Immigrant Detention in the UK: The human cost of administrative expediency

Untitled 1, Orodihc, August ’12

Juan had originally published this article on 12 July 2012 on the blog IdeasdePapel

“Is it OK like this?” Amy asks me while she draws the curtains in. I say yes. “We should get started. They are all here and it’s already 6pm. Have you met everyone yet?” I nod, instinctively lifting my gaze to meet those of Alexis L. Wood, the film director and producer, and Sarah, the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s (GDWG) representative. Behind them, a row of tables back, I can see Gharghasht, founder and director of Afghan Voice Forum & Radio, himself a former detainee.

Rested upon a folded plastic support, a projector, and pinned from a long, black curtain at the back of this public house ‘living room’, a white, wrinkled sheet acts as screen. We are in a small room in the first floor of The Quadrant, a pub at the centre of Brighton, right next to the Clock Tower, Brighton’s ‘Big Ben’. Amy has done a great job helping to organise the event in time for the Refugee Week; she’s booked the venue, contacted the speakers and got some friends to lend a helping hand. I look around, judge roughly: 20 people, maybe 30? Mostly students, mostly women. It is a pretty good audience, a nice venue and everything is set up. I sit at the table, sip my pint of Guinness and remercie Elona for being there. Amy plays the film.

In little more than 20 minutes, How Long is Indefinite?, an independent and small budget, yet powerful, conclusive and intimate film, lets us hear the voices of three detainees; we learn the detainees’ stories and experiences and, even if only so for 20 minutes, we grasp their reality. Unfortunately, however, the fact that we learn about their realities doesn’t make them less unfair and indignant. Denigrating. Alexis tells us she’s done the film “to emphasise the stories of detainees as human beings and not just news sounds bites or statistics”.

The film ends, the discussion with the speakers begins. Now questions flow, begging for answers. And the answers come but with the sour taste of information rather than sweet solutions. Interest! Nonetheless. Awareness! And yet uncertainty. That’s it, the people in the room are engaged. Drive for Action! Eagerness for Change! The event is succeeding. Yet, the reality of those affected by detention remains a horrible one.

A question settles in my mind, and then another…there are many questions…

. … .

What is immigrant detention then? Detention, I learn, is when an individual is retained, held in a specially designed facility or building meanwhile his or her deportation case or identification is being dealt with. This, as the latest briefing from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University explains, is the government practice to facilitate the administrative process of immigration claims, deportation and identification. 

Who gets detained? Detained people are those who have recently arrived to the UK and await the examination by the authorities to determine their right of entry, those who have overstayed their visas or are undocumented, and lastly foreign national prisoners. However, the majority of detainees are individuals who have, at some point, sought asylum. These, in fact, accounted for more than half of the total UK detainee population in 2011. The higher numbers of asylum seekers in detention is owed to the government’s decision in 2005 to process 30 per cent of new asylum applicants through the detained fast-track (DFT) system. 

How many detainees are there and where are they held? The number of migrants detained in the UK is estimated at just under 30,000 every year, about 4,000 more than in 2010. Between December 2008 and December 2011 there were 3,000 migrants detained at any given time. Most immigration detainees are held in detention centres, officially known as ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ (IRC), and also Short Term Holding Facilities (STHF) which are usually located within airport terminals or nearby. The UK Border Agency (UKBA), in an effort to expedite the deportation process has outsourced most of the ICRs to private companies like MITIE, GEO Group, G4S, Serco and Reliance. In February 2012, all but three ICRs were run by private firms.

How much does detention cost? The first piece of information that gets imprinted in my head is the outsourcing of the ICRs to these private firms. This is an essential point because it means that in order to accelerate the deportation process, and thus meet the UK Government targets to cap the immigration of non-EU citizens, the UKBA has made the whole process not only less accountable but also extremely expensive. While the Home Office does not usually publish figures on the financial costs of detention, a 2007 Freedom of Information request revealed that in 2005/06 the weekly cost per detainee ranged from £511 to £1,344 at Lindholme and Colnbrook detention centres, respectively. Furthermore, in February 2010, the UK Government reported in Parliament that a bed for a migrant in an immigration detention centre cost around £120 per day. The latter figure has allowed the Immigration Observatory Centre at Oxford to estimate the annual costs of any particular detention centre; for example, the ICR at Campfield, which tends to run at 90% capacity with 194 detainees out of a total of 216, costs around £8,497,200 per year to run.

Untitled 2, Orodihc, Aug ’12

Shocking things to hear in times of economic recession and welfare cuts, aren’t they? It does make you wonder, given that most detained migrants are not criminals and that a cheap hostel can cost you around a £100 or £150 a week, how much of all that money is spent on ‘security’ in immigration detention centres? Well, as I learn during the discussion, detention not only is expensive, it is also futile, illegitimate and potentially harmful on the individual;

. … .

