Boris Johnson is facing a Tory rebellion this week over “inhumane” Home Office rules that allow the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and others involved in often complex and harrowing immigration cases.
The former Conservative cabinet ministers David Davis and Andrew Mitchell, supported by several other senior Tories, including prominent Brexiter Steve Baker, are pushing an amendment to the immigration bill to limit detention times to a maximum of 28 days.
Their intervention comes as new evidence is published this weekend of the trauma that many people caught up in UK immigration cases suffer when taken into detention centres, where they are held in prison-like conditions with no idea how long they will remain.
A report published on Sunday by the Jesuit Refugee Service, a Catholic organisation that offers pastoral support to people at the Heathrow immigration removal centre and gives help in the community to others made destitute by the asylum process, provides disturbing evidence of the toll that incarceration takes.
Entitled Detained and Dehumanised, the report is based on a series of interviews with 27 people who experienced detention in UK centres before the pandemic. Many say the conditions and lack of any end in sight drove them and fellow inmates to have suicidal thoughts and caused serious, lasting psychological damage.
Bulgarian welder, holds A-level equivalent, has job offer for £26,000 a year, does not speak English.
Now: Able to work in the UK under free movement rules.
From January 2021: The worker scores points for a job offer, salary over £25,600, educational qualification, and working in a shortage occupation – meaning a score of 80 points, 10 more than the 70-point threshold. Ticks two of the three mandatory boxes for entry to the country – a job offer and job at appropriate skill level. But falling short on the third compulsory condition for entry of speaking English rules the welder out and they cannot come into the UK.
Sri Lankan production manager, has job offer for a salary of £28,000 a year, holds A-level equivalent, holds a PhD in a Stem subject, speaks English.
Now: Eligible courtesy of the requisite educational qualification of degree or over.
From January 2021: The worker earns less than the £34,000 “going rate” for their profession, meaning that they must pick up 70 points elsewhere to be eligible. They are not in a shortage occupation and so score zero on that point – but succeed nonetheless with 20 points for a job offer, 20 points for their A-level equivalent, 10 points for English, and 20 points for a PhD in a Stem subject – a total of exactly 70.
Italian waiter has job offer in a hotel at £20,000, has languages degree and fluent in English.
Now: Able to work in the UK under free movement rules.
From January 2021: Is eligible to enter on the three mandatory conditions – job offer, speaks English and has met education threshold. Picks up 50 points. But scores zero for salary, zero for shortage occupation, does not have a PhD and cannot come into the country.
The interviews highlight a sense of despair. “I saw people cutting themselves, someone who tried to hang himself, someone who died in detention,” said one of those quoted.
Another said: “The most awful thing was an uncertainty: not knowing whether I will be released and what they’re going to do to me.”
The effects lasted for months after release. One interviewee said: “When I was released it was even difficult for me to cross a road because of mental torture for seven months.”
Davis has tabled an amendment to the immigration and social security coordination (EU withdrawal) bill 2019-21, the main purpose of which is to end rights to free movement for people from the EU as a result of Brexit. The amendment aims to introduce a 28-day limit in all immigration detention cases and ensure they would be subject to judicial oversight for the first time. The bill comes back to the Commons on Tuesday.
The move is backed by Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. The group of Tory MPs supporting it – expected to grow before Tuesday – includes the former minister Tim Loughton, Richard Fuller and Henry Smith.
Davis told the Observer the detention of individuals involved in immigration cases was the only part of the UK justice system that allowed people who had not committed offences, or who had served their sentences, to be detained indefinitely.
He added: “People are in effect in prison and they never know when they will be coming out, which is a terrible, inhumane position to be in.
“We detain about 25,000 individuals each year for immigration purposes. Any situation in which the state strips people of their liberty requires the highest possible level of scrutiny and accountability. The purpose of any incarceration should be clear. Conditions and a time for release should be set.”
In the year ending June 2019, 24,052 people entered immigration detention in the UK. In the vast majority of cases this is with a view to removing individuals from the UK.
However, over half of those detained are ultimately released back into the community.
The report calls for detention to be replaced by a more humane system. But if this cannot be achieved it demands “a mandatory and short time limit”. It notes: “It is relevant in this context that there are tight mandatory time limits on how long people can be held without charge in other areas of law, 28 days being the longest time allowed in any other context.”