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COULD this year finally be the year when indefinite immigration ends? This leadership of the Labour Party, along with many long-time allies, is determined to make that happen.
The government is in desperate trouble as its Brexit promises unravel. They have to produce new immigration legislation to plug the holes in the law created by Brexit. They need something positive amid all the chaos. So, we have even seen media speculation recently that in coming weeks the government may finally move to limit the amount of time people can spend as a detainee in immigration centres to 28 days.
The UK immigration detention system is one of the widest in Europe, with around 2,500 to 3,500 people in detention at any given time. These issues are of the highest importance. It is wholly unacceptable for any democratic country to detain people without trial. The current chair of the Tory Party, Brandon Lewis, once denied to Parliament that we detain people indefinitely in this country. We just keep them “for longer than is necessary.” This is the self-justifying nonsense that police states use.
When the Blair government introduced immigration detention I well remember the repeated assurances that there was no need for due process, appeals procedures and so on, because people would be held for a matter of days. In fact, people have been detained for years on end. Pregnant women, victims of trafficking and children have all been detained.
We have seen pressure mounting on the government for some time to do the right thing and end indefinite immigration detention. It is a demand Labour now supports, and which I and others have been campaigning on for decades. It has also been a key pledge of our new immigration policy.
A significant development is that the Windrush scandal has come to light and continues to unfold. Each month sees more shocking revelations. This has had the effect of highlighting the long-term problems concerning immigration detention in general, the government’s “hostile environment” and the discrimination inherent in the current system.
Both Amnesty International and the British Red Cross have called for an end to indefinite detention and for the introduction of a 28-day limit. The UN refugee agency has also backed calls for a time limit, with the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner Volker Turk having said he hoped the study would result in limits being put in place, with detention only used as a “last resort.”
We should not take it for granted though that this government will act for justice at all. We have already been waiting for the necessary reform for some time.
We also need to make sure that if the government does change the system and time limit, it is a genuine change, not one which allows them to play “cat and mouse” by releasing and then re-detaining people.
There has also been no commitment from the Home Office to ending indefinite detention. The government’s actual policies have been going in the opposite direction. The number of people held for over six months in immigration detention centres has increased, and more than one in five detainees are held for at least two months.
Since this unjustifiable system was first introduced, the number of people detained has risen from the hundreds to the thousands. I was an MP when the legislation was introduced in the 1990s. At this time, Parliament was assured that detention would only be for a matter of months.
There are strong reasons why this Tory government has not yet reformed immigration detention. There are no good reasons. Numerous reports over a number of years have urged them to do so. But the policy has become part and parcel of Theresa May’s “hostile environment,” which was brutally summarised by the Prime Minister herself as “deport first, appeal later.”
The current Home Secretary has tried to side-step the issue by the simple expedient of rebranding it. But people are not fooled by the “compliant environment.” No British citizen who has lost a job, or a home, or been detained or deported because they “look foreign” is complying with anything. They are the victims of dog-whistle politics. Despite the change in rhetoric in recent times, the hostile environment remains in place.
Just as that policy must now end, it is also absolutely essential to put a fair limit on detention if we are to ensure that there is no repeat of the Windrush scandal, which has shamed Britain and the government over the last year. You can’t hold people on suspicion. Either produce evidence which can be challenged, with availability of legal aid where necessary, or release them. Better yet, do those investigations before any detention is even contemplated.
The current policy is inhumane, costly, and unjustifiable. As long as indefinite detention continues it will cause real suffering to thousands of people.
The time has come for real change and for the government to end the terrible practice of routine and indefinite use of detention.
Let’s keep up the pressure to make sure it happens.
Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and shadow home secretary. She writes every fortnight in the Morning Star.
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