Dungavel: Scotland’s Shame

In recent days, the question over how to handle refugees and asylum seekers has reached a boiling point. With the far right in ascendance all over the world- from Hungary and Poland, to the USA and UK- and refugees from war, famine and climate change likely to increase, it seems that the victims of circumstance are going to be left in an increasingly hostile world with nowhere to go.

In the US, Trump’s nativist rhetoric might be shocking to some, but far more damaging to immigrant communities have been institutions like ICE that have existed for longer than Trump’s administration has allowed him to put his rhetoric into practice; founded under Bush Jr, later expanded and used by Obama to enforce mass deportations of groups like the Haitian community, under Trump ICE has been accused of enacting sterilisation of immigrant women in concentration camps. A disgusting practice that is currently being investigated by the US government, but hardly surprising considering Trump’s own comments on refugees and asylum seekers, all in the backdrop of the USA’s long history of bigotry.

This isn’t to say that the American public are, to a number, happy with the policy of their government; cries of “Abolish ICE” have been heard at protests across America, and an attack on an ICE facility was carried out in 2019.

In the UK the debate over what to do with asylum seekers is being answered by the Tory party, an organisation with it own long history of racism that had attempted to rebrand as a modern party under David Cameron, but now led by Boris Johnston, a man prone to bigoted statements that won his election with a manifesto that specifically targeted British Roma by promising to seize their property. Perhaps a party winning an election on a promise to target an ethnic group that was a prime target during the holocaust should have raised more of an alarm among the public, but now this party is the one in charge of determining the UKs policy concerning asylum seekers.

The answers these amoral ghouls are coming up with are as suitably evil as you would imagine: Priti Patel considering shipping asylum seekers to Ascension– an island in the South Atlantic with a population of just over 800, that’s closer to Brazil and Nigeria than it is to the home isle- was a particularly egregious highlight. Being around 6400 kilometres from the UK, the primary reason this was argued against wasn’t on the moral grounds of turning an island in the middle of nowhere into a concentration camp, but instead the costs involved in the morally vacant venture.

The idea of having offshore detention centres to process migrants is heavily inspired by the Australian system of processing migrants, and the idea itself appears to be gaining traction in the UK, despite the failure of the Ascension plan. The idea itself is not without controversy with any such plan meaning the UK would need to withdraw from both the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights to avoid violating the law. The fact that a policy that is widely detracted as based on racism and denying basic human rights violations is being calmly debated simply because another English speaking nation has already put it into practice demonstrates just how far into xenophobia the UK has fallen.

What then about Scotland? We have always portrayed ourselves as the more humanitarian part of the union but how much does that really hold up to inspection? These tensions between those who want to welcome immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees and those who would instead embrace xenophobia definitely exist in our own nation. One saving caveat, at least, is that our government is not seeking to ignite these tensions for political gain. For example, after the tragic attack in June this year by asylum seeker Badreddin Abadlla Adam the Scottish government’s response was to challenge the Home Office for the way it had been treating asylum seekers.

Nicola Sturgeon even chimed into the debate down south around the possibility of offshore detention centres by saying that “They [Westminster] can rest assured that any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me”. Is this true however? 

In South Lanarkshire, near Strathaven exists Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. This facility is operating on Scottish soil, for profit by a private company in the name of the Home Office, housing those who have had their asylum pleas rejected, while they wait for deportation. Currently the capacity of the site has been reduced from 249 to 125 at the start of the year, but this might already be too little too late. A recent outbreak of Covid-19 has resulted in fresh calls to close the facility by refugee rights groups, who say the facility has a history of poor treatment for the people it houses, evidenced recently by the death of a man in the facility in 2017. With detention already putting a strain on a person’s physical and mental health one can only imagine the stress a covid outbreak could cause in a facility like this. I would also like to remind readers that these people haven’t broken any laws, they have simply been denied asylum by the Home Office, and that nearly two fifths of the people housed in this facility are reported as being vulnerable. At the time of writing the Home Office have not released the numbers of those infected by and who might have died from Covid-19 at this facility, and even refuses to give exact numbers on the total number of people held there currently.

If Scotland wants to maintain its reputation and self image as a land of tolerance and understanding we have to confront the reality of Dungavel, because a tolerant society can not tolerate a facility like this on its own soil.

Scotland and the Black Death

Recently we’ve focused a lot on Covid-19 and the ramifications it’s already having for our society but this week I thought we would take a step back from the ongoing pandemic and instead focus on something a bit lighter – the Black Death

Our story starts in 1348, when the Black Death first arrived in England. 1348, simply put, was not a great time to live in Britain. The Second War of Scottish independence had already been  raging for over a decade, and England had been embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War for nearly as long. On top of this, the common people of the towns and villages were also suffering under high taxes, little food and failed harvests. Life was pretty bleak, but it was about to get a lot worse. 

It was Bristol that would be first hit. A vibrant trading port that had until that time remained untouched by war or famine; instead it was the third horseman of the apocalypse, pestilence, that would leave its mark here. Before the plague Bristol was the second largest city in England, taking silver place only to London, but when the plague hit, Henry Knighton, a monk who recorded the history of the plague described the city as being devastated, saying “almost the whole strength of the town perished” and transforming, almost over night from a city full of life and joy and trade, to a city of corpses where the few survivors didn’t have the strength or numbers to bury the deceased. This, unfortunately, was only a taste of things to come for the rest of the Isles. 

By 1349 London would follow in Bristol’s grim footsteps, and alongside the Back Death, Pneumonic Plague would also ravage the city. This outbreak would take thousands upon thousands of lives, the plague would also break up Parliament and take the lives of at least three Archbishops of Canterbury greatly weakening the English Kingdom’s feudal management.

All this chaos was not unnoticed in the court of King David the Second of Scotland, and many argued the plague was God’s wrath on the English for… well being English. It’s not hard to see how the calamity could be seen to have had a hand of the divine, wherever the plague went it left biblical destruction. Further still, the Scottish nobility argued that because Scotland had remained untouched, this showed that God had picked a side in the war, the Scottish side. It was decided that rather than lay back and watch the southern kingdom burn Scotland would take an active hand in the chaos, and push its advantage to win the war. After all, god had clearly decreed the end times for England, it was their Christian duty to see his will acted. 

The Scots at this point were resurgent, they had already pushed Edward the Third’s armies out of Perth and Fife, and now a great host assembled to invade England itself. When news of this approaching army reached Durham the plague stricken town burst into riots. This incursion, however, was ultimately doomed and the Scots were routed in battle, soon the Scottish army was in full retreat back home. To add to the misery of defeat, among the fleeing soldiers and levies the plague lurked and soon Scotland would be hit with the same divine wrath that the English had suffered. 

Though Scotland was less vulnerable than England, lacking the centralised population centres that England had developed in the centuries prior, the pestilence still took a dire toll. Exact numbers aren’t recorded but what is known is that cities like Edinburgh were devastated, losing nearly half of their population. By the end of the outbreak some estimate almost half the population of the Island would succumb to the disease.

So, you might be asking, why have I chosen to bring to attention this particular part of history? Well I think it conveys a very important message. Even if you think God is telling you to invade England, please, please stay in doors, save lives.