Policing the ‘asylum crisis’, anti-detention campaigns and counter discourse on asylum in the UK

By Kerry Moore
13th April 2005

This paper examines asylum detention in Britain and the politics of its justificatory discourses under the New Labour government from 1999. Dominant discourses on asylum in this period have situated so called, ‘bogus asylum seekers’ as a dangerous ‘other’ in relation to Britain’s ‘law abiding majority’. These ideas have gained in currency through a marked discursive shift whereby the representation of asylum has been reframed. I examine how the detention of asylum seekers has formed an important part of this reframing, with asylum becoming a key constituent of post 9/11 concerns about ‘national security’.

However, the case study of asylum detention in Scotland also provides an example of how a counter discourse to the dominant one of ‘asylum crisis’ might be constructed, pointing towards a more humanitarian agenda rather than a securitising response to asylum seekers’ presence in Britain. I ask to what extent this kind of hegemonic challenge to dominant ideas on asylum has reformed asylum discourse in Scotland, and also to what extent such a change is replicable elsewhere in the UK.

Background to Asylum Detention in Britain

The ‘asylum detention centre’ in Britain is a relatively new object of political debate, although the detention of immigrants has occurred for a number of years with provision for their detention enshrined into British law by the Immigration Act of 1971. However, since the early 1990s, public concern about ‘the asylum issue’ has gained momentum, with successive legislation, policy initiatives and sustained media attention potently combining to signify perceived failures and problems with the asylum system.

From the 1990s successive immigration and asylum Acts (1993, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2004) have further tightened border controls and effectively closed down legal and ‘legitimate’ avenues of arrival and entry to the UK for people seeking asylum, which according to Donn Flynn of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) subjects asylum seekers to procedures which, ‘effectively classify them as criminals.’ (Flynn 2003)

As such, asylum seekers are always already to some extent, constructed as being present in Britain ‘illegally’ and are therefore vulnerable to the ‘bogus asylum seeker’ characterisation. Whilst successive legislation can be taken to imply that the asylum system is continually under pressure, or even in ‘crisis’ in trying to deal with an asylum seeker ‘problem’, the labelling of asylum seekers as ‘bogus’ reflects the ready suspicion under which asylum seekers are held and supports the increasing use of draconian measures for their containment, such as asylum detention.

The practice of detention is one important way in which the threat that asylum seekers are imagined to pose is signified. Asylum detention is not merely a ‘stand-alone’ policy in practice, but rather as one that produces meaning, for example, by positioning asylum seekers as people whom Britain requires, for whatever reasons or justifications provided by the British state, to be detained. Detention has formed an important part of the discourse of Britain being in the midst of an ‘asylum crisis’, supporting and corroborating the articulation of asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ and an asylum system ‘in chaos’. This tautological order of signification means that the supposed threat is corroborated by an apparent need to detain, and that detention is ‘justified’ by this threat.

Stuart Hall et al.’s 1978 Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order highlighted the connection forged between the spheres of immigration control and crime during the 1970s and how, in conjunction, these themes operated to construct young black British males as ‘the threatening other’ in UK society. The ideological construction of ‘mugging’ as a ‘black crime’, and the racist conflation of immigration and rising crime rates in media and political discourse set the conditions for a ‘moral panic’ to emerge and a law and order ‘crisis’ to be posited. A ‘need’ was perceived to protect the ‘law-abiding nation’ from the threatening criminal and cultural ‘other’. As such, the reaction of the State to the ‘mugging crisis’ was excessively repressive and generalised, effectively criminalizing all young black males.

One can observe strong parallels between Hall et al.’s ‘mugging crisis’ and the present ‘crisis’ surrounding asylum in Britain, especially because ‘the asylum issue’ is thematically linked to a legacy of hostility towards earlier waves of immigration from the New Commonwealth, concerns about law and order and social stability. Social researchers working in the area of forced migration, Danielle Joly, Lynette Kelly and Clive Nettleton argue in their 1997 report Refugees in Europe: The Hostile New Agenda that debates around themes such as, belonging and nationality, ethnicity and xenophobia have shifted from targeting immigrants to targeting refugees since legal routes of immigration were effectively shut down. Sociologist Leanne Weber has also noted the parallel, arguing that the emotive label of ‘mugging’ during the 1970s reinforced the idea that a ‘new danger’ should be associated with a ‘newly arrived’ part of the population just as the expression, ‘bogus asylum seekers’ also operates within threatening discourses in the contemporary context.

