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The scandal of migrants locked up indefinitely

16 May 2014

The long-term detention of immigrants by the UK is a waste of time, talents, and money, argues Jerome Phelps

AROUND the country, out of sight in detention centres and prisons, migrants go to bed each night in their cells. They are locked up for months or years, and yet, unlike prisoners, they do not know when they will be released - their detention is without time-limit.

Indefinite immigration detention has attracted only a fraction of the scrutiny of the pre-trial detention of terrorism suspects; yet nowhere else in our society are people locked up with so few safeguards - to such little purpose, too, since most migrants who are detained for long periods are eventually released back into the UK.

Nevertheless, pressure is beginning to grow for reform, as voices in Parliament and civil society invoke the ethical compass that, in our treatment of migrants, seems to have got lost.

In Parliament and the media, the immigration debate rarely seems to pause for breath. Statistics are compared with targets in what is becoming a national obsession. Yet, in this pursuit of net-immigration targets, the migrants themselves are unheard and invisible. Those at the sharp end of immigration enforcement are noticed only when it is too late: Jimmy Mubenga with his head between his knees on the runwayat Heathrow; 84-year-old Alois Dvorzac, dying alone and confused in chains.

Indefinite immigration detainees are nobodies. They are the strangers whom we refuse to recognise; the exiles cast out from the community, from every community; the people who must be locked up, not as punishment, but because of the essential illegality of their being.


INDEFINITE immigration detention is a uniquely British phenomenon, within Europe at least. While the rest of Europe has limited detention to a maximum period of 18 months (in France, it is 45 days), the UK does not apply EU immigration law, and stands alone with no time-limit on detention. Britain's migrants are held in conditions equivalent to high-security prisons, for days that become months, and months that become years.

They are held in "Immigration Removal Centres", and yet cannot be removed. If they are refused asylum or leave to remain in the UK, they are then refused travel documents by embassies that do not recognise their nationality, or they are unable to return because of the dangers in their countries of origin.

In Germany, in contrast, thousands of migrants are recognised as unreturnable and granted "tolerated status", while their return remains impossible. Their short-term permits have to be renewed regularly, and in very limited circumstances can lead eventually to permission to stay in Germany. It is hardly a generous regime, but it is light years from the British approach of warehousing migrants in detention long after it has become clear that deportation is impossible.

Indeed, indefinite detention makes no sense in terms of immigration control. Sixty-three per cent of migrants detained for more than a year are released, and not deported - their detention achieves nothing.

The waste of public money involved has been independently costed at £75 million per year. Indefinite detention is political, not pragmatic: it is a response to the pressure of the tabloids, to fear of being seen as soft, rather than the result of rational policy-making.


SOULEYMANE is well versed in the absurdity of indefinite detention. "I went to prison for working illegally," he told me. He is a refused asylum-seeker, but also an excellent chef. "Six months. Then three-and-a-half years in detention. And I was working every day in the kitchen in detention, for £1 an hour."

His parents are from either side of a border in West Africa. He was born on one side, and grew up on the other. Now neither country will accept him, although he applied for voluntary return, and he is stuck. "Detention is a concrete jungle," he repeats whenever we speak of these things. "It's easy to get in - hard to get out."

Eventually, the High Court found that he had been unlawfully detained, and he was released and given compensation. He is spending it on a course that will give him a qualification as a chef, but it is one that he still has no prospect of being able to use. "That three-and-a-half years: I can't get it back for my life. It won't come back."

Souleymane now travels round the country, speaking of his experiences to communities and religious groups, telling them of the reality of indefinite detention in 21st-century Britain. By speaking out, he is challenging in the most direct possible way his designation as a stranger and a non-person.

Responses are coming, from communities, religious leaders, and politicians. In the recent debate on an Immigration Bill that will further erode detainees' rights to seek their liberty, the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Martin Wharton, and Lord Roberts of Llandudno laid an amendment setting a time-limit on detention. It did not pass, and yet peers spoke powerfully in the debate on the scandal of indefinite detention.

A week later, the Liberal Democrat conference approved its party's immigration motion, which included ending indefinite detention.

The possibilities for change are there. Indefinite detention is so irrational, so expensive in a time of austerity, and so harmful to the UK's reputation for civil liberties that it is a policy waiting for reform. But this will take political will, whereas the will to defend unpopular migrants is at a premium.

Such will requires clear ethical leadership. Strong voices from civil society and the Church are needed to remind politicians caught up in the frenzy of the immigration debate that migrants are human beings, and members of our communities, not just statistics or tabloid headlines.

Jerome Phelps is the Director of Detention Action (www.detentionaction.org.uk).

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