THE BLOG

Immigration Detention: A Disproportionate Deprivation of Liberty

03/03/2015 10:15 | Updated 03 May 2015

A bright light has been shone into the darkest corners of the British immigration system. It has revealed some unpleasant secrets.

The joint All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK has today published a damning report into Britain's immigration detention estate. It delivers a clear message to Ministers; the use of immigration detention in Britain is 'disproportionate and inappropriate' and fundamental reform is required.

The cross party inquiry has been a much needed review of why, in this day and age, anonymous officials have the power to lock up people who haven't done anything wrong at will, and for however long they choose, just because it makes their lives easier both administratively and politically.

As the panel members concluded; there are only uneasy answers. Quite simply, they found, the British government is detaining too many people for too long.

So why does Britain continue to routinely deprive people of their liberty?

Home Office guidance currently states that immigration detention must be used "sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary." But that clearly isn't happening; there's an ugly cover up occurring at the heart of the British justice system.

Over 30,000 people entered immigration detention last year alone. 13,636 of them were asylum seekers; people who had fled to our shores seeking refuge from the most unimaginable violence and persecution.

For asylum seekers in Britain, the fear of being detained is a very real one. It could happen to them at any time, for no obvious reason. Around half of asylum seekers will find themselves in detention at some point in the process.

These people, arbitrarily placed behind bars, are there for one primary reason: because it's politically convenient. They're certainly not locked up as the result of rational policy-making.

It's hard to think of a right minded politician who would sanction a system so grossly inefficient, expensive and in direct contradiction of our most cherished values of justice, liberty and compassion.

The fear factor of being seen as soft and the lure of it making officials' lives a bit easier is clearly too much for Ministers to take. But as the Inquiry's panel found, this system cannot ultimately be justified, and surely cannot be sustained.

Our immigration detention estate has multiple, unacceptable failings. Blatantly there is an unacceptable human cost to imprisoning people; detention has been shown to cause as well as exacerbate mental illness. The inquiry heard testimony of some detainees trying to block up the air vents in their rooms with sanitary towels, or whatever else they could to keep out the noise. Many of the sounds people hear in detention centres, such as screaming and keys jangling, act as reminders of previous traumatic experiences. The safeguards that in theory should try to protect these vulnerable people simply do not work. People are leaving detention with their mental health in ruins.

Not only is there a significant human cost to imprisoning vulnerable people, but it's hugely financially wasteful too. Detention of one person for a year costs the taxpayer around £37,000. Across the detention estate, this waste of taxpayers' money has been independently costed at £76million per year.

The system is unquestionably costly, but it's fundamentally flawed too; detention simply isn't effective. The majority of those leaving detention last year were not being removed from the country: most were released to rebuild their lives in the UK. In 2014, 11,276 people were granted temporary admission or released, and a further 2,109 were released as a result of bail applications. It is likely that in most of these cases, where people were not being removed, their asylum claim was still to be determined. A further 354 people were granted leave to remain and so were released. If the person is released, their detention has achieved nothing and the human and financial cost has been wholly unjustifiable.

If the government is committed to pursuing this expensive, inefficient and inhumane practice, then at the very least it's time for a time limit and effective judicial oversight, as the Inquiry's panel recommends. Indefinite immigration detention is a uniquely and embarrassingly British phenomenon within Europe. The UK is the only country with no time limit on detention, and this indefensible stance continues to undermine our international reputation for defending civil liberties.

Given the evidence, surely most reasonable people, whatever their politics, will see Britain's immigration detention estate for what it is; archaic, unjust and expensive. The Refugee Council and other NGOs have been calling for change for years, but the consensus that change is needed is growing. The Inquiry's panel was made up of politicians from across the political spectrum, with a range of views on immigration as a whole. Perhaps government hearing a few home truths from some of its own will help.

Ministers must take this opportunity to pursue wholesale reform. If the government wants to prove it's serious about justice and protecting vulnerable people, then it will recognise that the detention estate is a product of the dark ages. Instead of tinkering with processes, Ministers should focus their efforts on consigning the whole system to the history books where it belongs.