THE cheers could be heard over the double layer of impenetrable 20ft razorwire fences yesterday. The clamour and shouts were from detainees at the controversial Dungavel House detention centre and were in support of the hundreds of protesters on the other side of the barriers – protesters who were demanding the closure of a site critics describe as "prison-like".

Some of those incarcerated at the South Lanarkshire centre climbed up a security fence to wave at those carrying colourful banners and singing "shut down Dungavel, "no-one is illegal" during an emotionally charged protest.

Video by Robert Perry

The Sunday Herald spoke to a number of former detainees at the demonstration, who gave vivid and often harrowing insights into life in the centre, with claims that asylum seekers are working for as little as £1 an hour in laundries there and that female inmates face regular harassment.

A former Olympic athlete from the Central African Republic (CAR), who was seeking asylum in the UK, fought back the tears as he talked about being locked in cramped, squalid and uncomfortable conditions at the holding centre.

Another ex-detainee complained about people being forced to exist on a poor diet, with asylum seekers given chips for breakfast.

Zacharie Cyriaque, who competed as a javelin thrower at the Olympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona and in 1996 in Atlanta, spent nearly a month in Dungavel on two separate occasions during a period of several weeks being shunted around immigration detention centres in the UK.

The 41-year-old was just one of 500 protesters who travelled to the centre for an event organised by the asylum rights group We Will Rise.

Campaigners spent nearly five hours marching around the perimeter fence of the centre, which is run by the Home Office, as they chanted slogans, danced and loudly banged drums.

Cyriaque was returning to Dungavel less than a year after being released following a legal challenge to his detention in 2015, although he still faces a battle with the immigration authorities against deportation.

The former professional athlete was one of a handful of former Dungavel detainees who gave speeches in their own language at a rally held towards the end of the protest.

Speaking afterwards, Cyriaque, who was visibly upset as he recounted his time in Dungavel, said: "It beings back the trauma to go there today, but people need to know about what's happening. I feel very fragile now, all the time and keep thinking I'll get taken back there.

"They wanted to deport me, but if I was sent back I'd be at real risk. The Central African Republic is a very dangerous place."

Cyriaque was detained by the immigration authorities during a night raid after his claim for asylum on the grounds of political persecution was rejected, which led to him being held at a Home Office detention centre in Manchester, as well as at Dungavel.

He lodged his original claim with the Home Office when he was in London for the Paralympics in 2012, as part of the coaching set up for the CAR team.

Cyriaque said: "After my claim was refused I was taken there in the night as if I were a thief and all my belongings were taken from me. It was like a prison and the thing was so traumatic that I lot my appetite.

"It was such a traumatic time and I didn't feel like I was a human being. It was disgusting and they took away my dignity while I was there."

Sally Martinez, one of the organisers of yesterday's demonstration at Dungavel, was another one of those at the protest who had experienced at firsthand what life was like inside Dungavel.

Martinez was kept in Dungavel for five weeks after her application to remain in the UK was rejected.

The 31-year-old said that being kept at the centre after being removed from Middlesbrough, where she had settled, continues to traumatise her. "We were locked down so much and if we wanted to go for a walk we had to get a guard to do it for us," she said.

"When I went in there I had no money and we were able to do work inside for money, so I did some in the laundry. But I only got £1 an hour and even though we were only meant to work fours hours a day, I ended up working for between six and eight hours most of the time.

"I used the money to buy food as the food we were given was really bad – we were given chips for breakfast sometimes. At Dungavel there are more men than women, but there wasn't that much space for women and sometimes you got harassed. I also felt there was a power game with guards, although if you spoke English and were able to communicate you were treated better."

Martinez, who was also part of the Glasgow contingent at the protest was eventually released although she also faces a protracted legal battle to remain in the UK.

Like Cyriaque, Martinez finds returning to Dungavel traumatic, but said that her own experiences of life behind the walls of the centre had made her more determined to campaign to have it shut down.

"I'm still waiting for a decision on judicial review and it's traumatic to come back to Dungavel after being held here, but I don't want others to suffer and I want to see the place closed down," she said.