Third oral session of the Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention

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Yesterday marked the third oral evidence session of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the use of Immigration Detention, hosted by the APPG on Refugees and the APPG on Migration at the Houses of Parliament. Like the previous two sessions, the hearing was chaired by Sarah Teather MP with a panel of cross-party parliamentarians gathered to take testimony from a range of experts, who took to the stand in three waves.

First up was Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, and Hindpal Singh Bhui, an inspection Team Leader in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons. They spoke at length about at the controversial detention of migrants in prisons for immigration purposes. Despite Home Office insistence that this is not a routine practice, several hundred migrants continue to languish in prisons around the country. As Nick Hardwick pointed out, without the same privileges afforded those held in IRCs and often out of the reach of lawyers, these individuals can find themselves lost in an administrative black hole:

Mr. Hindpal Singh Bhui went on to speak about the worrying lack of training among prison staff in regard the particular concerns and stresses facing immigration detainees before the Chief Inspector expanded on the ongoing failings in the screening process and the Rule 35 procedure, both designed to keep vulnerable individuals out of detention. Whilst eager to praise the HMIP for their efforts to “turn good practice somewhere into good practice everywhere”, Lord Ramsbotham (a former Chief Inspector of Prisons himself) suggested that perhaps their reports weren’t having the desired effect because nobody was culpable whenever recommendations were not put into practice:

In response, the current Chief Inspector said that procedural or operational advances on the ground (though welcome) would not be enough to answer all the problems the detention estate has to offer. Genuine progress would only come with a wholesale change in government policy. He was eager to stress that whilst their detailed recommendations to the Home Office are important, the lack of a time-limit on detention, for example, invariably impacts every aspect of life in detention: “Even in the best run centre, with caring staff and effective management, the distress people feel is the uncertainty of their situation.”

Next the panel heard from three campaigners who had spent time in detention. From the outset, they clarified their role in the session – they were there as experts-by-experience and activists, not as victims. They demanded respect, not pity:

When asked about access to justice in detention, all three speakers reflected on the poor quality of legal aid solicitors made available to them and how, in many instances, they and other around them had been forced to represent themselves:

But the central theme of this section of the hearing focused on the wider psychological impact of detention – both on the individual and, through the ripples created by such a traumatic experience, on the families, friends and communities left devastated as a result. Prize-winning LGBTI activist, Aderonke, acknowledged that the cost to the taxpayer was significant but pointed out that the cost to human life was immeasurable – it could never be totted-up.  Again, the glaring lack of a time-limit was highlighted as a root-cause of what several of the speakers refereed to as ‘mental torture’, designed to break you:

Last to speak were Dr Alice Edwards, Senior Legal Coordinator for the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Grant Mitchell, Director of the International Detention Coalition (IDC). They were on hand to offer a way out. Presenting practical examples from across the globe – from Canada to Belgium, Hong Kong to Sweden – they argued that there were much fairer, more efficient alternatives to the UK’s current form of immigration control. Acknowledging that mandatory time-limits were a crucial first step, they advocated a move away from the coercive-model we have now to one based on community-assessment and case-management. Dr Edwards said evidence suggests success with this model was dependent on five key, working principles:

Grant Mitchell of the IDC went on to note that governmental justifications for detention (namely compliance, risk of absconding, and risk of re-offending) were actually much better served with greater engagement, not greater enforcement. He also estimated that the financial savings from such a transition would be enormous (without even taking into account the unforeseen, long-term costs of detention – including the cost to mental health, reintegration, loss of skills):

Whilst clearly buoyed to know there are other options besides the deeply flawed, inherently unjust, fiscally wasteful system currently in place when it comes to managing migration, the cross-party panel of MPs were intrigued to know how easy such a transition, from one system to another, had proved in other countries. Mr. Mitchell was candid:

The point is, the seeds of that change are already bearing fruit. Getting people in the UK to radically refigure the way they see immigration control, and curing the addiction to detention which has become such a central part of that thinking, will be extremely difficult. Especially during these toxic times. But as Mr Mitchell noted in his conclusion; both the body of evidence undermining the logic of detention and the practical options for immigration reform are there – its up to us what we do with them.