Immigration detention: "expensive, ineffective and unjust"

The first ever parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK has published its report today. Finding that we detain far too many people for far too long, the report calls for radical structural change to the system.  

Eiri Ohtani
3 March 2015

Yesterday, during a press briefing session at Parliament, I was listening to three MPs talk about the detention inquiry’s findings to a group of journalists. 

This first ever parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention has published its report today, and the briefing session was our attempt to secure some media coverage. 

While people carrying cameras and recording gear milled around, the session was held under strict embargo and those of us organising the briefing were anxious about the whole proceedings. 

To confess, I had already had several occasions to read through the report before the press briefing session. 

A pdf version of the embargoed copy of the report was sitting in my email inbox for about a week, while we nervously fretted about whether the printer could churn out the hard copies of the report on time and what they would look like.  

So although what was said was not supposed to be news to me, hearing about the inquiry’s recommendations through the voices of Sarah Teather MP, David Burrowes MP and Paul Blomfield MP still surprised me.

Human voices are powerful things.

They speak in a way that written words cannot.

Through their voices, the recommendations sounded more real and grounded. 

Their voices also confirmed that those voices which gave evidence to the panel – people with experience of detention and other experts – were indeed heard and we are now going somewhere.

These voices also made me realise that I had not fully really appreciated the significance of this report, until now. 

The most headline-friendly key recommendation from the inquiry is the introduction of a 28 day time limit on immigration detention, to bring the UK in line with other countries who are managing their immigration control system with a time limit on immigration detention. 

According to the most recently published Home Office statistics, of those who left the detention estate in 2014, almost 11,000 people did so after more than 28 days of administrative incarceration.

However, a far more profound conclusion is found in the report’s foreword, written by the panel’s Chair, Sarah Teather MP. 

“Crucially, this panel believes that little will change by tinkering with the pastoral care or improving the facilities. We believe the problems that beset our immigration detention estate occur quite simply because we detain far too many people unnecessarily and for far too long. The current system is expensive, ineffective and unjust.”

From September to December 2014, the Detention Forum and openDemocracy 50:50 explored the impact and the reality of immigration detention through our joint programme, Unlocking Detention

Over several months, we ‘visited’ each immigration detention centre in the UK, metaphorically unlocking the gates of the detention centres to hear what is indeed going on in there. 

The Detention Forum members contributed most of the articles in the series, and also ran a separate dedicated website.

Some articles where reprinted at other websites, including the Justice Gap

The series was deliberately timed to coincide with the parliamentary detention inquiry, to generate more interest in this hidden world of gross human rights abuse that no one seems to want to talk about in public. 

While the phrase “deprivation of liberty” should sound alarm bells in any thinking person’s mind, the UK has largely remained silent on the issue of over 30,000 migrants, routinely locked up indefinitely in prison-like conditions, year after year.

The inquiry panel, rightly, decided to hear from those very people who have been largely forgotten. 

This prompted many of us to start collecting evidence from people who experienced immigration detention – up and down the country, in community halls, in interview rooms, over the phone, in detention centres, in visitors’ halls. 

We started calling them “experts-by-experience” instead of “ex-detainees” or “detainees”. 

We have had enough of people being defined by their experience of state abuse.

We did as much as we could to bring the voices of people who are caught in this detention system.

I recall writing the concluding piece to Unlocking Detention, Detention knows no borders, on the train back from Bristol to London, on International Human Rights Day, genuinely wondering what the detention inquiry was going to find and how the panel was going to respond to those voices demanding change. 

When you examine specific recommendations made by the inquiry panel piece by piece, there is probably nothing new or surprising about them.

Many of us have condemned the sheer inhumanity of indefinite detention for many years. That the government thought it was okay to lock someone up without proper judicial oversight has always been hard to believe.

The problems surrounding access to legal advice or good quality health care in detention have existed for many years, with numerous reports written about them. Likewise specific problems encountered by “vulnerable” groups of individuals. 

