Ending the detention of children is just the beginning

Hundreds of former asylum-seekers are still stuck in a Kafkaesque system with no prospect of release

Nick Clegg's announcement that the coalition is stopping the detention of children in asylum cases is a positive move, but does not deal with the bigger problem of failed asylum-seekers being detained for years on end with no release date.

Despite the sterling efforts of organisations such as the London Detainee Support Group, the plight of these individuals is relatively unremarked on. At present, there are roughly 250 individuals detained, with no prospect of release. Ostensibly, they are waiting to be deported; in reality, only 18 per cent ever are.

Thus, hundreds of individuals are stuck in a bureaucratic black hole, for no purpose and at great expense, each detainee costing on average £68,000 a year to detain.

One detainee released on bail this year had spent four years in detention. He was being deported because he had committed a crime in the UK, and lost the right to asylum as a result. His crime was trying to leave the UK without a passport. He served three months in jail, before spending four years in detention as the UK Border Agency attempted to deport him. UKBA, however, was unable to deport him. Why? Because he didn't have a passport.

The situation is Kafkaesque. At best, the current system is inefficient and expensive; at worst, it is illegal and makes a mockery of Britain's claims to be a civilised and just nation.

Clegg and the coalition have taken a step in the right direction, but they have a long way to go before Britain's broken immigration system is sorted out.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood