Julian Huppert writes … We must end indefinite detention for immigrants

Immigration detention
Looking back over the Coalition Government, one of our great successes is putting an end to the routine detention of children for immigration purposes. In 2009, 1,119 children were locked up in immigration centres, nearly 500 of them were under five years of age.

Not only have we ended this practice, but in the Immigration Act we made sure that if any future government wants to undo our reforms, they’ll have to do it the hard way by passing an Act of Parliament.

But the issue of immigration detention doesn’t and shouldn’t stop there.

The UK is an outlier in the EU as the only country that doesn’t have a time limit on how long someone can be detained under immigration powers. Ireland has a time limit of 21 days, France 45 days, Belgium two months and Spain 60 days. Even Russia has a time limit, albeit of two years.

Yet in the UK people can be, and are, detained indefinitely. What’s more, the decision to detain is taken by a Home Office official and there is no automatic right to challenge that decision. If an individual in detention wants to challenge their detention, they have to instigate that themselves.

Last spring, Lib Dem Conference endorsed the policy paper Making Migration Work for Britain, which includes policies to end indefinite detention and implement community-based alternatives. Over the last six months I have been serving on a cross-party panel of MPs and Peers, chaired by our own Sarah Teather, who have held an inquiry into the future of immigration detention in the UK.

We took evidence from, among many others, psychologists who told us about the mental health impact that a lack a time limit has; from the Chief Inspector of Prisons who told us that the lack of a time limit leads to poor caseworking by Home Office officials; and from detainees who told us that whereas prisoners count their days down, in immigration detention people count their days up.

We are publishing our report today and our key recommendation is that the next government should introduced a time limit of 28 days. To do this, lessons should be learnt from countries such as Sweden who detain far few people and for far less time by actively engaging with people in the community early on in the immigration process, rather than relying on expensive enforcement processes.

Not only are community-based alternatives more humane, they are also considerably cheaper. The majority of detainees who are held for longer than 3 months end up not being removed from the country and independent research by Matrix Evidence concluded that £75 million per year could be saved if asylum seekers who cannot be deported were released in a timely manner.

Lib Dems were at the forefront of the battle to prevent the last Labour Government from detaining terror suspects for 90 days without charge. We should now be at the forefront of ending the illiberal practice of detaining people for immigration purposes for indefinite periods. It’s time for a time limit.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • Home Office statistics suggest that more than 1,100 children entered detention in 2009. This number fell to 436 in 2010 and to 127 in 2011. (Home Office 2014a). In 2012 and 2013 the numbers increased to over 200 annually, including 228 children entering immigration detention in 2013. The majority were detained at the Cedars pre-departure accommodation facility (Home Office 2014).

  • suzanne fletcher 3rd Mar '15 - 3:37pm

    Long reply to expats, but we need to get the facts right.
    Cedars is a Pre Departure Centre for families, who have been through the immigration system and been refused the right to remain in the UK. It is not a detention centre like Yarlswood where previously 1,000 children a year were detained. It is run under completely different systems, with specialist childcare support delivered by Barnardos’, for the families who have gone through the family returns process. The families can move freely around the house and gardens, and do not have to have the strict routines experienced in detention. 32 children have been there in the last 12 months. These statistics include families who have both sought asylum and come here for economic reasons, and have not been granted status.
    In the last 12 months 28 children under the age of 16 have been held at the purpose built family unit at Tinsley House. The families who stayed at the unit are not those seeking asylum, but have been refused entry at the border and are going to be returned to their country of origin on the first available flight. A lot of the families are there for only a few hours, but it was recommended by HMIP that it was better families spent waiting time at Tinsely House rather than inadequate waiting conditions at airports. The statistics include border cases, which make up the majority of those at Tinsley House
    In any immigration system there will be a returns process, which must treat families with respect.
    There were 4, 17 year old’s at the family unit at Tinsley House, and one 17 year old at the non family unit.
    There were no children under 12 at Yarlswood, compared with thousands before that.
    The age dispute process needs to be addressed , and is an area which has come to light since the detention of children in immigration centres has ended as age disputes now appear in the detention statistics. Yarlswood, Dover House, and Haslar had one person each aged between 12 and 16. The Home Office is now working with other relevant departments and bodies to improve the quality of the age assessment process and of age assessments themselves through improved practices.
    Yarlswood, Brook House, Haslar, Campsfield and Pennine House had six 17 year old’s between them in those 12 months. Young people are there, because they present themselves to be aged under 18, but they are not believed or do not have the paperwork to prove it. They are in the detention centre whilst their age is assessed. Ways of improving the speed that they age assessments take place, the process itself, and where they are whilst this is happening must be explored as we support a process to do so. As families with children at Cedars Pre Departure Centre are allowed to move freely around the house and gardens, it is not appropriate because of child protection issues that they mix with single male adults whilst they are assessed.
    Source of statistics

  • Philip Thomas 3rd Mar '15 - 8:11pm

    Yes, an end to Indefinite detention would be welcome, and the start of some positive policy on immigration. Despite the Home Secretary’s continuing delusions, the Conservative policy on immigration is clearly bankrupt: and leaving the immigration issue to the Tories (with the honourable exception of child detention) hasn’t worked well for us either.

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Mar '15 - 9:13pm

    Semantics Suzanne

    The fact is, children are being incarcerated just because they are wanting a place which is safe, some of them having suffered terribly. They have been not been found guilty of anything.

    We should not be locking asylum seekers away be they children, women – pregnant or otherwise – or men. To do so is wrong, simply wrong !

  • Philip Thomas 3rd Mar '15 - 10:32pm

    “The best interests of children must be a primary consideration”: that is what the Supreme Court said in ZH Tanzania and it is both international and national law. How it is in the best interests of any child to be forcibly removed to a third world country is beyond me: the detention is but a means to that end. When the child has actually been born in the United Kingdom, I think it is a disgrace to remove it forcibly to a country it has never known.

  • suzanne fletcher 3rd Mar '15 - 11:52pm

    it is beyond me how you can say “children are being incarcerated”. exactly how ?

  • incarcerated…..to imprison or confine.

    As ‘A Social Liberal’ said “semantics”…Having carpets and the ability to ‘move around the garden’ does not alter the facts; it’s not a ‘Centre Parks’ holiday… From the tone of past threads on this subject one might imagine that, prior to LibDem intervention, the children were shackled to walls…

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