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Indefinite detention must be discontinued

It’s time for wholesale change in how Britain deals with the issue of immigration detention, says DIANE ABBOTT

WHEN Trump recently visited Britain, the spotlight was rightly shone by both the media and protesters on his administration’s inhumane policies towards migrants, including in terms of how migrants are detained.

Such concern for the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers is much needed — yet British government policy when it comes to immigration detention often receives less media attention than it should.

Despite this, in recent years there has been an increase in the voices urging the government to change direction and this was reflected in a recent statement from Home Secretary Sajid Javid to the House of Commons in response to the publication of a second, highly critical, review of Britain’s immigration detention system by former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw.

Points of interest in the Home Secretary’s announcement included that he would look into how time limits on the detention of immigrants work in other countries and a pilot scheme to move vulnerable women into the community rather than Yarl’s Wood — as part of a wider look at detention alternatives.

Yet we should not wait with bated breath for the Tories to deliver much-needed change in this area, especially as Shaw’s new review followed up from his earlier review in 2016, of which many of the key recommendations have not been carried out.

In his 2016 report, Shaw recommended a series of exemptions for vulnerable immigration detainees, including: for victims of rape and other sexual or gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation; for those with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder; for transsexual people; for pregnant women; for those with learning difficulties and for those with mental health problems.

Incarcerating victims of abuse and torture breaches obligations under international law, and yet the government is not moving fast enough to make sure this doesn’t happen

Yet some of these practices continue, as was confirmed to me by hearing personal accounts at Yarl’s Wood detention centre earlier this year, and reports from those working in this area.  

It is interesting that the Home Secretary is now looking into time limits on detention when last year, Home Office Minister Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons: “We don’t have indefinite [immigration] detention in this country. We just keep people as long as necessary.”

This astounded many of us at the time as the reality is that Britain is the only EU country that does not set a specific time limit on immigration detention.

If detention is discretionary, outside the due process and with little or no right to appeal, it amounts to indefinite detention, whatever spin certain ministers may try to put on it.

The overall length of detention has been increasing since the beginning of 2010 when the Tory-Lib Dem coalition came to office.

And while the latest figures show that there has recently been a drop in the overall detainee population, the number of people held in removal centres for more than six months has increased.

Some of these people are held for 12 months or more — there are even cases of people being detained for longer than 48 months.

Furthermore, within this system, more than half of all immigration detainees are eventually released and allowed to remain, which raises the question of why it was necessary to deprive them of their liberty in the first place.

As the government finally commits to reviewing how time limits on the detention of immigrants work in other countries, Labour is clear that the practice of indefinite detention needs to end, and believes that by processing cases efficiently we will be able to shrink the detention estate considerably.

I was an MP in the 1990s when detention centres were introduced, and we were told in Parliament that there would be no need for strict rules of due process because no-one would be detained longer than 28 days.
 
When some of us raised the lack of safeguards and due process, ministers insisted that this detention would be very short-term, but this has clearly not been the case and further proper safeguards and due process have clearly been needed.

A spotlight was shone in 2017 on these issues when a Panorama programme looking into the harsh conditions in the Brook House detention centre made findings so horrifying that even those of us who thought we knew about the abuses in immigration detention were shocked, and I saw from my own visit to Yarl’s Wood this year how conditions there have caused so much pain to vulnerable women that we should have been protecting.

In contrast to slow movement from the Tories, Labour is clear we will close both Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres.

In both these centres, people are being kept in detention for months, even years on end. They have included members of the Windrush generation, victims of torture, women who are refugees and victims of sexual exploitation.

Incarcerating victims of abuse and torture breaches obligations under international law, and yet still the government is not moving fast enough to make sure this doesn’t happen.

It is a further scandal that we pay £10 million a year to private contractors Serco to run Yarl’s Wood and over £11m for G4S to run Brook House.

Instead, Labour would take back these millions and put it directly back into services to support the survivors of modern slavery, trafficking and domestic violence.  

Astonishingly, it was announced in May that G4S’s contract to run the Brook House immigration removal centre has been extended for another two years. Campaigners around the country couldn’t believe that a firm which oversaw the appalling, brutal treatment of detainees as exposed in the Panorama programme got more money and a longer contract, after these failures had come to light.

Private firms have no business in making vast profits through running detention.  What is needed is a safe, decent and more efficient public-sector system.

This government and its predecessors have long had an obsession with enriching the private sector from the public purse. They cling to this mantra whatever the cost, either financially, in shoddy service or in human misery.

The whole approach to immigration detention – part of the increasingly discredited ‘hostile environment’ policy — has failed. It is inhumane, costly and not fit for purpose. The time has come for real change and a new, fairer approach.

Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary. She writes in the Morning Star every other Saturday.

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