Detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure

The UK keeps migrants in detention centres for unspecified periods of time.

Jane Miller

The Border Force's Julian Wollard patrols the Thames to keep his country free from unwanted migrants. (Mary Turner / Getty Images)

There are 13 deten­tion cen­tres in the UK, where migrants may be sent while wait­ing to hear the fate of their appli­ca­tions or wait­ing to be deport­ed when they’ve been denied asy­lum. Accord­ing to the Home Office, there are at least 30,000 such peo­ple detained at the moment. There is noth­ing ille­gal about such deten­tion. How­ev­er, the UK is the only EU mem­ber state that does not set a time lim­it on deten­tion. Some of those detained are employed in the cen­tres them­selves at much less than the min­i­mum wage. And the cen­tres are home to preg­nant women, chil­dren, old­er peo­ple and dis­abled peo­ple, who get poor med­ical care and lit­tle edu­ca­tion­al or cul­tur­al assis­tance. Even in France, which has a rep­u­ta­tion for treat­ing migrants bad­ly, 45 days is the most that any­one can be held. In the UK, as one young woman in flight from a forced mar­riage in Sier­ra Leone put it, Every day you spend there, it is like you are in prison, but you don’t know when your sen­tence is going to end. We count the days. It is a waste of your life.”

A good many migrants come to this country because they are gay and have been obliged to leave one of the 78 countries in the world where same-sex love is illegal. The report suggests that gay men and women fare especially badly in their attempts to remain here.

While cam­paign­ers for the main par­ties com­pete to show how tough they are on immi­gra­tion, accus­ing one anoth­er of lax­ness at bor­der con­trols and fail­ure to hit tar­gets for reduc­ing the num­bers of immi­grants allowed into the coun­try, a cross-par­ty com­mit­tee of MPs has pub­lished a report, Inquiry into the Use of Immi­gra­tion Deten­tion in the Unit­ed King­dom.” It con­clud­ed that the cur­rent sys­tem of hold­ing migrants indef­i­nite­ly in what are now known as removal cen­tres” is expen­sive, inef­fec­tive and unjust” and found evi­dence to con­firm detainees’ claims of abuse and inhu­mane con­di­tions in many of the cen­tres, which are most­ly run by pri­vate com­pa­nies for prof­it and are large­ly unaccountable.

As Lord Scriv­en point­ed out in the House of Lords, a good many migrants come to this coun­try because they are gay and have been oblig­ed to leave one of the 78 coun­tries in the world where same-sex love is ille­gal. The report sug­gests that gay men and women fare espe­cial­ly bad­ly in their attempts to remain here. Either they are not believed or they are dis­crim­i­nat­ed against. The Home Office denies near­ly two-thirds of the asy­lum appli­ca­tions it receives, and has set inter­nal tar­gets of turn­ing down 70 per­cent of appeals. Staff who meet this goal have been reward­ed with cash bonus­es, The Guardian report­ed last year.

Some detainees will, how­ev­er, make it. They may even get to apply for British cit­i­zen­ship. To do so, they are expect­ed to get at least 75 per­cent cor­rect on a cit­i­zen­ship test and to swear alle­giance to this coun­try. The test con­sists of mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tions most of us would find dif­fi­cult to answer, though they could be mugged up. Migrants may be asked about top­ics such as Vikings, when farm­ers first arrived in Britain (con­jur­ing an image of ful­ly fledged yokels land­ing at Ply­mouth, armed with pitch­forks and with straw in their hair), land own­er­ship in feu­dal times, the six wives of Hen­ry VIII, when exact­ly our 17th cen­tu­ry civ­il war began, and whether British peo­ple eat duck, chick­en, turkey or ostrich at Christmas.

I won­der how some­one detained indef­i­nite­ly in a removal cen­tre would respond — true or false — to the state­ment: You must treat every­one equal­ly, regard­less of sex, race, age, reli­gion, dis­abil­i­ty, class or sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion.” Or whether they would answer it is your right,” a crim­i­nal offence” or your respon­si­bil­i­ty” to cause harass­ment, alarm or dis­tress to some­one because of their reli­gion or eth­nic origin.”

They will answer, of course, as they think we want them to.

The world is full of refugees. The UK has accept­ed only 143 Syr­i­ans so far. Faced with gen­uine­ly life-or-death sit­u­a­tions, most peo­ple would lie or cheat to give the right answers, to be the migrant Britain wel­comes. No won­der, real­ly, that a young man I know from Ethiopia was advised by an old­er friend to con­struct an entire­ly false nar­ra­tive about his life to be allowed to find work and stay here. After five years of liv­ing more or less on the run, with no source of income and depen­dent on the kind­ness of friends with sofas, he has aban­doned his sto­ry and is about to return to Ethiopia.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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