“Consider,” I hear from Sarah, the GDWG’s representative, “the deportation of an individual or group of individuals being a process dependent upon the diplomatic relations and bilateral agreements of the two countries involved; the destination or ‘host’ country, which receives the immigrant, and the country of origin. So, if the UK does not have a good relation with the country of origin, the deportation process gets stuck or lengthened and people are trapped in an immigration limbo.” “Bad relations with the country of origin, or with the country where the migrant last issued a claim for asylum” says Gharghasht, and he adds, “A lot of people are sent back to Greece, for example, because that was the last place where they requested, and were not, granted asylum!”. 

All this gets even more complicated when I learn that de facto statelessness is not recognised in British immigration law. This means that if someone is from a country such as Iran or Sierra Leone, for example, which consistently refuse to accept asylum-seekers’ traveling documents to allow them to return, or the countries are considered as dangerous destinations, immigrants are trapped in an immigration limbo without any immediate prospects of deportation or stay to carry on with their lives. Being, then, that the ability of the UKBA to deport someone is ruled by diplomacy and politics, detention becomes an uncertain and irresponsible practice where migrants remain detained indefinitely. Most detainees are held for less than two months, but it is normal for some to spend between two and six months in the IRCs. Yet, a small but consistent minority of detainees are held for more than one year.

Untitled 2 (close-up a), Orodihc, August ’12

However, the biggest and worst costs of detention are those borne by the detainees themselves who may become desperate, anxious or even suicidal while awaiting for a decision which seems never to come. Fear. Anxiety. Alexis tells us that many people who have been previously detained live constantly afraid of being re-detained. “And it doesn’t really matter if they have already been detained once and gone through the whole process because each case gets filed separately and as if it were the first time they are detained”, adds Sarah.   Many people fear to be returned to the same place they have been victims of torture or persecution. In September last year for example, 18 Afghan asylum seekers went on hunger strike at Morton Hall, Swinderby, (Lincolnshire), because they did not want to be sent back to Afghanistan.

As I listen to Gharghasht’s story, and those of the detainees in the film, I learn that one also becomes a criminal by means of his or her, or their as families also get detained, immigration status. Immigrants are locked up in ICRs without time limits and usually, more often than reality and common sense allow to digest, for no crimes and without a foreseeable court hearing to review their situation. Sami, a former detainee held for over a year, says: “You have no freedom. You do not feel human. You struggle to understand why you are locked up. You are helpless. You are not released, or deported.”

With the current detained fast track system, asylum seekers whose claims are considered suitable for fast administrative process are detained throughout, from the moment they make their claim until a decision is reached. Now, one thing is to detain someone for removal, which is already controversial. Yet, to detain migrants to expedite the administrative process while their asylum claims are being processed is a whole different matter. Research by Detention Action has found that some asylum seekers spend weeks in detention even before they meet with a solicitor to process their claim! So, asylum seekers can find themselves unexpectedly detained for weeks in IRCs which as their name goes are not meant to ‘house’ people but to merely hold them until their removal. 

“Various detention centres lack appropriate basic amenities, the treatment is not great and the personnel working there often have no expertise in dealing with refugees and work in horrible conditions” says the Sarah. I ask her “What about dietary requirements of Muslims or doctor visits, for example?”, “Little, very little”, she says. “Mind you, there was a story in The Guardian the other day telling of a case where Home Office officials had tried to worsen the mental health of a Iraqi detainee with paranoid schizophrenia to force him to leave the UK on a voluntary basis!”. The day after the film screening I find myself clasping my teeth as I read the article and I also learn that UKBA officials are not allowed to force voluntary return on detainees to Iraq as the country is deemed too dangerous.

To the deficiencies of detention centres and the bad treatment, one has to add the unfairness of the court hearing process for detainees. “It is very common that you go to a hearing for your case and the judges, who are often not immigration lawyers but divorce or civil law lawyers, that’s if you are lucky, tell you ‘No, we can’t process your case because you are missing this or that paper, or this or that information.’ You feel impotent because you do not know the law very well. I happened to have a background in law, so I could defend myself. But even then, the judge would tell me I was trying to be smart and overstepping their authority” says Zubair, and he continues “In the end, your case often depends on whether the judge is having a good or a bad day.”

Furthermore, as Jerome Phelps from Detention Action explains, detainees have no right to choose a legal aid solicitor, but are allocated one from a rota. The majority of those who are refused asylum are given two days to appeal; most are dropped by their solicitors and have to appeal unaided; in a language that they may not understand and from their room in a high security detention centre, they must both prepare their defense and obtain the evidence for their case. And the whole process should take 22 days.

