to work, they face destitution, hunger and homelessness. We are asking people to get behind our campaign to change this unfair policy.

In partnership with National Theatre of Scotland and British Red Cross, we commissioned a film by Chris Leslie – Destitution – which explains the issue. Please watch it at www.stopdestitution.org.uk and sign our petition to help us change the law.

For more information contact:

Karin Goodwin

Media and Communications Officer

Tel: 0141 223 7927/07850 930 418