Immigration detention refers to the government practice of detaining asylum seekers and other migrants for administrative purposes whilst they wait for permission to live in the UK or before they are deported. It is important to appreciate that it is an administrative process rather than a criminal procedure.

Over ten years ago, I volunteered for a charity visiting detainees at the Harmondsworth immigration detention centre near Heathrow to provide support, practical advice and friendship. Detainees are vulnerable and can often feel isolated and frightened. I can recall the bleak and sad conditions in which detainees were held.

Since I last visited Harmondsworth, it appears that the immigration detention system still fails to safeguard detainees. As well as having the highest suicide attempt rate, the 2014 report by Harmondsworth’s Independent Monitoring Board acknowledged “Harmondsworth IRC is in large parts a depressing, dirty place and in some cases has a destructive effect on the welfare of detainees.”

Rise in immigration detention

In the past few years there has been much focus on international population movements. However, what has drawn less public attention is the rise in the number of people being detained in Britain under Immigration Act powers and the often poor conditions in which they are held. In 2015, 32,446 migrants entered detention, compared to 30,364 in 2014 (UK Home Office 2016). These statistics do not include people detained in police cells, prisons, short term holding rooms and those detained under both criminal and immigration powers. As at January 2016, there were 418 immigration detainees held in prison establishments in England and Wales.

It is striking that, despite this growth in the use of detention, the places in which detainees are held are so little known to the public at large. For instance, most people are unaware that four of Britain’s ten immigration removal centres are managed by the Prison Service and that the Home Office has outsourced the management of the remaining six centres to private firms – Mitie, GEO, G4S and Serco.

The increase in the numbers of detainees has been caused by the fact that the UK is the only country in Europe that doesn’t have a time limit on detention. Some detainees are held for long periods prior to a decision being made about their futures. In 2015, 33,189 detainees left detention; of these nearly 8% (2,521) had been detained for more than a year (UK Home Office 2016). Over half of the people who left detention were allowed to remain in the UK. It is therefore questionable whether it was necessary to detain those people.

Allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood

A number of sexual violence allegations have been made against the UK’s most controversial immigration detention centre, Yarl’s Wood. The majority of detainees are women and children, many of whom who have fled torture and abuse, including sexual violence. However, about half the staff are male.

In April 2014, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office when she tried to investigate complaints about the centre as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK.

In 2015, a dossier was published by Women Against Rape and Black Women’s Rape Action Project which detailed hundreds of complaints about sexual abuse and mistreatment at Yarl’s Wood, spanning a decade. Female detainees reported that male guards had touched them sexually, entered their rooms late at night and propositioned them sexually.

Officials have unfortunately been reluctant to release information about the ongoing problems at Yarl’s Wood. During 2016, the Home Office refused to reveal if any women had been raped at Yarl’s Wood and to release the number of pregnant detainees. Surely one way of tackling abuse and mistreatment in detention is to make the public aware of reported incidents and the detention of vulnerable people and to improve the monitoring of detention facilities. This would lead to greater transparency and a better insight into the problems.

In March 2016, during a protest calling for the closure of Yarl’s Wood, detainees hung a banner from the building claiming that members of staff were sexually abusing detainees. The banner read “Yarl’s Wood officers in relationships with vulnerable detainees”.

A Yarl’s Wood guard has been charged with raping a vulnerable female detainee and two other guards are accused of misconduct following sexual activity with the same detainee; their criminal trials began towards the end of 2016.

Yarl’s Wood is undoubtedly one of the most unpopular detention centres. The largest protest ever staged against Yarl’s Wood was held in December 2016. This demonstration was led by former detainees and asylum seekers calling for an end to immigration detention.

Suicide attempts in detention

One sign of the detrimental impact detention has on detainees is the rate of suicide attempts. Statistics released by the Home Office in 2016, following a freedom of information request, showed that:

  • Suicide attempts by detainees were at an all-time high
  • There were 393 recorded suicide attempts in 2015, an increase of 11% from the previous year
  • Shockingly, suicide attempts average more than one a day
  • Harmondsworth immigration removal centre had the highest number of suicide attempts at 105, followed by Yarl’s Wood with 64
  • A total of 2,957 detainees, including 11 children, were on “suicide watch” during 2015

Review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons

After years of concern about the treatment of immigration detainees including incidents of deaths, self-harm and sexual abuse, the former home secretary Theresa May commissioned a report which was published in January 2016.

Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, referred in his report to recent court cases in which the Home Office had been found to have breached Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which outlaws torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) in respect of the treatment of detainees. Shaw believed it was simply inconceivable that these court cases would receive so little media attention if they involved anyone else.

Shaw called for:

  • an increase in the number of female staff at Yarl’s Wood;
  • a complete ban on the detention of pregnant women; and
  • a “presumption against detention” of victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder

Theresa May tried to exclude any consideration of introducing a statutory time limit on the use of immigration detention, but in the report Shaw made clear his belief that the numbers should be reduced “both for reasons of welfare and to deliver better use of public money”.

Developments since Shaw’s report

The government has sadly failed to implement the recommendations made in Shaw’s report. Under the Immigration Act 2016, pregnant women should no longer be held for longer than 72 hours but there has been no outright ban as recommended by Shaw. Vulnerable detainees continue to be detained.

Conditions for detainees do not appear to be improving. In December 2016 an investigation was launched by the prisons and probation ombudsman after the tragic death of a second immigrant in UK detention in only a week. The 49-year-old male detainee had been held at Morton Hall immigration removal centre in Lincoln and died in hospital. Morton Hall is a 392 bed unit run by the prison service on behalf of the Home Office and was previously a women’s prison. This latest death brings the total number of deaths in immigration removal centres since 2000 to 28.

The future

One way of tackling abuse and welfare concerns in detention would be to ensure that detainees are aware of their legal rights regarding sexual assault, abuse and harassment. However, a survey published in the autumn of 2016 showed that immigrants held in detention have difficulties accessing legal representation. Growing numbers of detainees are now held in prisons, where only 1 in 20 has access to any kind of independent legal advice.

The systematic failings of the immigration detention system have unfortunately not gained widespread public attention. Whatever your views on the rights or wrongs of detention, the UK has a legal as well as a moral obligation to treat every detainee with humanity and to protect them from harm.

In my opinion, the UK government should aim to greatly reduce the use of immigration detention, especially for vulnerable individuals, people who have committed no crime and those with no identified risk of absconding. Something needs to change, and fast.