UKREN blog

Thursday 15 March 2018

Comparison of immigration detention in the UK with other European countries

Detention practices across Europe are steeped in contextual global and national politics. EU legislation stipulates that detention should be a ‘last resort’. Nevertheless, increased use of detention over the years in many European countries has been criticised as a systematic and administratively convenient way to detain and deport undocumented migrants.

Aptly put by Migreurop, detention facilities are ‘emblematic of the exclusion of populations seen to be undesirable… [offering] fertile ground for violations of basic human rights.’ Alongside the prospect of deportation, migrants in detention facilities across Europe are left to different degrees in degrading and unhygienic conditions with only fear and uncertainty on the horizon.

Detention growing

The UK has one of the largest immigration detention estates in Europe. In 2015 some 32,400 people were held in immigration detention, dropping to 28,900 in 2016. The single most common category of immigration detainees is people who have sought asylum in the UK at some point. The UK also detains children. Over 1,000 children were detained for the purpose of immigration control in 2009, and this number was reduced to just under 130 in 2011. It rose to 242 in 2012, before falling to 71 in 2016.

In 2006 the establishment of targets for deporting undocumented migrants in France raised controversy. France detained 25,849 in 2004 but by 2016, this had risen significantly to 45,937, with heights of 60,000 immigration detainees in 2010.

Though Sweden is often recognised for comparatively humane detention practices, it too has seen marked increases in the use of detention. The number of people detained in Sweden has more than doubled between 2007 and 2015 to reflect tougher policies.

One might see the steady drops in numbers of immigration detainees in Germany; 5,748 people in 2012 to 1,850 in 2014 as a reflection of Germany’s efforts to present the country as a welcoming place for asylum seekers. Nevertheless, this picture is complicated by other restrictive policies and an increase in the rate of people ordered to leave Germany.

Detention infrastructure and who runs the facilities

The rise in use of detention is worrying in and of itself, but it’s also necessary to look at the infrastructure and how detention centres are run. Today, there are migrants detained in warehouses, army barracks, airports, prisons, camps, police stations and administrative buildings all over Europe. What’s more these localities sometimes operate outside of any legal framework. France offers an incredulous example of undocumented migrants hired by a construction company to build the very same detention facilities they were subsequently incarcerated in before being deported.

-          Outsourcing and privatisation

The trend towards the privatisation and outsourcing of detention centres in Europe is significant. The UK government was the first in Europe to outsource to private companies. Outsourcing is now also growing in countries like Austria, Belgium, Spain, Greece, Italy and Switzerland with different services such as the management, catering, cleaning, security and surveillance being taken up by different companies. Going against this grain is Sweden who have been re-nationalising their detention facilities since private management of the facilities came under scrutiny with detainee hunger strikes and suicide attempts in the 90s.

Why is this outsourcing important? Because when immigration detention is privatised and outsourced it also serves as a ‘thriving business’, where profits are made at the expense of even adequate protection for detainees whose liberties are severely restricted. In the UK alone, large transnational companies look to benefit by £780M between 2004-2022 for the detention and deportation of migrants. In Italy it’s none other than Rome’s criminal enterprise mafia group, Mafia Capital, who have managed to profit from this lucrative business.

Michael Flynn from the Global Detention Project (2014) states that:

“Introducing private contractors shifts the policy focus away from the well-being of migrants to the bottom line of a company, which capitalises on the violation of detainees’ rights, as well as of the workers they employ. This is inevitable, this is just the nature of business.”

-          Detention in prison

Detention practices in the UK are considered some of the worst in Europe and as a result has been subject to scrutiny through law suits, investigations and public campaigns. Whilst other EU member states tend to consider the routine detention of migrants in prisons as unlawful, this is not the case in the UK and is particularly used for those awaiting deportation after finishing a criminal sentence. This is significant and the decision to detain someone in a prison over an immigration removal centre has crippling consequences on whether or not they can obtain access to justice. Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) list numerous issues with prison detention in the UK from no automatic access to on-site legal advice and restricted accesses to the use of phones and internet to progress legal cases. Furthermore considerable physical and mental damage is inflicted as a result of being held under serving prisoner regimes.

-          Conditions

As a minimum detaining authorities are expected to have the responsibilities of safeguarding the health and wellbeing of detainees. 

Not only are migrants routinely detained in prisons in the UK, but detention centres themselves are described as being prison-like by both detainees and staff alike. They look like prisons and are built to the same degree as prison design standards, with locked doors, bars on windows and razor wired walls. Staff wear uniform, perform roll counts and room searches. However, detainees in the UK also have additional restrictions on their liberties and freedoms to those service prison sentences as there detention can be indefinite. Recently there has been criticism around the slave-like treatment of detainees with many paid £1 an hour for doing menial work, in roles that the Home Office argues are ‘recreational and intellectual’ and provides ‘relief from boredom’.

In Italy, some guards have been known to wear riot gear as a result of frequent detainee revolts. Revolts are perhaps unsurprising given that even basic amenities have been described as inadequate or absent. These centres are described as having limited recreational spaces or activities and few or no educational or exercise facilities which means detainees spend meaningless time doing nothing. Poor hygiene and cramped, cage like and decrepit conditions have also been reported. Complaints have further been made with regards to the inadequacy of health care with little access to even basic medicines or specialist medical personnel. It has even been reported that detainees are forced to wear slippers for fear that they might use shoe laces to harm themselves or others.

In contrast, the conditions in Swedish detention facilities appear on the surface, more humane with recreation facilities such as libraries and televisions and 24h accesses to phones and internet. Staff are not security personnel and neither staff nor detainees wear uniform. However, with further investigation it would appear that detainee’s experience threatening behaviour from authorities, suboptimal living conditions with poor quality food and hygiene. Just as in the case of the UK, detainees describe detention facilities as comparable to prison or worse because of the uncertainty caused by the lack of information they receive.

Though detention conditions and practices differ between different European countries, detention in any form winds up harming those who experience it. Only privately outsources companies stand to profit, with European governments benefiting from the administrative convenience of stripping migrants of their rights and liberties by holding them in detention.

Author: Ella Firebrace, UKREN

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