Why does Britain detain so many asylum-seekers?

In little more than a decade, an system for detaining people who have committed no crime has sprung up almost unnoticed.

New Statesman
Protestors outside the UK Border Agency demonstrating against the “Go Home” campaign in September 2013. Photo: Getty.

Omar*, an anti-corruption campaigner who worked for Afghanistan’s finance ministry, knew it was time to leave his home country when armed men visited his house at night. On arrival at Heathrow, the 37-year-old was met by two officials who took him to a windowless room, confiscated his documents and locked him in there. Later he was taken to a security van and transferred to what, to him at least, looked like a prison. It was a journey of only a few miles, but Omar spent eight hours in the van while the driver waited to pick up others.

On his arrival at the detention centre, the guards confiscated his remaining possessions and he was told he would be given a court hearing for his asylum claim. “You’re on the fast track,” they told him.

To Omar, this was a shock. “For a civilised nation like Britain, I did not expect this,” he told me. “I am not a criminal.” From the point of view of the system, however, everything was going to plan. “Fast-track” detention, which is distinct from the practice of keeping failed asylum-seekers and foreign offenders locked up immediately before they are deported, is Britain’s standard method for processing “straightforward” asylum claims.

Although most claimants live in the community while their applications are considered, asylum-seekers whose claims are deemed quick to decide – 2,118 people out of a total of 19,865 claimants in 2011 – are held at a detention centre during the process. It is one of the reasons why Britain holds more people in immigration detention – roughly 4,000 a year – than any other country except Australia. Yet a legal challenge that will be heard at the high court later this month could undermine this system.

Launched by the Blair government in 2000 and greatly expanded in 2003, fast-track detention exists largely for what is known euphemistically as “administrative convenience”. After they arrive in the UK, claimants are locked up in a high-security detention centre; they are interviewed, their case is heard, and they are supposed to get an initial decision within three days. Difficult cases – survivors of torture, families, pregnant women, people with physical or mental conditions, potential victims of trafficking – aren’t supposed to be processed in this way: the fast track was designed for single people, largely those coming from “white-list” countries (asylum claims originating from such countries are more likely to be false). The system’s 99 per cent “refusal rate” on decisions before appeal would suggest that it is operating to plan – quick and efficient.

And yet for Omar, as for many others, it hasn’t worked like that. First of all, he had to wait weeks for his hearing. He was introduced to his lawyer 15 minutes before the hearing began. The judge asked where the supporting evidence for his asylum claim was. It had been confiscated on arrival, he replied. Omar’s claim was rejected “for lack of supporting evidence”. He was given the right to appeal, which would allow him to stay in detention for weeks, if not months, longer.

As Jerome Phelps, the director of the charity Detention Action, explained to me, such delays – as well as a sense that the system is stacked against claimants – are typical. The purpose of fast-track detention, he says, has shifted away from processing people efficiently to being “a system to remove people quickly”.

Since 2005, the scheme has ceased to be reserved for asylum-seekers from “whitelist” countries. It is now used for anybody whose case is seen as “quick to determine”.

This approach was criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2008, on the grounds that it did not identify complex cases or protect vulnerable people effectively. Survivors of torture, for instance, are expected to arrive in the UK with “independent evidence” of their abuse in order to avoid fast-track detention – an impossible task for many.

Detention Action has brought the legal challenge to the detention scheme at the high court, arguing that it does not protect vulnerable people and that the widespread delays in processing claims breach the right to liberty protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Given that no political party is likely to support reform for fear of being seen as a “soft touch”, a battle through the courts is one of the few options open to asylum campaigners.

In just over a decade, an unprecedented system for detaining people who have committed no crime, and who pose no threat to public safety, has sprung up almost unnoticed. The high court will decide whether the fast track is legal. For the rest of us, perhaps it’s time to decide whether we are happy this system exists at all – and, if not, what we should do about it.

*Not his real name