Thousands of vulnerable people locked in UK immigration centres in ‘unacceptable’ conditions, review finds

Detainees still being held for months on end in dire conditions, Stephen Shaw says

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 25 July 2018 00:50 BST
New review has called the issue ‘deeply troubling’
New review has called the issue ‘deeply troubling’ (AFP/Getty)

Thousands of vulnerable people are being locked in “unacceptable” conditions in immigration detention centres, often for “deeply troubling” lengths of time, a government-commissioned review has found.

More than two years after ministers were urged to drastically reduce the use of detention for vulnerable immigrants, a second review by the former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales suggested many people were still being held for months on end in dire circumstances.

While there has been a drop in the overall detainee population, the number of people held in removal centres for more than six months has increased, Stephen Shaw wrote, a situation he described as “deeply troubling”.

Mr Shaw’s second review, commissioned last year by former home secretary Amber Rudd, states that the Home Office’s strategy of expanding capacity by adding extra beds into existing rooms had “exacerbated overcrowding, and created unacceptable conditions” for detainees.

His first review, published in January 2016, called for ministers to apply a “presumption against detention” of victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It warned that detention itself could seriously damage the mental health of detainees.

But the latest findings show there are still many people in detention who “should not be there”.

The report warned that the Adults at Risk policy, designed to ensure mentally unwell people were not detained, had made “no difference” to the number of vulnerable detainees. In some cases numbers were increasing.

Mr Shaw also condemned the policy of removing people brought up in the UK.

“I find the policy of removing individuals brought up here from infancy to be deeply troubling,” he wrote. ”It seems entirely disproportionate to tear them away from their lives, families and friends in the UK, and send them to countries where they may not speak the language or have any ties.”

His new findings come two weeks after the British Red Cross called for an overhaul of the UK’s immigration detention system, warning in the first intervention of its kind by a major charity, that conditions were such that detainees suffer mental health problems, which sometimes lead to suicide attempts.

The UK immigration detention estate is one of the largest in Europe with around 2,500 to 3,500 people in detention at any given time. More than one in five detainees are held for at least two months.

In response to the review Sajid Javid, the home secretary, said it confirmed the government was on the “right track” in improving detention but conceded that there were also areas where ministers “could and should do better”.

He announced a series of new reforms, including commitments to developing alternatives to detention, strengthening support for vulnerable detainees and improving facilities in removal centres.

These included an immediate stop to the practice of three detainees occupying rooms originally designed for two, piloting the use of Skype and reviewing the training and support for staff in immigration removal centres so that they can work with detainees more closely.

The home secretary also announced that he would review how time limited detention works in other countries to build an evidence base to better inform the debate in the UK.

Politicians and campaigners welcomed these reforms, but urged that they did not go far enough and called on the government to introduce a time-limit on immigration detention.

They called for an immediate stop to the detention of people who have survived torture and other serious harm.

Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, described the UK’s immigration detention system as “a scandal”.

“The government needs to end the atrocious immigration detention system,” she said. “It needs to end the hostile environment. Until it does, it will continue to be haunted by what we have all come to describe as the Windrush scandal.”

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights programme director, said: “The approach towards the thousands of particularly vulnerable people who are locked up each year – including rape victims, torture survivors and people with serious mental illness – is also of significant concern.

“Indefinite detention also continues, causing real suffering to thousands of people. Government ministers must urgently act on repeated findings demonstrating the need to end the harm of routine and excessive use of detention in the UK.”

Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom of Torture, echoed his comments, saying that in order to fulfil his promise of a more compassionate immigration system, Mr Javid must put an immediate stop to the detention of people who have survived torture and other serious harm.

Director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier, meanwhile said: “We can’t afford to wait years longer while the government tinkers around the edges – we need urgent action, a move to more effective and humane alternatives and a 28-day time limit on detention at the earliest opportunity.”

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Javid said: “Detention is an important part of the immigration system – but it must be fair, dignified and protect the most vulnerable. We have made significant improvements to our approach in recent years, but it is clear we can go further.

“Under these reforms, we will work with our partners to develop alternatives to detention. We will also improve support for the most vulnerable, introduce a new drive on dignity in detention and be more transparent. My ultimate goal is to ensure that our immigration system – including our approach to detention – is effective and humane.”

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