David Burrowes is MP for Enfield Southgate.
In 1955, Winston Churchill was speaking to Ian Gilmour about immigration: “I think it is the most important subject facing this country, but I cannot get any of my ministers to take any notice”. Sixty years on, a cross party group of MPs and Peers has not only taken notice of immigration but – unusually, two months before an election – agreed on a better approach.
Over the last six months, I have been part of an inquiry into an aspect of immigration which does not get much attention: the way in which the UK uses immigration detention. We set out to look at who is detained, the conditions people are detained in, whether the way Britain uses detention meets its aims, and what lessons can be learned from other countries.
In 2014, over 30,000 people were held in 11 Immigration Removal Centres across the country. For these 30,000 people there is currently no time limit on how long they can be held for.
During the course of the inquiry, we were told how the lack of a time limit creates a huge amount of uncertainty for those detained – not knowing if tomorrow they’ll be released into the community, removed from the country, or continue their time in detention. Contrast this with the criminal justice system where people can count down to the day when they’ll be released.
The Immigration Minister told us that the purpose of detention is to maintain effective immigration control, and, as Home Office guidance says, that it is used sparingly and for the shortest possible time. However, we were also told how the lack of a time limit means that Home Office officials lack an incentive to conclude the cases of detainees quickly and efficiently.
A glance at the statistics backs this up. At the end of 2014, nearly 400 people had been held in detention for over six months, and 108 for over a year. Additionally, despite being called Immigration Removal Centres, almost half of all the people who leave the centres are released back into the community, rather than being removed from the country.
Whatever way you look at it, the level of immigration detention is a failure. It has failed to fulfil the Home Office’s own policy, and failed taxpayers and detainees.
This failing is expensive – to detain one person for one year costs over £36,000, and in 2013/14 running the immigration detention estate cost £164.4 million.
It’s also a failing which is harmful for those who are detained. We heard from former detainees and from psychologists about the severe negative impact of detention on mental health, especially for those who have faced torture or persecution in their own country. The Channel 4 News investigation ‘Inside Yarl’s Wood’ shown last night highlighted shocking abuse of women detainees.
Today, we are publishing our report. In it, we recommend that the next government reform the way in which immigration detention is currently used.
First and foremost, we are calling for a time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be held in an Immigration Removal Centre. Furthermore, detention should only be used when absolutely necessary and in order to ensure that people who have no right to remain in the UK can be removed.
The UK is the only country in the EU that doesn’t have a time limit, and we detain far more people for much longer periods of time than Germany or Sweden, despite both of those countries receiving many, many more asylum applications each year.
Beyond the EU, take Canada and Australia. Neither is known for a particularly liberal immigration policy, yet detention is much lower and removal rates much higher.
The case of my constituent Yashika Bageraati last year grabbed the media and public attention. She was 18 and in the middle of her A-levels when she was separated from her family, detained and eventually deported to Mauritius. Yashika humanised the plight of 30,000 detainees each year and reminded us of our core value of dignity.
Immigration policy cannot be consigned to a numbers game but must respect the way we treat and value others – even immigration detainees. While there is a need to properly control our borders, people who arrive by fair means or foul must also be treated with dignity and respect throughout the immigration process. The current system is failing to sufficiently do this.
Our cross-party call for immigration detention reform draws upon the sentiments again of Churchill 60 years ago (replacing the word “criminals” with “immigrants”):
“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of…immigrants is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state and even of convicted immigrants against the state…”