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Sophia Akram

It's time to end immigration detention

Reform can only go so far - abolition is necessary, says Akram[Getty]

Date of publication: 15 September, 2016

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Comment: Locking up the desperate and the vulnerable only increases anti-immigrant sentiment and fuels human rights abuses, writes Sophia Akram.

Surrounded by barbed wire, 24-hour security and electric fences, Yarl's Wood looks and sounds like a prison - but it is Britain's notorious "immigration detention facility".

Having faced a great deal of public criticism in the past year, on Saturday 10 September there was another call to shut down the only women's Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in the UK. This was the ninth in a series of demonstrations, all of which have been demanding its closure after investigations revealed a culture of abusive behaviour, including widespread allegations of sexual abuse.

These allegations come out of only one centre but they highlight systematic problems with UK immigration policy and the case for immigration detention to end in its entirety.

Immigrants are human

The language around people that have had to leave their country of origin has cultured incredible stigma - "migrants", "refugees", "foreigners" and "immigrants" have become dirty words rather than legal terminology. But at the end of it they are all human - and human rights are absolute.

As Karen Doyle, an organiser of Saturday's demonstration, said: "This is an issue for anyone who cares about women's rights, human rights, justice and equality. The UK's commitment to human rights is a lie as long as places like Yarl's Wood exist."

This is because places like Yarl's Wood appear to be a human rights black spot and the government's apparent complicity in abuses is worrying.

In 2014, a visit to Yarl's Wood for a UN inquiry was blocked by the highest levels of the Home Office - the immediate reaction or question was, naturally, "is there something to hide?"

Following the allegations of six sexual assaults in the facility, an investigation took place but the Home Office has refused to disclose the results. All to protect the commercial interests of the service provider - Serco, which continues to win government contracts despite the failings revealed by the National Audit Office. MPs have now deemed the facility a place of "national concern".

Detainees here have included pregnant women, children and adults who are incredibly vulnerable from ongoing trauma and mental health issues

Detention is no civilised answer

Detainees here have included pregnant women, children and adults who are incredibly vulnerable from ongoing trauma and mental health issues - an endemic problem among irregular migrants.

But the IRCs in the UK, 75 percent of which are run by private companies, are not equipped to handle residents with such complex needs due to poor medical facilities and inadequate training.

And reports show that staff are less than sympathetic, which has meant that supervision in these facilities has crossed the line of professional standards and even basic human rights considerations.

For instance, handcuffing of detainees (something that is not encouraged as policy) has made detainees feel indignant, so they refuse and are subsequently missing medical appointments. There are also claims that staff are "recruiting" for jobs, paying £1 an hour; despite not being allowed to work when they are among the community.

The allegations of sexual abuse in Yarl's Wood by staff members are of course the most worrying, but this is coupled by further reports of general indecent behaviour involving watching and videotaping detainees. Serco still reportedly struggle to recruit female guards for this centre.

The result of this has been a compounding of already present mental health issues: suicide attempts and self-harm are now at alarming levels across the entire UK detention estate.

A draconian and futile policy

Immigration policy and rules on detention are outlined in legislation. Broadly speaking, anyone can be detained if they do not have documentation - they may be waiting for decisions on their claims or waiting to face deportation.

At the same time, they may be let out into the community, and detention is decided on a case-by-case basis, to be backed up with valid reasoning.

A year-long detention costs £70,000 per detainee, and a recent Freedom of Information request has shown that compensation claims for wrongful detention have topped £4m a year

However, detention levels are rising each year despite the fact that more than half are released back into the community. NGOs claim that many of those detentions could have been avoided, and only serve to damage those being detained, while presenting a huge cost to the UK taxpayer.

A year-long detention costs £70,000 per detainee, and a recent Freedom of Information request has shown that compensation claims for wrongful detention have topped £4m a year.

The UK is also the only EU country that has allowed indefinite detention periods, which have been found illegal by several high court decisions.

Why is there no end to detention?

As well as those who remain in the UK after being detained - many are summarily deported. For many, it is accepted logic that those whose deportation is imminent should remain in detention until that can happen.

For undecided cases, there is the fear that some may disappear if they believe their application won't go through - avoiding the system altogether so they are not returned to their country of origin.

It is also an electorate concern. Strong immigration policies win votes and detention centres keep migrants out of communities who view them as a problem. The increasing criminalisation of immigration has supposedly justified this principle of detention.

But this brings into question whether detention is proportional to how big the problem really is - compared with what we perceive it to be.

Strong immigration policies win votes and detention centres keep migrants out of communities who view them as a problem

Reform doesn't go far enough

In light of the severe criticism detention practices have attracted, Theresa May in her former remit as Home Secretary, commissioned an inquiry in February 2015.

Stephen Shaw MP - who led and and produced a critical report with recommendations in January 2016 - found that the Home Office had breached the Human Rights Act 1998, Article 3, which prohibits degrading and inhuman treatment.

The Home Office provided a response, but, as widely predicted, only partially accepted the indictment. However, the Home Office pledged three major changes - of which only one has been implemented and has already raised concerns.

Shaw suggested that Rule 35 of detention procedures be replaced. The rule is invoked when a detainee is particularly vulnerable and states that they should be brought to the attention of those making decisions about whether detention is still appropriate.

The Home Office passed the "individuals at risk" policy as a remedy, through parliament just before the end of 2016's summer recess, to come into effect one week after parliament resumes.

Nine executives from important health and immigration NGOs have said that the new policy will likely not increase safeguards for vulnerable immigrants; it could actually mean that torture victims, for instance, could end up being held longer in detention.

MPs have also taken on board and endorsed the need for a 28-day limit to detention and an amendment for the Immigration Bill 2016 has been proposed.

But again, the time limit will not apply to anyone who has a spent conviction of over 12 months or who has been decided on for deportation - the same groups that were already the most vulnerable to the long periods of indefinite detention.

No appetite for change

Asylum applications are rising year on year. The largest number of applications are coming from nationals of Iran, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and Syria.

With asylum applications increasing and staffing cuts being imposed on the UK Visa and Immigration Service, staff risk being overwhelmed. This highlights a blatant policy mismatch, which can only lead to further backlogs and which illuminates just how low a priority this is for the government.

With sentiment in the UK being vastly anti-immigration, and the right-wing agenda of the current government, the crisis in immigration detention is not going to disappear overnight.

But the overwhelming human rights concerns it has raised cannot go ignored. So closure should start with Yarl's Wood, while advocates continue to lobby for real, proportional and victim-centred change.


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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