Time to put an end to indefinite detention

Hundreds of men and women are today locked up, with no release date, waiting for a deportation that

The battle to free children from immigration detention is (almost, we hope) over. But liberating innocent young people may look like child's play compared to challenging the next great injustice in our immigration system – the indefinite detention of adults.

David Cameron recently told the Arab world that "freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress", but such inspiring language is easy when condemning crazed despots and much harder when treading on volatile political ground.

"Immigrants", "asylum-seekers" and "foreign criminals", groups regularly demonised by the right-wing press and politicians, inspire limited public sympathy. Yet behind the hype is a detention system failing both detainees and the wider public by forcing human beings to live in pointless, expensive limbo (detaining one person costs £68,000 a year).

"It is simply irrational to detain people for years and then release them at the end of it," says Jerome Phelps, director of the London Detainee Support Group (LDSG) "For political reasons, there has been a lack of will from successive governments to acknowledge that there is a range of circumstances where people cannot be deported."

These circumstances include countries too unsafe for deportations and those that refuse to accept people as their citizens, often because they are political dissidents. In December 2008, LDSG examined the cases of 188 detainees who had been held for a year or more and, by last September, more than half had been released in the UK, not deported. Only 34 per cent had been deported, with almost one in ten still in detention.

UK Border Agency policy states that "detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary" to effect deportations, but LDSG's finding that 15 of those studied had been detained for more than three years calls this into question.

One reason many people find themselves in detention is a criminal conviction – and foreign criminals get little sympathy from the courts when seeking bail – but Phelps says the term is often misleading.

"Many will have been living in the UK for years but then lost that right because of a criminal conviction," he said. "A significant number of these are immigration offences rather than violent crimes. In court there is often an assumption that each person is going to be deported so they should not be given bail. Their best hope is to get a nice judge on a good day."

But is the end of indefinite detention in sight?

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, believes the coalition government can continue early progress on civil liberties and reform detention policy.

"I continue to push for a review of the whole detention system," he said. "The coalition is determined to improve our reputation on human rights after the damage inflicted under Labour. There needs to be a serious analysis of the cost, effectiveness and impact on civil liberties of the current use of detention generally, and especially on detaining people without time limit."

Though the current system has obvious faults, building support for changing it will be difficult. Cutting immigration is a popular policy (it featured heavily in last year's televised prime ministerial debates), while fighting for a few hundred people imprisoned because no nation will accept them is unlikely to win many votes.

Yet it is the right thing to do.

The LDSG document, entitled No Return, No Release, No Reason, highlights alternatives successfully used in Sweden and Australia, where a case manager helps people engage with the immigration system while living in the community.

The report adds: "Such changes require a major shift in culture, away from the assumption that immigration control can be maintained through coercion alone."

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear