According to a freedom of information request passed to The Ferret, a total of 1,723 people were held in Police Scotland cells between April 2018 and October 20.
The Scottish Government’s justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, said it was further evidence that Scotland needed to control its own immigration policies.
The number has been rising in recent years. In 2017-18 537 people were held in police cells on the instruction of the Home Office, as previously reported by The Ferret. In 2018-19 it rose to 735 and to 767 in 2019-20.
From April to October 2020, 231 people were detained under Home Office rules, despite widespread restrictions on travel both internally and internationally.
Campaigners claim the figures suggest questions must be raised about how Police Scotland is being used by the Home Office.
People who have not secured indefinite leave to remain in the UK are liable to being held in immigration detention at any time. But people are particularly at risk when they first arrive in the UK or if they have been refused asylum.
Police Scotland figures
The figures from Police Scotland show more than 500 people were held in local police cells for more than 24 hours under immigration legislation, including 41 held for more than 48 hours.
Those detained in police custody have their mobile phones taken from them and campaigners claim that despite strict welfare guidance about solicitor access, some struggle to contact immigration representatives to help them appeal detention.
The freedom of information response shows people were detained right across the country for UK immigration purposes – from Stranraer and Saltcoats in Ayrshire, to Aberdeen, Falkirk and Wick. Information requested on the number held in each location was not provided.
Police Scotland confirmed to The Ferret that it receives £250 from the Home Office per person for each day they were held in immigration detention.
Kate Alexander, director of charity Scottish Detainee Visitors, claimed staff and volunteers from her organisation had encountered people transferred from police custody to Dungavel Immigration Detention Centre in South Lanarkshire, when they were visiting.
She said: “These are very worrying figures, particularly the revelation that more than 500 people had been detained in police cells for more than 24 hours.
“As visitors to people in detention in Dungavel, we sometimes meet people who are shocked to have been detained in police cells before their arrival there. While in police custody they do not have access to their phones and may be unable to consult with their immigration advisers.”
She continued: “It’s important to remember that these people are not being held because of any criminal investigation, so holding them in a cell is entirely inappropriate.
“The extent to which police cells were being used to detain people during the pandemic, at a time when the Home Office had released hundreds of people from detention is also a matter for serious concern.”
Ali McGinley, director of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (Avid), agreed that police cells were “wholly unsuitable” for those being held for immigration purposes.
She added: “Time and again we see the lines between criminality and migration being blurred. That this has continued during a pandemic is a grave concern.
“Sadly, we know that the screening for immigration detention is woefully inadequate and often leads to people being held for whom a period of detention will be greatly damaging, including people with mental health needs or who have been trafficked or suffered trauma.”
Graham O’Neill, policy manager for Scottish Refugee Council, called for “the maximum possible transparency” on enforcement of UK immigration rules on Scottish soil and on information sharing agreements.
He said: “This particularly relates to its enforcement role, and whether and how that works alongside Police Scotland and the Crown Office, in terms of upholding rights and the treatment of those deemed subject to UK immigration offences and policy in Scotland.”
Scottish Greens justice spokesperson, John Finnie MSP, also called for greater clarity about what information was shared between the Home Office and Police Scotland.
He raised the issues in a letter to the Home Office last month, written in his capacity as convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Sub Committee on Policing.
In the same letter Finnie requested an update on the deportation of rough sleepers from European Economic Area countries, who – as of 1 January – can in some circumstances be detained and sent back to their countries of origin, if they are found to be street homeless.
He added: “The Scottish Green Party is worried by the figures obtained and is keen Police Scotland’s officers and facilities are not abused by a Home Office still actioning its ‘hostile environment’ policy.”
Superintendent Simon Jeacocke, of the criminal justice services division, confirmed that Police Scotland had a memorandum of understanding in place with the Home Office, “which confirms that the service will assist with custodial services and oversee the care for those arrested under suspicion of immigration offences”.
He said: “The duration of time a person will be in Police Scotland custody depends on a number of factors, but in general, this is a short-term arrangement to allow transportation to a detention centre, or any other immigration facility, to be agreed.”
He insisted those in police custody are given full legal access and cared for inline with “stringent” police welfare standards.
Scottish Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, insisted that “the role of Police Scotland as regards the Home Office and custodial services for people suspected of immigration offences, is an operational matter for Police Scotland”.
But he added: “We have repeatedly called on the Home Office to deliver more humane and flexible asylum and immigration policies. It is increasingly clear that the UK Government is incapable of delivering effective immigration policies that reflect Scotland’s values, circumstances or interests.
“Therefore, it is time for Scotland to have the powers to deliver tailored immigration solutions that meet Scotland’s needs and aspirations.”
According to UK immigration minister, Chris Philp, time spent in police custody was “usually as a result of people presenting themselves voluntarily at police stations to claim asylum”. He claimed they were held overnight until an immigration officer could attend to register their asylum claim.
“They are held in custody until their immigration status is determined at which point they may be released or transferred to immigration removal centres,” he added.
“As the public rightfully expect, resources are managed in a way that provides better value for the taxpayer. We are committed to using detention sparingly and only when necessary.
“It is an important part of effective immigration enforcement which enables us to return those have no legal right to remain in the UK.”