Detention, expensive & inefficient

GMT 07:57 Friday ,29 July 2011

 Migrant Voice - Detention, expensive & inefficient


    Immigration policy gives the government too many powers over the lives of migrants.  The most extreme of these powers is the power to detain, in detention centres that often resemble high security prisons.  Detention hangs over every migrant without a British passport: leave to remain can be revoked, and migrants who have lived legally for decades in the UK can be detained for deportation.  And they can be detained indefinitely.  The UK, alone among EU countries, not only has no maximum time limit on detention, but routinely uses its powers to detain migrants for years. While the detention of terrorist suspects for 42 days was considered to be unacceptable, 265 migrants were into their second year in detention by the end of 2010.   Imran came to the UK as a small child from Pakistan.  “I’ve been here since I was a minor.  I been to primary school, junior school, secondary school.  I got three sisters, my mum and dad are buried here.  I can’t read or write the language in Pakistan.”  He never applied for a British passport as he never left the UK.  After finishing a short prison sentence he was taken to a detention centre near Heathrow Airport.  18 months later, when I spoke to him, he was still detained, as the Pakistan Embassy had refused to issue him a travel document.  “A passport is worth more than a man’s life.  It drives you insane.”   Imran’s situation is not unique.  This political pressure on the UK Border Agency to deport ex-offenders ignores the reality that many migrants face intractable obstacles preventing their return.  Some countries are simply too dangerous for deportations to take place: the European Court of Human Rights is stopping deportations to Somalia while it considers the extreme risks involved in travel to Mogadishu.  Other states will not issue travel documents to allow their nationals to return.  Few asylum seekers use their own passport to flee their country, yet for nationals of countries like Iran and Palestine it is almost impossible to obtain a travel document.  Some migrants have lived so long in the UK, and integrated so thoroughly, that they can no longer prove their original nationality.  As a result, migrants who cannot be deported find themselves in limbo, unable to be deported, yet endlessly refused release because they might abscond or re offend.     Research by Detention Action (formerly London Detainee Support Group) in September 2010 found the practice of detaining migrants for years to be expensive and inefficient, in addition to its terrible human cost.  Of 167 migrants supported by the organisation who were detained for over a year, only one in three were ultimately deported.  A clear majority were eventually released.  28 of the migrants were detained for more than three years.  Detention in a high-security centre costs the taxpayer over £68,000 per person per year.  Release after years in detention means the waste of hundreds of thousands of pounds, as well as the irrecuperable loss to the person of those years.    Yet the indefinite detention of migrants remains a largely hidden issue.  There has been little media attention: it appears to be accepted that the right to liberty of migrants, at least those who are not children, is not comparable to that of British nationals.  Fear means that there is little discussion even within migrant communities.  While British ex-offenders are rehabilitated and released, a bad migrant is forever bad, and must be locked up.    Is indefinite detention here to stay?  The political pressure on the UKBA not to release ex-offenders remains fierce.  Yet ultimately the current policy is unsustainable.  The Home Office faces cuts of 25% to its budget, requiring heavy job losses.  It has nevertheless found the resources to open a new detention centre, converting a former prison at Morton Hall, Lincolnshire. But indefinite detention will continue to overwhelm the capacity of the detention estate.  As more and more migrants are detained for years, the UKBA will continue to need new detention centres.  When hospitals, libraries and schools are facing cuts and closures, will the public continue to tolerate a blank cheque for ever more detention centres that warehouse migrants to no purpose?   Equally importantly, there are signs that the political environment may be changing.  The courts have inflicted heavy damage on the policy, with the UKBA paying out £12 million in 2009 in compensation for unlawful detention.  The Government’s Asylum Improvement Project is designed to speed up processes, improving efficiency and quality of decision-making - yet detention is currently excluded from its remit.  However, backbench MPs from all parties attended a Parliamentary meeting in October 2010 on detention reform in unprecedented numbers, many expressing concern at how long migrants are detained and desire for cross-party action to improve the system.   The voices of migrants themselves have been central to this shift in the debate.  Migrants both in detention and after release have been at the heart of Detention Action’s campaign against indefinite detention, courageously speaking out to draw attention to this injustice.  Former detainees have spoken at Detention Action campaign roadshows across the country, from Brighton to Glasgow, telling of the reality of indefinite detention and asking supporters to lobby their MPs for it to end.   Last year, my colleagues and I interviewed twelve migrants in detention, including Imran, about their experiences, for Detention Action’s report “No Return No Release No Reason”.  They had been detained for between 13 months and four years.  Everyone we spoke to described powerfully the effects of indefinite detention on their lives, their families, their mental health.  Six months on, none of them have been deported, and all but one have been released.  Imran was released in February 2011, after spending 2 years in detention.   Jerome Phelps, Director, Detention Action      


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