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The Shame of UK’s Indefinite Detention

Thu 8 Nov 2018

By Lisa Robillard Webb

At Party Conference, I recently met an amazing organization called ‘Refugee Tales’.  They have inspired me to speak out on the little known fact:

‘The UK is unique within Western Europe in that there is no maximum time limit on immigration detention. Whilst the maximum time limit for people to be detained in France is 45 days, in the UK detention is indefinite – people can be and are detained for months or even years. It costs, on average, more than £30,000 to detain someone for a year’ (, October 2018)

One man was detained for 9 ½ years with no charge and no conviction.  How could this happen in the UK with our proud history of seeking human rights? The official title, Immigration Removal Centres, sets out their objective clearly.  Before a detainee’s voice is heard, the primary aim is to ‘remove’ regardless of circumstance.  Around 27,000 migrants are detained in the UK every year.  These centres are ‘prisons’, detainees cannot leave and they have very limited freedom within the building.  Detainees have not been investigated, charged nor convicted.  I find that shameful. 

Around half of the detainees are asylum seekers - often wishing to reunite with their families to rebuild their lives. Refugee Tales send volunteers to befriend and support detainees during and after their detention.  Their books bring to life the true stories of detained refugees – humanizing these desperate situations and helping readers to connect with the struggles of an asylum seeker entering the UK.

Detention is one way the UK fails to treat asylum seekers with dignity.  Refugee Tales spoke about a Syrian Hospital Consultant who had been detained on entry to our country. Once released, he had no work permit or right to benefits.  How could he survive in this trap? He wanted to support himself through work and to contribute to the UK, yet he couldn’t apply to the unfilled doctor vacancies – what a waste.  Insensitive Home Office interview techniques are shocking -Syrian victims of sexual war crimes are asked: ‘Did you notify the authorities of the crime?  Did you seek support from family and friends?’ In Syria?!  Where the authorities are often perpetuating the crimes and loved ones killed or escaped.

Labour pledges to honour the spirit of international law and moral obligations by taking in our fair share of refugees. But the current arrangements for housing and dispersing refugees are not fit for purpose. As a priority, we will produce a cross-departmental strategy to meet our international obligations on the refugee crisis.  But as a start, I fully support Refugee Tales’ campaign for a 28 Day Maximum Detention.  I hope you will too.  But I will further campaign to abolish detention without charge or time limit.  It is a universal human right to be granted time limits on detention along with sufficient evidence for a charge.  This is what we would expect for ourselves.  As a basic principle of law we degrade ourselves as a country if we prioritise certain humans over others. 

Other columns by Lisa Robillard Webb

High Streets – At the centre of our communities - Thu 24 Jan 2019

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