Criminalising refugees: the disgrace of Britain’s immigration detention centres 

Harmondsworth detention centre
By Graham Peebles

Fleeing war, persecution and acute poverty, men, women and children have been arriving in Britain for generations. They come in search of peace: for work or education, and to build a decent life in a country were the rule of law is observed and human rights are respected.

According to Mary Bosworth, author of Inside Immigration Detention, currently the largest numbers arrive from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They also come from Nigeria and Jamaica, and from current and recent war zones: Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Many of those making the hazardous journey have been the victim of violence, sexual abuse and exploitation; some have mental health issues, all need to be shown tolerance, compassion and understanding. However, a significant number arriving in the UK are being incarcerated in the country’s 10 Immigration Detention Centres .

Dysfunctional and immoral

The UK government locks up more immigrants than any other country in Europe, and detains them for longer. This crude  and unimaginative approach to what is a humanitarian issue, not a criminal matter, is detrimental to the health of those detained, extremely expensive – costing the Home Office up to GBP 70,000 a year per person – and socially divisive. It also contravenes the UN Refugee Convention (Article 31), which makes clear that “states should not impose penalties or unnecessary restrictions on movements of refugees entering their territory without authorisation”. Violating this and other binding regulations, has forced governments “to pay out millions of dollars in compensation for their unlawful detention practices”, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states.

Concerned non-governmental organisations and the UNHCR condemn the UK’s detention policy, with the UNHCR stating that “seeking asylum is a… fundamental human right. In our view the detention of asylum-seekers should be avoided – these are people who are seeking protection.” Vulnerable people need support, not incarceration, as is made clear in a recent All Party Parliamentary Group report, which is highly critical of UK government policy.

The panel of MPs and peers concluded that “the UK uses detention disproportionately and inappropriately. The evidence shows that the current system is seriously detrimental to the individuals who are detained in terms of their mental and physical well-being.”

Attempted suicide and self-harming is widespread: one detainee told the inquiry that “some lose hope and they try to kill themselves. Some try burning themselves with whatever they can get. Some try hanging themselves in the shower. They think it’s the only way out… they do not kill you directly, but instead you kill yourself.”

Detention is particularly distressing for women, many of whom (72 per cent, according to Refugee Women), had been raped “as part of the persecution they were fleeing”. Incarcerating survivors of rape and sexual violence contravenes UNHCR guidelines on detention, which state that: “Victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence also need special attention and should generally not be detained.”

In a recent report on Yarls Wood Detention Centre, described by the chief inspector of prisons as a place of “national concern”, almost half the female detainees said they felt “unsafe” and a similar number of those arriving felt suicidal and depressed. The report follows a study by Women for Women Refugees into conditions at Yarls Wood, which recorded dozens of allegations of “sexual contact” and intimidating behaviour by male staff on women detainees. Women told of male security officers watching “them in intimate situations such as while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet”, as well as when being searched by female staff members.

Prison in all but name

Immigration Detention Centres are either converted high security prisons or have been built to the same specifications; they are often run by former prison governors, and private security firms or the prison service administer them. While the government says these centres are not prisons and detainees are not prisoners, the chief inspector of prisons asserts that detention “is imprisonment” – freedom of movement is extremely limited, detainees are locked in their rooms or wing at night and “released” in the morning. They live under a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing when they will be released or where they will be allowed to live.

People are detained for a variety of reasons: many are asylum-seekers; some are waiting to hear if they will be accepted as refugees. Others “have lived in the UK legally for many years or decades”, Detention Action says, “and can no longer prove their original nationality”. Some are stateless – unwelcome in Britain, they cannot return home because it’s too dangerous, for example, “people from Zimbabwe and much of Iraq and Somalia”. But instead of allowing them to live peacefully within the community and contribute to society, “many people are detained indefinitely”.

