‘A Matter of Routine’ – the cruelty and absurdity of indefinite immigration detention

23 Jan, 2018 | Asylum and Detention, Blogs, Latest, News, Stop the hostile environment

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On  10 January 2018 Amnesty International launched its latest report into the use of immigration detention in the UK – A Matter of Routine: The use of immigration detention in the UK. The report is a crucial one not only because it enumerates the cruelty and absurdity of Britain’s use of indefinite detention as part of immigration enforcement, but because it lays out numerous recommendations to the government about how best to reform the policy of immigration detention. In short, immigration detention should be used only as a matter of last resort and, that when it is used, it is done so in a humane and rational way.

The report sets out eight recommendations for ways in which the policy should be reformed; four for the government in general and four for the Home Office in particular. They are all sensible and worth reading the report in full for, but perhaps the two most concrete proposals are those to:

1) Significantly reduce the use of immigration detention, ensuring that far fewer people are detained and that anyone who is detained is held for a far shorter time; and to
2) Introduce a universally applicable statutory time limit for detention, short enough to constitute an effective constraint on its use.

The first of these might be introduced by the Home Office providing internal guidance (or better yet, legislation), which would ensure that people subject to immigration control are only detained in very specific circumstances. Broadly speaking, a person may be detained either when they are being examined as to their suitability for entry into the UK or pending their removal/deportation.

Home Office practice – ‘a farce’

However, in practice, the Home office often ends up detaining people in the hope that it will be able to remove them. For example, it often does so before having sourced travel documents, which enable individuals to travel or assurances from the relevant country that they will accept back the individual in question. This often leads to a person being detained for many months while these issues are sorted, and in extreme cases, lead to a person being detained, put on plane and flown to the relevant country only to be told that they cannot enter the country and then back on the plane, back to detention while the Home Office works out what to do with them. This is a farce and, for many, contrary to the presumption of freedom at common law and under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to liberty and security).

The Home Office’s removal policies too are nonsensical. There are a number of countries that the Foreign Office have deemed too dangerous for British citizens to travel to and “advise against all but essential travel” there; however the Home Office seems perfectly willing to send people there who it deems too undesirable to remain in the UK. For more in this issue see here.

Time for a time limit

Amnesty International’s second recommendation, to put a time limit on the length a person can be detained, while being a radical reordering of the UK immigration enforcement, would merely bring the country in line with the practices of the rest of Europe. The psychological cruelty of being locked up without end in sight is barbaric.

The Shaw Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons (commissioned by the Government in 2016) said that “the indefinite nature of detention was almost universally raised as making people more vulnerable and for its impact on mental health”. A 28 day upper limit is the consensus view on the maximum length of time a person can be held in detention (and except for Greece, the practice in most European Union Countries). That seems an entirely reasonable length of time for the Home Office to sort out what it needs to; and, if it cannot, the person should be released until it can. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that the objectives that detention seeks to achieve can be fulfilled in alternative ways. Independent organisations, such Detention Action, have shown that community-based alternatives to detention are just as effective and, of course, are more humane and cost-effective.

Stolen lives

The overzealousness of immigration enforcement officers to detain and the lack of a time limit on detention means that we lock up innocent people with no cause for far too long. This can result in many months stolen from people’s lives, is damaging to physical and mental health and is harmful to families who are unnecessarily separated. The fundamental responsibility lies with the government and its pernicious policies around immigration enforcement. We will look back on this period of our history and feel ashamed. Until then, the government would do well to heed Amnesty’s recommendations.


Michael Goldin is a trainee solicitor practicing immigration, asylum and human rights law and is part of René Cassin’s Immigration Detention Campaign Group

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