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Indefinite detention of migrants is ‘expensive, ineffective and unjust’ say MPs

A cross-party group of MPs and Peers has called for the end to the indefinite detention of migrants, calling the current system “expensive, ineffective and unjust”.

The all-party parliamentary group into the use of immigration detention warned that too many people are being unnecessarily detained, with some remaining in custody for as long as four years. They concluded, in stark contrast to current Home Office policy, that asylum seekers should be held no longer than 28 days, and only then as an “absolute last resort”.

The panel said that the current lack of a time limit had “significant mental health costs for detainees, as well as considerable financial costs to the taxpayer”.

The call comes in a report published today following a joint inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK by the APPG on Refugees and the APPG on Migration.

The panel included a former cabinet minister, a former chief inspector of prisons, and a former law lord and considered evidence over eight months. It concluded that the enforcement-focused culture of the Home Office means that official guidance, which states that detention should be used sparingly and for the shortest possible time, is not being followed, resulting in too many instances of unnecessary detention.

It recommends that the government learn from best practice abroad where alternatives to detention are used, which not only allow individuals to live in the community, but which also allow the government to maintain immigration control at a much lower cost to the state.

While considering evidence the inquiry heard testimony from current detainees who testified via speakerphone, a first for a parliamentary inquiry. They described the conditions inside the detention centres and how long they had been held there.

Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather, chair of the inquiry, describes a moment when listening to such evidence where the members of the panel gasped at what they were hearing.

The detainees described accounts of suicide attempts, being handcuffed for hospital treatment, and of women detainees being sexually harassed by guards.

Teather said: “The UK is an outlier in not having a limit of how long we can detain people under immigration powers. We are also an outlier on the scale of our immigration detention estate. We detain a lot of people, some for a very long time, all with huge uncertainty, and we have very limited processes for individuals to challenge that detention.”

The panel argues that depriving an individual of their liberty for the purposes of immigration detention should be an absolute last resort and only used to effect removal.

It points out that UK is the only country in the EU not to have an upper time limit on detention, and the panel found that the lack of a time limit has significant mental health costs for detainees, as well as considerable financial costs to the taxpayer.

The panel also are concerned that individuals being held under immigration powers are increasingly being held in “conditions tantamount to high security prison settings”.

They recommend that women who are victims of rape and sexual violence should not be detained and that pregnant women should never be detained for immigration purposes.

The panel was also “shocked” by the personal testimony they heard of people suffering from mental health conditions who were detained for prolonged periods of time and concluded that current Home Office policy puts the health of detainees at serious risk.

The report represents a cross-party perspective on the issue and will surely put pressure on Theresa May to alter Home Office policies in line with the recommendations.

Paul Blomfield, vice-chair of the panel and Labour MP for Sheffield Central, said: “Current Home Office policy is that detention should be used as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. From the evidence that we heard, Home Office standard practice falls well short of this policy.

“In our report, we recommend that far fewer people should be detained, that detention should always be a last resort, and that it should only ever be for a maximum of 28 days. Other countries manage to maintain immigration control without resorting to indefinite detention. So can we.”

David Burrowes, a member of the inquiry panel and Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, added: “This inquiry is an unusual one. Immigration is on the political agenda but rarely do we unite on a cross party basis and consider the issue of immigration detention.

“The lack of a time limit is resulting in people being locked up for months and, in some cases, several years purely for administrative reasons. While there is a need to properly control our borders, people who arrive by fair means or foul must also be treated with dignity and respect throughout the immigration process.”

“The current system is failing to sufficiently do this and our report calls for an urgent rethink. We should follow the example of other countries where rates of detention are much lower and removal rates much higher.”

The report has been released as a three-month undercover investigation by Channel 4 news revealed serious instances of sexism and racism among Serco staff running the Yarl’s Wood immigration centre. Guards at the centre were filmed describing various detainees as “black bitch” and “evil”.

The footage shows one guard commenting: “They are all slashing their wrists, apparently. Let them slash their wrists ... It’s attention seeking.”

James Thorburn, managing director of Serco’s home affairs business, said he had not seen the footage, but added: “I would be shocked and angry if anybody we employ was talking about people in our care in a disrespectful or obnoxious manner. We will not tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate.”

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