'Seeking asylum is a human right, not a crime' - Refugee Council
July 7, 2014

‘Seeking asylum is a human right, not a crime’

Today a ground breaking inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK has been launched.

Here our Chief Executive Maurice Wren reflects on the cost of faceless officials locking up vulnerable people who have committed no crime.

Imagine a country where, at the stroke of a pen and without any recourse to a judge, a faceless Government official can deprive someone of their liberty and consign them indefinitely to what to all intents and purposes is a prison, without them having being charged with or convicted of any crime.

That country is Britain. And if you thought that this use of state power was characteristic only of dictatorships or tyrannies, then think again, as it’s happening here, on our doorstep, under our noses, without any fuss and certainly without any publicity.  

Today, in 11 Immigration Removal Centres around the UK, people are being detained, with minimal information about what’s happening to them and with scant access to a lawyer. And yet they’ve neither been accused, nor found guilty of, any wrongdoing. In fact, all that they’ve done is to have the temerity to exercise their legal right to seek refugee protection in the UK.  

These are people who have fled persecution in their home countries and are deeply traumatised by their experiences. Some will be torture or rape survivors, others will have witnessed harm inflicted on their families and friends, many will have been incarcerated and brutalised.

We know from countless personal testimonies and independent medical reports that, for many of those held in detention in the UK, the experience triggers harrowing memories of the fear and the pain they’ve suffered at the hands of their previous captors. Unsurprisingly, this treatment more often than not undermines their mental or physical stability, a consequence further exacerbated by the lack of any meaningful judicial oversight, which means that the authorities are rarely ever required to explain or account for their decisions to detain.

We believe the reasons so many people who seek refugee protection are detained in the UK are simple, though that makes them no less shocking or shameful. We think it’s down to political expediency and administrative convenience. There’s no evidence to show that the threat of detention has a deterrent effect on whether people seek safety in the UK and given the astronomical cost of running the detention estate, much of which is effectively privatised, there’s no financial imperative at a time of Government stringency. 

Home Office policy is clear. Detention should only ever be used as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. The truth is that people are routinely held for weeks, months, and even, in some cases, years.

Not all are seeking asylum, though a significant proportion clearly are, as reliable estimates suggest that around half of all asylum seekers have been detained at some point. The fact that people fleeing war and persecution can be locked away indefinitely in a civilised country is an affront to the values of fairness, humanity and liberty that we proudly regard as the cornerstones of our democracy. Seeking asylum is a human right, not a crime.

Though some of our politicians might actively endorse the practice of detention, most choose to look the other way, either because they accept unquestioningly the Home Office’s assurances that detention is a vital tool in immigration control, or perhaps because they are wary of being dubbed as ‘soft on immigration’ if they seek to rattle the detention bars.   

That’s why we’re delighted that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration have launched a joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the use of detention in the immigration system.

The inquiry will focus on the conditions within detention centres, the impact on individual detainees and their families, the wider financial and social consequences, and the future role of detention within the immigration system.

Although the remit of the Inquiry has a broader focus than those who have claimed asylum, the Refugee Council believes that it is particularly abhorrent to be locking up people whose only came to the UK in search of safety. It’s expensive, it’s inefficient and the human cost is patently unacceptable.

It’s high time the British Government did away with the use of immigration detention in the asylum system and admitted that the whole principle defies our most cherished British values. It’s a simple question of right and wrong; imprisoning vulnerable people who have done nothing wrong is depraved; detaining them indefinitely is despotic.