Nasty, brutish – and Indefinite: Immigration Detention in the UK

After this week’s episode of BBC Panorama, Luke Butterly talks to TLR about Immigration, Detention and the brutal conditions facing those caught in the system.


Monday night’s edition of BBC Panorama saw harrowing footage of life inside Brook House, one of the UK’s many immigration detention centres. A young man worked there for multi-national security firm G4S, and was so disturbed by the abuse he saw that he decided to go undercover for the BBC. The result is what many ex-detainees and campaigners have been shining a light on for years: prison-like conditions where people are held solely on their nationality.

The UK is the only country in the EU that operates a policy of indefinite detention. At any time 3,000 people are held, and around 30,000 people pass through each year. People can be detained for months and sometimes years, yet most people are released back into the community – their sentence having served no purpose.

“the true worth of British values is not found in what our leaders say, but in what they do. The 3,000 immigrants locked up in immigration removal centres across the UK are perhaps a better measure of these values.”

People who are in immigration detention are in varied circumstances. Some have finished prison sentences and are made to pay double for their crime, being deported after serving their sentence. Others are asylum seekers who the Home Office are trying to deport back to situations where their lives are in danger. And increasingly, others are EU nationals who are rough sleeping. Some have overstayed their visa, others have crossed the imaginary line between the north and south of Ireland and are arrested and detained.

Conditions in detention are dire. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned of the coercive effect on detainees’ mental health. Women for Refugee Women found one in five women had attempted suicide while in detention and 40% had self-harmed. At a parliamentary inquiry into detention last year, MPs hearing testimony from current detainees “gasped in horror”. And while the numbers are decreasing, last year 163 children were held in detention.

Detention costs on average £84 per day per person, but can be up to twice that. The Home Office pays out further millions in damages each year to people wrongfully detained. And who stands to gain? Almost all the detention centres are run for profit and outsourced to private corporations, such as the notorious G4S and Serco. These companies have been accused of human rights abuses in the UK and across the world.

Panorama is not the first to tell this story. Two years ago undercover footage by Channel 4 from the Serco run Yarl’s Wood showed self-harm, poor facilities and ill treatment from staff. Yet the fact remains that detainees and ex-detainees have been talking of these conditions for years, but their voices alone don’t seem enough to warrant a prime time special.

While the majority of the Home Office’s vast ‘detention estate’ is in Britain, Northern Ireland plays its part in this tragedy. Home Office ‘enforcement teams’ boast of workplace raids. Asylum seekers are detained when they go for their obligatory ‘sign on’ appointments. People are racially profiled and detained on the cross-border buses and even when dropping off family at the airport. In the small harbour town of Larne lies a ‘short term removal centre’, where people who are detained await transfer to the larger centres in England and Scotland.

Indefinite detention”: These terrible words represent a terrible reality in 21st century UK. As journalist Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi stated in 2010: “the true worth of British values is not found in what our leaders say, but in what they do. The 3,000 immigrants locked up in immigration removal centres across the UK are perhaps a better measure of these values.”

Yet, despite all these seemingly impossible odds, the movement against detention is growing and gathering strength. A range of alternative proposals to detention have being put forward. Calls for a time limit, and even the abolition of detention, are gaining traction. Across Britain, there are visitor groups and anti-detention groups (often one and the same) providing solidarity and calling for an end to this system. Here, the Larne House Visitors Group is a volunteer run collective that visits people in detention, provides support, and raises awareness of the issue. If you want to get involved find out more here.