The UK has the largest immigration detention system in Europe, and the numbers of persons detained in British immigration removal centres (IRCs) continues to increase. This year, events such as the hunger strike of detainees in Yarls Wood IRC in late February have captured public attention because they revealed some of the major points of contention regarding this regime today. More than a simple set of issues, these points uncover a rationale that needs to be reconsidered.
Immigration detention is a government practice where asylum seekers or other migrants are detained on grounds of needing to establish their identities, or to facilitate their claims resolution or their removal. It is administrative procedure rather than a criminal one. Border enforcement officials may detain migrants upon arrival; when being presented to an immigration officer; after an arrest or a prison sentence; and when a decision to remove the migrant has been made. However, there is a lack of information on the Home Office’s discretionary decisions on when and who to arrest and detain.
There has been a tenfold increase in the number of detainees between 1993 and 2012, and there have been approximately 3,000 migrants detained at any given time between 2009 and 2017. The 30,000 people who spend varying lengths of time in detention each year tend to be from former British colonies (South Asian countries and Sub-Saharan African countries by mid-2018). However, accurate data on detained persons is hardly available due to the complicated trajectories which could have led to a person being detained.
The most publicly criticised issue about immigration detention is the lack of a time limit. The UK has refused to institute a statutory time limit to detention and is thus the only state in the European Union without a legal detention time-limit. In 2016, around 81% of detainees were kept for two months or less. However, around 2% were in detention for 6 to 12 months, with another 1% kept for longer than a year.
Allowing for an open-ended detention period has no direct relationship with the ‘legitimate aims’ of immigration detention, which is to facilitate the processing of unclear immigration statuses or impending removal. Contrarily, this allows the government to use immigration detention for administrative convenience, and also as a means to punish and scare migrants. It causes major psychological distress; prolonged detention takes a serious emotional toll on detainees.
Yarls Wood has made the news on numerous occasions due to accusations of mistreatment and even abuse of women detainees. Women represent around 10 percent of the total population in detention and are concentrated in Yarl’s Wood. As reported by the media and a number of charities, an increasing number of women were detained despite evidence that they were victims of torture, rape and/or human trafficking. Many of these detained women were victims of gender-based violence had sought asylum on those grounds, but Home Office had violated rules by placing them in detention. Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti were also disturbed by detainees’ lack of access to legal advice. Indeed, among detainees held in IRCs, just one in four were able to secure a legal aid solicitor in 2017.
The classification of detention as an administrative rather than a punitive measure has far-reaching consequences. Contrary to criminal law cases, there is no automatic judicial review of detention, which means that the Home Office, whose staff are known to be poorly trained and overworked, rather than judges, have the power to detain people. Therefore, the vast majority of detainees do not receive justice as they are entitled to and remain in uncertainty about their length of detention.
Detention is also extremely expensive. It cost the government £523.5 million between April 2013 and March 2017, with an additional £16.2 million spent on damages awarded to immigrants who were detained unlawfully in the same period. There has been much support for setting a 28-day limit to detention.
Detention has also been used almost as a prison “overflow” space. Among those detained for longer periods of time, many had some kind of criminal record and their detention periods end up being even longer than their prison sentence. This present situation is that of double punishment. In the second half of 2017, 1,671 (12%) entered through prisons, according to Home Office statistics.
In conclusion, human issues surrounding detention, as well as the financial costs have proved to be problematic, and the effectiveness of detention as a policy measure to control and patrol migration remains controversial. While major flaws are apparent, detention is far from a simple, one-root problem. It ties in to the UK’s hostile attitude towards migrants. In order to deal with the huge financial and human costs of detention, there is a need to revisit the state’s whole immigration regime, and the rationale behind it.
Elisabeth Tsouloukidse is an undergraduate student at Oxford University. Nina Khamsy is the head of Agora migration programme. Additional contributor: Jennifer Ngo holds a masters degree from SOAS University.