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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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