Could the routine use of long-term detention be on the way out?

The quarterly statistics of the UKBA are not usually a source of good news for those concerned about the misuse of detention.  Since the statistics began including snapshots of how long migrants had been detained on a given day, they have traced the ever-growing numbers detained in Immigration Removal Centres for a year or more.  By the end of 2010, the number had reached an unprecedented 255.

However, in 2011 something changed.  In March, the numbers were slightly down.  They dropped again for the next two quarters.  Now a big drop in the last quarter has seen the numbers reach 142, a drop of 44% in a year.  It appears that only slightly over a half as many migrants are experiencing extreme long-term detention as a year ago.

What are the reasons for this change?  Is the UKBA simply becoming more effective at deporting people?  The statistics suggest otherwise.  Of migrants leaving detention after more than a year during 2011, 62% were released and only 38% deported.  This is a 4% lower success rate for the UKBA than the previous year.

All the indications are that we are seeing the first indications of a more pragmatic approach to migrants who cannot be deported.  The biggest factor in late 2011 was the High Court judgment in HM (Iraq), which meant that there will likely be no more large-scale removals to Iraq for some time until a further test case is heard.  The vast majority of Detention Action’s Iraqi clients have since been released.  Most had been detained for very long periods.  This contrasts with similar situations in previous years, when for example many Zimbabweans and Somalis continued to be detained for long periods when removals were not possible.

Caveats abound, of course.  142 is still a large number – for example, the current population indefinitely detained at Guantanamo Bay is only slightly higher at 171.  The statistics still arbitrarily exclude immigration detainees whom the UKBA chooses to hold in prisons throughout their detention, many of whom are likely to be held for long periods.

Nevertheless, this is progress.  It seems that three years of campaigning and legal challenges, and not least the up to £12 million per year that the Home Office is paying out following unlawful detention actions, are having an impact.  Could the routine use of long-term detention be on the way out?