This discursive connection between asylum seekers and the threat of social disorder was highlighted by David Blunkett’s ‘swamping’ comments in April 2002 regarding the education of asylum seeking children in mainstream schools. The connotations of this with Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 World in Action assertion about immigration that ‘people might be rather afraid that they might be rather swamped by people of another culture’ are striking. The ‘swamping’ trope, in signifying official ‘understanding’ about the fear of newcomers, legitimates and corroborates the notion of the general threat that they might pose. Indeed, I would contend that, like the young black males of Policing the Crisis, ‘bogus asylum seekers’ have been represented as the primary ‘threatening other’ to social order in contemporary Britain.

Officially changing discourses on asylum

In exploring how asylum detention centres have been articulated within an increasingly draconian asylum discourse, the most recent substantial government white papers on asylum, Faster, Fairer and Firmer: A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum (1998) and, Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain (2002) have been compared. In the intervening period of the publication dates of the white papers an important shift in asylum discourse can be identified.

This shift can be characterised, in general terms, as a movement away from a (albeit limited) concern with ‘human rights’ and towards the associating of asylum with national security concerns.

This is a shift that might be identified with the ‘common sense’ tension posited between civil liberties and ‘defending the nation’ evident during the prolonged debate surrounding the renewal of anti-terror legislation in March 2005. In the pursuance of draconian legislation, civil liberties and human rights have been represented as if they were inevitably antagonistic to ‘the national security interest’. This is a discourse that pre-supposes that the enjoyment of civil rights and liberties, such as for example, the right to due legal process before detention, exposes fatal weaknesses in the security of the body politic, such as, for example, allowing dangerous terrorists to roam free. Civil libertarians’ naivety, it is implied, faces its binary opposition in the privileged knowledge and insight of the national intelligence security agencies and the police: a discourse that decries the ‘reckless excesses’ of a minority liberal elite (including ‘out of step’ Law Lords whose traditionalism challenges the will of ‘more enlightened’ democratic representatives) and which, conversely resists limitations upon ‘national security’ measures and the priority of social order.

It is also a ‘just in case’ response to a dubious equation of ‘crisis’ that pervades the dominant construction of ‘the asylum issue’ in Britain. In spite of the absence of evidence suggesting it would be the case, official justificatory discourses for the present asylum detention regime articulate the suspicion that an, ‘obviously’ unfounded claim, or a refused claim at the end of the appeals process, heightens the danger that asylum seekers might ‘abscond’. The challenge that this hypothetical situation would pose to the efficiency of the system is remedied by detaining failed asylum seekers, which then facilitates their removal from the country.

However, a distinct shift towards this official position has occurred since the publication of Fairer, Faster, Firmer in 1998, which delineated the criteria by which Immigration Act powers for detention could be exercised. In focusing upon a perceived ‘procedural crisis’ in the asylum system, the 1998 white paper did set out a more explicit role for asylum detention than had previously been proposed. However, this was coupled with a stance that most asylum seekers should not be detained and that a presumption ‘in favour of granting temporary admission or release’ should be exercised in judging all cases. (Home Office 2002, p.66) This reflected a position whereby the New Labour government still presented its asylum politics as entirely consistent, in general terms, with international human rights law. Indeed, during the same year, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms was also incorporated within British law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

Fairer, Faster, Firmer proposed a ‘covenant’ with asylum seekers which pledged to ‘protect genuine refugees by scrupulous application of the 1951 Convention’ in return for asylum seekers’ complicity with the system. (Home Office 1998, paragraph 8.5) A positing of asylum within the idea of a social contract of ‘mutual responsibility’ therefore articulated some measure of universal ‘human rights’ within asylum discourse, in spite of the increasingly ‘firm’ measures that were also being proposed to improve the ‘efficiency’ of the system. However, following Fairer, Faster, Firmer and its subsequent legislation in the form of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, a chronic discontent with aspects of the asylum system issuing from different political quarters could be felt even more deeply.

A high profile debated concerned with asylum seeker welfare under the new ‘dispersal scheme’ erupted. The scheme proposed to house asylum seekers away from London and the South East of England in surplus housing stock (which, incidentally was largely available in economically deprived areas). It was, coupled with a ‘voucher system’ of welfare payments, a manoeuvre that was claimed to stigmatise local communities and increase resentment of the asylum seeker presence within them. The perceived political failure of the dispersal scheme, pervaded by the image of deprived communities ready to erupt with racist hostility, was brought to a climax by the fatal stabling of Kurdish asylum seeker, Firzat Dag on 4th August 2001 at the Sighthill Estate in Glasgow. This event violently symbolised the social tensions associated with dispersal, and was represented in the media as an intensification of an ‘asylum crisis’.

