The report is just the latest to criticise the UK's detention centre system
Following on from the Brook House and Windrush scandals, the Home Affairs Select Committee has released a report into the immigration detention system.
It’s not complimentary, finding that the government does not follow its own stated policies and guidelines. It says:
“There are serious problems with almost every element of the process, which lead to people being wrongfully detained, held in detention when they are vulnerable and detained for too long. Substantial reforms are needed.”
A detention centre is where people are locked up – not because they have committed a crime but because the Home Office has doubts about whether they have the right to be in the UK.
According to the report: “Detainees are a mix of people who may be in the UK unlawfully such as overstayers, people seeking asylum, and foreign national offenders (FNOs).”
1.The number of people detained has risen massively over the last 20 years
In 2000, UK immigration detention centres had capacity to hold 475 people with about 200 more held under immigration powers in prisons. In 2010, the number had quadrupled – with about 2,800 people in detention.
All over the UK, detention centres have been built recently – most of them run by private companies. The UK now has one of the largest detention centre systems in Europe. As the report puts it, “the number of people held in detention increased as the UK immigration estate expanded”.
Since 2015, the number of people detained has started to fall but in 2018, the figure was still about 2,200 – far above what it was in 2000. And while there are less people detained than a few years ago, a higher proportion are held for longer.
2. It costs over £32,000 to hold someone in detention for a year
Detaining someone is not cheap – the government spent £108m on it in the last financial year. Most of this money goes to private companies like G4S, Serco, Mitie and Capita.
3. Detainees are locked up without seeing a judge
While criminals are only locked up on the say so of a judge or jury, immigration detainees have their freedom taken away by Home Office officials. Most times, those making the decision will never have met the person they are detaining – a fact the report labelled “shocking”.
There is no requirement in UK law for the decision to detain to be subject to judicial oversight within a certain period after a detention order is made. This contrasts with Denmark and Switzerland where those detained must be brought to court within three of four days so a judge can rule on whether they should be detained.
Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) told the committee that the Home Office rarely justifies the necessity of its decision to detain, nor explains why alternatives to detention (such as bail with reporting restrictions or electronic monitoring) are inappropriate. This means the burden of proof falls on the detainee, rather than those seeking to detain them. This is contrary to the right to freedom from arbitrary detention, they said.
According to immigration lawyer Stephanie Harrison, the Home Office doesn’t give proper reasons for detention. “It will say, “You are an abscond risk. Your removal is imminent”, but it does not say why you are an abscond risk,” she said. This makes the decision difficult to challenge.
Panels review detention every few months but they are staffed by Home Office officials. Those detained in detention centres are, in theory, allowed thirty minutes free legal advice. However, due to legal aid cuts and “rigorous means and merits tests”, the report said in practice this advice is “extremely difficult to obtain”. Those detained in prisons (ex-offenders) are not entitled to any free legal advice – even in theory.
4. People can be detained indefinitely
According to the report: “In the UK, there is no limit on the length of time someone can be held in immigration detention. The length of time is heavily dependent on the efficiency of Home Office casework. Lengthy casework delays, for example regarding asylum decisions, appeals and documentation, can prolong individuals’ detention.”
According to the government’s prisons watchdog, one man was held in Harmondsworth for four years and 23 people were held for more than one year – and that’s just at one detention centre. Overall, 12% of people are held for more than six months.
5. Most people who are detained are later released
So why were they detained in the first place? According to the report: “The power to detain is a necessary one, but should be used only if there are no other options, as a last resort prior to removal. The power should be exercised for the shortest possible time and only when there is a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable period.”
For example, at Yarl’s Wood detention centre for women, 67% of women detained are later released. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons said this “raised questions about the justification for detention in the first place”.
According to the report, in one case, a woman was detained in Yarl’s Wood after having contacted the police because of a threat to kill her from a violent ex-husband. She had an ongoing application for indefinite leave to remain which was later granted.
6. Children have been taken into care when their parents were detained
Home Office guidance states the best interests of any child must be the “primary consideration” for officials in each case. But in practice, the report said that this guidance is ignored. Children are frequently taken away from a parent and sometimes from both parents – resulting in them being taken into care.
According to the report: “In March 2018, a Home Office decision to detain a father resulted in his three school-age children and autistic 17-year-old son being taken into care. The mother was out of the country at the time of his detention. He had been released on bail by a judge and had met all of his reporting duties.”
7. Over 100 people are unlawfully detained each year
This figure comes just from compensation pay-outs to people who have been unlawfully detained – the actual figure is probably much higher.
The report criticised the Home Office for not recording figures on unlawful detention, saying it showed “a shockingly cavalier attitude to the deprivation of liberty and the protection of people’s basic rights”.
8. Vulnerable people are regularly detained
Victims of rape, torture and those with a history of attempting to take their own lives while detained are detained regardless. This puts them at risk of harm. Screening processes are supposed to identify these vulnerabilities but they are often rushed and done incompetently, the report said.
Joe Lo is a freelance journalist and a reporter for Left Foot Forward
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