Time but no end

Locked up until they can be deported, tens of thousands of offenders are languishing in UK detention centres, reports Jenny McCall

On a rainy Monday morning at an asylum and immigrations tribunal at Stoke on Trent magistrates court, a man named Abu comes forward requesting bail. He can only be seen via video communication from his South East London location.

Abu wears a white shirt, his hands clasped together. “My name is Abu, sir,” he says, standing to address the court. “You may be seated,” the judge replies.

There are several tribunal hearing rooms at Stoke, known only by number. Each one is fitted with the latest video communication technology, so that men and women in detention wishing to be granted bail can be seen by the judge, their counsel and the prosecution.

Rarely are the cases heard at Stoke granted bail.

The prosecution, which is the Home Office, starts the proceedings. The representative from the Home Office wears a grey suit and black-rimmed glasses. He has brought along a “witness” to the events, a Metropolitan Police officer, also wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a black suit. He sits in the corner of the room waiting to be called and testify to events documented by detention centre officers and used by the Home Office as examples of why the defendant should not be given bail.

The UK is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a time limit on detention

Abu arrived in the UK at the age of seven, from Sierra Leone, and has grown up here. In adulthood he had become involved with gangs in the Glasgow area. Convicted of driving offences, he was eventually sent to detention, where he remained for two years, and was told he would stay there until he could be sent back to Sierra Leone. Abu was fine with returning home, but wanted bail while he waited for his travel documents to be arranged.

The UK is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a time limit on detention and has more people detained than any other European country. The government also recently said it would not introduce a time limit.

Home Office figures state that in 2014 there were 30,365 people in detention, with over 50 per cent of these being people of a black or Asian nationality.

The Home Office official reads the charges against Abu. The police officer is then called to testify.

The first charge documented by officers, and supported by the witness, is that Abu had caused a fight while in the detention centre. The counsel reads out details of the charge, which state that Abu had in fact been the victim of this fight – another detainee had thrown a food tray at him.

The Metropolitan Police officer who is the witness to these events was not actually physically present when the tray was thrown. “I can only testify to what the officers in the centre have claimed,” he says.

The second charge is read out, accusing the defendant of going in between rooms in the detention centre without a security officer present. His counsel reads out the rules and regulations of the detention centre, which state he would not have physically been able to do so without an officer accompanying him and swiping him through. The police officer says he had not been present so could not state for sure that he had tried to go from one room to another.

The next allegation is more serious. The detention centre claims the defendant was selling drugs to other detainees. Abu’s counsel asks the police officer if he has investigated this claim. “No, the Metropolitan Police have not investigated,” the police officer replies.

The officer says: “I cannot comment on Metropolitan Police procedures.”

“But the selling of drugs is a very serious offence. Why would you not investigate this prior to attending this hearing?” asks the defendant’s counsel.

The officer says: “I cannot comment on Metropolitan Police procedures.”

Abu’s counsel then looks at the date the detention centre officers started to collect accusations against Abu. He notes that they had started building a case against Abu once he had decided he wanted bail.

On this rare occasion the defendant is granted bail.

Abu’s case is not an isolated one and is similar to that of a man called Michael. He arrived in the UK from Ghana at the age of 12. Abandoned by his father at 15, he entered into petty crime to support his brother and sister.

At 18, finding work was hard, as he had no papers and no passport, so he stole someone’s identity to get a job at a local warehouse. Working his way up from the shop floor to the office, he was doing well, until the police knocked on his door and charged him with identity theft.

Pleading guilty, he was sentenced to 20 months. He served six months of his sentence.
He was sent to live in a hostel. To pay for his accommodation he had to sign on for housing benefit. But again he had no papers and no identity so used a false name.

This resulted in him being sentenced to a further 20 months but that time he wasn’t released. After a six month term he was handed papers by the Home Office that said he would be deported as he was seen as a “threat to society”.

After a two year fight for bail, Michael was released and tagged in December last year. If it wasn’t for his persistent campaigning he would still be locked up. He is still unsure if he will be deported and sent back to Ghana.

“Detention is a moneymaking business and these private companies are benefitting from people like me.”

I meet Michael at the Detention Action office in Dalston, London. As I enter the room he is looking out of the window, dressed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt. His glasses hang low from his eyes.

“I cost the taxpayer nearly £100,000 being detained. Detention is a moneymaking business and these private companies are benefitting from people like me,” Michael says.

“One thing is certain: I never tried to get any money from anyone when I used another person’s name. I was working full time and giving back to the system through taxes. I needed a job, I needed to work.”

When Michael used the false name a second time, he did so in order to claim housing benefit and all the funds went straight to the hostel he was staying at. Nevertheless he was imprisoned and then told after 10 months he would be sent to a detention centre.

“I was completely shocked, thinking I would be released but I ended up being sent to Lincolnshire, then to a centre in South East London. I never embezzled or stole any money through the use of someone’s name; I used it just to gain employment. But yet they said I had to be detained as I was a ‘threat’ to society.”

The campaigning group Detention Action sees the system as a political one that helps governments win votes. It is also big business, helping those firms that run them, such as the controversial G4S, make big profits.

“The harm of indefinite detention is in no way proportionate to its role in immigration control,” says Detention Action campaign and communications co-ordinator Ben du Preez. “Its objectives are primarily political, not pragmatic: it is a response to the pressure of the tabloids, to the fear of being seen as soft, rather than the result of rational policy-making.

“The human cost is immeasurable and the financial cost is also unjustifiable, especially in a time of austerity. It cannot ultimately be rationalised, and in the longer term, surely cannot be sustained. It is time for a time limit.”

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