Also, the relative high profile of the extreme-right British National Party in debates on asylum surrounding the May 2000 local council elections, and during the run up to the 2001 general election stimulated mainstream political parties to adopt a ‘tougher than thou’ stance on asylum insisting that debate on such a serious issue should not be abandoned to ‘the extremists’.

This bizarre logic, asserting that hostility and draconian proposals are better expressed by ‘responsible’ politicians, continued as the controversy developed throughout 2001 surrounding asylum seekers crossing the channel to Britain from the Red Cross camp at Sangatte, northern France. The Sangatte issue also served to encourage a frenzied debate about the security of British borders, with images of young men mounting fences in repeated attempts to slip past the authorities into the channel tunnel or onto vehicles bound for Dover. Britain, and especially Kent were presented as potentially under siege from an endless supply of clandestine migrants determined to reach British shores in order to claim asylum. The formation of Sir Andrew Green’s anti-immigration pressure group ‘Migrationwatch’ in October 2001 also served to exacerbate these representations through the extensive penetration of Migrationwatch’s negative message on asylum in the national press.

In addition, the new context provided by the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 and concerns surrounding intelligence about the identities and activities of foreign nationals, combined with these issues to provide a new national regional and international political force behind the demand for ‘tough’ measures to ‘protect’ the system of asylum and immigration from ‘abuse’. Measures associating the control of borders with the containment of a terrorist threat had already been enacted prior to the September 11 attacks in the Terrorism Act 2000, and further legislation followed with the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

Secure Borders, Safe Haven

Indeed, these expressions of a threat to the social order were part of an important shift in asylum discourse leading towards a greater focus on detention as a means of managing the ‘asylum crisis’. By 2002 and the publication of the white paper, Secure Borders, Safe Haven, the articulation of an (albeit limited) ‘asylum rights’ imperative, as stated in the ‘covenant’ of Fairer, Faster, Firmer, and thus the linking of ‘human rights’ with asylum in official discourse, had been displaced.

Instead, an emphasis upon a ‘seamless’ process aiming at ensuring the ‘end to end credibility’ of the system materialised. (Home Office, 2002, p.13) A key part of the 2002 white paper outlined plans to introduce reception and accommodation centres and to further expand the detention estate. This new regime was intended to restrict the liberties of asylum seekers as a necessary step in ‘securing’ the confidence and ‘social cohesion’ of Britain by, literally, containing the threatening ‘other’.

Secure Borders, Safe Haven implies that an antagonistic relationship exists between the idea of a cohesive British identity and the principle of asylum. In his foreword to the white paper, David Blunkett asserts:

‘Confidence, security and trust make all the difference in enabling a safe haven to be offered to those coming to the UK. To enable integration to take place, and to value the diversity it brings, we need to be secure within our sense of belonging and identity and therefore to be able to reach out and to embrace those who come to the UK. Those who wish to work and contribute to the UK, as well as those who seek escape from persecution, will then receive the welcome they deserve. (Home Office 2002, Foreword)

The implicit sense of insecurity in the notion of ‘our identity’ is patent here, as is a lack of ‘confidence, security and trust’ that such an identity can ‘withstand the perceived challenges presented by ‘those who come to the UK’. The concept of asylum is highly conditional upon the rather difficult to measure and, it could be argued, impossible to fully achieve priority of a ‘secure identity’. Rather, any sense of obligation here to ‘those who seek escape from persecution’ is permanently deferred. It is as a permanently deferred obligation that ‘asylum’ forms a necessary part of the contingent discourse of national belonging and identity ‘under threat’ in the present conjuncture.

Whilst there is no logical or necessary relationship between the idea of ‘the need to be secure within our sense of belonging and identity’ and the ability to ‘reach out and to embrace those who come to the UK’, the joint articulation of these two ideas is presented as ‘common sense’, and sets up a tension between ‘asylum’ per se, and ordered social relations. The discourse of social stability secured through tighter border controls is an idea well rehearsed in twentieth century immigration politics, powerfully expressed in the post-war rhetoric of Enoch Powell and later re-articulated in the new right discourse of Margaret Thatcher. Without a stable notion of a delimited British national identity, articulated with the idea of social order maintained by immigration control, the prospect of others ‘integrating’ is presented as problematic.

