Author: Bella Sankey
If you were to walk into an immigration detention centre, one of the first things you’d notice would be the broad regional accents. Mancunian, cockney and other unmistakable British vernacular: the common cultural cues of those who have been here since early childhood, or for 10, 20, 30 years. The Guardian’s investigation into migrants held in detention centres – over half of whom were suicidal, seriously ill or had been victims of torture – reveals this trend and much more. Most are imprisoned with no prospect of timely removal; desperate parents are separated from their children; and those who have survived persecution are re-traumatised by a hostile and disbelieving system.
If you were arrested tomorrow in Britain you could be detained by police for only 96 hours before being charged or released. This is as you’d expect in a country that believes in liberty and the rule of law.
But if you were detained on immigration grounds, the experience would be wholly different. You’d be held in a place worse than prison, without automatic legal representation, possibly for weeks, months, years on end. A permanent prisoner with no guarantee of release.
Parliament has never sanctioned this system. It has developed in the shadows under successive governments. In the 1990s, only a few hundred people were held in detention centres. Now, tens of thousands are detained annually.
My organisation, Detention Action, provides practical and emotional support to many of these people. We know it’s a broken system that can break those in its clutches.
One man had been separated from his five children since May until he was bailed a few weeks ago. “Immigration detention affected me in loads of ways,” he told me. “Before, I didn’t feel vulnerable, but it really messes with people’s heads. I saw a guy trying to kill himself, then I started considering it.” Like so many of our clients, he’s been here since childhood and the UK is all he knows. He was deemed an adult at risk but detained anyway. “All I want to do is work, pay taxes and give back, not be separated from my children just because I’m an immigrant.”
This system must be ended. Immigration rules can be administered humanely and far more cost-effectively while people live in the community. Thousands of survivors of torture would be spared the pain of being traumatised again. Thousands of children would be reunited with their parents. Mental health crises would be averted, suicides prevented.
What else must change? Safeguards are required so that destitution is not an alternative to detention. Legal aid should be restored for all those with a claim to be in the UK – whether because they’ve been here since they were in nappies or they have British children who love and depend on them.
The cruel and automatic deportation of those with a 12-month custodial sentence has to stop. What happened to our belief in rehabilitation and second chances?
Thankfully, the political mood is evolving. Ambitious ministers once built their careers on old National Front slogans. But post-Windrush, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, has hinted at change, announcing a pilot alternative to detention in Yarl’s Wood, and saying he’ll consider a time limit.
It’s too early to call, but an aspiring home secretary with vision and foresight would do well to enact principled reform, protecting his Home Office legacy from further scandal.
There is credit to be had. In tumultuous times, detention reform is something that progressives, centrists and right-of-centre liberals can unite around. Diane Abbott has committed Labour to abolishing indefinite detention and the Scottish National party and Liberal Democrat frontbenches are likewise steadfast.
The former Conservative cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell describes the situation as a “stain on our democracy”. Other Conservatives who raised hell over the proposed prolonged detention of terror suspects in 2008, such as the former attorney general Dominic Grieve and former Brexit secretary David Davis, are likely to find common cause on this “homegrown civil libertarian issue”.
In the land of Magna Carta, upholding the rights of those who don’t look or sound British, and the rights of those who do but can’t prove it, is surely the defining civil rights struggle of our time.