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Why are we locking up migrants?

Human Rights

Abobeker* is an energetic man from Darfur with a long stride and more lives than a cat. As we speed-walk through Cardiff, he greets numerous Eritrean friends, one of whom he stops to embrace, exclaiming: 'He was with me on the boat to Lampedusa!'

Migrants make a lot of friends, moving around Europe in and out of detention. Abobeker is something of an expert. He has spent time in more than half of Britain's 10 detention centres, and two more in Italy, for over three years in total. He can reel them all off: Four months, four days in Sicily, four months and 17 days in Oakington, nine months in Campsfield – the first time...

Journey interrupted. A Somali woman waits at a detention centre in Malta, where asylum-seekers can be detained for up to 12 months on arrival.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Abobeker fled Sudan after repeated bouts of imprisonment and torture. His six-year odyssey began in 2007, when he made his first attempt to cross from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa, 300 kilometres north of Tripoli. Over three attempts, he witnessed the death of fellow passengers from Somalia, Nigeria and Ethiopia as entire families drowned and scores died of hunger and thirst. By the time he got to Italy, it was 2008. He was promptly detained for four months before reaching Britain, via Calais, in 2009. On arrival, he was locked up for nearly two years.

While Britain and Italy took turns to detain Abobeker, his family fell apart. His wife was murdered, his four-year-old son died of malaria and his eight-year-old was snatched from a refugee camp. He has one surviving daughter in the care of his mother-in-law. 'I lost my family. If [Britain] had accepted me in 2009, they would be here with me now,' he says.

It's booming

Abobeker fell foul of draconian detention powers in Europe. He is just one of over a million asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants deprived of their liberty in Europe and the US each year.1,2

Detention has reached epidemic proportions. Some 700 years after habeas corpus became established in English law, officials routinely lock up non-citizens without charge. They can be held for days, months or, in the case of Britain, Australia and the US, indefinitely.

The practice, which had been growing since the 1980s, took off in the 1990s and soared post-9/11. English-speaking nations are the most enthusiastic detainers. Since the 1990s, the number of people detained under immigration powers in the US has quadrupled. Detention centres in Australia doubled between 2010 and 2011; Britain saw a 12-fold increase between 1993 and 2013, with capacity climbing from 250 to 4,500. 3


'Imprisoning a foreigner for the purpose of an immigration-related goal'. It is an 'administrative' power and does not require a formal charge.

Happens to:

People who are seeking asylum; have overstayed a visa; worked without permission; foreign ex-offenders and even refugees.


On arrival at the border, prior to deportation, while in-country or en-route (interdiction).

Through the keyhole

Campsfield House was key to this expansion. One of Britain's first dedicated immigration detention facilities, it is a bleak, out-of-the-way place, with 10-metre high fences topped with razor wire. In 20 years, it has seen its fair share of controversy: breakouts, hunger strikes, riots and two suicides (see Campsfield House timeline). Last October, a fire allegedly started by a suicidal detainee took out an entire accommodation unit.

Despair in detention. Fire damage at Campsfield Immigration Removal Centre in Oxfordshire, October 2013. An Afghan detainee allegedly started the blaze as part of a suicide attempt.

John Harris/reportdigital.co.uk

A refurbished borstal for delinquent boys (at a cost of $31 million), it lies 11 kilometres north of New Internationalist's editorial offices, off a series of bland roundabouts past the tidy bungalows of Kidlington.

Its first guests were a busload of Jamaicans who arrived at Christmas in 1993. Since then, its 200-odd beds have held up to 30,000 people from all over the world. Last year's detainees hailed from 50 different nations, including Sudan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Like the majority of Britain's detention centres, it is privately run, currently by MITIE, part of a powerful transnational industry that builds, caters for, and administers detention centres around the globe.

Microphysics of power

MITIE is required to provide a 'secure but humane' environment. This creates an uncomfortable dissonance. Guards like to be called 'officers'; inside, the jangle of keys, clank of gates and the sound of basketball are audible from the visitors' room, which has a play area to entertain detainees visiting children. CCTV on reception shows a grainy Bingo game.

Campsfield is presented as a sinister leisure centre in a 2012 report from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). It praised the activities on offer to its male detainees – music, Diwali celebrations, yoga, IT and badminton. It also reported how a sit-down demonstration by 60 people in the sports hall was quickly suppressed and the ring leaders moved out. It was a 'good year' for the ad-hoc use of handcuffs (down). And a man who jumped off the roof was re-captured in the buffer zone.