This sedimented discourse and its subsequent articulations have naturalised the policies of expanding asylum detention to manage the ‘asylum crisis’, suggesting a logical relation between the need for Britain to maintain a ‘secure identity’ and its capacity to respond to its obligations to refugees under international law. As such, the object of ‘asylum rights’ can be seen as antagonistic to a ‘secure British identity’, subverting and preventing its closure and thereby revealing its inherent contingency.

Protest, Resistance and Counter Discourse

Whilst ‘reception’ and ‘accommodation’ centres have been severely delayed and faltered in the face of local popular NIMBY protests, (in March 2004 planning permission was finally granted for the first accommodation centre to be built at Bicester, Oxfordshire following a long struggle between central government, the local authorities and local residents), ten detention centres now exist and a number of conventional prisons also continue to be used to detain ‘suspected trouble makers’ and ‘dual cases’ – people held for criminal offences who are also subject to immigration control.

However, asylum detention centres have presented one of the few ‘concrete’ focal points for protest about asylum in Britain. Charitable organisations such as Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID), the Barbed Wire Britain Network, the Scottish based Positive Action in Housing (PAIH) and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) all consistently campaign against asylum detention and conditions for detainees, organising protests, petitions and lobbying government in efforts to end the practice of asylum detention and to improve conditions for detainees. A long-running campaign from the early 1990s has been centred upon the Campsfield House asylum detention centre, for example, where local groups, including NGOs and students have joined with asylum seekers to support their protests at detention. Rooftop protests at Campsfield and elsewhere, (Campsfield 1994, 1997, 1999; Dungavel, April 2002, December 2003), as well as hunger strikes and alleged ‘riots’ have borne witness to asylum seekers’ and their supporters’ opposition to incarceration in UK detention centres.

Perhaps the most dramatic recent example of asylum seeker protest, however, occurred on the night of 14th February 2002, when a detention centre at Yarl's Wood, Bedfordshire was subjected to physical destruction, deemed an act of resistance by its asylum seeker detainees protesting against their conditions of incarceration. As Europe’s largest detention centre, Yarl’s Wood had been hailed as the New Labour government’s ‘flagship’ of the new detention regime. After only three months of opening, a damaging fire had broken out, allegedly started by ‘rioting’ detainees. The ‘riot’ was immediately condemned by politicians, and in the immediate aftermath of these events, on 25thFebruary, Home Secretary David Blunkett asserted in a ministerial statement to the House of Commons that asylum seekers had hindered Fire fighters from tackling the fire. (Hansard 25th February 2002, Column 441) This spurious claim was never corroborated nor reflected in any criminal charges subsequently brought against the detainees and indeed it was discredited in the subsequent inquiry of Bedfordshire County Council into the circumstances surrounding the incident, published in July 2002.

However, the detainees were vilified in large parts of the popular press as senseless criminals, with the exception of the Daily Mirror whose undercover investigation into the daily running of Yarl's Wood by Stephen Sommerlad prompted the then Prisons Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw to undertake his ‘Investigation into Allegations of Racism, Abuse and Violence at Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre’, published in April 2004. Somewhat contrarily, however, Shaw asserted that, ‘I conclude that most of the things Mr Sommerlad said happened did happen. However, I have also concluded that these do not indicate a culture of racism and improper use of force.’ (PPO April 2004, p.2)

The events were an embarrassment to the New Labour government, but 14th February 2002 could be treated as an isolated incident and reintegrated as part of the justificatory discourse of asylum detention that rendered tangible the ‘need’ to contain volatile asylum seekers in the first place. Whilst the investigations into the circumstances surrounding the fire placed this official conclusion into question, not least in respect of the impact of a securitising discourse of asylum upon the attitudes of detention centre personnel, such details did not present a significant discursive challenge. The detainee protests at Yarl’s Wood did not form an alternative discourse sufficiently antagonistic to have disrupted the dominant hegemonic articulation of ‘asylum crisis’ and asylum detention as its necessary remedy.

Following the Yarl’s Wood incident, Secure Borders, Safe haven was published in which detention centres were renamed ‘removal centres’. Whilst the new name had been previously planned, it nevertheless re-emphasised, in the face of this challenge to the system, the rational functionality of the centres and the ‘seamless’ process leading to ‘failed asylum seeker’ expulsion. This re-articulation of the centre’s role obscured the salience of human incarceration occurring there, and redefined asylum seeker detainees even more in the passive, without an objective place within the system. Any discursive element of ‘asylum rights’ therefore would seem to have become completely excluded from dominant hegemonic asylum discourse.

