I PASS a sign outside a house that reads: "Caution Cats" on
my way in to Riseley Village, in Bedfordshire. Next door to it, a
man on a sit-on lawnmower is beautifying the entrance to his
sizeable house. Further up the mile-long High Street, a red
letter-box, picture-postcard cottages, and the quaint-looking Fox
and Hounds pub all declare this to be a quintessentially English
Any doubts are quashed by the Union flag-embellished poster for
the Riseley Community Theatre's presentation of Dad's Army
at Riseley Village Hall.
It is hard to believe that, five miles up the road, at the back
of an ugly business park, complete with a barbed-wire perimeter
fence, is the notorious Yarl's Wood.
The detention centre, or Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), as
successive governments have called such places, signalling
intention rather than fact, has been said to look like a motel on
But no motel receptionist asks to see your passport, or
fingerprints you biometrically, or takes your picture, and makes
you walk through a scanner - and that is just to get into the
"People in this village have no idea of the world that's a few
miles up the road," says Heather Jones, a "befriender" from
Riseley, who visits and supports detainees at Yarl's Wood.
For some of those at Yarl's Wood, and in other IRCs -
particularly those who have been detained on arrival - befrienders
are the only visitors they have, their only connection with the
"You feel locked in the whole time," one woman tells me. "When
they're counting you, every door is locked. There is nowhere you
can even go out. There are alarms going off almost every day
[indicating some kind of incident], sometimes very early in the
Officially, journalists are not allowed to visit detention
centres. And visitors, who are permitted to take in only a few
coins for the vending machine, and perhaps a pen and paper, are not
allowed to see what goes on beyond the visitors' room. Detainees'
mobiles are replaced with ones without cameras.
Emily (not her real name), who was detained in 2011, says: "In
Yarl's Wood, they take cameras away because they do not want to
show the reality. Because in Yarl's Wood there are no human rights.
There are fights, and lots of people cutting themselves, and the
guards just ignore people, because it happens every day."
Heather Jones attends the parish church in Riseley, but, even
there, she says, members of the congregation seem unconcerned about
what goes on in Yarl's Wood - the fact that asylum-seekers are
locked up indefinitely, without any judicial oversight, simply on
an immigration official's decision. "They think I'm a little
strange," she says.
EMILY says that, in Yarl's Wood, she was told about a woman who
had been detained for eight years. "I don't know if that's true,
but it was shocking for me to hear that. I thought: 'Oh my God, I
might be one of those who stay here for ever.'"
The lack of a limit in the UK to how long a person can be
detained for immigration purposes is unique among the 28 member
states of the EU. Ireland, for example, has a time limit of 21
days; France, 45 days; Portugal and Spain, 60.
Michael (again, not his real name) spent two-and-a-half years in
detention, and is still waiting for a decision on his asylum claim.
He says: "Russia, even, has a time limit. So, to me, this
Government is bringing shame on this country's legacy, if someone
can hold Russia up as a better example."
In March, a joint inquiry by the two All-Party Parliamentary
Groups on Refugees and on Migration published a joint report (News, 6
March). They conclude: "the UK uses detention
disproportionately and inappropriately." Also that "the evidence
shows that the current system is seriously detrimental to the
individuals who are detained, in terms of their mental and physical
well-being, as well as hugely costly to the taxpayer."
The report's four key recommendations were: there should be a
time limit of 28 days on immigration detention; theory and practice
should be in favour of community-based resolutions; detention
should be for the shortest possible time, and only to effect
removal; and the Government should learn from international best
practice and introduce a wider range of alternatives to
The former MP for Brent, Sarah Teather, who chaired the inquiry,
says that the recommendation of the 28-day time-frame is based on
international best practice. "But the main thing . . . was the
evidence we had from a couple of psychiatrists about the
"If you're in detention for less than a month then the issues
[people] were dealing with was stuff they came in with: so trauma
from their country, or pre-existing medical conditions.
"But [once] they've been in for longer than a month, most of
what they were trying to manage was the problems of being in
The senior chaplain and manager of religious affairs at Yarl's
Wood between 2004 and 2007, the Revd Larry Wright, submitted a
report to the Home Office in March 2006, How Long in Detention:
The challenges of prolonged detention at Yarl's Wood Immigration
Removal Centre, prepared by himself and the on-site
counsellor. In it, they flagged up the psychological damage they
were seeing among those detained for long periods. He waited for a
response. "I received nothing from the Home Office at all," he
Nearly ten years on from his report, Mr Wright concurs with the
proposed 28-day limit.
