Brexit. The refugee ‘crisis’. Integration. There is little doubt that in the coming weeks, months and years, immigration will remain high on the political agenda. Despite widespread condemnation of indefinite detention, progress has been slow, and reform, piecemeal. With the exception of Greece, we detain more people than any country in Europe and we are also alone in detaining people indefinitely, without time limit, sometimes for years on end. With this in mind, I caught up with Michael and Sergey from Freed Voices to get their thoughts on the election and priorities for future immigration reform.
Michael: The election was a surprise and I don’t think people in the UK are ready for another vote. But it’s here and we have to deal with it. We’re bound to hear a lot about migration and migrants, and detention centres must also be part of this debate.
Sergey: We’ve seen so far that migration is central to all of the parties’ campaigning. It’s scary because for the past decade migrants have been scapegoated for government failures and the ‘problem’ of immigration is just a bid for votes.
Michael: Currently we are the only country in Europe that practices detention without time limit. For people like me, this means the future is scary. It’s easy for me to say let’s end all detention, but we need to understand that the majority of the voting public are not even aware of what detention is all about.
The media plays a big role, portraying detainees as criminals, claiming that if we let them out they are going to commit crimes. So we need to change the narrative and make people aware that these people are human beings, some of them are fleeing from countries of war and experienced torture, all sorts. The UK is one of the great countries that advocates freedom for all people and we need to uphold that.
Sergey: We cannot talk about immigration without talking about detention. As much as we can, we should advocate for free movement, with detention as the last resort. As we leave the EU, civil society is needed more than ever to encourage the idea of engaging migrants rather than focussing on enforcement. Any future immigration bill must involve civil society, including experts-by-experience like Freed Voices.
If you look at the model they are trying to create, we cannot give politicians a free hand, we need to stand as Freed Voices and speak out about this reality. Any migrant, African, European, Eastern European could now face immigration enforcement. Politicians need to be clear about what the bottom line of immigration is – and that’s detention and deportation.
Michael: I think the issue of migration is going to play a big part in the election and there’s a risk that detention could get lost. When we talk about the NHS, Brexit, jobs, or the economy for example, it’s easy to put detention on the back burner because people think it doesn’t affect them, but it does. With a time limit of 28 days, the government would save roughly £380m over five years, money that could go to the NHS or child care or towards improving day to day life.
If I could ask political leaders one thing, it would be to be campaign and sign up to a 28 day time limit on detention. This gives us a starting negotiating position with the parties.
Sergey: I would ask for the same as Michael, a 28 day time limit and automatic release. We also need to think about what happens after release. Instead of implementing laws the UK knows are ineffective and expensive, instead of relying on a culture of fear – the immigration system needs a human approach.
Michael: Sergey is very right about taking human approach. A person can be in the community for five years before their case is dealt with, but not allowed to work, not allowed to claim benefits – how does a person survive?
These are complex questions, but we need to discuss them. This starts with Government asking the very people these policies most affect, migrants themselves. If the Government was making an education policy and said, ‘we don’t want to hear from the teachers, their views are irrelevant’ that policy would not be effective because you’re ignoring the very people who know that system inside out. The same goes for migrants and migrant groups, we must be involved in shaping immigration policy going forward.