“It is important to be very clear about the facts. Because Ash has just said something that is completely wrong”, Brandon Lewis MP, chairman of the Conservative Party, began an answer on BBC Question Time last week. The topic of discussion was the UK’s immigration regime and the panelist who was “completely wrong” had just accused the government of detaining pregnant women and splitting up families through deportation. Either of these statements being “wrong” was news to those of us familiar with the immigration system.
The guidance for Home Office staff, on how long a pregnant woman can be detained for, and to what extent she can be physically restrained, is publicly available. It is clear that, shamefully, the government does detain pregnant women, and it is remarkable they would try to deny it. The inhumane practice of detaining pregnant women must come to an end, rather than guidance being issued on how to detain them.
Similarly, families are split up by deportations. There is Home Office guidance on how to split up a family and numerous news-reports of this happening frequently. This is an undeniable, if ignominious, feature of current UK immigration policy.
Having criticised the other panelist for essentially spreading fake news, Mr Lewis continued, “People in detention centres are people who are illegally in this country and are there for a period of time until they go back to their country. Asylum seekers go through a different process”.
All three claims made in this sentence are, sadly, incorrect.
On the very day that Mr Lewis made these claims, the Guardian reported the case of a 60-year-old who had been in immigration detention for five weeks, with the Home Office accepting that he was lawfully present in the UK. This is by no means an isolated case; many immigration detainees have been granted leave to remain in the UK, are EU nationals, or have immigration applications and appeals pending, therefore permitting them to be in the UK. They are not in the UK “illegally”. That such people are in detention is symptomatic of a system based on flawed policy and incompetent practice but to allege them all of being “illegal” is insulting.
Mr Lewis’s claim about immigration detention being just for people “until they go back to their country” is also incorrect. Home Office figures consistently show that less than half of detainees are removed from the UK. The majority of detainees are released into the community, having spent weeks, months or even years in detention.
Detention serves no purpose other than causing unimaginable suffering to these immigrants and their families. With some of them spending years in detention, and then being released, it is ludicrous that the government claims they are detained only when “being removed” from the UK.
Mr Lewis, a former immigration minister, claiming that “asylum seekers go through a different process”, i.e. one not involving detention, was particularly disturbing. The British Government detains asylum seekers and detains them in huge numbers. Thousands of asylum seekers are detained every year. In September 2017, of the 6965 adult detainees, 3466 were “asylum detainees”. Of the 24 children detained, 18 were “asylum detainees”. In fact, at any time, the majority of detainees will be “asylum detainees”.
It is understandable that Mr Lewis felt unable to admit this publicly, but this guilt is all the more reason for the system to be reformed. It should not have to be said, but we must stop adding to the suffering of asylum seekers, who are seeking refuge from persecution, by locking them up indefinitely.
Since last Wednesday, more than hundred female detainees have been on hunger strike at the infamous Yarl’s Wood centre, in protest against the “thoroughly racist” system they are forced to endure. This is a protest not just against the conditions in which they are kept, but against the system that locks up so many vulnerable people in the first place. These women – many of them asylum seekers, victims of torture and victims of trafficking – deserve compassion and support, not indefinite imprisonment.
The government has spent more than £500 million on immigration detention in four years, with £21 million spent compensating immigrants who were unlawfully detained. The UK is the only country in Europe that detains immigrants indefinitely, but that is not the only shameful feature of detention. Detainees are paid £1 an hour for cleaning and painting detention centres, pregnant women, victims of torture and children are detained, and courts have found aspects of immigration detention to be “inhuman and degrading” more than once. Last year 10 immigrants died in detention. Even against this backdrop, the government insists its detention policy is fair and implemented humanely.
Immigration detention does not work and there are cheaper, more effective and more humane alternatives available. The government must seriously, and urgently, look into these alternatives.
It may be that Brandon Lewis MP, even as a former immigration minister, was unaware of the facts about the UK’s immigration detention regime when he made his claims. But now that he is aware, one hopes he will not only correct the record but will join those who have been long urging an end to this inhumane, unjust system.