Anti-Detention Campaigns in Scotland

By contrast, however, continuing protests, centred upon the Dungavel detention centre, a former prison in Lanarkshire, Scotland, have produced a sustained challenge to anti-asylum seeker ideas, articulating an alternative, more progressive discourse around asylum than the dominant hegemonic construction of ‘asylum crisis’.

The campaign, instigated in September 2001 in opposition to the opening of Dungavel as an immigration detention centre, has focused upon the housing of asylum seekers whilst their claims are being processed. Its alternative discourse has been couched in terms of asserting ‘asylum rights’ and in particular the human rights of children and families in detention. Concentrating on the issues of child education and welfare, pressure has been exerted to ‘re-humanise’ the asylum debate, steering the emphasis away from the idea of a system ‘in crisis’ and the bureaucratic priorities of surveillance and control.

The campaign against detention at Dungavel has received relatively high profile coverage in the national press, in part because of the considerable collaboration of different political identities in its actions, but also because it has articulated Scotland’s devolved status since 1999 in distinguishing a Scottish counter discourse on asylum.

As the asylum policy area is ‘reserved’ to Westminster and administered by the Home Office, this has provided the conditions through which an antagonistic relation could be depicted between a ‘securitising’ New Labour asylum policy at the centre, and a more ‘politically progressive’ Scottish asylum politics. The identity of the latter, anti-detention campaigners argue, is compromised by the constitutional limitations of the devolved Scottish Parliament – a fact that is expressed through the hegemonic dominance of the former.

The unfolding Dungavel debate

In April 2002, a cross party group on asylum seekers and refugees, convened by Shona Robison of the SNP, reported on a ‘fact finding mission’ to Dungavel following claims that a hunger strike had occurred there. Their subsequent report called for the abolition of the detention of children, denounced the limitations upon access to education at the centre and concluded that, ‘Dungavel is not an appropriate place for families’. Notably the education issue was presented as the group’s number one cause for concern, and it was framed as the responsibility of the ‘Scottish Executive/Home Office’. (Robison 2002)

The campaign escalated through 2003 gaining momentum upon the protests surrounding the experiences of the Ays, a Kurdish family whose long detention at Dungavel and eventual deportation to Germany became a high profile issue for debate. Yurdagal Ay and her four children, aged between seven and fourteen years in 2003 and detained in Dungavel for over a year, symbolised the injustice of detaining families on immigration grounds and the trauma and potential damage inflicted upon children in detention.

The concern surrounding family detention was corroborated by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers’ report on Dungavel, which was published in August 2003. The report recommended that the detention of children should ‘be exceptional and for very short periods – no more than a matter of days.’ In part, this assertion was based upon the inadequate level of educational provision available for children detained for longer periods than two weeks, (as it was determined by HM Inspectorate of Education). Anne Owers concluded that ‘decisions on detention and continued detention should be informed by regular independent assessments of each child’s welfare, educational and developmental needs’. (HMIP 2003)

The campaign surrounding the Ay family’s case, bolstered by these official recommendations, constituted a point around which oppositional forces could be built, and it spawned a wider debate in Scotland about the detention of asylum seeking children and families.

Forces collaborating to oppose Dungavel

Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), Church leaders and refugee charities all acted in 2003 to highlight the Ay family’s case and the perceived injustice of asylum detention. For example, Muslim groups and the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) joined forces with senior figures from the Christian churches in Scotland on 4th July 2003 to sign an open letter to the Home Secretary in support of the Ay family’s case and to express their opposition against the inhumanity of detaining children. The letter, published in the Scottish newspapers The Herald and The Scotsman and also reported through the BBC News website, coincided with the Catholic Church in Scotland’s presentation of a 20,000 signature petition to the Home Secretary expressing opposition to the detention of children at Dungavel.

Such collaborations of faith-based organisations in the anti-detention campaign have also been demonstrated through enterprises such as the ‘Refugee Scotland project’, involving the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist churches as well as MSPs and charities such as Shelter, Save the Children and National Childrens’ Homes. The ‘Refugee Scotland project’ put forward a proposal in November 2003 to convert Kirk properties into open hostel-style refuges for asylum seeking children: a practical, more ‘humane’ alternative to detention at Dungavel. The provision of open refuges and hostels has also been promoted by MSPs such as SNP justice spokespersons, Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Matheson who travelled to Brussels to investigate the operation of ‘Le Petit Chateau’, an open hostel for asylum seekers as an alternative model for housing asylum seeking families whilst their claims are being processed.

