Palpable desperation: Inside the invisible world of immigration detention

The reports of sexual abuse at the Yarl's Wood detention centre were sadly not much of a surprise to people who work with immigration detainees.

Recent reports of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood shine a small spotlight on the otherwise invisible world of immigration detention. They detail how guards preyed on isolated women, subjecting them to unwanted advances, using their positions of power to coerce them into sexual acts. Shocking yes. But sadly not much of a surprise to people who work with immigration detainees.

As a trustee of a small charity, Bail for Immigration Detainees, I visited Yarl’s Wood late last year. The desperation was palpable. One of the women I met had heavily bandaged wrists. She was on 24-hour suicide watch after one failed attempt to take her own life. She, like others I spoke to, was desperate to get out of what is little more than a prison. With 30,000 people detained per year, these women are far from rare.

Many people in detention - both men and women - are incredibly vulnerable. They are often fleeing violence and persecution. About half have claimed asylum. Some have been the victims of torture and rape.  To have faced and survived such trauma, to have undertaken a difficult journey to get away, to have left behind loved ones and the world that you know, to then reach supposed safety only to be locked up is a cruel irony. And to be detained with no release date and no time-limit must be utterly hopeless.

It is little surprise that detention is incredibly damaging. Self-harm and detention go hand in hand, with studies suggesting there are higher levels of suicide and self-harm amongst detained immigrants than amongst the prison population. The impacts on physical and mental ill health are well-documented - severe distress and depression as a result of detention are common.

In the words of Luisa, one of the women BID has worked with, “In the night time I can’t sleep, and you don’t have anyone to go to; and you don’t have anywhere to go out, and get some fresh air, and maybe have a walk or something, we are just inside, I think that really is depressing. I’ve seen other people suffering, because you think you are suffering, and then you see someone else suffering even more than you."

Yet despite the clear vulnerability of many detainees, low standards of care and poor treatment are not uncommon. Detainees are treated with suspicion, with one healthcare worker commenting to BID that “cutting, self-strangulation, food refusal, hair-pulling, head banging” can be used as a “tool to raise profile”. There are incidents of mentally ill people being segregated as a means of “behaviour control”. And four separate legal cases have found the treatment of severely mentally ill men in detention to be inhumane and degrading in breach of their human rights, as well as unlawful.

Immigration detention is only meant to be used in limited circumstances. According to the Home Office’s own guidance, “Detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary.” The guidance states that detention is appropriate where a person’s removal from the country is imminent. But instead people are frequently held even when they cannot be removed because there are outstanding legal proceedings, they are unable to access travel documents, or because it is unsafe to return them to their country of origin.

The most recent figure of 30,000 people detained in the UK over the course of the year is an increase of five per cent on the previous year and the highest figure since records began. It seems increasingly detention is being used only because it is administratively convenient, with little regard to the impact on people’s lives and health.

In reality detention means lives on hold, sometimes for years. One of the worst things is the not knowing. Detainees are held indefinitely with no idea when they will be released. It may be one week, one month, one year. Many are detained for years.

Detention also means families separated, children in care. A recent BID report found that 40 per cent of children whose parents were detained were being fostered or were in local authority care. One can only imagine how scary that must be for those children – with no idea when their mother or father will be released. The report found that these parents were detained on average for 9 months and then the vast majority (80 per cent) were eventually simply released, their detention having served no purpose, save causing their children unimaginable distress at huge expense to the taxpayer.

And on the subject of children, despite Government promises to end the practice of detaining them, last year 242 children were themselves locked up.

All of this is not happening in some far away country renowned for its terrible record on human rights but right here on our doorstep, in the twelve detention centres across the UK and increasingly in the prison estate.

Detention is not the only option for immigration control. There are alternatives, which are not only more humane but also less costly. Release with conditions, regular reporting, community-based case management are all approaches which have been shown to be effective. Of course such a highly politicised issue is not about the evidence of what works, or even the cost. It is about political expediency. It is far easier for the Government to lock people away, out of sight and out of mind.  

These are people serving a sentence for which they have committed no crime. It is a sentence with no end date. It is expensive, unnecessary and frankly inhumane. And it is high time that we took a long hard look at how we treat people who are amongst the most vulnerable in our society.

Katharine Sacks-Jones is a trustee of Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) an organisation which provides legal advice, information and representation to detainees on getting release from detention. Last year BID supported 3,367 people.

Detention itself is incredibly damaging to already-vulnerable people. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.