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This state-sanctioned suffering must stop    

16 February 2018

Christians must speak out against the Government’s routine use of indefinite detention, says Mark Oakley

WHAT is it like in an immigration detention centre? Who are the people held there? Why are they there? When will they get out? How can they challenge their detention? How are they treated?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you are far from alone. In the past three decades, the UK has gone from incarcerating a few dozen asylum-seekers a year to routinely locking up tens of thousands of people — those whose applications to stay here are being processed, or have been refused — in a sprawling network of “removal centres”.

Public awareness and scrutiny have not kept pace — far from it. This vast detention estate remains a shadowy world on the edge of our own. Transparency and press scrutiny are minimal, and the Home Office does little to change that.


BUT the immigration detention regime in the UK is not only now one of the largest operations of its kind in Europe: it is also the most brutal — state-sanctioned suffering on a huge scale.

Last year, the Home Office held 27,819 people, including asylum-seekers, children, pregnant women, and elderly people, and survivors of torture, trafficking, and rape. No judge authorises their incarceration. The Home Office makes the call.

Worse, there is no legal limit to how long they can be held. We are the only country in Europe which locks people up with no time limit, meaning that they enter detention with no idea when they will be freed. Many are held for months; some for years. As at 30 June 2017, the longest length of time a person has been detained was 1514 days. The Bar Council has emphasised that people are held for too long, with inadequate access to the courts and legal help.

Investigative journalists, unannounced inspections, and crucial work by organisations such as Amnesty International, Detention Action, and Women for Refugee Women have given us glimpses inside these prison-like removal centres.

They are chaotic, filthy, overcrowded, and rife with abuse and neglect. There are regular cases of the unlawful and fatal use of restraint and denial of essential medical treatment.

Women who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence are guarded by male officers, who can enter their cells at any time. Sexual-abuse allegations are widespread. Last September’s astonishing Panorama exposé of Brook House (News, 8 September) dominated headlines for a day, but has left us, five months later, with little to show for the brief public and political outrage

This environment — as well as the indefinite nature of their detention and separation from loved ones — causes people huge mental and physical harm. Self-harm and suicide attempts are common. Reports suggest that ten people died in detention centres in 2017 alone. Most took their own lives. The British Medical Association is calling for Immigration Removal Centres to be phased out and replaced with a more humane system of community monitoring, because of concerns about the serious impact on the health of detainees.

On at least six occasions since 2010, UK courts have found that the Home Office has breached Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which outlaws torture.

This system does not even achieve the gains that politicians seek: the majority of those detained are released back into the community. Every year, the Government wastes about £76 million of public money on the long-term incarceration of people whom it will later free.

Alternatives to detention are used effectively in many other countries. In Sweden, intensive case-management has led to low rates of detention and high rates of voluntary return. Preserving people’s dignity, and enabling them to actively understand their cases increases confidence and trust. An aggressive enforcement strategy centred on long-term incarceration fosters hostility and polarisation.


MANY powerful voices have called for an end to the Government’s routine use of indefinite detention. They include the UN Refugee Agency, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry, and the Government’s own reviewer, Stephen Shaw, who condemned it as a process that dehumanises, undermines welfare, and exacerbates vulnerability.

So far, the Government is not listening. Last year, it even introduced a new policy that made it easier to detain torture survivors — only for it to be ruled unlawful by the courts.

Christian people must help to make them listen, and we must demand change. We cannot leave this to migrants’-rights campaigners, lawyers, and a handful of politicians.

This goes beyond politics. It is not about immigration: it is about how we treat fellow human beings. People are suffering now.

The Government will shortly publish its Immigration Bill. As the human-rights organisation Liberty has pointed out, that could be an opportunity for parliamentarians to put a 28-day time limit on immigration detention in UK law — a crucial first step to ending for good the routine use of detention.

It is time for the Church to add its voice. This is happening in our name. Just because we do not always see with our own eyes what is going on in our country’s detention centres, it does not mean that we can still walk by on the other side.

Canon Mark Oakley is Chan­­cellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. His The Splash of Words is published by Canterbury Press.


Sign Liberty’s petition #Itsabouttime here: Endindefinitedetention.org.uk


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