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No crime, no trial, no freedom

by
12 June 2015

In the run-up to Refugee Week, Christine Miles looks at the effects of indefinite detention in the UK

REUTERS

Prison-like: a guard walks down one of the corridors of Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, near Bedford

Prison-like: a guard walks down one of the corridors of Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, near Bedford

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 village.

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 first encounter.

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 visitors' room.

"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 outside world.

"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 morning."

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 detention.

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 impact.

"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 detention."

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 says.

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 staff.

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 asylum process."

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 workers.

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 humanely."

 

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 back.

"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 ministers are.

"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 problematic."

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 all parties."

 

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 explore."

 

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 community-based alternatives.

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, says.

"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 says.

 

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."

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