Opinion: Indefinite Immigration Detention and the Coalition at Party Conference

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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

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This entry was posted in Conference.


  • As I understand the situation these lengthy detentions can be terminated at any time by the detainee simply agreeing to leave the UK and returning to their country of origin, in which case the government cannot be blamed. It is the detainee who is refusing to act reasonably and, in many cases, to respect UK immigration and asylum rules. I agree that this is a dreadful waste of taxpayers’ money, therefore the deportation process needs to be greatly streamlined (with changes to the law where necessary, including removal of this absurd notion that there are “people who cannot be deported”) so that detainees who do not have a clear cut right to stay in the UK are removed from the country far more speedily. I’m sorry but we really are being taken for a ride in this country.

  • But there are people who cannot and should not be deported !
    There is the case of the young Iranian whose gay partner had already been executed in Iran. The UK based youngster was facing immediate deportation and whatever might (execution ?) happen if he was sent back to Iran. I was delighted when 80 peers signed an appeal to the Home Secretary and he was given permission to stay on in the UK. That was a Lib Dem initiative. There are humanitarian reasons why we must oppose such deportations.

  • Hannah Bird 15th Sep '10 - 8:47pm

    It is the case that many detainees face serious risks if they are deported, but also in answer to Terry, there are cases where people cannot legally be deported. This is often the case for detainnes from Iran, Algeria and Eritrea, whose embassies often refuse to issue travel documents even if they want to return. This led to an eight year detention period in one case. This is not something the UK government can fix with a more streamlined process.

    Besides this point, recent Home Office statistics showed a considerable number of asylum cases are accepted on appeal following poor initial decision making in the fast track process. These are the cases where there would be serious risks for those being deported and I have spoken with other volunteer visitors who have seen the people they’ve been supporting sent back to dangerous situations in their home countries.

  • Hannah Bird 16th Sep '10 - 8:01am

    Thanks Geoffrey – yes it is at 7.15am, early I know but there’ll be a great breakfast and it’ll definitely get you thinking for the day!

  • Ms Bird

    I am sorry I have only just seen your comments.

    Looking ahead perhaps next year you will get the following message:

    “Please let me know what time tomorrow it will be convenient for you to greet the 3 asylum seekers from Somalia who will be billeted with you from tomorrow under the Asylum Seekers (Liberals put your money where your mouth is) Act 2011? ”

    If you are not willing to contemplate this then who do you think should share their accommodation with millions of Somali and other immigrants? Or have them as their neighbours? And pay for them?

    And next time I am mugged by a failed asylum seeker living here in Hackney illegally may I give him your name and address so you can support him in your community?

  • Hannah Bird, on your September 15, 2010 post you mentioned that certain persons cannot be deported because those countries simply refuse. In the case of the State of Eritrea is that worldwide policy for them to diddle-daly travel requests such as they do in the US? I have been trying to obtain documents to effect my deportation for eight months while in ICE detention and continue to do so after my release. I have been scouring the net for information on the problematic issues with Eritrea issuing travel documents to no avail. Can you inform me of any links and/or web sites that addresses these points and possibly answer them?

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