Media reporting is the real foreign national prisoner ‘problem’

Certain sections of the press continue to run inflammatory stories on the UK’s apparent failure to deport foreign nationals convicted of criminal offences.

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By Gemma Lousley

Barely a month goes by without certain sections of the press publishing inflammatory stories on the UK’s apparent failure to deport foreign nationals convicted of criminal offences.

The latest flurry of outrage – prompted by the appearance on Tuesday of Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the UK Border Agency (UKBA), before the home affairs select committee – has focused on the revelation that there are around 3,900 foreign national ex-prisoners living in the community, having been released from immigration detention and, it is alleged, having “dodged” deportation action.

Immigration-detention-centreThis figure, which newspapers have leapt on as fresh evidence of foreign nationals’ frustration of deportation proceedings, is not new: a similar figure was readily available in the two most recent home affairs select committee reports on the work of UKBA, published in April 2012 and November 2011.

It has, nevertheless, fuelled yet another round of uninformed and often wholly incorrect reporting on foreign national prisoners.

According to the Mail, the route to release for foreign national prisoners is a relatively easy one:

“Once they have served their sentence, the convicts can continue to be held only if there is a good chance of them being deported imminently.”

In reality, the vast majority of those being considered for deportation are detained under immigration powers following completion of their custodial sentence.


See also:

How to create a Telegraph migration scare story 9 Sep 2011

The anti-human rights obsession of Theresa and the Tories 5 Oct 2011

The government must stop spreading untruths about immigration 18 Oct 2011


A report (pdf) by the chief inspector of UKBA, published at the end of last year, found foreign national prisoners were detained in 97% of cases where deportation was being sought, and highlighted within the Border Agency “a culture that detention is ‘the norm’”. Moreover, they are often detained for lengthy periods of time.

According to the same report, in May 2011, 27% of all foreign national prisoners held post-sentence had been detained for more than a year.

Those who are subsequently released from detention – predominantly by the courts, on immigration bail, because it is judged that there is no realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale – are hardly, as the Metro declares, “living free in Britain”. They are usually released with stringent conditions attached, including regular reporting and electronic tagging.

They are also likely to face serious financial difficulties, even destitution, since they are not, as both the Telegraph and the Metro maintain, able to claim benefits. Moreover, release from detention does not mean that deportation has been “dodged”. Foreign national ex-prisoners continue to be subject to deportation action until it can be enforced.

In its article, the Telegraph takes the opportunity to conflate foreign nationals facing deportation with “illegal immigrants”; the Mail uses its report to suggest, yet again, a correlation between “foreign criminals” and serious offending. Both are clear misrepresentations.

Anyone who is not a British citizen can be subject to deportation action, including those who have been settled legally in the UK for many years – and the threshold for deportation is low. Following the implementation of the UK Borders Act 2007, non-EEA nationals sentenced to twelve months or more in custody are subject to automatic deportation.

There is, moreover, no evidence to suggest that foreign nationals who offend are predominantly violent, dangerous individuals. The most recent annual statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that up until 30 June 2011, 29% of British male prisoners serving an immediate custodial sentence have been convicted of offences of ‘violence against the person’. For foreign national male prisoners, the equivalent figure is 24%.

Interestingly, written evidence (pdf) submitted by Rob Whiteman to the home affairs select committee in advance of his appearance notes:

“We are seeing fewer cases arising which fit the deportation threshold… this suggests that foreign nationals are committing fewer serious crimes.”

Predictably, this was roundly ignored by the media.

Alongside the populist pandering of politicians, deliberately misleading media reportage is preventing anything resembling a sensible discussion on foreign nationals in prison from taking place. If there is a foreign national prisoner ‘problem’, this, surely, is it.


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