This blog post comes from Benny Hunter at Association for Visitors to Immigration Detainees. AVID is a small, national charity that supports volunteer visitors to people in immigration detention, wherever they are held. AVID has 16 member groups that visit in every detention centre in the UK, and some prisons, and works to raise awareness of immigration detention and advocate for positive change in the detention system.
An earlier version of this blog was published by Right to Remain.
A number of MPs have come forward in support of a time limit on detention and the end to the detention of vulnerable people in IRCs, including Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and a number of Conservative MPs. It is now party policy for the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the SNP. While it’s excellent to see these issues receive cross-party support, those detained in prison are often left forgotten in demands for reform.
We don’t want to detain people for months on end or longer, only to find they have a right to stay, and so it is Labour policy that we will end indefinite detention and completely review the operation of detention centres. | Click to watch the speech ↓https://t.co/E8M4PUYpAc pic.twitter.com/eo0MCs9VRf
— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) February 21, 2018
In his recent testimony in front of the Home Affairs Committee, Stephen Shaw, author of a recent independent report into the detention of vulnerable people, made an unlikely intervention. He called for an end to the routine deportation of ‘Time-Served Foreign National Offenders’ and described it as “often monstrously disproportionate to the offence”. He said, “I question whether it’s fair for the sixth richest country on earth to expel people who were ‘made’ in this country, who commit crimes here, to third world countries.”
The process of deportation of non-citizens who commit crimes in the UK can be a lengthy one, delayed by complex international bureaucracy and legal appeals – during which time the Home Office often will keep people detained indefinitely in prison. At any one time there are usually upwards of 400 people detained in prisons across the UK under the administrative procedures of the Immigration Acts, having already served their sentence and now awaiting deportation.
Being detained in prison has additional challenges compared with being detained in an immigration removal centre (IRC). There is far less information and external support available and no access to the internet or a mobile phone to research your case or phone a solicitor. In fact, research by Bail for Immigration Detainees last year showed that only 1 in 10 of those held in prison on immigration grounds had access to a legal representative.
There are also no protections for vulnerable people detained in prison, such as survivors of torture or sexual violence. There is no Rule 35 safeguard for people detained in prisons, which under normal circumstances in IRCs allows for medical professionals to call for a review of a person’s suitability for detention on the basis of specific vulnerabilities.
People with deportation orders (including those detained in prisons) are not eligible for the automatic bail hearings introduced earlier this year. Less able to access legal representation and less likely to be released on bail, those detained in prison are at risk of being detained for far longer than those held in IRCs. Quite often the length of time a person spends in detention is totally disproportionate to the prison sentence served.
Client who has lived in the UK since childhood, served a 3 month sentence and was then detained for a further 18 months in prison, finally released on bail – time in detention in prison 6 times the length of his sentence
— BID (@BIDdetention) December 19, 2017
Last year, one person was detained in the UK for 5 years, 2 weeks and 6 days. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to wait that long, not knowing when you will be deported or released.
Those with refugee status or leave to remain may have their status revoked by a Home Office review, for any criminal offence. Non-UK citizens serving custodial sentences are automatically considered for deportation if their sentence exceeds 12 months but can also be deported after much lighter sentences.
Detention, and the refusal of bail, is often justified on the basis that those who are held “pose a risk to society”. Yet very often such custodial sentences are due to petty crime, related to living in poverty or having no recourse to public funds, or due to immigration crimes such as using false documents.
One of many such examples was reported on by journalist Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, of a teenage boy incarcerated for using false documents, who was held in prison for 16 months after his initial 2-month sentence.
On 6 May 2016 a teenage boy tried to leave the UK. He was apprehended, convicted of using false documents and sentenced to two months in prison. He was 16, he would turn 17 that December.
— R Omonira-Oyekanmi (@Rebecca_Omonira) January 25, 2018
Often those who end up detained in prison grew up in the UK, have their family here and are not aware of their lack of immigration status until they commit a crime and are considered for deportation.
‘Racial bias’ within the England and Wales criminal justice system also weighs against non-UK citizens who commit crimes. In 2016, the David Lammy Review highlighted how ethnic minorities are more likely to receive custodial sentences for some crimes.
No one, regardless of their immigration status or their criminal history, should be deprived of their right to liberty for the convenience of the Home Office and then left in limbo indefinitely.
As we seek out detention reform, we must make sure that we leave no one behind. We must make sure that reform is not only for those seeking asylum but also for undocumented migrants and for those detained in prisons.
While people detained in prison are often a hidden population, a number of volunteer groups provide a vital lifeline of support by visiting. For more information on visiting people detained in prison, contact AVID through our website or see BEST Support, SOAS Detainee Support, Detention Action, MIDST and Liverpool Prisons Visiting Group.
Wondering where people are being detained? AVID and FWDS London have created an interactive map of people detained under immigration powers in prisons across the UK.