Indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees in the ‘abusive’ Immigration Removal Centres such as Yarl’s Wood is a scandal and a stain on the UK’s reputation, argues Dr Claire Fox.
The UK’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees came under severe, critical, scrutiny last week. A report was published by two All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) on Migration and Refugees, which have been conducting a joint inquiry into immigration detention. This coincided with a Channel 4 news investigation documenting dehumanising and humiliating practices in the controversial immigration removal centre, Yarl’s Wood.
The Parliamentarians found evidence of ‘bullying, harassment and abuse’ taking place within Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) as part of an immigration system condemned by the report as ‘expensive, ineffective and unjust’. Recommendations included using detention sparingly as a last resort; setting a 28 day limit to the length of the detention; avoiding a prison-like environment; improving access to healthcare; ensuring victims of trafficking, rape and sexual violence are not detained; and using more community-based alternatives, which would be at much lower cost to the taxpayer.
Detention is often unnecessary and not always used for the shortest period of time possible, said the report. Yet detention is commonplace, within what the APPGs labelled the Home Office’s ‘enforcement-focused culture’. The impacts of this immigration detention on physical and mental health are well documented and IRCs were found to often lack appropriate medical provision.
As highlighted by Liberty’s director Shami Chakrabarti – who recently gave the University of Manchester’s inaugural Pankhurst lecture – the ‘scandal’ of indefinite detention is a ‘stain’ on the UK’s human rights record, amounting to ‘a colossal and pointless waste of both public funds and human life’.
The UK is alone in the European Union in setting no limits on detention times, an approach first established in the 1971 Immigration Act. Around 30,000 people were detained last year in the UK’s 11 Immigration Removal Centres.
Comparisons were made in the Parliamentary report between IRCs and prisons. But unlike those detained in one of the 136 prisons in England and Wales, most of those detained in IRCs have not been found guilty of any offence and are unlikely to know how long they will be detained for, with no equivalent to a parole hearing available. So, whilst sitting in comparable physical environments, prisoners can look towards the end of their sentence, but those at IRCs remain ‘locked up in limbo’.
Those detained in IRCs are often highly vulnerable – many having fled to the UK seeking asylum after experiencing persecution and torture. The use of detention for women who have been trafficked to the UK, are victims of rape or sexual violence, or who are pregnant was specifically criticised in the APPGs’ report. As this report observed, detention can be most distressing for women.
There is a depressing familiarity about the latest complaints of inappropriate conduct by IRC staff. Evidence of mistreatment has come from many independent sources over several years, including high court judgements and verdicts from inquests into deaths at IRCs. All have stressed the detrimental impact of detention.
Research undertaken last year into the rights of undocumented migrants branded the current immigration system as ‘not fit for purpose’ and made a number of recommendations to bring to an end a system that lacks accountability and transparency. Those research findings were presented to the APPGs’ inquiry in a written submission of evidence.
There have been opportunities to correct the over-reliance on detention prior to the APPGs’ inquiry’s report. MPs last year rejected a proposal to introduce a detention time limit during the passing of the Immigration Act. Migration will inevitably be a key issue in the impending General Election, with politicians seemingly playing a game of one-upmanship in their punitive approach to immigration policy.
There is little interest in the media in supporting the recommendations of the inquiry, with significant sections of the print media still engaging with the “discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers” that concerned Lord Leveson in his 2012 report.
Although the APPGs’ report indicated possible breaches of human rights principles, the initial signs are that nothing will change. The Home Office’s response gave no hint that it will end the widespread use of detention, with minister Karen Bradley stating: “Detention is an important part of a firm but fair immigration system.”
Meanwhile, Theresa May indicated that targets to cut migration will be included in the Conservative Party manifesto. Although the Labour Party appears to acknowledge some benefits of migration, Yvette Cooper argues there is a need for “much stronger enforcement of the rules to cut illegal immigration”.
Whilst the treatment of the vulnerable people at the sharp end of the migration system has proved shocking, there appears to be little appetite for change. An almost cyclical process seems to be established now, characterised by new revelations of abuse and mistreatment, an ensuing uproar in some quarters, followed by proposed interventions, then a lack of political action.
Will the latest inquiry provide sufficient impetus to provoke change, or will it be another report left on the shelf to gather dust? The current system has heavy financial, human and moral costs, yet tough talking politicians offer increasingly punitive rhetoric seeking to gain ground on this perceived vote winner in what has been dubbed ‘barbed wire Britain’.