The High Court and the Unfair Detention of Asylum Seekers

They are locked up for days or weeks without access to a lawyer, not knowing what is happening... They receive the decision the next day. The refusal rate is 99%... "I was lucky... Many more have not been lucky. And justice should not depend on luck."

On Wednesday, the High Court gave judgment in a legal challenge brought by my organisation, Detention Action. We were challenging the Home Office's policy of detaining asylum-seekers on the Detained Fast Track. The High Court found that the Fast Track as it operates is unacceptably unfair to the vulnerable asylum-seekers who go through it. As a result, it is operating unlawfully.

This unfairness should not be news. It is not news to the people we speak to every day who are at the sharp end of the Fast Track. Who arrive in the UK expecting safety, after torture or rape in the prisons of countries like Sri Lanka. Yet who find themselves immediately back in the prison of a British 'Immigration Removal Centre', before they have even had the chance to properly explain why they need asylum.

They are locked up for days or weeks without access to a lawyer, not knowing what is happening. They finally meet their lawyer, generally for a brief meeting. If they are able to disclose that they have suffered torture, they are told that they need evidence. The interview with the Home Office takes place immediately after the legal interview. They receive the decision the next day. The refusal rate is 99%.

They might be lucky enough to get accepted for an appointment with a specialist foundation that treats torture survivors. The Home Office has a policy of releasing anyone given such an appointment. But the policy does not apply if the Home Office has already refused the claim for asylum.

This unfairness is not news to Kuka, who was refused asylum on the Fast Track, but eventually won recognition as a refugee after campaigning. "I was lucky," he told me last week. "Many more have not been lucky. And justice should not depend on luck."

The unfairness is not news to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, or the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, who have for many years criticised the Fast Track.

Yet when we prepared to bring our legal challenge, wiser heads than ours counselled against. Previous challenges had failed. The Fast Track was untouchable. The Home Office could detain with impunity.

Today, that impunity has been shaken by careful judicial scrutiny. The High Court found deficiencies throughout the process and inadequate safeguards for vulnerable detainees. The judge concluded that the shortcomings of the system required early legal representation to remedy these deficiencies.

But disquiet at the UK's routine detention of migrants now runs much more broadly than one legal challenge.

With impeccable timing, Sarah Teather this week announced a major Parliamentary inquiry into the UK detention system. A cross-party panel of MPs and peers will examine all aspects of the detention of migrants. The terms of reference make clear that the experiences of migrants themselves, so often neglected in the immigration policy debate, will be central.

The inquiry panel is striking not only for its equal composition from all three major parties, but for its heavyweight membership, which includes former minister Caroline Spellman, former shadow Minister of Justice David Burrowes and Labour policy supremo Jon Cruddas.

Equally striking is the inquiry's determination not to remain in the rarefied Westminster air. Next Thursday's opening session will feature speakers giving evidence by telephone from detention centres, alongside Shami Chakrabarti and the present writer. Hearings will be held up and down the country, so that communities affected by detention can hear and transmit their members' experiences.

The inquiry will report in the new year, shortly before the election. The Liberal Democrats have already adopted a policy of putting a time limit on detention. It will be interesting to see how the other parties respond.

For years, this country has allowed ever more of its most vulnerable people to be locked up indefinitely, almost in a fit of absent mindedness. The signs are there that, finally, we are waking up.

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