Proportionally Represented Voice on Asylum Detention

The element of proportionality in the electoral system of the devolved Scottish Parliament has allowed the smaller parties of Scottish politics, such as the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Greens to secure formal representation in the Scottish parliament and the Scottish National Party (SNP) to form the largest party of opposition to the Scottish Labour Party (SLP).

The SSP, formed in 1998 have grown rapidly, increasing their political profile through combining their formal political representatives in the Scottish Parliament with continuing direct action and community campaigns. Tommy Sheridan, elected in 2001, was joined in 2003 by the election of six other SSP MSPs. The SSP has taken a leading role in the asylum debate in Scotland, with MSP for Glasgow, Rosie Kane in particular intervening directly for families in detention. Instrumental in raising the profile of the Ay family’s plight in 2003 and travelling to Germany to make representations on their behalf, Rosie Kane has also been involved in campaigning for bail from Dungavel detention centre for asylum seekers. This has included providing surety and residence for the family of Mercy Ikolo in her own home: a symbolic victory in challenging a system in which proposals for bail procedures (as outlined in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999) have never been implemented.

The issue of bail for immigration detainees, and the alternative open hostel accommodation proposed by anti-detention campaigners are important interventions as they de-naturalise the Secure Borders, Safe Haven paradigm of asylum discourse. They reference proposals previously mooted and rejected by the current New Labour government and also insist upon asylum as a principle of human rights, rather than as an issue of security.

In September 2003, MSPs voted against the 24-hour detention of children at Dungavel, reflecting the arguments that had been made against asylum detention as a contravention of human rights and of the UK’s obligations under Human Rights law. It indicated the extent of the influence upon MSPs of the interventions of key figures from opposition parties and the SLP and their collaborations with extra-parliamentary groups in the forging of anti-detention campaigns.

However, the development of the counter discourse on asylum in Scotland has also been sustained by the constitutional implications and politics of devolution and especially because of the limitations that have been exposed in the Scottish Executive’s devolved responsibilities.

Devolved Responsibilities and Shameful Silences

‘The people of Scotland will not rest until this national shame is dealt with’
Fiona Hyslop MSP (SNP)
(BBC News Online 15th August 2003)

The relative autonomy of the Scottish nation from the image of Britain, constitutionally recognised through the devolved institutions of the Scottish Parliament, has played an important role in the construction of a counter discourse on asylum.

The issue of the education of asylum seeking children became a particular point of contention between Westminster and Hollyrood, as the anti-detention campaign mounted during 2003. Whilst immigration is a ‘reserved issue’, administered by central government, responsibility for education has been devolved to the Scottish Executive. However, the pressure placed upon First Minister, Jack McConnell to state his position on the education arrangements for asylum seeking children at Dungavel has been resisted. Repeated calls for his intervention in the question of whether the education of detained asylum seekers’ children should be educated in mainstream schools has elicited his repeated insistence that responsibility for the detention centre remains with Westminster. The limitations of the Executive’s responsibilities in the devolved area of education were thereby starkly exposed.

Jack McConnell’s ‘silence’ on the education issue has been condemned by opposition MSPs and anti-detention campaigners as a ‘shameful’ response. The implication has been that whilst it was ‘shameful’ to ignore the education of children in detention in Scotland, an implicit ‘shame’ also lay in Jack McConnell’s reluctance to challenge the assumption of Westminster’s pre-eminence in this policy area. The Scottish executive’s passivity in the face of compromised human rights in Scotland, and this at the Home Secretary’s behest seemed to strikingly illuminate the disparity of power in Scottish politics between Hollyrood and Westminster. To refuse to struggle for the power to put a stop to a ‘shameful’ practice on Scottish soil was, it could also be implied, shameful.

In the run up to a public meeting and protest about Dungavel, held in Glasgow in September 2003, the trope of Scotland’s shame was further developed by the labelling of Dungavel as ‘Scotland’s Guantanamo Bay’ by anti-detention campaigners. In highlighting the injustice of detaining large numbers of people without trial and accused of no crime, the General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), Bill Speirs, was quoted as asserting: 'Dungavel should not be allowed to be like Guantanamo Bay, a little bit of the Home Office not under Scottish jurisdiction. It is in Scotland. It is part of Scotland and the policy there should fall in with our ethos.' (‘Silent Cabinet are Accused of Hypocrisy’ The Herald 7.8.2003)

The comments, first reported in the Scottish newspaper, The Herald prompted the then Immigration minister, Beverley Hughes to angrily refute the comparison as an ‘outrageous suggestion’. However, the analogy drawn between Dungavel and international human rights issues can be seen as very much in line with the developing dimensions of the anti-detention campaigners’ alternative asylum discourse.

