Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The scandal of limitless detention

A cross party-group of MPs has called for an end to the indefinite detention of migrants, warning that too many people are being unnecessarily detained, sometimes for as long as four years, under a system they characterise as “expensive, ineffective and unjust”. Britain’s “deeply shocking” treatment of vulnerable asylum-seekers sees innocent people held for years in detention centres. People fleeing torture or persecution to seek refuge in the UK should no longer be detained for more than 28 days in immigration removal centres, as evidence suggests spending any longer locked up can be catastrophic for their health, the report by a cross-party group of MPsand peers recommends. 

The panel expressed concern that individuals detained under immigration powers were “increasingly being held in prison-like conditions”. The biggest immigration removal centres are either converted high-security prisons or have been built to that specification. Detainees should be held in “suitable accommodation that is conducive to an open and relaxed regime”, the report suggests. The panel concluded that “depriving an individual of their liberty for the purposes of immigration detention should be an absolute last resort and only used to effect removal”. The report described the conditions in which migrants and asylum seekers, who are not convicted criminals, are held as “tantamount to high security prison settings”.

Members of the panel said they were shocked by some of the testimonies they heard from current and former detainees, some of whom had been held for years, without being told when they were likely to be released. They concluded that current Home Office policy puts the health of detainees at “serious risk”. The UK is the only country in the European Union not to have an upper time limit on detention. Some of their testimonies made MPs gasp with horror – among them accounts of suicide attempts, being handcuffed for hospital treatment, and of women detainees being sexually harassed by guards.

David Burrowes, Conservative MP and panel member, said: “Immigration is on the political agenda, but rarely do we unite on a cross-party basis and consider the issue of immigration detention. The lack of a time limit is resulting in people being locked up for months and, in some cases, several years, purely for administrative reasons.”

The panel brought together MPs and law lords from across the spectrum, from former Conservative cabinet minister Caroline Spelman to Labour’s Paul Blomfield, as well as the former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham.

“What is unusual about the panel is that it brings together people who do not agree on all aspects of reform of the immigration system – some are more hawkish, some are more liberal – but we are united in thinking that the current system is ineffective and inhumane,” Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather, who chaired the inquiry, said.

“Some lose hope and they try to kill themselves,” one detainee told the inquiry. “Some try burning themselves with whatever they can get. Some try hanging themselves in the shower. They think it’s the only way out. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Detention is a way to destroy people: they do not kill you directly, but instead you kill yourself.”

A three-month undercover investigation by Channel 4 news revealed serious instances of sexism and racism among Serco staff running the Yarl’s Wood immigration centre. Guards at the centre were filmed describing various detainees as “black bitch” and “evil”. At one point a guard was filmed commenting: “They are all slashing their wrists, apparently. Let them slash their wrists ... It’s attention seeking.”

Home Office officials are failing to follow guidance that immigration detention should be used sparingly. Current Home Office policy puts the health of detainees at serious risk.

At the end of 2014, there were 3,462 people in immigration detention centres, 24% higher than at the end of 2013; 397 had been detained for more than 6 months, 108 for longer than a year, and 18 for longer than two years. During 2014, 30,365 entered detention, an increase of 17% since 2010.

“tantamount to high security prison settings”

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