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Immigration detention: what is the point?


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The horrific news of sexual abuse by private security contractors at Yarlswood, the female-only immigration detention centre near Bedford, is awful and shocking. It is very far from the first time that problems or outright abuse at Yarlswood has been reported, though. Various examples from 2009 onwards can be found hereherehere, here, here. And this comes just days after Mark Harper expressed his sinister reasons for detaining pregnant women at Yarlswood.

As I’ve said before:

The prolonged and in some cases indefinite detention of immigrants is a stain on this society. Sometimes the detainees have committed crimes. Their immigration detention often exceeds their criminal sentence. While The Daily Mail might celebrate this, any right thinking person should be horrified. Deprivation of liberty is the most serious sanction we possess. To use it for months and months on end on people for whom there is little or no prospect of removal demeans all concerned.

On this blog I am generally preaching to the converted, although I hope also to provide tools for advocacy. Bearing in mind the marked fall in immigration removals shown last week, I thought it was worth another stab at one of these infographics I’ve lately become so fond of.

Chart showing UK immigration detention against removal

These figures are from the GOV.UK immigration statistics series and the Refugee Council asylum statistics. Not all immigration detainees have sought asylum, but most have. And there are more ‘general’ enforced removals than specifically of asylum seekers. The total number of enforced removals at year ending June 2013 was 14,062, of whom 4,948 had sought asylum at some stage, for example.

Immigration detention is usually justified by the Home Office on the grounds that it is necessary to enforce removal. For example, take the Home Office canned response from this previous criticism of the Yarlswood regime:

“The UK Border Agency only detains as a last resort and with a view to deport/remove. The agency will not detain anybody for any longer than necessary,” a UKBA spokesman said.

“However, there are those who prolong detention because of their attempts to frustrate the removal process. They must take responsibility for that.”

There is good reason for the Home Office to adopt this line. The law is clear that immigration detention must only be used where there is a realistic prospect of removal and for the purposes of establishing identity or enforcing removal.

It seems rather difficult to argue that immigration detention is really for the purpose of enforcing removal if detention is increasing while enforced removals are decreasing. Immigration detention does huge, immeasurable damage to the detainees and dehumanises all affected, including the politicians, civil servants, lawyers and security staff responsible for perpetrating it. If not for enforcing removal, what is detention really for?

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.


8 Responses

  1. All the women I have known who have been detained at Yarlswood have felt unsafe. I have never understood why it is suitable to have male officers when for some people (e.g. if suicidal) there has to be such a close watch kept. One woman I know stopped washing and showering as she felt so exposed. As so many must be already victims of male violence and rape, this set up seems totally inappropriate.

  2. Well-argued post as usual Colin. Sorry if I am being stupid though but I wondered why the number of asylum removals is higher than the number of detainees? A significant number of detainees will not have claimed asylum, and many detainees do not get removed, so I would have expected there to be many more detainees than removals. This does not change your argument of course. If detention is rising while removal is falling the home office defense of detention is still very flimsy.

    1. It’s a good question. If you look at the Home Office stats, the numbers I’ve used are a snapshot of those in detention at a given moment each year. However, they are in line with the change in those entering detention and leaving detention each year as well, but those much higher numbers do not seem to mean as much as the number actually held in detention at a given moment. A better number might be the average for a year, but the stats don’t provide that information.

  3. this has, rightly, already been subject to some twitter traffic – wonder what is best way to a) publicise further beyond the ‘converted’ and b) to get some Home Office reaction