Finally, after a painfully long wait, a full three-hour House of Commons debate on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention happened yesterday. (Pic by Darren Johnson, www.idjphotography.com of August 15 2015 demo).
- You can read the debate in Hansard. Many policy points debated have been explored in depth elsewhere, so this article will outline the context of the debate and share the Detention Forum’s overall impression of how it went.
- You can read Catherine West MP (Why won’t the Home Office let me visit Yarl’s Wood?) here
From July 2014 up to its conclusion in March this year, the Detention Forum and other groups contributed to this ground-breaking inquiry, led by Sarah Teather MP who has since left Parliament.
In fact, the inquiry was so significant in the history of detention advocacy – an inquiry into immigration detention was something that we had been hoping for years – that we the Detention Forum made the decision to drop everything and devoted all our energy to supporting the inquiry.
It was the first ever parliamentary attempt to shine light onto this most hidden yet most routine human rights and civil liberties scandal that is taking place now in a country, as one Conservative MP noted, is commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
During hysterically busy months that followed, many of our members held community evidence sessions up and down the country and took testimonies from people in detention in an attempt to hammer in the message to the inquiry panel that immigration detention simply cannot go on like this.
After eight months of carefully considering the evidence, the panel produced resounding conclusions, which hit the front pages of the national newspapers: that the UK detains far too many people for far too long, that there should be a 28-day time limit on immigration detention and that the UK should develop community-based alternatives to detention which are cheaper and more humane.
We also welcomed the inquiry panel’s recognition that ‘tinkering’ with the immigration detention system is not enough.
Only recently, the Prison Inspectors found that nearly 40 people were languishing in The Verne detention centre for over a year, in addition to a man who was detained for five years. The latest known death in detention also took place in The Verne – a 30 year old man with children and a mother in the UK was found dead last month.
In fact, the UK’s detention policy has been under constant attack since the publication of the inquiry report in March.
The flagship Detained Fast Track, in which asylum seekers are detained while their claims are processed at breakneck speed without sufficient time given to them to prepare for their cases, remains suspended as a result of litigation brought by Detention Action. In July, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the UK government to introduce a time limit on immigration detention.
These developments add further weight to the need for a complete overhaul of the immigration detention system, while series of huge protests outside detention centres continue, and the next one is planned on 7 Nov.
There is, however, no pretending that immigration, particularly immigration detention, was traditionally a taboo subject for many parliamentarians.
So the debate was going to be a litmus test. Has the inquiry report changed political attitudes towards immigration detention? Many parliamentary reports come and go without a trace – will the same happen to this one too?
To break down the exclusivity of the debate – after all, why should we not have a say on a matter that affects us all? – the Detention Forum invited people to contribute to the debate via video clips prepared by Right to Remain and blogs (for example, here), using #UnlockTheDebate.
I have been following the issue of immigration detention for almost a decade (and there are many others who have been doing this longer than I have) and there were several things that were surprising and surreal about yesterday’s parliamentary debate.
There were 25 MPs who spoke during the debate from all four major partiers. When we started the Detention Forum in 2009, if we managed to get one MP raise the issue of immigration detention it was hailed as success. Of those 25 MPs in Chamber yesterday, eight were Conservative members. And they agreed unanimously at the end of the debate that they support the inquiry report’s recommendations.
A roll-call of shame
John McDonnell MP (who has two detention centres in his constituency and has been a chronicler of this shameful practice) summarised the situation nicely during the debate:
‘It is interesting that no one is defending the system overall, which is a significant breakthrough. I do not think we would have had this debate five or six years ago, but people have learnt a lot of lessons.’
One of the lessons that MPs seemed to have learnt is that immigration detention does not stop at the gates of the detention centres – it affects communities across the UK. Many MPs shared harrowing stories of their constituents or their families and friends who are affected by immigration detention. For example, Labour MP Dr Rupa Huq said: ‘I do not have any of these so-called immigration removal centres in my constituency, but their names are known to me as almost a roll-call of shame, and some touch on my constituents.’ And all SNP MPs, without fail, mentioned Dungavel detention centre.
At the Detention Forum we also learnt the same lesson, maybe the hard way. Immigration detention, as an issue, was often treated as a matter that only lawyers, specialist agencies and other experts should talk about.
This inevitably restricted the number of people who were considered to be legitimately allowed to talk about immigration detention – with a devastating result that it remained a ghetto subject in the darkest corner of immigration debate. Through the course of the detention inquiry, we opened our eyes to the fact that we are surrounded by ‘experts-by-experience’, people and communities who actually experience detention and who are the best advocates when trying to change the views of the politicians. We also tried to ‘mainstream’ immigration detention as much as we could – after all, why pretend we “own” the issue when it affects the entire country?
Many MPs mentioned during the debate their hope that community-based alternatives to detention can be developed. Such alternatives will be about systems that enable people to live in the community while going through the immigration control system that respects people’s fundamental rights. To develop this solution, we will need ideas and support from non-detention specialists.
So what happened at the end of the debate?
The Minister duly denied that there is any such thing as indefinite detention in the UK and referred to the vote that was taken last year in which the proposal to introduce a time limit of 60 days was rejected. He also said the same old things about ‘foreign national criminals’.
But this vote was before the detention inquiry and before yesterday’s debate.
The Minister also made positive noises about alternatives to detention.
As the debate finished with a unanimous vote to support the inquiry report’s recommendations, we knew we were living in a different era now with a real hope for change.
You can also follow our members and supporters reaction over Twitter under #detentiondebate. This year’s Unlocking Detention will start on 21 September. See www.unlocked.org.uk
Author: Eiri Ohtani
Eiri is co-ordinator of the Detention Forum in the UK and an independent consultant in the voluntary sector. She also works as Europe Regional Coordinator for the International Detention Coalition. A graduate of London School of Economics, she also holds postgraduate degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies and Birkbeck, University of London