This week I received a telephone call from a client – a young gay man from Pakistan – who had travelled to the Home Office in Croydon to seek asylum. In Pakistan, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people experience systematic discrimination and violence. Upon claiming asylum, Ali was immediately detained and transferred to the largest immigration detention centre in Europe, Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre.
Ali is not a criminal, he has exercised his right to seek asylum as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in domestic law. Yet he has been detained indefinitely.
Ali’s case is being processed in the ‘Detained Fast Track’ system, a highly accelerated process whereby an asylum claim is determined in a matter of days. Thousands of asylum seekers experience the same fate every year.
My organisation, the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG), is a charity dedicated to supporting LGBT asylum seekers. Not only do LGBT asylum seekers face significant obstacles in securing refugee status but also increasing numbers are indefinitely detained. They will remain in detention until they are granted asylum – which can take weeks or months – or until they are forcibly removed to their country of origin. The civil liberties organisation Liberty argues that migrants are detained purely for ‘administrative convenience’ which leads to many asylum seekers being ‘denied the right to a full and fair consideration of their claim’.
Over the last 20 years the scale of immigration detention in this country has expanded rapidly and now the UK detains more migrants than any country in Europe apart from Greece, which is in the process of releasing many of those it detains. The UK is alone in detaining migrants indefinitely. In France the maximum period is 45 days.
In 1993, UK detention capacity was just 250 places. In 2015, there are 11 immigration removal centres and capacity is approximately 4,000 places. Statistics published in September 2014 show that 3,378 people were in detention at that time, while 29,492 people entered detention over the previous 12 months. Sweden has only 255 detention places yet receives twice as many asylum claims as the UK.
As the Refugee Council says, in recent months ‘a bright light has been shone into the darkest corners of the British immigration system and it has revealed some unpleasant secrets.’ In January, Women for Refugee Women reported female detainees are routinely humiliated by male staff who monitor them while they are dressing, showering and using the toilet. In March, Channel 4 News broadcasted a shocking investigation which exposed staff calling detainees ‘animals’, ‘beasties’ and ‘bitches’.
The following day, a cross-party group of MPs and Peers demanded a fundamental change in the way that immigration detention is used and called for a 28 day time limit. The Detention Inquiry’s damning findings – arising from an investigation chaired by Liberal Democrat, Sarah Teather MP – found immigration detention is used ‘disproportionately and inappropriately’.
The Inquiry argued: ‘The system is hugely costly to the tax-payer and seriously detrimental to the individuals we detain in terms of their mental and physical well-being.’
It also criticised the conditions for LGBT people who experience bullying, harassment and abuse. As Johnson, a former client from Jamaica who now has refugee status, described:
‘The whole place is vile, it is homophobic, one of the guards called me a poof and then there were the Jamaicans who kept hurling some abuse at some Iranian guys—calling them batty men. I was terrified thinking: “Oh my God, I hope they don’t know I am one of them.”’
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, invited the former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, to investigate whether ‘improvements can be made to safeguard the health and wellbeing of detainees’. Disappointingly, the narrow scope of the review means it will not be able to deal with the wide-ranging issues raised by this Inquiry.
The use of immigration detention in the UK is out of control but, crucially, a political consensus on the need to tackle this problem has finally begun to emerge. More than 50 organisations, including UKLGIG, joined the #Time4aTimeLimit campaign and urged political parties to adopt the Inquiry’s recommendations. Last week, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party all offered manifesto pledges to end indefinite detention. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, commented:
‘Indefinite detention of people who have committed no crime – and without even any independent review – is wrong. It can be deeply scarring – especially for asylum seekers who have already suffered abuse. And it is extremely expensive for taxpayers. No other western nation does it. We don’t need to either.’
British immigration detention centres have become notorious for their cruelty but the crescendo of opposition can no longer be ignored. Are the days of indefinite immigration detention in the UK finally numbered? The fight isn’t over yet but for Ali – and the thousands of others who languish in immigration detention – there may be hope on the horizon.
[The real names of Ali and Johnson have not been used in order to protect their identities]