BID’s Policy and Research Manager, John Hopgood, takes a look at the numbers that belie the government’s policy on detention.
There are two sides to every argument. Organisations like BID – who campaign to see an end to the use of administrative, indefinite detention – argue that detention serves no purpose. We say the government misuses its powers, detains people for weeks, months and even years simply because they can. We say that the government detains people it cannot hope to remove from the UK, causing lasting stress, pain and suffering to detainees and their families alike.
The government, on the other hand, tells us that detention is necessary to manage immigration enforcement. Time and again it assures us of its stated detention policy – that detention will only ever be used as a last resort, that it will be for the shortest time possible, and that it will be used to effect removal.
So which of those views is correct?
Well, let’s start by saying this – only the government can know why it manages and uses detention as it does. But we can judge its actions on our own – and our clients’ – experiences, and the statistics it publishes.
Taken together, our clients’ experiences paint a picture. The man we helped get bail who had spent 15 months in detention following a 6 week prison sentence. The man with two British children who was detained for 7 months before being allowed home. Or the client who spent a total of 27 months in detention despite not being removable. When you hear the stories that our legal advisers hear on a daily basis, you soon learn that the government’s assurances ring hollow.
What do the statistics tell us? Well, in 2016, 28,908 people were detained under immigration powers in the UK . That’s the lowest total since 2012 – even though is the drop is largely attributable to the fact that two detention centres were closed for refurbishment and to increase capacity for part of the year. Even so, the government still managed to find the time, space and money to detain an average of 79 people every single day. This is hardly indicative of an action that is a ‘last resort’.
And what of the people who are detained? Are they held for the shortest time possible? In the UK, even people suspected of terrorist-related activities can be detained for no more than 14 days without being charged. Yet, in 2016, the UK government detained 15,048 people for more than 14 days just because they are subject to immigration control and it wanted to remove them. Almost 2,000 of them were held in detention, deprived of their liberty, their livelihoods and their everyday lives, for more than 4 months. Some 208 of them had been in detention for more than a year, 29 for more than 2 years. And as of the 31st December 2016, the longest serving detainee had been held for 1,333 consecutive days – a shocking 3 years and 237 days. Perhaps the worst aspect of these numbers is that they only include the most recent period spent in detention. Cumulative days detained are not added up, and sadly our own experience shows that release and re-detention is a common problem. In the light of these statistics, therefore, arguments about detention being for the shortest possible time are somewhat misleading.
So what about it being used only to effect removal?
Well, 28,661 people left detention last year, but just 13,466 of them – 47%, or less than half – were removed from the UK. Almost as many – 11,931 – were granted temporary admission and allowed to remain in the UK, with the other 3,000 or so either granted bail or given leave to remain.
Put simply, more than half of all people in detention are not removed from the UK at the end of their detention.
Remarkably, the longer a person spends in detention, the less likely they are to be removed. Among people detained for 6 months or more, just 39% are removed from the UK. For those held for more than two years, fewer than 1 in 3 are removed.
The evidence seems clear. Detention doesn’t work. It isn’t necessary. It is damaging and its effects are long-lasting. It is overused and under-scrutinised. BID recently helped a client who had been detained for 13 months despite having an outstanding application to remain in the UK, and another client who had been kept in detention despite winning their appeal to stay in the country. Detention works for the government because it is easy to use and hard to challenge. But that doesn’t make it effective or fair. Locking people up for months on end is not using detention for the shortest possible time. Locking people up who have the right to be in the country is not using detention only to effect removal. The government’s use of detention should be a cause for outrage, and it’s long past time something was done about it.