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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.