Like so many Lib Dems, I’m really pleased our participation in the Coalition is leading to the end of child detention. But the crisis in the detention system goes much deeper and wider than locking up children. There is an urgent need to consider how we can use our influence to reform the detention system. To make this happen I’ve helped to organise a fringe meeting with London Detainee Support Group (LDSG), a charity that supports and advises detainees.
Every week I see this crisis when I visit Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre as an LDSG volunteer. My role is to support and help a man who has been detained for almost 30 months, with no release date in sight. He is one of over 300 people detained in Colnbrook and 3,400 across the detention estate, all held indefinitely awaiting deportation, bail, temporary release, or simply more waiting.
Detention for years is not unusual: the last official statistics found that 245 detainees had been held for over a year on 30 June 2010 . Like the man I visit, many are waiting for nothing, as they cannot be deported. Some are from countries like Zimbabwe and Somalia that are too dangerous, and the courts are stopping removals. Others cannot return as their embassies refuse to grant travel documents. If they have even minor criminal convictions, such as asylum-seekers working illegally, they are endlessly refused release. In one case, LDSG supported someone who was detained for eight years. LDSG’s new report will reveal that only one in three people detained for over a year are ultimately deported.
I’m acutely aware that this could happen to the person I visit, who has already been locked up for over two years in a detention estate where he has come to represent little more than a reference number, a nationality dispute, and the subject of numerous, often unexplained transfers from one centre to another. And although I spend part of every weekend talking with him about his detention experiences and trying to provide distractions through conversations about Man Utd, cooking and life before detention, with the mundane passing of days, weeks and months it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine any kind of future for him outside the metal door which slides shut behind me on every visit.
Indefinite detention is an unjust and inhumane policy, hugely at odds with the Government’s pledge to restore and defend civil liberties. But even for those unconvinced of the injustice, indefinite detention is a shocking waste of public money: it costs the taxpayer over £68,000 to detain one person in Colnbrook for one year. Supporting people in the community costs a fraction of this. The Government has identified the need to make big cuts in public spending, and ending the detention for years of people who cannot be deported should be a priority.
I hope to hear detention being discussed in the main conference meetings and policy debates, and the LDSG fringe meeting is an important space for all those who want to learn more and discuss possible reforms and alternatives to holding people as prisoners indefinitely.
Please do come along to hear our speakers, sample the Middle Eastern breakfast, and add your thoughts to the debate:
The Real Cost of Indefinite Immigration Detention
London Detainee Support Group: the Detained Lives Campaign
Sunday 19th Sept, 7.15-8.30 Jury’s Inn Hotel Liverpool, Suite 9
Speakers: Tom Brake MP, LDSG Director Jerome Phelps, and a former detainee