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Will we see an end to detention centres?

In the UK you can be thrown into a detention centre by immigration authorities for simply overstaying your visa. While the Home Office has defended this policy of detaining those in breach of immigration law, it has been met with new opposition.

Speaking in parliament, David Davis, a former Conservative cabinet minister, attacked the government, stating that the indefinite detention of migrants was cruel.

What is wrong with detention?

In the 2019 UK general election, immigration was a forefront issue for the British Labour party as Diane Abbott, Shadow Home Secretary, campaigned for the removal of all detention centres.

It is thus an interesting development that this argument has gained traction with Conservative MPs. Two former Conservative ministers, Andrew Mitchell and Steve Baker, are also joining David Davis’s side on this matter.

For Davis, this is not a partisan issue but one of simple humanity. Migrants can be held for years, despite not committing a serious crime, and this can have a disastrous impact on their mental health.

In July, a vote will be held questioning the policy of indefinite detention. If successful, migrant rights activists will secure a 28-day restriction on how long a migrant can be detained. The measure would also introduce oversight of detentions as well as transparent guidance for detaining migrants. It is worth noting the even the United Nation’s Human Rights Council has spoken out against the British practice of indefinite detention. The UK is the only country in the EU which does not have a statutory limit for the period a migrant may be detained.

Sex trafficking

Highlighting the trauma caused by this policy, Davis drew upon the story of a Chinese woman named Anna. Anna was forced to flee her home and trafficked into the UK. Once here, she was forced into prostitution, where she worked as a slave.

She was arrested by UK immigration authorities and held in Yarl’s Wood. The UK immigration system seems better suited to punishing victims that offering them the vital support which they need. Anna is just one of the thousands of migrants forced into sexual slavery.

Coronavirus and detention centres       

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Home Office faced even greater scrutiny over their detention of migrants who would not be given adequate protection or means of self-isolating. Whilst the Home Office permitted the release of hundreds of migrants and committed to reviewing each migrant’s case, and they have not buckled to pressure.

The Home Office insists that the continued detention of migrants is vital to protecting the public good. An important distinction is needed here between “administrative removal” and “deportation”. Migrants subject to deportation have committed a criminal offence whereas those subject to administrative removal have simply breached the agreement of their visa.

The Home Office refused to release all migrants as they maintained many were a threat to public safety. Yet even within this camp, it is important to note that many are non-violent offenders. Some have been caught with drug possession and detained indefinitely before being deported.

What are detention centres like?

In a word, detention centres are bad.

There have been numerous reports from human rights organisations of heavy overcrowding in detention centres as well as widespread self-harm and suicide attempts.

Detained migrants are often cut off from support systems and not offered the counselling and support they need. Even when migrants are freed from detention centres, many are led to a life of destitution and criminality as they do not have the support they need.

If we are to reform our immigration system, we need to put victims first and ensure that their voices are heard.

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