I am pleased that we are having a debate on this important issue. The current refugee crisis in Europe makes the debate on immigration detention particularly relevant, as the majority of people in detention centres are those who have sought asylum in the UK. I hope that the events in Europe and the Mediterranean this week result in wider changes in the UK’s policies towards refugees and asylum seekers.
As many in the Chamber will be aware, the UK has one of the largest immigration detention systems in Europe, with between 2,500 and 3,000 people locked up at any one time. Although most are detained for less than a month, the Migration Observatory, based in the University of Oxford, has found that around 6% of detainees are held for more than six months and 1% for more than a year. Guidance states that people should be detained pending removal only when their exit from the country is imminent, but the reality is that many people are locked up for weeks or months before these arrangements are made. Detaining people for longer than needed is a waste of resources and can only be traumatic for those detained.
In 2013, two thirds of asylum-seeking women leaving Yarl’s Wood were released to continue their claims in the community, leaving serious questions about why they were detained in the first place. Is locking up a woman who has fled persecution really appropriate? There are also specific issues facing women. The charity Refugee Women has found that most of the women detained after seeking asylum are survivors of rape, sexual violence and abuse. For those women, detention adds to the trauma they experienced in their home countries. This is made worse by the conditions in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, where male members of staff have been reported to supervise women in intimate situations. As we can well imagine, these conditions can have a very negative effect on an individual’s mental health.
That is why we need specific guidelines that protect women in immigration detention systems. For example, we need to make sure that survivors of rape and pregnant women are not detained. We must also remember that there are alternatives to detention, which result in high levels of compliance, as well as high rates of voluntary returns back to the country of origin. Clearly, there are cases where detention would be appropriate, but it has to be as a last resort.
The joint inquiry by the all-party parliamentary groups on refugees and on migration hit the nail on the head when it said that we need a “wholesale change in culture” around immigration detention. I believe that such a cultural change is long overdue. I hope that this debate will help to start it.