Detention of Vulnerable Persons

I recently secured a debate on the subject of the Detention of Vulnerable Persons within the immigration system which took place in Westminster Hall on 14th March 2017. We discussed the Government’s lack of progress on the promises it made for aggressive detention reform in the wake of last year’s Shaw Review recommendations. This debate gave me the opportunity to challenge the Government’s new Adult at Risk policy, which seeks to ‘safeguard the most vulnerable’, with a ‘clear presumption that people who are at risk should not be detained’. One year on from announcing this policy, we continue to see vulnerable people held in detention on a daily basis.

Here’s some of the speech:

“I have brought this debate to the Chamber because the arguments about detaining people simply because of their immigration status are not over. I will argue that that is not necessary, is extremely damaging and is not cost-effective. I will also argue that unless the Government get on with examining the alternatives and implementing the bulk of the Shaw review recommendations with alacrity, I can only conclude that the use of immigration detention for vulnerable people is purely ideological. To make my arguments, I will explore the impact of detention, particularly on vulnerable people; say something about the alternatives to detention; and highlight some of the Shaw review recommendations that have not been implemented more than one year down the line.

I thank all the organisations that wrote to me and provided me with information. It did not make pleasant reading, but it is important to know what is going on. I pay tribute to all of them for the work that they do. They include Scottish Detainee Visitors, Detention Action, Medical Justice, the Scottish Refugee Council, the English Refugee Council, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, Liberty, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum Aid, the Helen Bamber Foundation, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, and the Detention Forum.

I am fortunate: I have never had to flee my home or my country and I have never been detained for anything, far less detained without having committed a crime. However, I know the damage that it does to a person’s physical and mental health to experience that. I know because of what I read and because of friends who have been through it. I will refer to two sets of friends of mine who have been in immigration detention.

In case the Minister thinks that I am coming to him with worst-case scenarios, I will start with the best-case scenario and tell him about Romeo—that is not his name, but he is a bit of a Romeo, so I have decided to call him Romeo rather than using his real name.

Nobody is better equipped to deal with immigration detention than Romeo. He has a creative, flexible and problem-solving approach to life. He is confident, vibrant and philosophical, and deals with whatever life brings to him. However, this is what he told me about the time when he was detained. He had woken up early to pick up ingredients from a friend who was leaving this country to go back to her European country. She had baking ingredients and knew that he loved to bake. He came out of his door, and the next thing he knew he was handcuffed and shoved in a van and then in a detention centre.

Romeo said that trying to get in touch with the friend to tell her why he could not make the appointment was difficult. Trying to explain to somebody who does not come from the UK that he was in detention but had not committed any crime was quite distressing for him. He told me that he asked whether, if he was to be deported, he could go to his room and get his stuff, and he was told, “You’ll never see your room again.” There were two UK Border Agency officers there at the time.

One said to him, “You sound Scottish; you sound British,” and the other said, “You’re not British and you never will be.” He said to me, “Even though I am that person who can cope with anything life throws at me, it was so hard to hear that from somebody.”

I will now go to my worst-case scenario—the worst experience that any of my friends have ever had. A friend of mine from Eritrea and her 10-year-old son were detained in Dungavel immigration removal centre. I want at this point to mention the work of Scottish Detainee Visitors. Its visitors visit people in Dungavel and have done so for many years. As it has pointed out to me, and as others will say today, Dungavel is a particularly difficult place to be detained, because of its isolation; it is 6 miles from the nearest public transport. I was in daily contact with the mother by phone, and the son said to her after a few days, “We can’t live like this, Mum. Please can we die?” And every day after that until they were released, he asked her, “Please, Mum. Please just let us die.” Can anybody imagine their own children thinking that, far less pleading with them to let them end their lives?

I know that we have reduced the number of children in detention, but we have not stopped it; we had 71 in detention last year. However, the point that I want to make is not about children in detention. Yes, we all agree that that is wrong, but the mother told me that it was so hard for her to respond to her son and tell him that there was something to live for and he had to keep on going, because she was not feeling it herself—she, too, wanted to end her life. The reason she did not was that she had gone through so much to save this child’s life, she was not going to allow them to end it there and then.

Immigration detention attacks and destroys the soul—it is soul-destroying. As many of the groups have told me—“If you are not particularly vulnerable when you enter detention, it makes you vulnerable.”  The Government agreed to look into the alternatives, but they have not done so yet, and I think they still need convincing.

Mr Shaw’s 64 recommendations include a number that focus on vulnerable people. Shaw called for the definition of vulnerable persons to be extended. He said that the presumption against detention should also apply to victims of rape and sexual violence, to those with post-traumatic stress disorder, to transsexual people and to those with learning difficulties, and he rightly includes people who have suffered female genital mutilation in those groups.

Many of the recommendations are said to be addressed by the introduction of the ‘adults at risk’ policy, which is apparently intended to better identify and lead to the release of vulnerable people. But so far there is no indication that, despite those intentions, the policy is actually having that effect. Aspects of the policy are subject to litigation. Instead of increasing protections for vulnerable people, the policy does the opposite—including by narrowing the definition of torture so that less vulnerable people will not be identified as torture survivors and protected. The policy states that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence should not be detained, but there is no proper mechanism for identifying them and no mechanism for monitoring whether they are being identified. Recommendations 62 and 63 encourage the Home Office to further consider ways of strengthening the legal safeguards against excessive length of detention, and to investigate the development of alternatives to detention.

Shaw noted a broad consensus on the damaging effects of both lengthy detention and the threat of it, stating:

“The indefinite nature of detention was almost universally raised as making people more vulnerable and for its impact on mental health. There was strong support for a time limit for detention, starting at 28 days.

 On the length of time that people are held in detention, the Home Office’s own statistics show that migrants in detention are being held for longer since the publication of the review. At the end of December 2015, the month before the Shaw review was published, 453 people had been detained for longer than four months. According to the Home Office, nine months later that number had gone up to 553.

These people are human beings who the Government agree should not be put through this; yet they are being put through it and the British Government are doing it to them. I want to look at some of the alternatives to detention. There is a strong moral case for community-based alternatives. I have often accused the Tory Government of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Yet when it comes to immigration detention, it seems that money is no object. Why? Why do we use the most expensive system, particularly in these times of austerity? Why is there no money to support people in need—vulnerable young homeless people who now cannot claim housing benefit, for example—but an unlimited pot of cash to put already vulnerable people through a living hell in detention centres, given that the Government agree that that is what they are doing and that it can be catastrophically damaging to people?

To hear the full speech click here