A lack of accountability will always be the biggest problem when it comes to the Home Office’s behaviour

Mishka is a member of the Freed Voices group. They are a collective of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. Between them, they have lost over 20 years to detention in this country. Mishka writes under a pseudonym.

On 8 May, I watched the Home Affairs Select Committee oral hearing on immigration detention. I was particularly looking forward to this session, as it promised to feature both representatives of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and, even more interestingly, the Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes.

The evidence given by the HMIP inspectors made disturbing, if unsurprising, viewing. As was the case in his latest report on Harmondsworth IRC, the Chief Inspector Peter Clarke, highlighted how the lack of a time limit and the uncertainty this creates, was one of the main miseries facing those in detention. For me, it is much more: it frames every misery in detention; from the culture of abuse and disrespect for protective safeguards among detention centre staff to the crisis of harm, highlighted in detail by the HMIP inspection team leader, Hindpal Singh.

Mr. Singh was keen to use the evidence session to emphasise his concerns about the number of deaths in detention and the increasing rate of suicide attempts. Between 2007 to now, more than 20,000 people have been kept on suicide watch and more than 30 people have died in detention. Death, suicide, self-harm – all of these are part of the DNA of detention; they have become normalised. It is worth taking a moment to consider this. Where else in our society would we consider death, suicide, and self-harm as completely acceptable outcomes of a working governmental institution? Why are they suddenly acceptable in this context? The answer for me lies in the fact that, as someone with experience of detention, I know very well that inside those places, you are not considered as a human. You are seen as a commodity or ‘stock’, as the Home Office sometimes refers to those moved across the detention estate.

This level of dehumanisation means that those mechanisms designed to protect and safeguard the vulnerable are also destined to fail. Hearing the Chief Inspector speak about the broken Rule 35 mechanism and the faltering Adults at Risk policy (which both supposedly aim to ensure that particularly vulnerable men and women are brought to the attention of those authorising their detention) only confirmed this. You cannot help but feel these were built to fail. What would happen if either of these procedures actually worked efficiently? More people would be released and, as we have learnt over the last few Home Affairs Select Committee sessions, this is not what the Home Office is interested in. As the leaked letter by the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd showed, people are often kept in detention even when there is no prospect of removal whatsoever.

The second evidence session featured the Home Office Permanent Secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, the Director General of Immigration Enforcement, Hugh Ind, and the Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes. There were many astonishing quotes but perhaps one of the worst was Sir Philip’s admission – as Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, on a panel about immigration detention – that he could not answer a particular question because he was ‘not an expert on the immigration system.’ To be honest, neither Ms. Nokes nor Mr. Ind did much to suggest that they knew any more about the immigration system than their colleague. Together, the three of them came across as embarrassingly ignorant of their own department and consistently attempted to dodge questions as they tried to dress up the hideous face of the Home Office. 

Hugh Ind accepted that for the beginning of 2017-2018 his senior team had set an enforced removal target of 12,800 people. This is precisely the ‘detain first and ask questions later’ approach that has led to the Windrush scandal, and forms the basis for the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. Prior to her resignation, Amber Rudd said that ‘individual cases’ had been lost. But ‘individual cases’ will always get lost if you are working on targets; that is obvious. The two are contradictory by nature. The Home Office policy has long been to ‘detain as many people as possible, hit as many targets as possible, and if we need to fork out taxpayers’ money in unlawful detention compensation, then so be it’.

Lack of accountability will always be the biggest problem when it comes to Home Office behavior. It was great to see members of the committee grill Caroline Nokes and her cronies, but it was painful to know that if they just kept their heads down and apologised enough, then they would probably be ok. But these are interesting times, and right now the reality behind the fake facade of a caring and efficient Home Office has been exposed. For me, this is our best chance of accountability: not through the courts, or legislation, but in the public arena. I want to see that the Home Office gets exposed to the point where it is no longer possible to carry on with its current ways. The Windrush scandal has shown us the way here, with Amber Rudd’s forced resignation an example of what public pressure can do. I appreciate that her resignation is more symbolic than anything else, and does not guarantee any other changes, but it is a reminder that real change will only come if the Home Office is given no choice.  

Of course, the Windrush scandal also reiterated how deeply rooted the ‘good migrant’ vs. ‘bad migrant’ narrative is, and how politicians on both the left and right will use these divisions to push their agendas. We need to get on top of these false narratives as soon as possible and push the understanding that indefinite detention for some means indefinite detention for all (just as a hostile environment for some means a hostile environment for all). This will not be easy. Many of these narratives are very entrenched and Freed Voices members are often amazed to speak to left-wing politicians who refer to people in detention with prior convictions as ‘foreign criminals’.

We cannot lose hope though. We just have to understand what misinformation we are up against and look to combat it. This means actively engaging with right-wing audiences as well as those we are comfortable with while arming ourselves with logic and reason, to add to our moral authority on the issue. I believe a change is going to come, but with time.    

Image of Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes via Wikimedia Commons/Whips Office . Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.