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The Immigration Bill provides an opportunity to end ‘inhumane’ indefinite detention

Immigration detention is inhumane, unnecessary and expensive, writes Alistair Carmichael MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Immigration detention should be a last resort, yet the Government detains thousands of people a year for months on end. We have tabled amendments to the Immigration Bill to impose a 28-day time limit.

“I just started burning myself because I could not bear it,” Janahan told MPs in 2018.

Janahan is a young Tamil who sought asylum in the UK after being captured and tortured by the Sri Lankan army at the age of 17. But he was not talking about the trauma he had suffered in Sri Lanka. He was describing his time in an immigration detention centre here in the UK, explaining how being locked up indefinitely forced him to relive those traumatic memories.

Other detainees tell similar stories. Some even attempt suicide.

Immigration detention is inhumane, unnecessary and expensive. That was the conclusion of an independent review of immigration detention for vulnerable people, conducted by the former Prisons Ombudsman Stephen Shaw for the Government more than two years ago.

According to our international human rights obligations and the Home Office’s own guidance, it should only be used as a last resort.

Yet still, the Government detains victims of torture and abuse, pregnant women and people with mental ill health. 24,480 people were locked up in immigration detention centres last year – hundreds of them for months on end.

Worse still, because the UK is the only country in Europe with indefinite detention for immigration purposes, they have no idea how long they will be kept in these centres. 

Locking people up indefinitely – especially vulnerable people – can cause, or exacerbate, mental health problems.

New figures from the Home Office show that – although the overall number of immigration detainees has dropped significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic – the number who had been held for more than a year has risen from 35 at the end of March to 40 at the end of June. Four people have even been in detention for more than two years.

Locking people up indefinitely – especially vulnerable people – can cause, or exacerbate, mental health problems. It is inhumane – and it is costly. For each person we keep in a detention centre, it costs taxpayers £97.54 every single day.

Overall, the Government spends £90 million a year on immigration detention – and that is before you consider the £7 million that the Home Office had to pay out last year in compensation for a staggering 272 cases of wrongful detention.

In most cases, detention is also unnecessary. Most detainees end up being released back into the community, which raises the obvious question: what was the point of keeping them locked up in the first place? Bear in mind that these are people who have committed no crime – or if they have, have already served their time in prison.

No one expects compassion from this Government – certainly not from this Home Secretary. We should, however, expect efficiency at least. The current system offers neither.

It is right that the Government deports people who have no right to be here: whether they have overstayed their visas or been refused asylum. It is wrong that the Government unnecessarily detains thousands of people – including some of the world’s most vulnerable – indefinitely.

There is a better way. International research has shown that, if people live in the community, with careful management while their cases are resolved, the vast majority comply with the process. Mental and physical health outcomes are, unsurprisingly, better.

The charity Detention Action has long been calling for such an approach, along with others including the British Red Cross. Liberal Democrats have been fighting to save both misery and money by reducing immigration detention to an absolute last resort.

Our priority is to end indefinite detention.

As the Government’s Immigration Bill returns to the House of Lords next week, the Liberal Democrats have tabled amendments to do just that, by imposing a 28-day time limit. We have already secured Labour’s support. I hope that the Conservatives will finally show some compassion and common sense and accept this long-overdue change.

Janahan told his story. We cannot let it be for nothing.


Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Home Affairs. 

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