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UK Detention Inquiry: a step in the right direction

A parliamentary inquiry, launched today, will hear from people directly affected by immigration detention. Will the mass incarceration of migrants finally be recognised as a political concern worthy of public scrutiny and debate, asks Eiri Ohtani.

Campsfield immigration detention centre. Photo: Jennifer Allsopp

The UK’s practice of detaining asylum seekers needs ‘a root and branch review’. These were the words of the Independent Asylum Commission, a coalition which aimed to take ‘a fresh and impartial look’ at the UK asylum system and make ‘credible recommendations for reform’. That was in 2008, six years ago.  Since then, the scandalous nature of immigration detention has become even more visible in Britain. 

In the first half of 2014, we have been greeted with numerous disturbing events. Christine Case died in Yarl’s Wood in March, Bruno dos Santos passed away in the Verne, UK’s newest pseudo-immigration detention centre, in June and the recent inquest into the death of American tourist Brian Dalrymple in Harmondsworth found that he died due to a series of failures of those who were supposed to be caring for him. 

Since 2008 when the Commission produced its final report, there have been other major changes to the detention estate, including the opening of Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre in 2011, the closure of Oakington in 2010 and Lindholme in 2012, the Coalition Government’s pledge to end the detention of children and the increasing use of prison bed-spaces for immigration detention purposes. The Commission’s recommendations were ignored and forgotten, just like those several thousand people languishing in immigration detention centres across the UK. 

The Parliamentary inquiry launched today picks up the baton left by the Independent Asylum Commission. The inquiry is jointly led by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration, and marks the first dedicated Parliamentary inquiry into the impact and implications of the use of immigration detention. It has cross-party support and seeks to involve NGOs, legal practitioners, monitoring bodies and, most importantly, those who lives have been directly affected by detention in its evidence gathering process.  The panel members are Sarah Teather MP, Paul Blomfield MP, Jon Cruddas MP, Baroness Lister, Baroness Hamwee, Julian Huppert MP, David Burrowes MP, Richard Fuller MP, Caroline Spelman MP, Lord Lloyd and Lord Ramsbotham, the very person who insisted on the ‘root and branch review’ of detention back in 2008. 

Appropriately, the inquiry goes beyond the scope of the Commission and looks into detention of not only asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers but also other irregular migrants who are caught up in the detention system. And most crucially, its ambition is to look at detention as a whole.  

This is not the first time politicians have shown some interest in aspects of immigration detention.  Before the last general election, John Bercow MP, Lord Dubs and Evan Harris MP produced a paper on alternatives to detention for children in 2006, followed by an investigation by the Home Affairs Select Committee into detention of children in 2009. The same Committee has recently summoned the head of Serco, the private security company managing Yarl’s Wood, to give an account of its handling of the sexual abuse allegations against its employees at the centre. During the passage of the Immigration Bill, Baroness Williams led a debate on indefinite detention in which a number of peers ferociously voiced their opposition to this practice.   

While these sparks of parliamentary activities trigger some interest, no attempt has been made to join these dots and turn them into a political concern worthy of proper political debate. These parliamentary activities tended to focus on specific aspects of immigration detention while creating the impression that everything else about detention was acceptable.  They always left out the central question of whether we should be locking up so many people, with huge costs to their human dignity, health and well-being – as well as the millions of pounds which are spent year after year to sustain this system – just because they are in one way or another unwanted or ‘undeserving’.

This is an uncomfortable question that most politicians would probably rather not deal with in public, particularly when getting involved with anything that could be seen to be promoting immigrants’ rights is a potential vote loser. On public opinion, we know very little of how most people feel about locking up migrants without time limit in their name. In all likelihood, despite the number of news items, most people simply do not know what detention really means. 

Because of this general refusal by Parliament to engage with the issue and against the background of the dismal failure by UK civil society to stop the expansion of the detention estate over the last decade or so, there is legitimate scepticism over what this new inquiry could possibly achieve.  After all, criticism after criticism of the UK’s detention practices have fallen on deaf ears. It is not just NGOs’ and campaigners’ voices that are ignored. Our office shelves are piled high with inspection reports, whether by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, Independent Monitoring Boards and the Independent Chief Inspector of Border and Immigration. These reports repeatedly paint a picture of a system which is ripe for a wholesale rethink. The most recent example of the government’s disregard of criticism of its detention practice came just last month. The UK decided not to respond at all to the criticism by the UN Human Rights Council’s Committee against Torture report in 2013, which made several detention-related recommendations, including that the UK should set a time limit on detention. Clearly, immigration detention is off limits for the government. And this is what must change. 

One group of people who find it especially difficult to be heard are those who are directly affected by immigration detention. Each year, we are detaining enough number of people to fill a large sports stadium, approximately 30,000 people. On any given day, there are over four thousand people locked up in detention centres and prisons up and down the country. Many of these people are unceremoniously released back into the community after long periods of detention as if nothing has happened. They might live in limbo, fearing re-detention or, sometimes, they might secure their right to stay in the UK. Many thousands more live in fear of detention.  Hundreds ofcommunity members, families and friends who support these people must have something they want to say. 

In fact, the noble and exciting aspect of this inquiry is its willingness to hear from the people who are directly affected by detention. On its first oral evidence day later this month, a small group of people who are currently detained will be addressing the panel directly. The inquiry panel members will learn about detention at close range and receive testimony-based submissions from people who can tell not just what detention does to them but also how people can remain in their communities instead of detention whilst going through the immigration system. 

This is the reason why the Detention Forum, a network of over 30 groups working together to question and challenge detention, welcomes this inquiry. There has been a huge increase in the number of visible protests against detention, in and out of the detention centres, and it’s likely that many groups of people and individuals are willing to tell their stories and opinions to the panel.  Over the summer, the Detention Forum is also planning to help groups and individuals who want to submit evidence but might find it difficult to do so.  

Of course, one inquiry is not going end detention. What we want to see is that the inquiry leaves a legacy that will lead to long-term parliamentary scrutiny of the use of detention. The inquiry could begin the political process of rethinking immigration detention, if, and this is a big if, those of us affected by immigration detention can convince them for the need for a complete rethink. The final report of the inquiry panel could also be a huge asset to future detention advocacy. 

Someone said recently that politicians, think tanks and opinion makers are busy talking about what immigrants can do for Britain but there is little talk about what Britain’s immigration control does to immigrants. Now, here is an opportunity to at last tell politicians what detention does to us, immigrants and citizens. 

Further information about the inquiry can be found at www.detentioninquiry.com

About the author

Eiri Ohtani is the Co-ordinator of the Detention Forum in the UK and an independent consultant in the voluntary sector. She has worked with migrants and asylum seekers for over a decade. A graduate of London School of Economics, she also holds postgraduate degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies and Birkbeck, University of London.  


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