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Immigration detention: time for a time limit

The countdown to the UK general election is on, and with a collective push we could yet make change for those still languishing in immigration detention centres on our shores.

Outside Yarl's Wood detention centre (photo: P Nutt) Outside Yarl's Wood detention centre (photo: P Nutt)

Over 30,000 people were locked up in the UK last year - but not because they had committed a crime. They were trying to apply for the right to stay in this country. They had the misfortune to enter a system that uses detention in prison-like conditions, sometimes for years, as an administrative tool.

Immigration detention is meant to be a last resort, just before a person is removed from the UK. According to Home Office policy, detention can be used ‘where there is a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable period’. Detention ‘must be used sparingly, and for the shortest possible period necessary’. But how can someone be ‘about to be removed’ for three, four or five years?

There are many reasons why people cannot be deported, as this collection of twenty stories from across the EU illustrates. People who do not have travel documents. A disputed country of origin. Statelessness. Medical issues. The courts have found several times that the UK government has illegally detained people when there was no realistic prospect of removal - yet there seems to have been no change in policy. Not only is it wasteful, detention is expensive, estimated to cost around £47,000 per person.

If you have never been to detention, or never had a phone call from someone you care about from detention, count yourself lucky. I first got a phone call from someone in detention on an afternoon in November. Hearing the desperation in my friend’s voice - he had been taken to detention and told he would be deported, despite having an ongoing case with the Home Office - I realised that I was near powerless to help. That feeling will never leave me.  I now work with the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum (The Forum), which promotes the rights of refugees and migrants in the UK. We support a large number of people who have been in detention, often for months and years at a time.

I invited Penny, one of our members who recently won the right to stay in this country and who had spent 14 weeks in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, to share her story.

Life in detention: ‘A huge void’

For Penny, it was a sunny Thursday morning in 2007 when she first entered the detention system:

‘I had been assisting a friend who owned an Internet café. I was doing my usual chores when I was approached by four gentlemen who informed me that they had a search warrant for the premises. The search lasted about 3.5 hours, and when it was over I was taken into custody and told I was assisting the police. I spent almost two nights in the cells. The following evening, I was picked up and taken to what would become to me a home for the next 98 days - the dreaded detention centre, via a few other police stations.

I left the police station on Friday at around 9:00pm, and arrived at the detention place on Saturday around 6:00am. This is a journey that normally takes less than two hours but it took us almost eight hours. By the time we arrived I had no sense of direction. I felt lost in a wilderness. I managed to reach detention in one piece, having had episodes of hysterical laughter and tears. I wished for death so that I would escape my misery. Everything around me looked like a huge void. I had already tried to kill myself in prison but my therapist had talked me out of it on the phone’.

As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has emphasised, seeking asylum is not an unlawful act. Yet the UK routinely locks up those seeking asylum or immigration. Lord Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons and member of the Independent Asylum Commission, in his foreword to a 2011 report for Detention Action remembered a speech made by Winston Churchill in which he said, “the way in which it treated crime and criminals was a true test of the civilisation of any country”. Lord Ramsbotham explains:

‘Most asylum and immigration seekers have committed no crime, which makes how they are treated an even starker test. In all too many respects I fear that the way in which this country treats such people does not warrant an epithet which we were once proud to claim throughout the world.’

This year marks 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta. Whatever that episode in history was really about – feudal barons making a pact with the king, with not an ordinary person in sight – it has become a popular rallying cry for democracy. The protection of ordinary people from the state and right to due process remain in our principles of law. Another member of The Forum that I spoke to recently, who has been in detention for several years, was furious: ‘how dare the UK’, he said, ‘claim to be the home of democracy when even other countries have limits on how long they can lock someone up?’.

Human costs of indefinite detention 

A 2009 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, echoing research from around the world, emphasises the negative health impacts of detention, especially on those fleeing violence, persecution or other trauma. These impacts are long term, and increase dramatically after more than 28 days in detention. The stories we have gathered paint a picture of the psychological effects of being locked up. As Penny describes,

‘The worst thing, apart from fear and humiliation, was uncertainty. I had no idea if and when I would be released or deported. I lost the sense of time because there was nothing to do apart from sit and wait. My first two weeks passed by in a blur; the program was made up of shower, eat, sleep. There was literally nothing to do - so you had to try and fill the void by either re-reading novels you had read a few times or making up an excuse to go to the healthcare services so that that you could meet up with other people for a quick chat. I went through a period of psychotic breakdown, I had to attend a number of therapy sessions to get to my senses. I went on a hunger strike, tried to commit suicide - all for the sake of trying to have my voice heard in the midst of the chaotic world.

There are both short and long term effects of detention. You might experience one or the other. I have experienced both. Most of the common effects ones include physical effects and mental ones like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), depression, suicidal idealisations…The consequences of detention can be long-term, impacting profoundly on all areas of life; mind, body and soul, regardless of whether one is allowed to stay or required to leave at the end of the whole process’.

Detention also has an impact on physical health: we’ve met people who developed heart problems, blood pressure or diabetes in detention, pregnant women who were refused treatments, people who were given paracetamol for serious tooth infections and high fever, the elderly and the sick who were handcuffed to their hospital beds – and worse, stories of sexual assault, suicide and death.

A chance to end indefinite detention?

A core problem with detention is that this fear, humiliation and suffering is not even effective. Of the 30,000 or so people detained this year, detention was demonstrably futile in the cases of over 13,000 people: the proportion of those who were removed was only 56%.  Moreover, recent years have seen a slew of scandals involving detention centres in the UK, in part because of the bravery of whistleblowers and those who have suffered in immigration detention. This includes the women of Yarls Wood who won the chance to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about allegations of sexual harassment, those who spoke out after the death of a woman at Yarl’s Wood and those who probed the deaths of Bruno Dos Santos and Brian Dalrymple.

For those who know about detention, Penny and I am saying nothing new. But this year, we also have an opportunity. There is a parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention. More importantly, there is an election. That’s why The Forum is supporting Citizens UK’s Sanctuary Pledge 2015, which calls for a time limit on detention.

Alternatives to detention do exist. Reporting and monitoring are already used, whilst evidence from around the world suggests that building more trust in the system through effective casework and welfare approaches lessens the risk of people absconding before they are due to be deported. If public opinion turned strongly enough against the current practice of locking up innocent people for years at a time, the government would have to move in this direction.

I know this because I’ve seen it happen. Five years ago, I was part of a coalition of organisations that fought for a commitment to end the detention of immigrant children and families. People up and down the country used the election as a chance to lobby MPs and political parties. The numbers of children being held in immigration removal centres dropped from over 1,000 in 2009 to 8 in 2013. New pre-departure accommodation for families was introduced, with a leading children’s charity on site to ensure children’s welfare. The policy became law and there is now independent oversight of the family removals process.

The countdown to the general election is on, and with a collective push we could yet make change for those still languishing in immigration detention. For as Penny says, ‘detention is a shameful world to live in. Detention is a place I would not want my worst enemy to ever go through.’


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