Whoever forms the next government will inherit an immigration detention system that is an expensive, inefficient and inhumane mess. They will also inherit proposals to address the problems by simply building more detention centres. Increasing detention has become a default position for politicians keen to show their toughness in deporting unwanted migrants. Plans for Bullingdon in Oxfordshire would create the largest largest detention centre in Europe. Yet protests by detainees and criticism of the detention of children have called into question assumptions that migrants should be detained. In a country that values civil liberties, where detention without trial of terrorist suspects for 42 days can be roundly rejected, why are immigrants who cannot be deported detained for years?
James Christian cannot understand it. “My country was colonized by Britain. We had British teach us. I thought it was a decent place. If five years ago you had told me that you are going to be detained for three years here, I would say no, this is the best country I've ever been to in my life. I had thought that England was a just country, equal rights and opportunity, no discrimination, but I don't see justice in England.”
From his viewpoint in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow Airport, James’ disillusionment is easy to understand. After leaving a Sierra Leone ravaged by civil war, his asylum claim in Britain was refused, and he spent six weeks in prison for driving while disqualified. That was in late 2006. Thirty nine months after his sentence finished, he is still inside, detained while the UK Border Agency (UKBA) attempts in vain to persuade the Sierra Leonean High Commission to grant him a travel document.
The last available figures for the cost to the taxpayer of detaining someone for a year in the high-security Colnbrook centre are £68,000. Multiply that by the three years plus of James’ detention. And then by the countless others in the same situation. Literally countless, as the UKBA is not even able to say how many people it is detaining. Official statistics exclude the many detainees who are held in prisons after the end of their sentences while they wait for a place in a detention centre: James spent an extra 15 months in prison before he was moved to Colnbrook.
James points out that “the reason that it's called Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre is because it's to remove people, not to house people.” Over the last four years, the focus of detention has shifted away from removing migrants to the long-term incarceration of people who cannot be deported. This should perhaps be known as “Charles Clarke Syndrome”, after the ill-fated ex-Home Secretary, now ex-MP, whose political demise began with his resignation amid a maelstrom of headlines about the failure of the UKBA to consider foreign rapists and murderers for deportation.
Like many pathological conditions, this syndrome leads the organism to behave in irrational ways. The promise to prioritise the detention and deportation of “foreign criminals” (otherwise known as ex-offenders), and the attendant political fear of being seen as soft on immigration, have led to the knee-jerk use of detention, even for trivial offenders who cannot be deported. Indeed, the Court of Appeal has found that the UKBA unlawfully operated a secret blanket policy of detaining all foreign nationals at the end of their sentences, regardless of individual circumstances. This policy achieves little in terms of immigration control: research by London Detainee Support Group found that only 18% of people detained for over a year had gone on to be deported.
Why can so many people not be deported? The UKBA has set high-profile targets to “resolve” all of its backlog of asylum cases by 2011, but a recent investigation has found that it has little prospect of achieving them. Certain countries are simply too dangerous for deportations to take place: the courts have prevented the UKBA from removing asylum seekers to Zimbabwe and Somalia, for example. Other countries, like Iran and Sierra Leone, routinely refuse asylum-seekers travel documentation to allow them to return. De facto statelessness is not recognised in British immigration law, so people from these countries are trapped in limbo, with no prospect of deportation or stay to rebuild their lives here.
These unwanted migrants are the embarrassing human evidence of the flaws in the myth of perfect immigration control. In other areas of public policy, there is a recognition that the real world is a messy place. No-one expects the police to solve every crime, or the prison service to reform every offender: people’s lives are too complex to be completely regulated. The government has largely given up the regulation of the movement of capital altogether. Yet government rhetoric, under pressure from the anti-immigration lobby, endlessly presents the fallacious idea that we can have a completely secure border, that we have a free choice over which migrants are good for Britain and can be tolerated. In practice, no non-totalitarian government is able to exercise such complete control over individual lives, the more so when relations with other states are involved. The frantic attempt to achieve the unachievable culminates in indefinite detention.
James sees the results everywhere in Colnbrook. “You see people here in detention, they are losing it, they are taking medication, just because they are not free, it's sad. Even the murderers in prison, they have a release date, but here nobody has a release date. You are here indefinitely.” Research has found that the uncertainty of prolonged indefinite detention has a terrible impact on the mental health of detainees. When I spoke to James last week, he said that “people have to know the truth, that people here are suffering. Ask the people to fight for us, because we need them. We need the people to know that this is very unjust.”
It does not have to be this way. The UK is almost alone in Europe in detaining migrants indefinitely, having derogated from EU law: France has a time limit of 32 days. Australia has moved away from its policy of mandatory indefinite detention for all irregular migrants, because it found that it did not work. Instead, migrants are accommodated in the community, with access to legal advice and welfare support, and are encouraged to think about their future and make long-term plans. Only 6% have absconded, while 67% of migrants not granted a visa left the country voluntarily. The cost of these “alternatives to detention” is less than a third of that of detention.
The new government faces a decision on whether to press ahead with building a new detention centre at Bullingdon. The UKBA wants more detention centres in order to move towards its target of detaining 4,500 migrants at all times. The amount it would cost the taxpayer has not been published, but it will not come cheap. The costs to detainees themselves are incalculable. But in the long term, the most serious damage may be to the British tradition of defending civil liberties from arbitrary state power. A society where it becomes normal for immigrants to be locked up indefinitely based on immigration status may ultimately not be a pleasant place for any of us to live in.