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Cruel and unjust: Scandal of how immigration centres have become big business

Unnoticed by most of the population, the UK has developed a cruel and unjust immigration system, which is ensnaring growing numbers of Europeans. CELIA CLARKE on a scheme which should shame us all

It was an email from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Vilnius that confirmed what our legal advisers had been noticing with our casework – European nationals were being picked up in the UK, detained and removed in alarmingly large numbers.

The unit in Lithuania was shocked by the numbers of their nationals turning up at their office for help, having been removed from the UK, often having left partners and children behind.

They wanted to find out from us whether this was happening with other nationals from the European Economic Area (EEA, the 28 EU member states, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). The short answer was yes.

Our organisation, Bail for Immigration Detainees, exists to challenge immigration detention in the UK by providing legal advice and representation to people held in prisons and detention centres under immigration powers, alongside research and policy advocacy to achieve change in detention policy and practice.

Our legal advisers run a helpline four days a week and visit on average three detention centres or prisons every week to provide one-to-one legal advice to whoever turns up.

Last year we assisted 5,840 people in detention. In previous years, staff would see very few EEA nationals at these advice sessions, and very few would call the helpline seeking advice. But in the last two years, the numbers have steadily crept up, with a noticeable increase in the year since the UK voted to leave the EU.

Anyone subject to immigration control in the UK can be detained under immigration powers.

It is like no other form of detention in the UK in that the decision to detain is taken by an individual immigration officer.

It isn’t overseen by a court of law, there is no automatic bail hearing (as there is in the criminal justice system) and, arguably worst of all, there’s no time limit.

It is a cruel and punitive sledgehammer to crack a very small nut. There are alternatives to detention that already exist in the form of regular restrictions requiring people to report their whereabouts, for example.

The stated purpose of detention is to determine someone’s right to be in the UK or for removal or deportation. It is supposed to be used as a last resort, as set out in Home Office policy.

Detaining officers are required to demonstrate that they have considered alternatives before making the decision to detain.

Anyone with particular vulnerabilities such as mental ill-health for example, should only be detained in exceptional circumstances – except that recently the Home Office’s policy has been re-written to permit ‘immigration considerations’ to override recognised vulnerability.

A system initially brought in – as the MP Diane Abbott always says – to hold individuals for a brief period of 72 hours in preparation for removal from the UK, has become a multi-million pound business, incarcerating up to 30,000 people per year.

The indefinite nature of detention is particularly cruel. As one former detainee said to the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in 2015, ‘In prison you count the days down, in detention you count them up’. Without any automatic legal process for challenging their detention, individuals have to know their rights and be able to exercise them.

So who are these people and why is it happening? Let’s remember for a minute that EEA nationals have the right to free movement.

In the same way as British nationals can travel freely within Europe, to live and work as we wish, so are all other EEA nationals free to come to the UK.

Thus, the threshold to remove or deport an EEA national is much higher than it is for a national of a country outside the EU. Administrative removal is possible if an EEA national is here but is not exercising treaty rights – in other words, they are not working or looking for work.

But even then there has to be a process to remove them, a process which they can appeal. The bar for deportation (usually if a criminal offence has been committed) is also high.

If an EEA national has lived less than five years in the UK, they can be deported on grounds of public policy, public security or public health.

But crucially, that must be ‘proportionate’.

If an EEA national has lived in the UK for five years, then it must be ‘serious’ grounds of public security, and longer than ten years it must be ‘imperative’ grounds of public security.

We have seen the Home Office increasingly making deportation decisions against EEA nationals based on historical convictions in their country of origin, and not in relation to criminality in the UK.

One man who approached us for help from detention had been a victim of crime. He and his wife had been attacked in their own home, fled from their attackers and called the police.

While at the police station, he was detained and sent to an immigration removal centre, despite having lived and worked here for two years.

The Home Office was intending to deport him on the basis of a minor criminal conviction from his own country.

Meanwhile his wife was alone, badly injured and homeless, with no-one to turn to.

The reason this is happening is because it can. Detention is convenient for the Home Office.

It allows it to look tough on immigration. But it’s a cruel and inappropriately punitive system that must end.

Celia Clarke is the director of Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID)

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