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RECENTLY, 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.”
As with so many other issues, here was a government minister showing that once again the Tories are in denial about the effects of their own policies.
The reality is that last year over 200 immigration detainees were detained for over a year and Britain is the only EU country that does not set a specific time limit on immigration detention.
Within this system, more than half of all immigration detainees are eventually released and allowed to remain in Britain, which raises the question of why it was necessary to deprive them of their liberty in the first place.
The overall length of detention has been increasing since the beginning of 2010 when the Tory-Lib Dem coalition came to office.
The number of those held has also been rising and, contrary to the minister’s assertions, some of these people are are held for 12 months or more — there are even cases of people being detained for longer than 48 months.
The most important thing to remember about immigration detention is that was never meant to be long-term.
I was an MP when the legislation was introduced in the 1990s and Parliament was assured that detention would only be for a matter of months.
When some of us raised the lack of safeguards and due process, ministers insisted that this detention would be very short-term indeed. But the truth is that, almost from the beginning, detention has lasted for much longer periods than Parliament originally envisaged.
More generally, Britain’s current immigration detention system is inhumane, costly and not fit for purpose.
This was recently highlighted by my colleague Kate Osamor MP, who went undercover to a detention centre and was shocked at the conditions she found there, writing that “the reality is brutal.”
Osamor’s experience followed the recent Panorama programme looking into the harsh conditions in the Brook House detention centre. The programme’s findings were so shocking that even those of us who thought we knew about the abuses in immigration detention were saddened and horrified.
In 2015, the UN’s rapporteur on violence against women was denied access to Yarl’s Wood and, in my capacity as shadow home secretary, I have also been blocked for a year by the government from visiting Britain’s largest and most controversial immigration detention centre for women.
It seems that we have both indefinite and secretive immigration detention taking place.
This issue gets far less attention than it should, as in the current toxic debate around immigration it is hard to engage public and media concern.
One particularly serious area that needs action and more public awareness is the issue of children being detained.
While in six out of the last eight years there have been no children detained at year-end, children are still be detained over other periods.
This year, there were still 21 children who sent into detention in the third quarter of this year, although this is down from previous year — but there should be none at all.
In 2015 following a string of scandals involving detention, including the deaths of Jimmy Mubenga and Christine Case, there was a parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention.
This was soon followed in 2016 by a Home Office-commissioned review into the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention, conducted by Stephen Shaw OBE, the former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales.
He 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.
Yet, the government has failed to act. Over a year later the government have shown no real movement on implementing these important recommendations or those from the earlier Parliamentary inquiry.
Both reports agreed that there must be a time limit for detention — a maximum of 28 days — and Labour MPs have long been calling for an end to indefinite detention as one of the steps needed to fix the system.
Furthermore, the government’s approach is also a colossal waste of money, with the private-sector operators of the detention centres making a lot of money in yet another failed privatisation.
To give just one illustration, the average cost of one detention place is £34,000 a year, which compares to an average cost of electronic tagging of just under £5,000 a year.
Additionally, in the last few years there has also been £4-5 million paid each year in compensation for unlawful detention.
What makes it worse is that Home Office has long been aware of improper conduct by G4S staff and other private companies such as Serco who operate in Yarl’s Wood detention centre as exposed in the aforementioned Panorama. Yet this Tory government continues to sign off millions of pounds worth of contracts to these companies.
As in so many home affairs policy areas, change is desperately needed. Yet the reason the Tories will not reform immigration detention is because it is all part and parcel of Theresa May’s vision of a “hostile environment” for immigrants, where the notion is that if individuals were detained in this way — quietly, contrary to any due process and with no consideration of their human rights — it would somehow deter others from seeking to come here as immigrants and asylum-seekers.
This approach has failed — it’s time for a new, fairer approach.
Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and a Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.
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