Author: Michael Darko
The Labour MP Harriet Harman has outlined her plan to end the biggest affront to human rights in the UK: indefinite immigration detention. As someone who spent over two years in detention, and who has campaigned against this inhumane practice since my release, you might think that this would come as welcome news.
But so far her proposal would apparently not protect me and people like me. In fact, it even has the potential to make our situation worse.
Back in November, I met Harman while giving evidence to the joint committee on human rights (JCHR), which she chairs. I told members of the committee that I left my county of birth at the age of four, and arrived in the UK aged 12. I told them that I dropped out of school to look after my younger siblings after our father left us to fend for ourselves. I told them about how, being denied the documents to work in the only country I knew as home, I began working using someone else’s ID.
It was for this crime that I was sentenced to 20 months in prison. I had worked hard to support my family and paid taxes in the country I grew up in. But now I was a “foreign national offender”.
I take responsibility for my actions and feel that I repaid my debt to society. But I do not accept what happened next.
The day before I was to be released from prison I was told that, because of my immigration status, I was not going to be released at all. Instead, I was going to be indefinitely detained pending deportation. As Harman told me: “It seems a bit odd to send you back to somewhere you left when you were four.” Indeed it does.
This detention lasted another two and a half years. As with the majority of people detained in the UK, I was not removed from the country but eventually released. My detention had caused immense harm, and had served no purpose.
I told the JCHR that my story was not unique. Throughout my time in detention, and through my work with Freed Voices, I have met dozens of people who had faced similar injustices. Each one of them had experienced the trauma of being detained without a time limit. Many had been affected by the crisis of harm that is endemic in immigration detention.
I provided this testimony in the hope that it might help prevent others getting caught up in this dystopian nightmare. I had been full of hope anticipating the committee’s report. But I am worried by reports that people with convictions of 12 months or more may be excluded from their recommendation for a time limit.
A time limit that fails to protect thousands of those subjected to the horrors of indefinite detention will not deliver the justice that is so deeply needed. It would do nothing to protect the detained survivors of trafficking, convicted of offences related to their exploitation. It will not prevent the futile incarceration of people who grew up in the UK or who cannot be removed to their country of origin.
The need to end indefinite detention is clear, and I agree with Harman that “for every individual traumatised by indefinite detention, that’s reason to change the policy”. But let’s be clear: people in detention are not serving a prison sentence. People in detention who have convictions have already served the sentences given to them in court. People with convictions can be just as traumatised by indefinite detention as those without. In fact many convictions are of people whose past experiences include trauma and even torture.
If human rights are to mean anything then they must be applied universally. You cannot pick and choose. Indefinite detention is indefensible in any circumstance. It’s time for a time limit for all.
• Michael Darko is a member of Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experience who speak about the realities of detention and call for reform
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