The UK’s immigration detention system should be scrapped

  • Patrick Page
  • 23 Mar 2018

Around 30,000 people are detained in the UK every year. Many of these detainees are asylum seekers and victims of torture, trafficking and sexual abuse. They now face fresh trauma in detention centres.

( Getty Images )

Linh was six years old when a gang of men walked into her house. They demanded the repayment of a loan made to her parents, who had both died fishing out at sea. The men tortured Linh and her grandmother, cutting them with knives and broken plates before burning them with cigarettes.

The gang then trafficked Linh into sex work. She was taken from Vietnam to China, then France, before ending up in a brothel in the UK. She was raped repeatedly.

Linh finally escaped her traffickers and was found by the UK authorities. Instead of protecting this young woman, helping her to piece together a shattered life, the government detained Linh in the notorious women-only Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

Locked up again and afraid, Linh’s physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly: "I felt as if I was back in the hands of the men who were forcing me to sleep with other men….it brought back all the memories and fears.”

The government only released Linh when we challenged the lawfulness of her detention through litigation.  

Counting up the days 

Linh is just one of around 30,000 women, men and children detained in the UK every year. Many, like Linh, are survivors of torture, trafficking and sexual abuse. At any one time there are around 3,500 held in “removal centres”, more than half of whom are eventually released back into the community.

The UK is the only country in the European Union not to place a time limit on detention. Many languish behind walls for years, counting up the days.

This pointless exercise costs the taxpayer a staggering $48,000 per detainee, per year. But the human cost is unforgivable. The suicide rate in detention is high, and many leave broken and dejected. As our client Abdul Albashir told TRT World in the documentary “Haven of Despair”: “I left detention, but detention never left me.” 

A brutalising system 

Detention is not only brutal to detainees, the system brutalises its operators. Last year BBC Panorama aired undercover footage of staff verbally and physically abusing detainees at Brook House detention centre.

In the documentary a young Egyptian man, our client Abbas, is filmed being choked by an officer, who growls “Don’t f**king move, you f**king piece of shit, I’m gonna put you to f**king sleep.”

Afterwards the nurse, who had seen the strangling, agrees not to mention it in her report.

As the undercover reporter observes, detention staff become “immune to the pain and suffering that they see…some turn to the other side and actually take part in the abuse.”

As with the Stanford Prison experiment, detention staff gradually turn brutal; unwitting victims of hate.


The power to detain under immigration powers in the UK was first granted by parliament in 1971, but even until 1993 there were only 250 places for immigration detainees. Since then the ‘detention estate’ has bloated like a rotting carcass.

The UK’s indefinite, excessive and unparalleled use of detention has prompted a cross-party group of Members of Parliament to describe the UK as an “outlier” in Europe.

Under the carpet 

For years, the subject of immigration detention was dismissed, glossed over, or filed away. For years, activists and NGOs have called for radical reform and the dismantling of the system. And for years, public lawyers from firms such as my own have challenged the lawfulness of detention policies and practices.

We were dismissed as “activist left wing human rights lawyers” who simply “harangue and harass.”

But the tide is turning. The voices crying out in the wilderness have become a roar at the heart of the establishment.

A gathering storm 

Even senior civil servants have now joined the throng. Stephen Shaw was commissioned by the UK government to carry out a review on immigration detention. His January 2016 report roundly criticised the government for overusing detention and for failing to put in place proper safeguards for vulnerable people. Shaw’s review echoes the damning findings of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) following inspections of the centres.

In November 2017, a report commissioned by the Bar Council of England and Wales described the detention system as “flawed”, “an expensive effort to create a hostile environment”, and strongly advocated a time limit. A month later the British Medical Association called for the practice to be phased out completely.

Parliament is also mobilising. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to end indefinite detention and the Green Party has vowed to do away with the system altogether.

In January this year, two former cabinet ministers of the ruling Conservative Party indicated that they would rebel against their own party by voting against the current set-up. One of these “rebels”, the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, described the system as a “dystopian stain on our democracy”.

Scrap it

The Conservatives needs to pull their heads out of the sand and listen to NGOs, medical associations, legal practitioners, civil servants, their colleagues in Parliament, and, of course most importantly, detainees.

If and when they do, they’ll be in for a shock: they are now alone in defending this demeaning system; an outlier party in an outlier state.

Immigration detention is brutal, brutalising, expensive and ineffective. It should be scrapped. 

Pseudonyms have been used for ‘Linh’ and ‘Abbas’ to protect their identity. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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