"While something is happening, usually the attitude of detainees
is more positive. They feel as though any day something could
happen. In my experience, you can maintain that level of hope and
expectation in the detention centre for about three to four weeks,
and then that begins to erode; that's when despondency can start to
enter into a person's life."
Mr Wright and his counselling colleague documented seeing
boredom, loss of motivation, lethargy, despair, erratic
sleeping-patterns, night terrors, imagined voices or visitations,
weight loss or gain, fixation on health concerns, financial
deprivation (for those wholly reliant on a weekly allowance), and
feelings of being victimised by detention and immigration
They also noted periods of apathy and/or low self-esteem, often
leading to poor self-care and hygiene; self-isolation; sudden
emotional outbursts; suicidal urges; and sexuality issues for those
in prolonged detention.
Mr Wright's report contrasts the experiences of detainees with
those of convicted prisoners. The latter know that they are
detained for an identifiable crime, for a designated period, and
with the support of a range of facilities during their time in
prison - and they have resettlement help afterwards.
The executive director of the Migrant and Refugee Communities
Forum, Zrinka Bralo, a former asylum-seeker herself, says: "If you
are accused of a crime, you can only be held for 72 hours [without
charge]. If you're accused of terrorism, which is the worst
possible offence these days, you can be held without due process
only for 28 days.
"Whereas, if they want to remove you, they can just lock you up
for ever. Why should people who have not committed a crime be
deprived of their liberty without proper judicial process?"
Ms Teather says: "Because there is no deadline, there's nothing
to speed the Home Office up, and the Home Office literally just
leaves people languishing. Nobody's looking, and nobody cares,
because they are people who, at the moment, Britain considers
undesirable; and they're out of sight, out of mind, because they're
stuck in detention."
Ms Bralo says: "People that we've seen, especially women, are
deeply traumatised afterwards, and everybody's health has been
damaged. No one who has been in detention has come out without some
mental-health or physical-health issue."
THE inquiry's recommendations have cross-party support. "On the
wider immigration issues, you would never have got us to agree," Ms
Teather says. "But on this issue, we were of a view that, no matter
where you came from, it doesn't work, and it's not humane."
It is also hugely expensive. "Detention doesn't work for
anybody, and it certainly doesn't work for taxpayers," Michael, the
former detainee, says. "The amount of money that's being spent
every year on detaining people . . . two-thirds of [whom] are
released back into the community: this is just money being poured
down the drain."
The cost of running the immigration estate - 13 IRCs - in
2013/14 was £164.4 million. The cost of detaining one person for
one year is £36,026, the inquiry report says.
In 2012, a consultancy and advisory company, Matrix Evidence,
looked at the amount wasted in long-term detention every year, on
behalf of Detention Action. "They looked at how much could be saved
if [the UK] avoided the costs of long-term detainees who were then
released: £76 million.
"They calculated that the alternatives would have cost 44 per
cent of the savings," the director of the non-profit organisation
Detention Action, Jerome Phelps, says.
IN THE run-up to the General Election, campaigners managed to
secure pledges from several political parties to end indefinite
detention - but not from the Conservatives or UKIP, the director of
the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, Louise Zanre, says.
Still, she says, "It doesn't really matter which of the two
major parties are in power: things don't appreciably get much
better for asylum-seekers in the UK - and certainly not for the
people that we tend to work with: those left destitute by the
Mr Phelps is more hopeful: "The previous government said that
the direction of travel [was] towards reduced use of detention, and
they cancelled the expansion of Campsfield House [a detention
centre] and closed Hasler detention centre. We're hopeful, given
the need to make huge savings in public spending, that there will
still be scope to explore alternatives to detention that can
deliver government objectives at a fraction of the cost of the
bloated and inefficient detention system."
ASYLUM-SEEKERS are not the only migrants in detention; there are
also visa overstayers (who may have been asylum-seekers previously,
Ms Zanre says), some foreign national prisoners, and some illegal
Ms Walter is optimistic about the review of detainees' welfare
which Stephen Shaw, a former Prisons Ombudsman for England and
Wales, is working on now, commissioned by the Home Secretary,
Theresa May, in February.