In practical political actions, politicians and church leaders involved in the campaign have sought to by-pass Westminster, in order to appeal to international standards of human rights and to enlist figures with Europe-wide influence in opposition to the practice of detaining asylum seekers. For example, in December 2003, SNP Member of the European Parliament, Professor Neil MacCormick requested the Human Rights Commissioner at the Council of Europe, Alvaro Gil-Robles to consider conducting an investigation into the detention of children as a potential breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

More rhetorically, repeated references to Dungavel as ‘an ugly scar’ on Scotland’s conscience, and as ‘Scotland’s shame’ by leading campaign groups and MSPs, and the analogies drawn between Dungavel and Guantanamo Bay as outlined above, appeal to a ‘universal’ order of governance beyond Westminster; one which functions to politically bolster the identity of Scottish politics and to present a political challenge to its constitutionally subordinated position within the devolved system of government.

Challenged on one side by a moral discourse about Scotland’s compassion for children and its human rights credibility, it has been difficult for the majority SLP Scottish Executive to vocalise an effective opposition to the anti-detention campaign. For New Labour politicians in Scotland to adhere to dominant asylum discourse would seem problematic, as their opposition to a campaign framed in nationalistic terms would be potentially electorally damaging.

It has also been practically impossible for the Executive to neutralise the asylum detention debate by conceding political ground, fearing the constitutional dispute that could otherwise result surrounding reserved policy areas, devolved powers and questions surrounding party political loyalties. As such, the Scottish Executive has been effectively ambushed and disarmed as a political force in these areas by the anti-detention campaign’s counter-discourse on asylum.

In December 2003, following the Anne Owers report, and the September vote in the Scottish Parliament, some movement was seen from ex-immigration minister Beverley Hughes towards recognising the inadequacies of the system in terms of the detention of children and families. However, her ‘concession’ was framed in quantitative terms, with the duration of child detention posited as the issue for reconsideration, rather than the qualitative experience of detention in the first place. The approval of a government minister would now, she announced, be required for the detention of children for terms longer than 28 days, whilst detention exceeding three weeks would now generate an assessment of a child’s education and welfare needs. (HO Press Release, Stat 054/2003, 16 December 2003)

This has clearly done little, either to address the demands of the alliance of anti-detention campaigners, or to engage in the debate on their terms. Concern with procedure rather than human rights principles characterises asylum policy emanating from Westminster, whilst the impotence of the Scottish Executive in the asylum debate continues.

At a time when plans to expand the detention estate were being put into place, including the Home Office’s approval of a considerable expansion of Dungavel, it would seem that the counter-discourse, whilst very significant, could not be said to constitute a challenging hegemonic force representing a concrete threat to Westminster policy.

However, the proportional system of devolved government in Scotland has created the conditions of possibility for a counter hegemonic discourse to emerge in Scotland. The humanitarian alternatives proposed to asylum detention and their justificatory discourses have competed with dominant hegemonic articulations of asylum by seeking to differentiate Scottish politics from those emanating from Westminster. The Dungavel campaign has drawn upon the notion of a Scottish national distinctiveness as an emotional resource. It has mobilised opposition to asylum detention as a ‘national shame’, and as an injudicious ‘barbarity’ perpetrated on Scottish soil. It has thereby articulated a moral discourse couched in the terms of Scottish nationalism and international human rights law.

Whilst such challenges may not have seriously threatened the devolution settlement, they have borne important reverberations in the sphere of Scottish politics, where claims for national independence remain, to varying extents, a stated aim of mainstream political parties such as the SNP and the SSP, and where Scottish nationalism remains an important force in electoral politics.

A Counter-discourse Beyond Scottish Borders?

The articulation of an ‘asylum rights’ discourse has not reverberated beyond Scottish borders to effectively pose a hegemonic challenge to the dominant notion of ‘asylum crisis’ as is currently articulated in British political discourse.

