It's Clear That Our Current System of Immigration Detention Isn't Working

At the end of 2014, there were 3,462 people in detention. 397 had been detained for more than six months, 108 for longer than a year, and 18 for longer than two years. This is an incredible waste of human life and potential.

Even after nearly 12 years as an MP, personal stories still have the power to take my breath away.

One such occasion took place last July. I was sat in a committee room in the House of Commons, chairing the first evidence session of an inquiry into immigration detention. We were talking, via a phone link, to a young man who was being held in one of the giant detention centres next door to Heathrow.

He told us about how he had ended up in the UK. At the age of 16, he had been trafficked from his home on the Nigeria/Cameroon border to Hungary. He told us how he was "put in a basement, beaten, raped and tortured". He managed to escape and then found himself in London, a stranger. Then he was detained.

I asked him how long he had been in detention. His answer caused those in the room to gasp.

"Three years".

Three years he had been in detention, locked up not because he had broken the law but for immigration purposes. A young man who had been the victim of some horrendous abuse had arrived in the UK and instead of being given support and treatment, was locked away indefinitely.

The inquiry panel brought together Parliamentarians from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, from across the political spectrum, to examine how detention is used in the British immigration system. Not only is the UK the only country in the EU that does not have a time limit on how long individuals can be held for immigration purposes, but we also detain a very high number of people and for long periods of time.

During the inquiry, we heard from those who had either previously been in detention or who were still detained. They told us that the lack of a time limit results in people being left in a desperate limbo, not knowing if tomorrow they'll be released, removed from the country, or continue being held in conditions tantamount to a high security prison. One person who gave evidence compared it to prison. He said "In prison you count your days down. In detention, you count your days up."

At the end of 2014, there were 3,462 people in detention. 397 had been detained for more than six months, 108 for longer than a year, and 18 for longer than two years. This is an incredible waste of human life and potential.

It's also a waste of money. It costs nearly £40,000 to detain one person for one year. Considering that nearly half of all people detained, and the majority of those detained for over 12 months, are eventually released into the community, millions of pounds is being thrown away locking people up for no reason at all.

Today we have published our report and are recommending that the next government introduces a time limit of 28 days on the length of time an individual can be held in an immigration detention centre. We argue in our report that fewer people should be detained and for shorter periods of time. Decisions to detain people should only ever been taken as a last resort.

But during the inquiry, it became clear that such a change would only be possible if there was a wholesale change in the way that the Home Office engages with people.

That is why we are recommending that the UK should learn from other countries around the world, who detain far fewer people despite having high levels of asylum applicants.

During the inquiry, I, along with two other panel members, visited Sweden to talk to parliamentarians and officials about the role detention plays in their immigration system. Sweden has just 255 detention spaces across the country, despite receiving nearly three times as many asylum applications last year alone.

The approach of the Swedish system could not be starker when compared to the UK. If you ever visit a detention centre in the UK, you will feel like you're entering a prison. You are surrounded by barbed wire, keys jangle from the waists of the guards, and the cells are exactly that, cells.

Compare this with Sweden, where staff refer to detainees as "customers" and say that their aim is to make sure people leave with their heads held high.

Despite this difference in approach, Sweden, and other countries with similar systems, have high levels of compliance with the immigration system. This is because rather than focusing on costly enforcement procedures at the end of the process, they engage with individuals early on, making sure that people feel like they are being treated with dignity and respect from the time they make their application.

This approach allows migrants to live in their communities while their cases are resolved, rather than be in constant fear that they could be detained at any time. Not only is this approach better for those individuals in the system, but it's also considerably cheaper.

The parliamentarians on the panel come from right across the political spectrum and we all have differing views on immigration as a whole. But having examined the evidence we are all clear that the current system of immigration detention isn't working. It's time for change and that change should begin today.


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