On Mar. 3, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration published their Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom.
The report has taken six months to produce. Coming in at just under 80 pages, it synthesizes testimonies from three public hearings and a selection of written submissions. It also draws on committee members’ visits to some detention sites in the UK and a trip to Sweden. Expert advice at the hearings was provided by a selection of NGOs, medics, civil servants, current and former detainees, although not, inexplicably, by academic researchers. Although not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords, the Report represents the views of a range of politicians and suggests that there may be appetite for change, at least after the national election in May.
For the most part, the report restates a series of familiar points and concerns: It calls, for instance, for a time limit to immigration detention, and criticizes the detention of particular, vulnerable populations. It worries about healthcare, casework decision making, the quality of legal advice, access to the internet and the architectural design of the buildings, while calling for more and better alternatives to confinement. It differs slightly from other publications by settling on a figure for the time limit (28 days), and in the attention it pays to female victims of rape and sexual abuse (although not male victims of the same) as well as LBGTI detainees. The former, the report argues, should not be detained at all, the latter need more careful care than they currently receive
The report pulls back from, or perhaps never intended on, advocating the abolition of detention. As a result, many of its recommendations fall rather flat, since, as the authors recognize, they already fit into current guidelines. Thus, the various populations whom the report urges should only be detained under ‘exceptional’ circumstances are, for the most part, already subject to similar restrictions, albeit ones that for some of them aren’t met.
Presumably the decision to adopt the language of ‘exception’ rather than of abolition reflects a political horizon. It may well be that closing immigration removal centers down is unfeasible, while reducing them is more realistic. Or maybe the committee is playing a long game. For instance, one of the committee’s recommendations is that “individuals with a mental health condition should only be detained under very exceptional circumstances.”
According to both applications of the MQLD (see our reports for 2012 and 2015), 80% of those we surveyed in detention are clinically depressed. The release of all individuals other than the ones who meet the threshold of ‘exceptional circumstances’ would do a lot to close many facilities down. Likewise, the committee’s recommendation that women who have been victims of sexual assault and rape should not be detained, would all but empty Yarl’s Wood.
One consequence of not entertaining the possibility of abolishing immigration detention, however, is that the panel moves us no further along in thinking about the purpose of these centers. That is to say, there is still no principled discussion of the removal of liberty on the basis of immigration status, nor of its purpose and effect. It’s here that the absence of engagement with academic literature is particularly regrettable, since despite the panel’s claims that they don’t just wish to ‘tinker’ with the system, the report for the most part does just that, even as it calls for ‘radical’ change.
Limiting detention to 28 days would indeed improve matters. Not only would it reduce the time that currently one third of the population serve, but it would diminish people’s sense of uncertainty and anxiety which we know makes detention particularly painful.
On its own, however, as the committee recognizes, ending indefinite detention is not enough. While their attention was on case management―and here some of their ideas about active engagement from the outset of a person’s immigration case sound particularly promising (although given the appalling treatment of detainees and irregular migrants in the United States and Australia, the committee’s apparent approval of practices in those countries seems perverse and unwise)―there are a number of negative outcomes which would need to be addressed before any time limit was brought in. In particular, the government would need to be very careful about safeguarding conditions in detention and conditions outside.
In those countries, like France, for instance, which have a strict time limit and abide by it, detention centers are extremely bare. There it’s not a matter of whether or not people can go on Facebook, but in fact whether they ever have a chance to see a lawyer or a nurse, or have anything to do each day at all. There’s generally no regime to speak of, little access to outdoor areas, or variety in their diet. If someone will only be locked up for five to 45 days, then the state has little incentive to address such matters. As a result, their focus is purely on security and bureaucracy.
Those who are released are often just sent out the door. They can, after all, be detained again if necessary. There are usually insufficient funds to house or assist them, so people are effectively thrown out onto the street. A visit to most European cities at present reveals considerable populations of irregular migrants living rough and engaging in irregular work in which they are highly vulnerable.
Just as the ‘end to child detention’ in the UK brought with it new sorrows―children separated from their mothers, placed in care and reunited at the airport―so too a time limit is likely to bring attendant risks. This does not mean the time limit is not the right thing to do. However, if, as the report suggests, there are so many groups for whom detention is inappropriate, then why not do away with this form of confinement altogether?
Indeed, the panel does suggest ‘alternatives,’ although it’s not entirely clear what they have in mind. Sweden, they say, does alternatives well, which is probably as we would expect, given their record in other areas from prisons to hospitals. It’s possible to overstate Scandinavian exceptionalism and generosity. As Vanessa Barker has shown in her work, Sweden has in fact been extremely punitive and exclusionary to some migrants. Yet it’s hard to imagine how, in an era of austerity, the UK could aspire to anything like the systems Sweden operates.
Moreover, ‘alternatives’ elsewhere have tended to exist alongside carceral projects without disrupting them. In Sweden too, the report says, the numbers in detention remain stable; alternatives have not replaced custody. It would be worth asking whether they have merely brought others into the purview of state control. How would the UK avoid what Stan Cohen referred to as ‘net widening’ and ‘mesh thinning’?
The report states that in the UK 60,000 individuals are currently reporting. This is already an onerous form of state surveillance for those with no right to paid work. Trekking to the police station each week or month can be logistically very difficult. It too generates considerable anxiety and uncertainty. Would more people be incorporated into other alternatives? Given the current anti-immigrant sentiment, how likely is it that alternatives would avoid feeling and being at least partly punitive?
Finally, it’s not just in the alternatives, but also healthcare, access to legal advice and treatment for mental health that a number of the issues identified as problematic in detention stem from the wide range of cuts brought in under the last five years of coalition rule.
It may seem churlish or even unwise to criticise the report on these bases. And to be sure it’s a welcome development that Ministers have come together with NGOs, and current and former detainees to produce this document. It is indeed to be hoped that whoever takes power in May 2015 will scrutinize the system of custody that exists to hold people purely because of their citizenship.
I think there’s considerable appetite within the detention estate to do things otherwise. Many of the issues identified in this report are also criticized by some Home Office and custodial staff. Significant aspects of the current system are a result of politics at the highest of levels. Others connect, as was made clear recently on Channel 4, to wider issues of gender and race, and to the insidious effects of criminalization and securitization of migration that academics have been writing about for some time (see, for example, publications by Border Criminologies researchers).
It’s evidently out of step with the rest of Europe that Britain fails to observe a time limit.
It’s also indefensible that those held in custody don’t have their cases regularly reviewed by the courts. Medical and other care needs improvement. The point is that the matters raised in this report, alongside all of the recent media and NGO accounts, raise urgent questions about not just how long people should be detained or under what circumstances, but whether the system should exist at all. The question that remains is how to start having that conversation?