'Automatically, after six months, or a year in detention, people go mental'

Activist Bill McKeith doubts the humane claim. 'In Britain, they get prayer mats and gyms and lock up more and more people,' he fumes. A founder of the Close Campsfield Campaign, he has organized monthly demonstrations since the day it opened.

The lack of a time limit is what got to Abobeker, who spent over a year incarcerated there. He took a $1.60-an-hour job in the kitchen to stay sane. 'People get stressed because there's no answer', he says. 'They cannot tell you why you are there. If I knew it would be a day, a week, even a year... The problem is not knowing.'

Driven over the edge

'Automatically, after six months, or a year, people go mental,' says Hamid. An Iranian man with large haunted eyes, he spent over three years in immigration detention after serving a six-month prison term. Fifteen months after release, he is still suffering from depression.

A growing body of research confirms the corrosive impact of detention on mental health. Studies have found around 85 per cent of detainees suffer from clinical depression, which increases the longer they are held. 4

Self harm – cutting, asphyxiation, head-banging – is the grim barometer for emotional stress. Some 1,800 detainees were on 'self-harm watch' in Britain in 2012. Over 200 people received medical treatment for injuries.5 This is a global problem. Australia's ombudsman produced a shocking report in May 2013, which tracked a self-harm epidemic in detention centres that reached a rate of 1 in 10 detainees, some of them children.

Migrants claim staff are quick to dish out anti-depressants. 'They give you a lot of pills,' says Hamid darkly. 'It makes you so lazy. You ask for drugs: they feed you to keep you calm.'

Asylum-seekers are predisposed to mental distress. They make up 50 per cent of all immigration detainees in Britain, and 83 per cent in Australia. And while legal clauses exist to release the vulnerable – the mentally ill, trafficked, victims of torture – in practice these are systematically ignored. The Gatwick Detainee Support Group has reported that a man with the mental age of 11 was held in isolation for six weeks at Brook House in southern England.

'Detention is like a concrete jungle,' explains Souleyman Sow, a chiselled 46-year-old from Guinea Conakry. 'Easy to find your way in, hard to find your way out.' It took him three and a half years to find his way out, after he was jailed for possessing a false passport.

It's also hard to recover. Three Australian former detainees have recounted how they suffered nightmares, uncontrollable thoughts, and an enduring sense of loneliness.6

Those who visit detention centres risk being overwhelmed. One woman, who has supported detainees in Campsfield for 20 years, said: 'I try not to think about them or remember them because I'd get depressed. If you did, it'd destroy you.'

In the US, Human Rights Watch has condemned botched medical care that has resulted in great suffering or even death. Expectant mothers are routinely shackled and shortfalls in medical care have led to miscarriages.

Women are vulnerable across the board. A recent abuse scandal at the Yarlswood centre for women detainees in Britain led to a guard being sacked (his victim was deported).

Tilia, who spent a year in Yarlswood, says abuse was commonplace. Having women was a perk of their jobs, she explains. 'They took advantage of the vulnerable ladies, led them to believe they could help with their case.'

Cruelty to children

Family separation. Migrant children suffer acute distress when their parents are detained.

Philippe Leroye

The impact of detention on children can be devastating, inflicting life-long damage on cognitive and emotional development. Captured Childhood, a harrowing report from the International Detention Coalition based on interviews with child detainees, is not for the fainthearted. It includes the story of a bright 11-year-old Nigerian girl who attempted suicide after developing post-traumatic stress disorder, and of a three-year-old Somali boy who has spent his entire life in detention with his father.

The graphic accounts in this report have helped to reduce child detention in a number of countries. Less is done for children who lose their parents to detention. In a recent report, Bail for Immigration Detainees catalogued the acute distress of 200 children whose mother or father were detained. In 40 per cent of cases, they were taken into care.

The children lost weight, had nightmares, suffered insomnia, became withdrawn and deeply unhappy, particularly the toddlers. One disabled boy, who was left in the care of his seriously ill grandfather, was run over. 'I never knew people could take away your kids out of your life, just like that' wrote a woman called Kayla, who was detained for seven months. 'They don't know the pain you feel, you feel it in your guts.'


In the end, 83 per cent of the parents detained – for an average of nine months – were released back to their families, raising major questions over why they were detained in the first place.

'It is difficult to imagine,' says the report, 'any other situation where children in the UK could be separated from their parents indefinitely with such scant attention to their welfare.'

