UKREN blog

Friday 24 March 2017

The greatest stain on the UK’s human rights record?

Exactly fourteen months to the day that the Shaw Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable persons was published, Anne McLaughlin, SNP MP for Glasgow North East launched a Westminster debate that challenged not only the government’s failure to uphold the review, but the very existence of detention itself.

Parliamentary discussions surrounding detention seem to have adopted a frustratingly cyclical format. Those advocating against detention read harrowing testimonies to ministers, who reinstate their pledge of ‘deep concern’ but what over time proves to be empty promises. The Shaw Review with its 64, largely unmet recommendations, is no exception.

Exhausted by wasted moral appeals, McLaughin acknowledged the disparity between her own ethics and Conservative party practice by appealing to economic reason. She listed alternatives to detention such as the Toronto Bail programme, which is 94% more cost efficient compared to detention, and the Swedish system where voluntary rates of return are at 76% in comparison to 46% in the UK.

Why is there an “unlimited pot of cash to put already vulnerable people through a living hell in detention centres” when cheaper and more humane alternatives are available? The figures are hard to defend. The annual cost of detention is £120 million of tax-payers’ cash every year.

Harsher conditions

Unfortunately, where there was better practice amongst EU Member States on detention, this is being undermined. In a recently, published recommendations the EU Commission encouraged member states to implement harsher conditions on those detained, including lowering safeguards such as maximum detention periods, the non-detention of children principle, and shortening of appeal periods. While the UK is not signed-up to the Directive, the pursuit of harsher detention practices across the EU is worrying.

In the UK, the pursuit of the “hostile environment” continues unabated. Since the Conservative government came into power, the detention of EU nationals has increased by five-fold. The Immigration minister defends detention as a necessary means of deterring those with no right to be in the UK, yet substantial evidence shows it’s not working.

Shaw said: “Pragmatically, no empirical evidence is available to give credence to the assumption that the threat of being detained deters irregular migration, or more specifically, discourages persons from seeking asylum.” Nationwide under half of those leaving detention are removed, whereas in Dungavel detention centre a mere 23% of people allowed to leave detention are deported.

Futile policy

Based on these arguments, the policy is futile. Using detention as a means of deterrence implies people have a choice which does not exist for the majority of people seeking asylum in the UK. No matter how ‘hostile’ the government makes the environment, it is unlikely to match the dangers people trying to escape.

In her speech, McLaughlin underlined the “soul destroying” mental health problems which Shaw saw as a result of indefinite nature of detention. The Shaw report recommended a 28-day limit, yet the average length of detention has increased from 450 people in December 2015 in detention for longer than 4 months to 553 nine months later.

Supposed government concerns for the welfare of detainees are contradicted by policy and practice. The introduction of the ‘Adults at Risk’ policy came in alongside a narrowed definition, which saw 340 torture victims wrongly locked up. Theresa May, as Home Secretary in February 2015, the very month she commissioned Shaw to review of the welfare of detainees denied a UN Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women access to Yarl’s Wood amidst claims of rape and violence “to protect corporate interests”.

Resistance is crucial

The government’s painfully slow adoption of Shaw’s 64 recommendations – coupled with claims of concern – are least “depressing”, to say the least. Despite this, resistance is crucial.

So, why not get along to the Surround Yarl’s Wood demonstration on 12 May? You can keep up-to-date with developments about detention by following the work of Medical JusticeRight to RemainDetention ForumDetention action and BID.  You won’t find it in the mainstream media by-and-large.

As Baroness Chakrabarti said, detention is “one of the greatest stains on the UK’s human rights record…a colossal and pointless waste of both public funds and human life.” We must not let detention go unchallenged, or unchecked!



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