A human rights lawyer has called on the Scottish Government to “demand answers” after  it emerged that 537 people were held in police cells in Scotland under UK immigration legislative powers last year.

In response to a freedom of information request submitted by The Ferret, Police Scotland also revealed that of those held in police cells for immigration purposes between April 2017 and March 2018, 27 people were held for over 48 hours. According to the data, 126 people spent 24 to 48 hours in cells, while 384 were held for up to 24 hours.

Under UK law foreign nationals who are subject to immigration control can be held in detention indefinitely. This can happen to people at any stage of the asylum process, or if they are subject to removal because they do not have leave to remain in the UK. Almost half of those detained in immigration detention centres are seeking asylum.

Every year almost 30,000 people are held for weeks, months, or even years, in detention centres across the UK, including more than 1,500 throughout the year  in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland’s only detention centre.

Concerns about self-harm

Concerns have long been raised about the use of the often privately run detention centres. However lawyers, politicians and voluntary organisations said less was known about Police Scotland‘s role in immigration enforcement and called for greater transparency.

The figures show that 44 per cent – 236 people – of those held in police cells for immigration purposes were in Glasgow. Of those 76 were held at Govan police station, near the Home Office’s Glasgow headquarters where those in the asylum process must routinely report. Many are detained without warning during the reporting process.

However, others were held in police cells around the country with 50 held in Kittybrewster police station in Aberdeen, 36 in St Leonards in Edinburgh and 35 in Stranraer. A further 22 were held in Motherwell and 14 in Kirkcaldy.

Some of these people suffer from mental health or medical problems which our police stations are untrained and unprepared to deal with. Aamer Anwar, human rights lawyer

Lawyers told The Ferret that police cells were not only inappropriate but deeply distressing for vulnerable detainees.

Human rights lawyer and Glasgow University rector Aamer Anwar, said: “It’s bad enough that asylum seekers are incarcerated in Dungaval but for people escaping from persecution, poverty or war, being locked up by Police Scotland is totally unacceptable.

“Some of these people suffer from mental health or medical problems which our police stations are untrained and unprepared to deal with. Police Scotland [have] become complicit in the barbaric immigration regime operated by the Home Office. Our new Justice Minister has a duty to demand answers as this is happening in our police stations and is not a reserved power.”

Gary Christie, head of policy for Scottish Refugee Council, raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the relationship between Police Scotland and the Home Office claiming there was an “immediate need” for much greater clarity.

This blurring of lines between criminality and migration is deeply concerning. Gary Christie, Scottish Refugee Council

He added: “This blurring of lines between criminality and migration is deeply concerning. It is not a crime to seek asylum. The use of Scottish police cells to detain migrants on behalf of and at the bidding of Home Office immigration enforcement falls squarely within this trend and is very worrying.”

Scottish Greens justice spokesperson and chair of the Scottish Parliament’s justice sub-committee on policing, John Finnie MSP, said police cells should be exclusively for those being processed through the criminal justice system rather than immigration legislation.

“Immigration is a reserved issue and the Home Office does place obligations on the UK’s various police forces to comply with and assist the UK Border Agency,” he said.

“I’ve previously raised concerns about the enthusiasm with which the Border Agency have used their powers of arrest and detention, making use of police cells in the process, and then not matching that publicity when they subsequently release all those found to be legitimately resident in the UK.”

Finnie said that while police cells are subject to an inspection regime it was essential their use was appropriate. “I will raise this matter both with the chief constable and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary to ensure that this is the case,” he added.

Previously concerns have been raised about the toxic environment of detention centres, some of which are run by private companies such as multinationals G4S and Serco, on behalf of the UK government, with worrying levels of self harm and even suicide. Three quarters of those detained in Scotland are later bailed into the community.

Harmful to health

A Scottish Government spokesman claimed the role played by Police Scotland in assisting the Home Office with custodial services, for people suspected of immigration offences, was “an operational matter for Police Scotland”.

But he added: “We have repeatedly raised concerns with the Home Office to deliver more humane and flexible asylum and immigration systems.This form of detention is harmful to people’s health and well being, as well as their ability to integrate into the community following release.”

Vulnerable women at risk in Dungavel detention centre, says report

Superintendent Simon Jeacocke, of Police Scotland’s criminal justice services division, said: “As part of Police Scotland’s collaborative working with other agencies, the service can assist with custodial services to care for people suspected of immigration offences until the Home Office is able to arrange transportation to a detention centre or any other immigration disposal. Police Scotland’s role is ensuring care and welfare of those in custody.”

He claimed the aim was always to hold someone for a minimum period but admitted that this was ultimately governed by the Home Office. He confirmed all those held in police custody were able to access a lawyer and cared for in line with police custody procedures.

The Home Office claims detention and removal are “essential parts of effective immigration controls”.

A spokeswoman confirmed both police and immigration officers have powers to arrest people for immigration offences. “They are held in custody until their immigration status is determined at which point they may be released or transferred to immigration removal centres,” she added.

Freedom of information response from Police Scotland