A Postcard from Britain – ‘Hostile Environment’, Border Control in Communities and Indefinite Immigration Detention

By Eiri Ohtani,
The Detention Forum,
London, UK.

A stone’s throw from a relatively upmarket hotel, near London’s Heathrow airport, stand two detention centres, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centres. To get to the centres from the nearest bus stop, you must walk past the hotel. It is unlikely that excited holiday-makers at the hotel on their way to the airport are aware of their neighbours who are facing a different kind of journey.

One of the salient features of the UK immigration detention estate is that people know little about it. Nor are they aware that thousands of people are detained indefinitely for weeks, months and sometimes years, for the administrative convenience of the state.

However, for many migrants, undocumented and living at the margin of society, the risk of being detained is real.  It is a constant reminder that they are unwelcome in the country which they have made their home. The level of fear must have dramatically risen recently, as the government has accelerated its attempts to bring border control into the community by linking access to services with immigration control mechanisms.

Over the last few months, NGOs, campaigning groups, and legal practitioners have been kept busy responding to a series of proposals aimed at making undocumented migrants’ lives increasingly difficult. The first was a proposal to restrict access to healthcare for undocumented and other migrants.  This was followed by another proposal to require private landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants, so that those with irregular immigration status cannot get housing in commercial rental accommodation. Lastly, the Ministry of Justice indicated that they would introduce a residence test so that no one with irregular immigration status can access civil legal aid – leaving undocumented migrants unable to challenge their unlawful detention, destitution, homelessness or any abuses by the state, unless they can pay for legal advice.

After furious lobbying by those of us who are concerned about its implications, some exemptions to the residence test were announced last month. Legal aid will now be available for bail and unlawful detention cases for people in detention. But the exemptions simply do not go far enough.

Undocumented migrants, of course, are not allowed to work, and if they do, often work in exploitative situations with low wages, and hence they are unlikely to be able to pay for legal advice.  Although they might still technically have certain rights, the proposed residence test will render these rights almost meaningless, as undocumented migrants will be unable to exercise them and seek protection under the law of this country.

As if this were not already enough, this summer, the Home Office drove around ethnically diverse areas of London a van carrying a billboard message ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’. Although this campaign finished a few weeks later, the publicity surrounding it brought the public’s attention to raids at shops catering for migrant communities and immigration checks at stations. Such checks have been going on for years but remained unnoticed.

One could say that making people finally aware of covert immigration checks could be considered one positive effect of the ‘Go Home’ van campaign. Despite plenty of newspaper reports, demonstrations and an unprecedented number of consultation responses (over 16,000) denouncing these inhumane and discriminatory proposals, the UK government appears to be determined to press on.  Many of these proposals have now made it into the new Immigration Bill laid before Parliament on 10 October 2013.

It was revealed in August by an ex-minister that adopting a strategy of a ‘hostile environment’ was discussed at the highest level of the government with the purpose to make undocumented migrants unwelcome. This was never officially confirmed at the time, but Home Secretary, Theresa May, made it very clear when introducing the Bill that this is indeed the government’s intention.

While government ministers are trying to turn doctors, landlords and legal practitioners into “immigration officers”, they are also quietly increasing capacity to incarcerate unwanted immigrants away from the public gaze.

On 4th September 2013, a ministerial statement made it official that a prison, Her Majesty’s Prison The Verne, would be converted into yet another immigration detention centre.  This will add 600 extra bed-spaces, an increase of almost 20%, to the UK’s already large detention estate, and here at the Detention Forum we are very concerned about this.

In addition, a growing number of prison beds are used to warehouse migrants who have completed their prison sentences and are waiting for removal or deportation.  The UK has a policy of deporting anyone who is not British who has been sentenced to prison for more than 12 months.  Many of these migrants have lived many years in the UK, often with British family members or they arrived to the UK as small children and grew up here. At the last count, there were nearly 1,000 such people languishing in prison.

To say detention is problematic is an understatement.  In September 2013, allegations of sexual abuse of female detainees by guards emerged at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.  The news of deaths in detention have, sadly, become regular.  While the coalition government reduced the detention of children, the overall number of people going into immigration detention is increasing.

Over the last two years, the UK Home Office has been found to have breached detained individuals’ rights not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights) on four separate occasions. Yet immigration detention remains an under-debated topic in Parliament, only raising its head when the government stresses the need to lock away “illegal immigrants”.

Next time you are flying over London, please look out of the plane and cast your eyes downwards to the ground: in the two detention centres right underneath you, just as in other places of incarceration around the UK, thousands of detained migrants are anxiously contemplating their future. Immigration detention is the culmination of all the border controls in the community.  It is probably convenient for the government that people pay little attention to the destination of undocumented migrants who are rounded up – because if people knew more, they would be asking more questions.

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