History of Immigration Detention

History of Immigration Detention

The uncertainty of indefinite detention changes you. I don’t think the way I used to think. I don’t talk to people the way I used to talk to people. I can’t get into relationships. I’ve forgotten how to speak to people outside of detention. In detention you lose touch with the world itself. The world it keeps moving and changing but in detention you are left behind.
— Abdi, quoted in Detention Action

Detention is an administrative act under which people subject to immigration control are held without judicial oversight, for an unlimited amount of time. The UK is the only country in the EU without a time limit on immigration detention. While a court ruling from the early 80s, known as the Hardial Singh principles, has provided case law which limits how long anyone can spend in detention to “a reasonable period of time”, this has proven to be very much dependent on different understandings of what reasonable means. Some people in detention are held in purpose-built centres, some in prisons. Some people are foreign nationals who served their time but are kept in prison under the category of detainee at the end of their sentence. Some people are awaiting a decision on an asylum case from the Home Office, others are being held prior to being deported.

In her excellent book Inside Immigration Detention Mary Bosworth identifies the opening of Harmondsworth Detention Unit in 1970 as the point when the contemporary detention estate, more or less as we know it today, came into being. Legislation has been in place relating to the detention of foreign nationals since the 1905 Aliens Act, which first introduced immigration controls to the UK. People held under the powers conferred by this or later acts were mainly held in prisons, a practice that still continues, or in rooms in hotels in ports. The construction of a purpose-built centre to hold people “unlocked the potential for administrative confinement of foreign nationals, thereby expanding state power” (Bosworth 2014: 22). Following Harmondsworth the number of detention centres, or Immigration Removal Centres as they were rebranded in 2001, grew. Enthusiasm for the construction of detention centres is a cross-party vision - the New Labour government oversaw the sharpest increase in the capacity of the detention estate, alongside an increase in legislation on immigration with seven acts relating to border control passing from 1999-2009. There are currently nine detention centres, and between July 2016 and June 2017 27,819 people were held in detention for periods ranging from days to months. At the end of June 2017 one man had been detained for over four years.

Detention can be seen to have developed piecemeal in response to waves of moral panic over immigration - following the attacks in New York in 2001 and London in 2005 and the subsequent association of asylum seekers with potential terror threats three new detention centres were built.

Perhaps as a consequence of this development it is expensive (the cost to the taxpayer of keeping someone in detention was calculated at the end of 2016 to be £86 per day), ineffective and unjust and has been so for as long as it has existed in the UK. Since the practice developed into the form it has today, there has never been a time limit on detention. The findings of the 2015 report on the inquiry into immigration detention by the APPG on refugees quoted a doctor from the Helen Bamber Foundation stating that people who were held in detention for longer than 30 days had “significantly higher mental health problems” than those who were released within a month.

To be honest, I don’t think there’s anyone who has been in detention that’s one hundred per cent right in the head, it has to affect you somehow

— Sean, from Detention Without Walls film

Detention centres are usually geographically isolated and subject to high security measures, meaning visiting people in detention is time-consuming and difficult. Additionally people are regularly moved around the detention estate, so someone who has lived in London for years finds themselves detained in Dungavel in rural Scotland. Alongside the development of purpose-built centres runs a parallel history of people held in prisons, despite immigration detention being an administrative process and not a custodial matter. Foreign national offenders can be kept in prisons for an indefinite amount of time following the end of their sentence. This link between detention and prison has grown steadily over time, mirroring the increase in size in the UK detention estate and also changing legislation which criminalised previously administrative actions like working without a visa or overstaying at the end of a visa. Given the well-documented bias in stop and search rates across the UK this effectively amounts to people of colour being racially profiled and increasingly criminalised for immigration offences which were not considered a criminal matter a few years ago, and then being subject to detention and deportation following their sentence.  The UK Borders Act 2007 compounded this with the automatic deportation of anyone from outside the EEA given a custodial sentence of more than a year in prison, and anyone from within the EEA given a sentence of two years or over.

Despite promises of detention reform following the recommendations of the Shaw report, this has not been reflected in practice as the numbers of people in detention has remained static. While amendments in the House of Lords led to the supposed imposition of a time limit for certain types of people in detention this has not been borne out in reality.  The situation remains bleak for the majority of people in detention, who have no way of knowing when they enter detention how much of their life is going to be spent in the centre - a week, a month, a year or several years. Our colleagues @Refugee Tales combine storytelling and solidarity to campaign against indefinite detention. See their work at http://refugeetales.org/

For further reading, please see:

Unlocking Detention campaign which is a virtual tour of the UK detention estate, running 'til the end of December. This is a great place for any readers to find out more about detention and current campaigns.

Bosworth, M. (2014) The historical development of immigration detention in Britain. In Inside Immigration Detention. : Oxford University Press.

Detention Forum Briefing Paper: Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom   

Migration Observatory Briefing Paper: Immigration Detention in the UK

Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom,  A Joint Inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration  

Review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons. A report to the Home Office by Stephen Shaw

Image courtesy of Scottish Detainee Visitors

Sacred Memory/Prosaic History: Rivesaltes Memorial Camp

Sacred Memory/Prosaic History: Rivesaltes Memorial Camp

Recommended reads: Sexualities, LGBTQ+  lives, and post colonialism

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