“For no longer than necessary”: the issue of immigration detention in the UK

"The UK is the only member of the European Union that has indefinite immigration detention."
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The UK is the only member of the European Union that has indefinite immigration detention.

Only until September, 2017 had seen over 27,000 people put into detention centres under the government’s new migration policies, according to the Amnesty International. Nonetheless, last week, Home Office minister Brandon Lewis faced criticism after he implied that asylum seekers are not held in detention indefinitely in the UK – instead, he stated that they were held ‘for no longer than necessary’ during BBC Question Time.

These remarks come after a troubling year for the UK’s immigration policies – a year that reached a new record in deaths inside immigration centres and numerous worries about the conditions of the latter. This new declaration was met with concern by other MPs, such as Ed Davey, Liberal Democrats Home Affair spokesman, who declared to the Independent that the suggestion that there was no indefinite detention was ‘ludicrous’.

2017 in review: precarious conditions, deaths and mental health

Organisations such as Asylum Europe, that maps asylum conditions and procedures, have discussed the precarious conditions of detention centres, including lack of proper access to medical care, overcrowding and lack of hygiene.

A report was supported by the BBC Panorama episode exposing the conditions inside the detention centre Brook House, in West Sussex. During the exposé, it is possible to see self-harming, violence between detainees and from the guards, as well as mocking and abusive behaviour by members of staff.

More recently, BBC reported that another detention centre, this time Morton Hall, located in Lincolnshire, would be undergoing an inquiry alongside Brook House after four detainees died inside the detention centre.

According to the anti-racist think-tank Institute of Race Relations, at least six people have died inside UK immigration detention centres in 2017, although there is evidence brought by the Guardian that this number is as high as eleven.

There have been numerous reports of deaths within detention centres in the UK during 2017 – including those that happened inside Morton House. In many of these cases the deceased was reported to have mental health issues exacerbated by their incarceration, as well as a lack of support from the detention centres. Debora Coles, director of Inquest, an NGO working with state-related deaths, has declared to the Guardian that “the numbers keep on rising”.

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Allied to the lack of support and the exacerbation of mental illness, detention centres have been reported by Amnesty to have a serious lack of medical support, including being prevented from attending essential medical appointments.

All these are human rights violations, but they seem to be excused as those suffering from them are detainees.

UK’s previous history with detention human rights

This is not the first time that the UK has been in the spotlight for its issues relating to the violation of the human rights of detainees.

In 2015, Theresa May was accused by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper of allowing state-sponsored abuse of women because of the conditions of the Yarl’s Wood detention centre, in Bedfordshire, in which allegations of assault, rape and abuse were abundant.

Last year, a Kenyan asylum seeker  won a court case against the state in which her human rights were found to have been violated during her time in Yarl’s Wood – she had been locked in segregation for over 24 hours, in what the victim described as a ‘freezing’ punishment room in the Independent article.

The complicity of the UK in human rights violations

These cases show that the problem with the rights of detainees in the UK is anything but sporadic – the number of reports on the matter show the repetitive cycle of human rights violations inside the UK’s immigration detention system.  

This is why the recents remarks made by Brandon Lewis are worrying – they demonstrate a refusal to acknowledge the question of indefinite detention, which was criticised by UN monitoring bodies such as the Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee. And by doing so, such remarks allow the human rights violations to remain of secondary importance to the state.

After the numerous reports of 2017, it is remarkable that such a declaration should be made by a state official, but they seem to be following on discussions about state complicity in detainees human rights abuses.

In 2016, the  EU Commissioner of Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks wrote a memorandum in which he noted the use of ‘alarmist’ rhetoric against migrants by government officials, as well as the invocation of alleged negative impacts of immigration in the UK.

Demonising migrants

Furthermore, a report made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social integration, the rhetoric against immigration that fuels public policy serves to help demonise migrants. In this vein, then, it is disquieting that the issues should be dismissed by a government official.

The declarations made by Brandon Lewis do no exhume the UK from its infringements against the human rights of many migration detainees through the existence of the indefinite immigration detention.

They should not serve to dampen the important discussions regarding the conditions within detention centres. It is fundamental that the UK take responsibility for the lives of detained asylum seekers.

Not only through acknowledging the current immigration policies but also by being mindful of the use of anti-immigration rhetoric which would allow for those human rights violations to be held as secondary to the question of immigration itself.

Human RightsOpinion
Joana Midena Perrone

Joana Perrone is a PhD candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, where she researches feminicide in Brazil. She has a BA in International Relations from the University of Sussex and an MSt in Women's Studies from the University of Oxford. Her main research interests are gender-based violence and human rights, especially in Latin America. You can find her on twitter at @jollyjellyfish_
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