Like Dungavel, family accommodation units are a feature of asylum detention or ’removal’ centres throughout the UK, including Tinsley House, near Gatwick, Campsfield House near Oxford and Harmondsworth in West London. The detention of children and families seeking asylum is, similarly, strongly opposed south of the border. A variety of organisations in England frequently collaborate on campaigns against asylum detention and to lobby government to improve conditions of incarceration in detention centres.

These consistently work for the improvement of legal and welfare conditions for detainees, to protest against asylum detention, establish networks and coordinate the activities of concerned groups and individuals. The campaign against detention at Campsfield House, Oxfordshire, is perhaps the longest running of local anti-detention campaigns. Organised since the centre’s opening in 1993, it has sustained and coordinated opposition to the detention of asylum seekers, combining the activities of local campaigners with support for asylum seeker’s own protests and publicising the injustice and conditions of their incarceration. In addition, media monitoring projects, concerned with the representation of asylum seekers and refugees in the press and broadcast media throughout the UK, such as Presswise’s RAM project, direct their efforts towards encouraging a more progressive discourse on asylum in Britain.

But a counter-discourse, of the order of the Dungavel campaign has not found the conditions through which it might be articulated in Britain as a whole. The conditions of existence for the anti-Dungavel campaign are particular to a terrain of Scottish politics where the boundaries of Hollyrood’s political autonomy from Westminster have been exposed to a political challenge. The appeal to universal human rights, so important to the anti-detention argument, has also served as a useful tool for a politics of nationalism that seeks to release Scottish politics from the constraints placed upon it by devolution’s iniquitous distribution of power.

The appeal to universality, to a higher judicial order of ‘rights’, such as those symbolised in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and European Convention on Human Rights, for example, has allowed for the imagining of Scottish national political identity on the international stage, and for the positing of a relation of equivalence between an independent Scotland and the valuing of the human rights of oppressed groups (the importance of the education of asylum seeking children and welfare of asylum seeking families constituting a politically contingent example of this). This ‘logic of equivalence’ has been effectively articulated through the collective expression and collaboration of politicians, charities and diverse religious groups in the anti-detention campaign that has coalesced around Dungavel.

It is therefore clearly not for a lack of campaigning effort south of the border that progressive ideas on asylum have not held such a powerful discursive function across Britain as they have in relation to Dungavel in Scotland through 2003. Neither is it the case that in Scotland there is clear evidence that anti-asylum seeker sentiment has necessarily been radically reduced nor that a majority of the Scottish population are now opposed to the detention of asylum seekers. Whilst polling ‘evidence’ is contingent upon a complexity of discursive factors and should be treated with caution rather than as an objective measure of contemporary ideas, it is relevant to note that according to a YouGov opinion poll conducted for the Mail on Sunday in September 2003, 59% of Scottish people asked were reported to be in favour of locking up failed asylum seekers, including children. (‘Scots Backing for Hard Line on Asylum Seekers’ Mail on Sunday 14.09.2003)

However, it is nevertheless the case that a consistent, sustained and politically challenging alternative discourse to the dominant hegemonic logic on asylum has succeeded in re-forming the terrain of asylum politics in Scotland. I would argue that this, whilst not a replicable model, must represent a figure of hope for the reconstitution of a more politically progressive asylum discourse in the future.

Kerry Moore is a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Roehampton University. She has a first degree in English literature from University of Wales, Aberystwyth and an MA in Gender, Culture and Development from Sunderland University. Her research interests include: racism and national identity, contemporary British politics, post-Marxist and poststructuralist cultural theory, and the politics of fear. Her doctoral thesis is entitled, ‘Challenging Racism from the Left: A Cultural Study of the asylum issue in Britain post-9/11’.

Theoretical Influences

My thinking around asylum has been informed by the discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe as elucidated in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), and in Laclau’s later work New Reflections of the Revolution of Our Time (1990), and The Making of Political Identities (1994) and Emancipations (1996).

Discourse theory draws upon post-Marxist and poststructuralist ideas and provides a theoretical lens through which to perceive contemporary political struggles. In struggles to define the meaning of asylum in Britain, the concept of discourse understood a set of ideas which can determine concrete relations between social actors but which must compete with other ideas to do so, provides a useful framework through which to perceive shifts in how asylum is politically situated and constructed as ‘an issue’. I have particularly drawn upon the concepts of articulation, antagonism and the logics of equivalence and difference as delineated by Laclau and Mouffe in understanding the construction and reconstruction of asylum discourses in Britain and in Scotland since 1999, and in my analysis of the relationship between these different discourses and their conditions of existence.