Medical Justice latest report, The Second Torture, highlights some of the inadequacies in the screening processes, the deficiencies of detention centres, the unfairness of court hearings and the harmful effects these have on detainees. After a review of 50 cases of people detained since May 2010, the report revealed a serious breach of rule 35 of the 2001 Detention Centre Rules which is aimed to prevent the detention of immigrants who have been victims of torture or experienced persecution, imprisonment or violence. Of the 50 cases, only 2 were deported while the rest were given release in Britain. Why then, asks the report, were those people detained in the first place?

Immigration detention is an expensive, ineffective, irresponsible and illegitimate administrative process exercised on thousands of people in Britain everyday, and while it does nothing to solve migration problems it wastes resources and causes considerable damage on the individuals.The reasons to continue with this practice escape my mind. If detention is really necessary in order to facilitate UKBA’s work, would it not be better to make the process more accountable and less expensive? Would it not be justifiable to treat detainees as human beings rather than as an administrative inconvenience?

Untitled 2 (close-up b), Orodihc, August ’12

Allow me, reader, to anticipate some of your objections as I know this space is too short to even pretend to introduce, let alone consider, the various social, political and economic perspectives and implications behind the international migration question. My perspectives are biased as I passionately and wholeheartedly believe in reciprocate integration; not only is the immigrant to integrate into the society but so is the host society to adapt to the migrants. To refute this is to negate the reality that we live in an ever closer and more connected world. Migrations, and I say ‘migrations’ in plural because of the many colours of their reality, are part of this global reality and to negate it is to admit stupidity and social ignorance.

*Thank you very much to Chidoro, my dad who signs Orodihc, for the drawings. Thanks to Amy for organising the film screening event, and to Gharghasht and Sarah for their work in this area and for taking part in the debate. Thanks also to Alexis L. Wood for her work and film How Long is Indefinite?

Notes by the author:

  1. Amy, Alexis, Gharghasht and Sarah’s conversations quoted in this article are reconstructions by the author of what was said and discussed during the film screening of How Long is Indefinite? on Sunday 24th June at The Quadrant, in Brighton. Any mistakes or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
  2. Further information about the film How Long is Indefinite? and about the work of Alexis L. Wood can be found here
  3. Information about the Gatwick Detainees’ Welfare Group and how to get involved can be found here
  4. The information about immigration detention and immigration detention centres (ICRs) with regards to numbers, location and financial costs is taken from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford’s briefing paper of Tuesday 22nd May, which can be found here
  5. Sami’s words are quoted from an article by Jerome Phelps, director of Detention Action, in the Migration Voice newspaper (pages 27-28). The newspaper was launched this year and can be found here
  6. Additional information on certain aspects of British immigration law, as per de facto statelessness, and details about the detained fast track system are taken from Jerome Phelps’ articles No release: lives in limbo (10 May 2010) and Fast track to despair (11 May 2011) published by openDemocracy.
  7. The report The Second Torture produced by Medical Justice can be found here
  8. The hunger strike of 18 Afghan detainees and the Iraqi detainee with paranoid schizophrenia cases are quoted from articles in the BBC, available here, and The Guardian, available here, respectively.


Hi Juan,
I am so touched that you were inspired by the film and learning about this horrific practice going on under our noses.
I’m thrilled that you are spreading the word in English and Spanish! The article is great. Thank you so much for writing it, it really means a lot and is so helpful to spread a discourse around this subject. Alexis L Wood, Producer and Director of ‘How Long Is Indefinite?’

Alexis L Wood (18 September 2012)

Hi Juan,
Thanks for sending this through. Very impressive article – very thoroughly researched and I like the way you pose simple questions (What is detention?) before giving detailed answers. Also, the article looks good with the images too.

Phil Mawhinney (18 September 2012) 

Hi Juan,
That is interesting to read your blog and the article regarding documentary screening and the discussion panel.
It was my pleasure to be there and talk and let the words spread so people get more awareness of how detention centers are like and how the system treat those people. I appreciate your work and this activism to aware and keep writing on your blog. This will for sure reach people and will find out things that are not given space in mainstream media due to government control and other policies of public awareness. Usually the government don’t want to publish or bring such awareness to mainstream media because they don’t want to create human bond and feelings of their citizens with those who are detained or treated badly. You know it better than me, you are in contact with such issues. I wish you all the best with your work and blog, keep in touch and if in future you want to discuss anything regarding Afghanistan or the Afghan community I might help you on it, including political and western involvement in Afghanistan. I am up for it.

Gharghasht (18 September 2012)

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