The suffering of asylum-seekers, women and children is not incidental. 'Migrants divide themselves into groups,' says Don Flynn from the Migrants Rights Network. 'Those who organize their whole life under the radar are much harder - and more expensive - to reach. So they go for the vulnerable: the asylum-seekers, women and children - the low-hanging fruit.'

Rationale revisited

The state's rationale for detention fails on most counts. If the aim of detention is to have migrants available for deportation, why, in Italy, are half the detainees released? In Britain last year, 40 per cent of people left custody to rejoin their communities. For children, the figure rose to 50 per cent.

Hamid and Souleyman were earmarked for deportation as ex-offenders. Yet during their many years of detention they were not once issued with travel documents or flight directions. Hamid was refused bail 14 times.

Between them, Souleyman (left) and Hamid were detained for over 6 years.

Jerome Phelps

Often, civil servants justify detention on grounds of 'fear of absconding'; that the person will 'lose touch' with the authorities. Yet the Home Office has no evidence that people will abscond, and their trials with other coercive forms of detention, such as tagging, showed a 90-per-cent 'success rate'. 7

The NGO and legal community has led the way in demonstrating humane ways to monitor migrants on behalf of governments. Some of these alternatives place no restrictions on liberty and can boast 90-per-cent 'compliance' and 80-per-cent cost savings on custodial measures. 8 Unsurprisingly, they show that migrants treated with respect and given access to legal advice are more prepared to co-operate with the outcome of an immigration decision.

Bad influence

The rich world is increasingly outsourcing detention to the Global South in an attempt to cut migrants off at the pass. Australia has famously bullied the Pacific island Nauru and Papua New Guinea into hosting their 'offshore' detention centres. It is perhaps less well known that in the space of five years, funds from Australia have also seen a drastic increase in the number of people detained in Indonesia, which holds migrants - including children - for up to 10 years.

Mexico – another country that used not to detain – held 90,000 in 2012, under pressure from the US.2 The Global Detention Project report that the US has detention centres all over the Caribbean, including one in Guantanamo Bay.

Economic powerhouse South Africa, which has a capacity to detain 6,500 migrants at the privately run Lindela detention centre, is now supporting detention in Mozambique and Botswana.

For its part, the EU gave $41 million to Ukraine for detention infrastructure in 2011, and supported detention centres in Libya, where Amnesty recently condemned ill-treatment amounting to torture.11

As the borders push southwards, the few rights afforded migrants in the West tend to evaporate. 'We spoke to some unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka who were recently detained in Indonesia', said one researcher, who asked not to be named. 'They were beaten, sexually abused, and then released traumatized to the UNHCR. What they needed was legal support and safety. All detention did was damage them.'


Another rationale for detention, which is often explicit though technically illegal, is to deter migration. Yet there is no evidence that detention (rather than catch and release) has, for example, reduced illegal crossings along the Mexican border.9 There is evidence that it has increased migrant deaths, as people take riskier routes. UNHCR's Alice Edwards writes that globally, as detention has increased, the number of people seeking to enter these territories has also risen or remained constant.

The price tag of detention is exorbitant. Australia will spend US$1.7 billion over the next four years building and running a detention centre for 750 vulnerable refugees on Nauru, a lump of phosphate rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.10 That works out at $1,570 per day. Supporting the same number of asylum-seekers to live in the community costs just $6 per day.

Detention centre fuel public imagination about the harm migrants pose to society

Meanwhile, Britain had to pay out $19 million in compensation for unlawful detention in 2010-11. Hamid received $28,000 when his detention was ruled arbitrary and unlawful. 'Your taxpayers have to work hard to keep people like me in detention,' he says drily.

UNHCR, Amnesty International and EU parliamentarians have repeatedly drawn attention to violations of international law and the refugee convention, which state that detention should only be used as a last resort, and for the shortest time possible.

Unique and pointless

It was not always like this. In the early 20th century, foreigners could be stopped and questioned, and internment kicked in during wartime. But the US had closed Ellis Island – where aliens were often detained on arrival in New York – for good by 1954. While states possessed the power to detain, up until around the 1980s, migrants were more likely to be given a notice of deportation, or to be held in humanitarian open camps for processing.

Michael Flynn, a researcher who has been tracking the growth of detention infrastructure at the Global Detention Project, concludes: 'It doesn't add up. It's spending vast amounts of money and political capital in a fruitless endeavour.'

The race to lock up migrants has not gone unnoticed by social theorists. They slot detention into a wider pattern of 'racial criminalization' across Western liberal states, driven by a pattern of uncertainty, risk and fear. Detention centres crystallize and reaffirm ideas about 'dangerous foreigners'. The language politicians use to justify them further fuels public imagination about the harm migrants pose to society.

