Why MPs must unite to end the indefinite detention of immigrants

The indefinite detention of tens of thousands of innocent people each year amounts to torture. 

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The House of Commons is hopelessly divided over Brexit, and so it may surprising to learn that there are still some issues that can unite British politicians of all persuasions.

This week, I am launching a bill with Paul Blomfield MP that calls time on the indefinite detention of immigrants, and it has received wide support from those who are bitterly contesting the UK’s future relationship with Europe. From former Brexit secretary David Davis to People’s Vote campaigner David Lammy, the call for a 28-day time limit on the detention of immigrants has been backed by an unlikely coalition of parliamentarians.

Each year, tens of thousands of innocent people are detained by our immigration officers. They are grabbed from their homes, handcuffed and thrown into vans. They are taken to prison-like centres with no knowledge of when they will be released. In my bill I will argue that the current system is unfit for purpose, that indefinite detention amounts to torture, and that the government must finally heed calls for reform.

Detainees can be nurses, teachers, or students. They may have been in the UK for decades or days. Some arrived seeking economic opportunities, others are asylum seekers and victims of unimaginable suffering. Our current system means they are then re-traumatised at the hands of the British state.

The vast majority are sent to Immigration Removal Centres. Cells are small, often shared, and there is little access to the outside world. It is difficult to obtain the legal support needed to contest the detention and - perhaps cruellest of all - there is no guaranteed date of release.  

The detention experience is deeply traumatic and testimonies from its victims are well-documented. Cases of abuse and mistreatment are rife. Detainees often become depressed and suicidal, with many experiencing episodes of self-harm and violence.

And yet it is often the uncertainty that detainees say they found hardest to bear. Former detainees have spoken of how quickly they lost hope. One victim, Emmanuel, told the Red Cross that not knowing when he would leave was a form of “mental torture” which left him unable even to sit and read a paper after his release. Another, Souleymane, told an inquiry: “in prison, you count your days down, but in detention you count your days up.”

Home Office guidance suggests that detention should be used only for a “reasonable” period, but the reality is that innocent people can be held for years. The longest stay in detention is 1,514 days, and each year around 200 people are held for over a year. Detainees can be held despite serious risk to their life. One wheelchair-bound detainee was held for 15 months despite an attempt to self-immolate. Another, a refused asylum seeker with chronic schizophrenia, was held for 247 days.

This system takes an unquantifiable toll on detainees’ freedom, but it is also hugely expensive. The Home Office has spent £523.5m detaining people since 2010. Detention is used excessively and sometimes unlawfully, with officials often deciding on detention without considering alternatives. The detention of two members of the Windrush generation is an example of an endemic problem of wrongful decision making. Between 2012 and 2017, at least 850 people were mistakenly detained.

The current review into the use of time limits has no deadline, and detainees and NGOs will not be consulted. In the face of years of campaigns, reports, investigations and inquiries, this decision is untenable. The support, the capability and the evidence are here now. The time has come to act.

In the 1970s, my mother came to this country fleeing political violence. She, like so many others, arrived in Britain in the belief of a better future and the protection of her rights. Refugees and immigrants, wherever they arrive from, must be treated with dignity and their cases processed fairly. Next week in parliament, I will stand to demand an end to the practice of indefinite detention, which so clearly denies them this right.

Tulip Siddiq is MP for Hampstead and Kilburn