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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."