It is understandable that those who do not study the report carefully might dismiss it ‘as yet another report about immigration detention’ or a simple shopping style list of oft-repeated recommendations. However, there are three things that are refreshingly different about this report.

The clue is in the report structure, divided into two parts, in which the first part outlines the fundamental changes that have to happen and the second part outlines issues which should not exist after the recommended changes.

And the emphasis is very much on the first part – the panel wants to see fundamental changes. 

So firstly, the report warns against the danger of just tweaking detention conditions, leaving detention’s harmful and dysfunctional aspects intact.  Instead, it calls for a radical structural change to the system, starting with the introduction of a time limit on the period anyone can be detained in immigration detention, so that far less people are detained for far shorter periods.  

Secondly, the report calls for a political commitment from whoever forms the next Government to begin the process of radical reform.

Thirdly, the report, almost for the first time in the history of UK detention advocacy, looks out of the parochial world of domestic detention practices and finds that in other countries, far more progressive discussions are taking place.

The report discusses community based alternatives to detention, by which people can stay in the community while going through the immigration control system, instead of being locked up in detention.

The panel heard extensively from UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency and International Detention Coalition, who have made it their mission to ensure that the states across the globe use less detention by investing in more humane, and let’s not forget, cheaper, models. 

The report is very carefully put together to encourage serious consideration of process change. 

It is realistic in acknowledging that there is no quick fix, pre-empting political parties from taking a “let’s stick a plaster over a gaping wound” approach. 

It is also bold in declaring that the current detention system, which detains far too many people for far too long, simply cannot go on. 

A  remarkable thing about the media briefing was its calmness and frankness.

The panel members, all coming from different political parties, simply said that they were overwhelmed by the strength of the evidence that they received and were able to agree on the key recommendations despite all their differences of opinion on immigration in general. 

Labour MP Paul Blomfield said that when he first started this inquiry, he was not particularly convinced by the idea of community-based alternatives. He went to say that after hearing from individuals and learning of other countries’ practices, he came out totally convinced by the need to reframe the debate and change the approach.

Conservative MP David Burrowes said, simply, “No one should be treated without dignity”. 

Confronted by this unusual cross-party unity over immigration matters, the journalists present at the briefing session initially fell a little quiet. One of the journalists’ main interests was, of course, how this is going to play out in the volatile political arena where the topic of immigration poisons any conversations. 

The report answers that there needs to be strong political leadership to turn the tide: 

“Given the scale of the task, we recommend that the incoming Government after the General Election should form a working group to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of this inquiry. This working group should be independently chaired and contain officials from the Home Office as well as representatives from NGOs in order to widen the thinking and approach. The working group should produce a time-plan for introducing a time limit on detention and the creation of appropriate alternatives to detention, drawing on the best practice that is already in place in other countries.”

After the briefing session, we watched the MPs and “experts-by-experience” being photographed and interviewed on camera by the journalists on College Green outside Parliament. 

It was a sunny crisp day, although the wind was chilly. 

We huddled around, rather dazed by the whole experience, guarding the open box containing copies of the report.

I glanced at my smartphone to find many emails, asking why they hadn’t received the embargoed copy of the report at the pre-arranged time of 1pm. 

My colleague, whose task it was to send out the report, was standing beside me looking exhausted and hungry; 3:30pm and still no sign of lunch.

One of the “experts-by-experience”, who had always expressed healthy scepticism about the inquiry came up to me, looking confused.

‘So, what do you think?’ I asked. 

‘I can’t believe that this is the result. This is a huge step,’ he answered squinting into the bright sunlight, holding the still embargoed copy of the report. 

After a long pause, he continued, ‘But what is going to happen next?  Is it really going to change?’

And I heard my own voice: ‘That’s now up to us, isn’t it?’

Read more about the lives of those in detention and hear their voices in our series Unlocking Detention 

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