Such crass, xenophobic populism is one reason why Sarah Teather, Liberal MP for Brent, plans to step down before Britain's 2015 elections. 'I'm deeply uncomfortable with a politics that is deliberately using people who are already relatively vulnerable, as outsiders, as a tool to demonstrate how tough we are,' she told The Guardian. 'It's about trying to create and define an enemy.'

A hearty stew

Migration brings to life the realities of a changing, globalized world. And as researcher Bridget Anderson writes in Us and Them, 'No set of border controls has ever worked to contain fully people's desire and need to move.' It hasn't stopped Abobeker. He has sacrificed too much to turn back now.

'I'm still waiting. I'm outside but I'm still waiting,' he reflects 10 months after his release. He may be a born survivor, but he is also illiterate. His adventures have left him 'very stressed' and he suffers from nightmares. Like many detainees, he is caught by the Dublin Agreement, which allows Britain to deport asylum-seekers like Abobeker to the first 'safe' country he encountered in Europe – Italy.

British volunteers at the Oasis project in Cardiff are supporting Abobeker and others. Their centre, the size of a small terraced house, is overflowing with people. Warmth emanates from a pot of spicy chicken stew being cooked up by the two-man chef team (Sudanese and Eritrean), steaming up the windows. Men and women sit with volunteers, going through reams of paperwork. A five-year-old is using one of the computers to watch a Pingu episode. A toddler determinedly climbs upstairs where sewing and an English class are taking place.

This is the antidote to Britain's detention estate. We need to trade in the current apparatus of immigration control for a system based on the same ideals of welcome, solidarity and compassion.

*Not his real name.

Hamid and Souleyman are spokespeople from the Freed Voices project at Detention Action.

  1. 570,000 people were detained in Europe in 2011: Ed. MigreEurop, Atlas of Migration in Europe, New Internationalist, 2013.
  2. 429,000 detained in the US: Samson and Mitchell, 'Global Trends in Immigration Detention and Alternatives to Detention', Journal on Migration and Human Security, Vol 1 (No 3), 2013.
  3. 3,500 in detention centres and short-term holding facilities, plus 1,000 prison beds. 'Immigration Detention in the UK', Briefing from The Migration Observatory, November 2013.
  4. eg. Katy Robjant et al, 'Mental Health implications of detaining asylum-seekers: systematic review'. British Journal of Psychiatry 2009.
  5. Selfharm in Immigration Detention to December 2012'.
  6. Melissa Phillips, 'Voices from inside Australia's detention centres', Forced Migration Review. Issue 44, September 2013.
  7. The Liberty Deficit: long-term detention and bail decision-making, Bail for Immigration Detainees, 2012.
  8. Alice Edwards, Back to Basics: The Right to Liberty and Security of Person and 'Alternatives to Detention' of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Stateless Persons and Other Migrants, UNHCR, 2011.
  9. Stephanie Silverman, 'Regrettable but Necessary? A Historical Study of the UK Immigration Detention Estate and its Opposition', Politics; Policy 40 (6), 2012.
  10. 'The Economic cost of our asylum seeker policy, April 2013.
  11. Scapegoats of fear: Rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya', Amnesty Briefing, June 2013.

Take it further

Detention is strongly contested in the courts and on the streets, while a network of supporters shows solidarity with visits, friendship. The last few years have seen a growth in migrant-led social movements and political action. In late 2013, refugee protest camps sprang up in public squares in towns across Europe.

Campaigns & groups


Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees

Bail for Immigration Detainees

Campaign to Close Campsfield

Medical Justice

Australia and Aotearoa

RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees

Children Out of Immigration Detention

Jesuit Refugee Service

Auckland Refugee Council

United States and Canada

Detention Watch Network

National Immigrant Justice Center

Canadian Council for Refugees


Calais Migrant Solidarity

Welcome to Europe


International Detention Coalition

No Border Network

Read and watch

Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control, by Bridget Anderson, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Atlas of Migration in Europe, New Internationalist/MigreEurop, 2013.

'Detention, alternatives to detention and deportation'. Forced Migration Review. Issue 44, September 2013.

Captured Childhood, International Detention Coalition (IDC), 2012.

Mary meets Mohammad: a documentary telling the story of a friendship struck between an Afghan detainee and an elderly Tasmanian woman.


Close the camps

Detention Logs - publishes data, documents and investigations into Australia's detention centres.

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