|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
In 2006, the then Minister admitted that the average direct cost of keeping one person in detention was £812 per week. The budget for Yarlswood alone at that time was £120 million per year. Both figures must have risen substantially; they would be reduced by more enlightened policies.
The text of this Question includes a time limit for the length of detention. Will the Government respond to that, if only by way of non-binding guidance? Will they release detainees immediately when deportations are cancelled or postponed, as often happens? It also refers to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning respect for private and family life. It covers non-nationals as well as citizens. I suggest that our Government, by their detention and deportation policies are regularly in breach of the convention.
Of course there are six exceptions to the right under Article 8, but I cannot see that any of them is likely to affect the parents and children we are discussing. I deeply regret there being so little change or improvement since the 2006 parliamentary discussion paper that I mentioned.
I turn now to my visit to Yarl's Wood centre last month. I noticed that it was on an industrial estate, almost half an hour's drive from the centre of Bedford. It must therefore be difficult for friends and relatives to visit. I heard complaints from two families held there, one of whom was detained on the same day that they received their asylum refusal. Rule 35 is being breached because detainees are not always asked at the reception interview whether they have previously suffered torture. Medical care is poor and pregnant women are not given the dietary supplements they need. Those facing deportation to malarial countries are not always offered prophylaxis. The reception for mobile telephones is poor at the site. In order to get bail, the surety is obliged to travel to Birmingham to appear in person, while the bail demanded is never less than £500, and sometimes much more. It is hardly surprising that so few applicants achieve bail. In some cases, detainees are frequently transferred between centres and suffer physical abuse while in transit. Will the Government attend immediately to such complaints and find out whether they also arise from other detention centres? Will they appoint an independent reviewer to look at the need for continued detention in individual cases? This is my proposal, which I have not so far heard elsewhere. The reviewer could start on those held longest, whom I mentioned earlier.
I suggest that successive Governments have failed over many years to balance their duty to protect vulnerable people with the need for asylum and immigration control. Detention of parents and children should be ended and the total of detainees should be much reduced. Better casework would increase the numbers who now take voluntary repatriation, or resettlement through the International Organization for Migration. I argue that successive Governments have acted incompetently and with a cruel lack of humanity. By contrast, English volunteers have rallied round each detention centre, forming support, welfare and befriending groups. The Government should therefore follow their lead by excluding parents with children and other vulnerable people and by treating other detainees humanely. This would help to improve the reputation of this country overseas.
Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this debate. The detention and treatment of asylum seekers is an area of major contention. Asylum and immigration are often treated as a single issue. It is important to distinguish between those who have a genuine motive for seeking asylum and those who simply want to enter Britain for emigration purposes. We have a duty to genuine asylum seekers but not to those who wish to enter Britain on dubious grounds.
Britain has a proud history of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution and violence, as a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention. In some circumstances,
4 Nov 2009 : Column 320
We should take pride in our status as a participant of the United Nations Convention against Torture. Reports have estimated that torture takes place in 132 countries around the world. Although I have the utmost compassion for victims of torture and persecution, it is essential to strike the right balance between accepting applicants and deporting applicants under the asylum procedure.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo tells us that a change of government does not always lead to the end of violence. This implies that the international community has a duty to put pressure on the Governments of unstable countries to ensure that a change in regime delivers an end to the persecution of citizens.
More stringent checks should be carried out by immigration officers prior to making a decision to place a person in detention. Greater transparency in the process is a priority, especially as there is no maximum period of detention. This situation does not sit well with many asylum applicants and could be perceived as breaching Article 8.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It has been reported that the average length of stay in an immigration removal centre varies between 16 to 61 days. However, research produced earlier this year revealed a case of an asylum seeker who was detained in a centre for approximately eight years prior to deportation. There is a genuine risk that those held in detention centres for longer periods are more likely to abscond or enter illegal employment.
Britain and Denmark are the only European Union members who have chosen to opt out of the EU returns directive, which implements a time limit of 18 months for detaining individuals. This decision has not proven to be effective. The varied periods of detention reported to date reflect the failures inherent in the decision not to set a detention limit. Several other EU countries successfully deport applicants while adhering to the requirements of the ECHR. Will the Minister give due consideration to enforcing a maximum period of detention for asylum seekers and migrants?
It is not in the best interests of asylum seekers or our communities to detain citizens for such long periods of time. The average cost to the taxpayer for each individual held in a detention centre for a week is estimated to be £812. I welcome the decision to introduce fast-track and super-fast-track systems at Oakington, Harmondsworth and Yarl's Wood for detainees where claims are decided within three to seven days. My only caveat is that the process for these accelerated applications should be subjected to thorough investigations, where the complexity of cases is taken into account prior to reaching a decision.