A last resort

Of the 3,462 people incarcerated at the end of last year (up by 24 per cent on the previous year), almost 400, according to The Independent, “been detained for more than six months, while more than 100 had been locked up for longer than a year”. Home Office statistics show that “at any one time, between 210 and 260 people in detention have been held for over a year”. During their own investigations the All-Party Parliamentary Group spoke to a man who had been “locked up in limbo” for three long, uncertain years.

Contrary to the “enforcement-focused culture” that exists within the Home Office, the All-Party Parliamentary Group report, echoing the UNHCR, states that “depriving an individual of their liberty for the purposes of immigration control should be an absolute last resort, should be comparatively rare, and should only take place for the shortest possible time”. However, far from being “rare” and a “last resort”, the UK detains “far too many people unnecessarily and for far too long”.

The lack of an upper limit on detention is a major criticism levelled at the government by all those working in the sector, as well as by the the All-Party Parliamentary Group, which strongly recommends that the maximum time anyone can be held in “immigration detention” be set at “28 days”. It is made possible by the fact that the UK government, unlike all its European Union partners, has not signed up to the European Returns Directive of 2008, which establishes, as EU Law Analysis relates, “an obligation to return irregular migrants, their treatment during expulsion proceedings, entry bans, procedural rights and the grounds and conditions for detention”.

Not signing the European Returns Directive enables the government, in theory at least, to detain people indefinitely, makes offering planned support and personal care inside detention centres problematic and, crucially, creates intense uncertainty among people who are fragile  and already in an extremely insecure situation. The All-Party Parliamentary Group was shocked by statements from people suffering from anxiety and depression, and found that the “current Home Office policy puts the health of detainees at serious risk”. It is a degrading policy that must be changed, urgently and fundamentally: the detention centres must be closed down and a humane, just process established.


In 2014 a total of 30,365 people were detained in the UK, of which 11,354 were released into the community, either permanently or temporarily, with the remainder being returned to their country of origin.

There is no reason to use incarceration when resolving someone’s immigration status. It does not deter irregular migration, it makes it harder for asylum-seekers who are eventually accepted to adapt to their new home, and it can, the UNHCR says, “increase resistance towards voluntary return among those who cannot stay”. It is an expensive, heavy-handed method that criminalises and intimidates people seeking asylum, and, as The Refugee Council chief executive, Maurice Wren, said, is “an affront to the values of liberty and compassion that we proudly regard as the cornerstones of our [UK] democracy”.

Following a major conference in May 2015, the UNHCR and NGOs, such as the International Detention Coalition (IDC), urged nation-states such as the UK, whose current method is deplorable and may well be illegal, to adopt a raft of alternative common-sense methods. These include offering individual assessment and case management, providing good legal provision, and placing people within the community (less than 10 per cent of asylum seekers and others abscond when they are supervised in the community, according to the UNHCR).

Immigration in the UK, as in many countries, has become a major political issue, one that is all too often misrepresented and distorted for electoral gain. The current right-wing Conservative government is pursuing a policy of exclusion towards people seeking asylum, and is generally un-welcoming and isolationist.

Take the Syrian refugee crisis, for example: of the 200,000 plus Syrians who have sought asylum in Europe (over four million have fled the country in total) since the civil war broke out in March 2011, the UK – historically compassionate and welcoming – has offered refuge to 216 people. This is utterly shameful.

In 2014 the UK received 31,300 asylum seekers, a small number compared to other European countries. According to UNHCR figures, Germany, with “173,100 was the largest recipient of new asylum claims”, followed by Sweden, 75,100, and Italy, 63,700.

Seeking asylum anywhere in the world is a human right (Article 14, Universal Declaration of Human Rights), not a crime. People fleeing persecution need support not imprisonment, understanding not intolerance.

But caught in the dehumanising political immigration net that exists in the UK, and indeed elsewhere, they are no longer regarded as human beings, they have become “un-people” – “migrants”. This is an impersonal label that hides individual tragedies, triggers intolerance, prejudice and fear, and allows governments like the Conservatives to criminalise and imprison innocent people whose only crime is to be in need of a home.

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