‘A Quiet Disgrace’: The Harm Caused By The UK’s Use Of Indefinite Immigration Detention

Indefinite detention is deeply harmful to those affected by it. It is about time the Home Office started treating it with the gravity it deserves
Heiko Küverling via Getty Images

The UK’s use of immigration detention has been a quiet disgrace for many years.

In the vast majority of cases, there is no time limit for immigration detention. Its duration is indefinite. Between 2011 and 2014, the UK courts found five cases where the treatment of detainees had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is - the absolute prohibition against torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In 2015, the courts ruled that the fast-track system for detaining people seeking asylum and processing their cases quickly was so unfair that it was unlawful. It had to be stopped immediately.

In the same period, undercover reporting and civil society research began to reveal high levels of self-harm amongst detainees, with many suffering from verbal and physical abuse by detention centre staff, as well as repeated incidents of sexual harassment and intrusive treatment of female detainees. Last year the Home Office was forced to pay out £1.8million in compensation for unlawful detention.

The underlying issue in all these scandals is the approach the Home Office takes to the use of its detention powers. In 2015, a joint parliamentary inquiry found that “the UK detains too many people, for too long a time, and that in far too many cases people are detained completely unnecessarily”. This was followed in 2016 by the Home Office-commissioned Shaw Review into ‘The Welfare of Vulnerable Persons in Detention’. The review called for a “smaller, more focused, strategically-planned immigration detention estate”, and argued that the use of immigration detention should be reduced considerably. In response, the Home Office announced in January 2016 that it would be instituting a package of reforms intended “to lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal, in turn improving the welfare of those detained”.

Despite this, more than 27,000 people were detained in the last year and the number of people being held for very long periods of more than six months has increased.

At Amnesty, we decided to undertake research into the Home Office’s use of its detention powers since it announced its reforms. We carefully examined Home Office policy and guidance documents. We studied Home Office casework files and interviewed detainees, their family members and lawyers that represent them to hear their stories. Here is what we found:

  • Serious harm is being done to detainees’ mental and physical health. Interviewees specifically cited the uncertainty of indefinite detention, and their exposure to others’ long-term detentions, as a source of harm. Detention also affects the whole household, not just the detainee themselves. Our research found harmful consequences for adult family members, particularly women, who are left with increased caring responsibilities, and harm to the children of parents who are detained.
  • There is a deep-seated complacency about the use of detention powers, resulting in unjustifiable initial detention decisions. In many cases, detention was simply assumed to be inevitable. In others, officials gave little serious thought to alternatives to detention.
  • Detention was maintained in many cases as a matter of default or convenience, justified through strained reasoning and unrealistic assessments about the prospect of removing someone from the UK. Casework often sought to justify continued detention unless release absolutely could not be avoided - the opposite of how things are meant to operate
  • Published detention policy has gradually allowed the routine use of detention. The opening of new detention centres has facilitated this. It appears that the opening and closing of detention centres is the main influence on the numbers of people detained. Following the current pattern, if more detention centres are opened, more people would be found to put in them.

Such fundamental problems require fundamental solutions. A universally-applicable time limit for detention must be brought in. The limit must be short enough that it acts as a serious constraint on the Home Office’s use of its detention powers and provides relief to the thousands of detainees who live in fear of being held for weeks, months and even years. Such a time limit would reduce the serious harm done to detainees and require the Home Office to reform its routine and complacent reliance on detention.

The upcoming Immigration Bill may present an opportunity for that, but in the meantime it’s vital that the Home Office do what ministers said it would do: close more detention centres and significantly reduce the use of immigration detention, ensuring that far fewer people are detained and that anyone who is detained is held for a far shorter time.

Indefinite immigration detention is deeply harmful to those affected by it. It is about time the Home Office started treating it with the gravity it deserves.

Amnesty’s campaign to end excessive immigration detention is here


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