Response to Shaw review: UK must end ‘unacceptable’ use of indefinite immigration detention

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The UK must end its unacceptable practice of indefinitely detaining people in immigration removal centres and radically reduce the numbers it locks up, Amnesty International UK said today in response to the publication of a new government commissioned report.

The report into the ‘the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons’, written by former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw, makes 64 recommendations to the government to improve its record on immigration detention. However, even Mr Shaw himself acknowledges that his proposals “do not go far enough” to address the harms caused to people made vulnerable by their detention. While Minister for Immigration James Brokenshire has accepted the “broad thrust” of the recommendations, he has made no commitment to implement them all.

Every year 30,000 people are subjected to immigration, with no idea how long they will be there, and this number has been rising every year for several years. However, the majority of people detained are eventually released back into the community. The longer people are detained, the more likely detention ends with their release not their removal.

Shaw’s report is the latest in a series of reviews commissioned by the government into immigration detention in the last few years, but every time ministers have failed to implement recommendations to reduce the numbers locked up and end indefinite detention altogether.

In March last year, a cross-party group of MPs and peers found the use of immigration detention to be excessive and the cause of serious harm, particularly on mental health. A key factor in the harms caused to detainees was the fact that – unlike in other EU countries – immigration detention in the UK is without time limit. The group urged an end to this, but again the government failed to act.

Steve Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights expert, said:

“The use of indefinite detention is expensive, ineffective and extremely harmful to many of those detained, and this is yet another report exposing the shocking treatment of vulnerable people in the UK’s immigration system.

“Most people wouldn’t know it, but the UK locks up thousands in immigration detention, including rape victims, torture survivors and people with serious mental illness. This can and frequently does have a terrible impact on their mental health. In some cases the harm it does can be catastrophic. The system destroys people’s lives, and is utterly unacceptable.

“It is high time UK government ministers listened to the experts, who time and again have warned of the terrible consequences of the UK’s excessive use of detention.”

There have been several cases over the last few years where the mental health impact of immigration detention has been catastrophic – including in one case where the wife of a refugee in the UK, who arrived on a valid visa to join her husband, was detained for 17 months leading directly to her developing a major depressive illness and repeatedly self-harming.

The High Court found her treatment to have been inhuman and degrading. There is good reason to think this case is just the tip of an iceberg, said Amnesty, particularly as cuts to legal aid and the fact of detention itself constitute serious obstacles to detainees accessing effective legal advice and representation to pursue such claims. Many other claims concerning unlawful use of detention powers settle out of court.