Ms Bralo says she is hoping that a promise made in the run-up to
the election by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and
Skills, Sajid Javid, to broker a meeting between the Citizens
Working Group, chaired by Bishop Peter Selby, and the Home
Secretary, will also come to pass.
Now is a good time to influence the Government, Ms Teather says.
"The lead-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review [CSR] is going on
inside Government now. I presume the CSR will be in October, and
departments will be trying to set their budgets.
"The Home Office is going to have to make some massive savings,
and it's not clear to me where they're going to come from. Are they
going to come from the police again? Really? Seriously? I can't see
it. There's only one place it can come, and that's detention."
"There is precedent," she adds. "They have managed to change the
way they work with families. I think there's an awful lot more that
could be improved, frankly, but it demonstrates, nevertheless, that
change is possible, and the whole system hasn't broken down because
we no longer detain thousands of kids.
"The system does still remove people; so it demonstrates that
you can enforce immigration policy, but treat people more
THE founder and director of the Christian organisation the Boaz
Trust, Dave Smith, says that the foundations of the way the system
works need to change. "The biggest injustice is that asylum-seekers
are never allowed to tell their story. From the moment they get
into the country, they're grilled in a specific way, and it seems
like the desired outcome is not to let them in, or to send them
"The whole system tends to assume that they're here for some
sort of bogus reason, and the burden of proof is on them to prove
that they're genuine refugees. But the reality is that, if you're a
genuine refugee, then you're less likely to be able to prove it
than if you're not, because you won't have come out with the
evidence, and probably won't be able to get it.
"In criminal justice, the criminal doesn't have to prove that
they're innocent; they have to be proven guilty; but in the asylum
system it's the other way round, and I think that's the basis for
what goes wrong afterwards: why we get so many overturned
decisions, and why we've got so many people who won't go back after
they've been refused. They won't go back because they know what's
going to happen to them."
Mr Smith - who also oversees the No Accommodation Network for
asylum-seekers left destitute by the asylum process in the UK -
says that another problem is that the people who administer the
system expect asylum-seekers to "behave like somebody who's been
brought up in public school . . . because most of the judges and
"I've read cases where [judges] say things like: 'I don't
believe you could have escaped from jail in Congo,' as if jail in
Congo is Wormwood Scrubs, when it is, in fact, half a dozen guys
with Kalashnikovs guarding a house in the jungle, and just
occasionally someone will go out to the loo and make a break for
it, or you can bribe the guards, and that often happens because
they don't get paid.
"People even escape from English jails; so what right do they
have to say that they don't believe them?"
Ms Walter is also concerned with the adversarial approach in the
UK. "The desire on the part of Government is the desire to keep
migrant numbers down; so you get that target-orientated culture
intersecting with a culture of protection, and that's very
Ms Bralo says: "People who are running from persecution are
totally disadvantaged, because they don't know the system, and
often don't speak the language; they're very traumatised; and they
don't have good legal representation. The burden of proof is much
higher than in criminal cases, whereas the Convention clearly
states that it should be lower. And, in cases where people travel
with false documents, they should not be criminalised."
As for alternatives to detention, there are community-based
alternatives that have been developed in other countries, and some
of them by religious organisations.
In Sweden, which has stated that it expects to receive about
100,000 asylum applications in 2015, the inquiry report says, there
are only 255 detention places; in 2013, the average length of
detention was five days.
In the UK, we receive a quarter of those applications, and yet
we have around 4000 detention places, including the largest
detention centre in Europe.
"If you build a system based on deterrent, you build a system
that isn't open enough to actually consider people's lived
realities," Ms Zanre says, "whereas . . . if you look at a system
that tries to help people put forward, in a helpful and supportive
environment, what their reasoning might be for their asylum claim,
and why they think they've got a well-founded fear of persecution,
it's an entirely different model from the one that we've got.
"It is not only a matter of a time limit on detention: it's a
culture change. But it's also going back to the legal process, and
looking at ways of frontloading the asylum process, working with
asylum-seekers to present their evidence in a way that's helpful to
How to take action
1. Read The Report of the Inquiry into the
Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom (http://detentioninquiry.com).
