Of the nearly 29,000 detainees in the United Kingdom in 2016, 52% were later released. The system, unique in Europe, locks-up people indefinitely and as if they were criminals. Researchers and activists from four organizations explain to The Prisma why these actual ’prisons’ must cease to exist.
Marcos Ortiz F.
“This country is obsessed with migrant detention. In 1994 there were a few hundred people in detention; last year there were about 30.000 people in detention”. Ben du Preez, campaign coordinator for Detention Action is partial to criticism of the immigrant removal centres (IRC).
Marienna Pope-Weidemann, from the group Right to Remain, is even more drastic: “Immigration detention is a brutal and unjustifiable practice that has no place in civilised society”. She adds: “It should be a source of profound national shame that the UK is the only European nation with no time limit on how long someone can be incarcerated simply for not having the correct immigration papers”.
“We see no need at all for having them. There shouldn’t be detention centres in the UK”, says John Grayson from Sheffield, researcher and member of the board of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG).
With regard to detentions without time limits, he added: “All the contacts I’ve ever had with people being in detention say that it’s the worse thing of all. This is because you’re in there and unlike a prison you don’t actually know when your sentence will end”.
In France, for example, the maximum is 45 days. Italy reduced the limit from 18 months to 90 days. In Belgiumit is 8 months, while in Sweden the maximum is 12 months, but the average detention is 5 days.
Harmit Athwal, a 21-year researcher at the Institute of Race Relations, has visited Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood, two of the nine centres in operation today. “They are ultimately prisons so they are bleak places of course. They try to cheer these places up with sort of colourful posters and things like that but they are just prisons. It’s people who are coming from places of torture and the fact that they are detained I’m sure has a real psychological impact on them”.
According to official data, 28,908 people were detained in 2016, almost identical to those who left the detention centres in the same period. Overall, in December 2016 there were 2,738 people locked up, which is 5% more than in December 2015.
The majority are asylum seekers. Citizens of India, Pakistan, Albania, Iran and Bangladesh head the list of detainees. From the European Union, Romanians, Lithuanians and Poles were most likely to leave the detention centres.
But, no doubt, the most surprising figures are related to the length of the arrests and the future of the detainees.
According to official figures, the number of people who have voluntarily returned or been extradited to their countries of origin has decreased from 64% to 44% within four years. On the contrary, if those given bail or a temporary stay are included, the figure rises to 52%.
While 64% left the detention centre within the first 29 days, 18% were held for up to two months. The figures also show 179 people locked up between one and two years, while there are 29 immigrants who exceed two years behind bars.
An uncertain future
“Home Office’s justification or definition of detention is that it’s the at last resort, for a short period of time and under exceptional circumstances”, explains Ben du Preez. “And the reality is that if you are a migrant in this country it’s exceptional to not experience detention, one way or the other, directly or indirectly”, he concludes.
“We detain people indefinitely in this little Guantanamo based all over the country. We warehouse thousands and thousands of people in these prisons, with prison-like conditions every year, and on average release the majority of them back into the community. Therefore their detention is serving no purpose”, he says.
A series of British parliamentarians have put a slant on this same subject. “Just over a year ago we concluded that the UK detains too many people, for too long a time, and that in far too many cases people are detained completely unnecessarily”, says the parliamentarian who continues: “We recommended that there should be a time limit of 28 days placed on the length of time anyone can be held in immigration detention, that detention should always be a last resort and that pregnant women should never be detained under any circumstances”.
During 2013/14 only £ 164.4 million was allocated to maintain these centres.
According to an independent study, £ 76 million a year is spent on long-term detentions that culminate with immigrants granted their right to stay.
If these cases were detected on time, the State could close three detention centres overnight.
Marienna Pope-Weidemann highlights that “detention is always a traumatic experience and when those being detained have already survived immense trauma – rape survivors, torture survivors and other vulnerable groups – the consequences can be devastating, even deadly”.
John Grayson, for his part, alludes to the report made by Stephen Shaw in early 2016. “It was the Shaw review which commissioned and called for major reforms. But nothing is being done. Clearly it’s not a priority for the Home Office”, he says.
“The Home Office committed to detention reform last year. They promised a program of detention reform based on the recommendations that were made in the Shaw review. Then we had Brexit, then we had a change of government and since then they seem to have forgotten their promises”, concludes Ben Du Preez.
Photos: Pixabay – (Translated by Gareth Trevor)