Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Alternatives to Detention in the UK: From Enforcement to Engagement?

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Alternatives to Detention in the UK: From Enforcement to Engagement?

Article excerpt

The UK detains migrants on a large scale, and has had limited success in developing alternatives. The British experience highlights the need for a cultural shift towards engagement with migrants in place of reliance on enforcement.

The development of alternatives to detention has become a significant global countertrend to the normalisation of detaining migrants. Where alternatives have worked, they have relied on the engagement and participation of migrants themselves in immigration processes. Yet they have not worked everywhere, and the failures of states like the UK highlight important lessons.

Both Sweden and Australia have successfully developed alternatives to detention based on case management in the community.1 A single trusted individual is responsible for working with the migrant to ensure that his or her practical needs are met: housing, information about the migration process, legal advice. This case manager also spends time with the migrant to build a relationship of trust, taking time throughout the immigration process to explore all potential long-term options, including leave to remain, assisted return and possibilities in third countries. These programmes have largely met the needs of governments as well as migrants, since very few migrants absconded and large proportions of those refused leave to remain decided to take up assisted return.

The origins of these case-management programmes are significant. Both were introduced as responses to systemic crises. In Sweden, change followed a public and media outcry over detention conditions in the late 1990s. In Australia, international condemnation of the mandatory indefinite detention of children and adults combined with flagrant errors such as the repeated deportations of Australian citizens led the government to introduce radical communitybased programmes for irregular migrants on the territory.2 Of course, off shore processing, in appalling conditions, of migrants arriving by boat has continued, and has intensified with the reopening of detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. Nevertheless, in Australia as in Sweden case management has become an established part of the immigration system.

In Britain, the European Union's biggest detainer of migrants, no such change has taken place. Detention is heavily used in the asylum process, with around 22% of asylum seekers detained at some stage, not just for removal but throughout the asylum process, on the controversial Detained Fast Track.3

Despite financial incentives offered through assisted returns programmes, the UK has exceptionally low levels of take-up of assisted return: only around 16% of refused migrants arrange their own return (with assistance), compared to 82% in Sweden.4 The various mechanisms for managing migrants in the community, including bail, reporting requirements, electronic monitoring and requirements to live at a designated residence, make little apparent contribution to the take-up of assisted return.

Many migrants subjected to long-term detention cannot be returned to their countries, often because of the difficulties of obtaining travel documents from countries of origin such as Iran, Algeria and Palestine. As a result, 57% of migrants leaving detention after a year or more are released back into the UK, rather than deported.5 Recent independent research has found that £70 million per year is wasted on the long-term detention of migrants who are ultimately released.6 This figure includes large pay-outs for unlawful detention, a rare phenomenon before 2009. Since then, the courts have repeatedly found long-term detention without prospect of deportation to be unlawful. Long-term detention has been even more catastrophic for migrants with serious pre-existing mental health conditions; the High Court has found on four occasions since 2011 that the prolonged detention of migrants who are experiencing psychological collapse breached their Article 3 rights against inhuman and degrading treatment. …

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