2. Write to or meet your MP, regardless of
party affiliation. "Express your level of concern, and ask what
they are going to do about the report," Zrinka Bralo, says. Sarah
Teather agrees: "Apart from anything else, most MPs are delighted
to have something that isn't an immediate problem that they've got
to fix. Go along to the surgery, make an appointment, and they may
find that they have views that they've never had the chance to
3. Mobilise your church to get more involved by
inviting former detainees to speak. "Just listening to their story
will help them, and your congregation," Ms Bralo says. Then decide
next steps as a church.
4. Check out the various groups around the
country that need support, e.g. Citizens UK (www.citizensuk.org); the No
Accommodation Network (naccom.org.uk); and the Churches
Refugee Network (www.ctbiarchive.org/96).
5. Consider becoming a befriender at any one of
the 13 IRCs in the UK (www.aviddetention.org.uk).
The Jesuit Refugee Service UK also trains volunteers to help
detainees at Heathrow's IRCs (www.jrsuk.net).
US alternative to detention
THE United States detains the largest number of people in the
world for immigration purposes. In 2011, 429,000 people were
detained at some point.
But community-based alternatives to detention do exist, and
Grant Mitchell, of the International Detention Coalition, reports
that there is interest from the US government in increasing
All asylum-seekers who arrive in the US are subject to mandatory
detention. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS), however, introduced a new
policy in December 2009. Now, "if [on interview] an asylum-seeker
is found to have a credible fear, then at that point they are
eligible to request parole," the director for access to justice of
the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), Liz Sweet,
"In some places, bond amounts or bail amounts can be set on top
of parole, but there are situations where parole is just a case of
establishing a credible fear, that they have a place to go, and
that they've proven their identity to the satisfaction of the
authorities, and then they can be released."
IN 2011, the LIRS, and the emergency and refugee programme of
the US Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance,
launched their own Community Support (CS) programme.
The LIRS had primarily been involved in providing legal services
in detention centres. "But seeing the effect of detention on them,"
Ms Sweet says, "and the barriers that were created by detention to
migrants' actually being able to present their legal case, and,
often, to accessing some of the social provision that they needed"
led to the development of a release-and-assistance programme, which
now operates in seven US cities.
In some cities, formal agreements have been negotiated with ICE,
which refers detainees suitable for release into the programme. In
other places, it is the CSP's partners who identify those who might
qualify for parole and can be released, Ms Sweet says.
"Generally, at that point, we're looking for an individual to
meet with a case manager, who would identify and assess their
circumstances and needs, and then make referrals . . . including if
a person has medical needs, and - of more core importance to the
programme - making referrals for legal assistance, since everyone
in our programme is still undergoing legal proceedings."
HOUSING is obtained through a variety of different sources. "We
have a lot of people who have chosen to open up their homes, for
example, or they are faith-based shelters, small group housing
environments, or religious institutions [such as a monastery or a
convent]. Perhaps a couple of church communities come together to
provide support for a family, for example, or individuals."
Part of each case-manager's job is also to support and encourage
compliance with conditions of release. "They're making sure the
person understands the importance of complying, and how to comply,"
Ms Sweet says. "Some people even accompany the migrant to their
appointments, but it's definitely not a role of supervision. There
is no formal authority over the person."
As a requirement of the programme, all partner organisations
work with churches in their particular community. "Particularly
because it's not possible to meet all the needs of these
individuals just through the existing government-funded
social-services programmes, churches have a role to play," Ms Sweet
CHURCHES also provide significant numbers of volunteers, who
offer mentoring, orientation (for example, how the shopping centre
works, how to use the money), befriending, and other services.
The Department of Homeland put the cost of the most expensive
alternative to detention at just $14 per day. In comparison, "the
average cost of detention in this country is about $160 per person
per day, which is extremely expensive," Ms Sweet says.
"In family detention facilities, we've seen figures of well over
$300 per person per day."
The Community Support programme is funded almost entirely by the
two Churches. Ms Sweet identifies this as an obvious weakness. "Our
ability to scale up the programme is limited within the current
funding reality; but we have developed a model, and many concepts
[of] a better programme in this country, and so there is great
potential to build that model."
Without programmes such as this, Ms Sweet says, "many of these
individuals would likely have been staying in detention - or,
possibly, if they were released, facing a pretty severe life here,
whether being destitute, or without other support."