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Unthinking Immigration Detention

A decade on from the launch of its Hostile Environment agenda, the UK government is stepping up its campaign against asylum seekers, with indefinite imprisonment of migrants a central component. Fred Ashmore argues that immigration detention is expensive, ineffective and demeans us as a nation. It requires an urgent rethinking beyond the politics of fear.

Like other members of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, . I share many interests with Rethinking Security. This includes my own particular focus: the UK’s system of immigration detention, a carceral response to managing the fears of many of the electorate. This piece is written soon after the passing of the Nationalities and Borders Bill 2022, a piece of legislation which reflects the attitudes and prejudices of this government and cocks a snook at the international regime for protecting and supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Other recent announcements have included the brutal (though not original) idea of exporting asylum seekers to Rwanda to take their chances in the Rwandan regime for asylum, and the decision that this country will not, after all, use its armed forces to nudge inflatable boats overloaded with asylum seekers back towards France.

No difficulty, then, in discerning the Hostile Environment – a term coined by then Home Secretary Theresa May exactly 10 years ago – at work. Asylum seekers and migrants are to be discouraged even if it is in contravention of international agreements and basic human rights. And if by some chance a person makes it to these shores, the first thing likely to happen is that they will be detained. For processing and assessment of course; just checking the story and getting the facts clear. While preventing free movement in case such a person might not be confident of being treated fairly, might hear rumours of the regime under which people are held in this country. Might become aware of the likelihood of being – effectively – imprisoned without trial and without time limit, under conditions which have been repeatedly assessed as damaging to mental health.

Shrieking, timeless hostility

Immigration controls and management are not completely unreasonable ideas. No one would dismiss the possibility that someone coming to this country might have adverse intent. But the degree to which our administration shows suspicion, mistrust and stereotyping appears beyond reasonable. Everything about the regime shrieks hostility. The widespread and routine use of immigration detention is one of the nastiest aspects.

Although most of us are aware of immigration detention, many may be unaware of how it is deployed. This is an administrative measure. No matter if an asylum seeker is vulnerable, ill or mentally fragile. Lock up first, assess later – and generally only when forced to do so.

A wide range of government employees can exercise immigration powers, and the victims are locked up in a place built to the standards of a Class B prison, surrounded by 5m high fencing, unable to leave or to exercise the rights of every citizen. A lengthy and complex process is required to apply for bail. And, possibly the worst aspect, the detention is without a time limit. It seems extraordinary that this country continues to do this despite the continuing pressure to introduce a limit to the time for which people can be locked up in detention, possibly set at the duration which experts have identified as the threshold for damage to mental health.

Some of those who arrive here are locked up in even worse conditions. The barracks where large numbers of asylum seekers are detained have been the subject of vigorous criticism but Napier barracks, near Folkestone, continues to be used.

Alternatives to detention

The most puzzling question is why the government thinks it’s a good idea to lock people up as a matter of course or at all. It is really not very effective, in terms of promoting resolution of claims effectively. People can be held for long periods, though these days there is better awareness that a detainee can seek immigration bail with a fair chance of success. But in the end, about 72% of detainees are released into the community, sometimes with reporting requirements or other conditions, but released. So what benefit was there from holding them in prison for months first?

It’s seriously expensive. A 2018 parliamentary briefing paper on immigration detention in the UK reported the cost at about £86,000 a year per person plus in many cases the costs of damages for harm caused by the detention. Pilot studies of alternatives to detention have shown that people engage much better with an immigration system if they feel that they understand it, are listened to and can explore their options fairly.

There have been several studies of the idea of alternatives to detention, including a recent one in which the outcomes for a group of women of having their cases worked through without locking them up. They did all right. None of them ran away or failed to cooperate with those examining their claims. The International Detention Coalition has done a study of three pilot schemes for alternatives to detention, carried out in Poland, Cyprus and Bulgaria. The story is pretty much the same: non-imprisoned people following through their application for asylum cooperate well with the processes even if they are not locked up.

The strongest clue to the UK government’s attitude is embedded in its recent Nationalities and Borders Bill and explanatory material produced by those who have pushed the Bill through. The phrase is “illegal entry”. People who have the monstrous impertinence to ask for asylum under international agreements (the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol which extends its scope by removing the previous geographical limitations) are suspicious ipso facto. They are to be treated as criminals, wrong doers. If we want to offer shelter to refugees, we’ll show them that they are welcome, but those who don’t wait to be asked are to be excluded if possible, and, as an interim measure, locked up.

A supportive environment

It would be so wonderful if as a nation we offered a supportive environment rather than a hostile one. The excellent Detention Forum has set out the case for this, deploying a community-based case resolution system, along with a number of other changes that might bring this country closer to civilised behaviour.

“We want to see people treated clearly and fairly while they explore whether or not they will be able to stay with us. We want to see all people in this country being treated with dignity and respect as individual human beings including: undocumented migrants, time-served prisoners, people seeking asylum and people who have been refused asylum.” 

As Rethinking Security seeks to reimagine ways in which we could achieve freedom from want and freedom from fear, try to dream and hope that the government starts thinking afresh its attitude to this blot of a detention system.


Fred Ashmore is a Quaker of long standing, valuing in particular the Quaker testimonies to equality and truth and everything which flows from these.  His interested in immigration detention has been reinforced by considerable visiting of immigration detainees before COVID put a stop to this. He lives in London. 


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Eye DJ via Flickr. Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, Bedfordshire.

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