Damning parliamentary report threatens to blow doors off detention regime

Britain's immigrant detention system is facing what could be its greatest ever crisis today, after a damning report by MPs and peers was released amid a continued scandal over racism and violence at Yarl's Wood.

An eight-month investigation by parliamentarians warned of a total breakdown of safeguards in the system, with rape victims and people with mental health problems being locked up indefinitely in detention centres despite Home Office assurances.

The report comes a day after a Channel 4 report showed guards at Yarl's Wood detention centre branding detainees "caged animals". In another video, a guard tells a colleague to "headbutt the bitch".

The programme sparked a review by Serco, which runs the centre, by barrister Kate Lampard. That will take place alongside a pre-existing Home Office review into the welfare of detainees, which was set up last month.

It also comes on the first day of former detainee Aderonke Apata's attempt to prevent her deportation at the high court.

The Nigerian lesbian, who says she expects to be killed under anti-gay laws if she is returned to her home country, was transferred from a detention centre to a prison after she started to protest over the treatment of detainees

She told Politics.co.uk:

"The demo was about the treatment that they give to detainees. A lady was going to be deported and she was naked. They covered her with a blanket and she was screaming all over the place. People were praying.

"We all had a sit-in demo. There was no damage to property, no-one was insulted or injured.  They didn't like it. UKBA [a branch of the Home Office] decided to send me back to prison. If I was in a detention centre I would cause more problems."

Labour is also ramping up its criticism of the regime in the face of the reports.

Labour has sharpened its criticism of the detention regime

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said:

"It is Theresa May's responsibility to make sure people are treated humanely – she is completely failing to do so."

Today's report, by the all-party group for refugees and the all-party group for migration, brought together MPs and peers from all the three main parties, many of whom had disparate views on immigration.

It called for:

  • A time limit on detention
  • The removal of pregnant women – or those who had been raped or tortured – from detention
  • The removal of anyone suffering from mental health problems from detention
  • A presumption in favour of community-based solutions which do not require detention
  • An improvement of screening processes to make sure trafficked people are not detained and that GPs fill out a Rule 35 report assessing whether people's injuries are consistent with claims of torture
  • An improvement to detainees' access to legal advice.

Tory MP David Burrowes said:

"This inquiry is an unusual one. Immigration is on the political agenda but rarely do we unite on a cross party basis and consider the issue of immigration detention. The lack of a time limit is resulting in people being locked up for months and, in some cases, several years purely for administrative reasons."

Labour MP Paul Blomfield said:

"Current Home Office policy is that detention should be used as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. From the evidence that we heard, Home Office standard practice falls well short of this policy."

Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather, who chaired the panel, said:

"The UK is an outlier in not having a time limit on detention. As a panel, we have concluded that the current system is expensive, ineffective and unjust."

MPs and peers looked at evidence from abroad and found that alternatives to detention allowed those whose claims were being decided to have their cases considered while they lived in the community, at a significantly reduced cost to the taxpayer.

Sarah Teather, who chaired the inquiry, is standing down from parliament at the next election

The UK is the only European country with no upper time limit to detention – a factor which detainees say causes severe anxiety and mental trauma.

Among the case studies included in the report was that of Souleymane, a stateless 50-year-old chef, originally from Guinea, who was detained for three and a half years. Despite signing papers saying he would voluntarily return – and Home Office acknowledgements that he could not be returned due to his stateless status – he continued to be detained without justification, at massive cost to the taxpayer.

Souleymane was severely affected by the indefinite detention and years of incarceration and is still understood to be suffering the psychological effects today.

Another case study, Abdal from Middlesborough, was detained for over five years, during which he was transferred to nearly every detention centre in the UK. The Sudanese asylum seeker, who said he had been tortured and had over 200 scars on his body, was already suffering mental health conditions when he went into detention. The five-year period is understood to have significantly worsened his condition and he is now on 17 different types of medication.

Freedom from Torture handed the committee first-hand reports from torture survivors who had later been detained when they reached Britain.

One torture survivor wrote:

"You have experienced an extremely difficult situation back home and you have the hope that you have arrived somewhere where you can be treated like a human being, but in fact they take you straight back to prison. Where you have come from and where you are now is no different. In fact, it is slightly worse because at home you have family and people to think of you but here you are completely alone."

Another said:

"You lose confidence and faith in the UK. I haven't committed a crime, the only crime I committed was trying to make the world a better place and was tortured for it and sought asylum for it. Whenever I see a van, I freeze up. Sometimes I sweat and get really scared. I still don't like security guards, even the ones in the shops, I get angry and aggressive. Even now, as a British citizen, when I travel abroad I still get scared. I fear they can snatch it away from me just like that."

Detainees rarely known how long they will be kept behind bars

Refugee Council chief executive Maurice Wren said:

"Today a bright light has been shone into the darkest corners of the British immigration system and it has revealed some unpleasant secrets. Quite simply, the British government is detaining too many people for too long.

"In the current system, asylum seekers who have done nothing wrong find themselves arbitrarily placed behind bars, on the say so of Home Office civil servants, for one primary reason: because it's politically expedient.

"Ministers must take this opportunity to pursue wholesale reform and abandon the existing structure of immigration detention which has been shown to be grossly inefficient, hugely expensive and in direct contradiction of our most cherished British values of justice, liberty and compassion."

Today's report is the first time parliamentarians have investigated the issue of detention.