Centrally held data on detainees should also provide details of the number of asylum seekers in the criminal justice system. It is a shocking indictment of the current scheme that accurate data for the number of offenders without leave to remain in this country are not available. It is right that asylum seekers or immigrants
4 Nov 2009 : Column 321
The mental health of asylum seekers must be taken into account when deciding on whether they are suitable for detention. Genuine asylum seekers, by their nature, have been subjected to sustained torture, violence and persecution. We therefore have a duty to ensure that if we decide to place applicants in detention centres, this does not compromise their mental and emotional health.
The British Medical Journal has reported that a majority of detainees who are held for long periods are more likely to acquire mental health problems and has also implied that lengthy detention can aggravate existing difficulties. In extreme cases, some detainees have engaged in self-harming or, in tragic circumstances, a number have committed suicide. These are wholly undesirable outcomes which serve as a reminder that we must honour our commitment to vulnerable citizens. It is also essential to provide staff in detention centres with adequate training as these establishments often house both asylum seekers and migrants. Can the Minister say whether this is implemented?
An effective border security system is the only way to prevent people from illegally entering Britain. Immigration benefits our country. However, it also places a strain on our population and resources. Economic migrants played an important part in developing a number of our industries, such as the National Health Service. Despite the socio-economic benefits of immigration, it is important for us to implement a system that is both prudent and fair.
It is clear that Britain was not prepared for the influx of citizens resulting from the 2004 enlargement of the European Union. It is only sensible that an annual limit is thus placed on the number of non-EU migrants. It is vital to enforce such restrictions as we consider the impact of the rising population on our infrastructure and local communities.
I have come across a few cases of people who have been granted asylum in Britain from countries which do not have a history of persecuting their citizens. I was particularly surprised by the details of a case I read as the grounds for asylum were, in my opinion, unfounded. This relates to a request for asylum from a Jamaican citizen. What are the grounds on which the application was approved?
It is worth stating that we have a duty to our citizens to grant asylum only to those in genuine need of sanctuary. Asylum and immigration share similarities in that they both require compromise and understanding from our citizens. It is crucial that governments do not abuse this responsibility.
Lord Best: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hylton for initiating this debate and for his powerful speech. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe, set up in 2007 by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and chaired by Patrick Wintour-an expert in this field-with
4 Nov 2009 : Column 322
The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, repeated a Statement on 29 October from the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, Phil Woolas. The Minister announced some enhancements to the package of assistance to Zimbabweans who return voluntarily. This will aid those taking their skills back to help rebuild the country. However, alongside the changes to the voluntary returns package, the Minister also announced that he was considering the position of enforced returns to Zimbabwe-an issue under review since the Home Office deferred enforced returns to Zimbabwe in September 2006, following a moratorium enforced through the courts.
"The relationship between the Zimbabwean community in the UK and the UK Border Agency is extremely tense and the high levels of suspicion and mistrust could undermine any initiatives that are linked to return".
The report quotes the United Kingdom Border Agency's January 2009 estimates for Zimbabweans in the UK, which suggest that there may be living here as many as 70,000 failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers or Zimbabweans without valid leave to remain. This figure suggests those potentially eligible for removal to Zimbabwe could present the UKBA with a huge task, with concomitant strain on pre-removal detention centres. If the so-called normalisation of returns policy to Zimbabwe is pursued, I suspect there will be prolonged legal battles in many cases.
I detect an inconsistency between the approach of the Home Office and the UK Borders Agency, and that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. The latter organisations' approach to Zimbabwe suggests that the political reforms are not yet sufficiently embedded for the Department for International Development to normalise development aid. Support is restricted to humanitarian assistance and through channels not susceptible to abuse by ZANU-PF. It would seem premature to normalise enforced returns of vulnerable asylum seekers while the political atmosphere remains highly charged and human rights organisations report a resurgence in politically motivated violence.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office judges that it is not yet time for the EU to consider lifting the restrictive measures-the travel ban and assets freeze-imposed on 203 named Zimbabwean Ministers and others associated with the abuse of human rights. This would certainly suggest that the Home Office is acting hastily in considering it is time to normalise enforced returns.
The inclusive government in Zimbabwe remains fragile. Tomorrow, 5 November, a crisis summit has been convened in Maputo, Mozambique, by the Southern African Development Community. This will try to put
4 Nov 2009 : Column 323
Only last week, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, who had been invited to visit Zimbabwe by Prime Minister Tsvangirai, was refused entry when he arrived at Harare airport and sent back to South Africa. This gives some indication of the continuing state of political confusion and volatility in the country.
While there has been a moratorium on enforced returns to Zimbabwe, quite a number of Zimbabweans entered the UK on Malawian passports, even though they have never lived in Malawi. There have been several occasions when UKBA has attempted to carry out the enforced removal of these individuals, often preceded by lengthy detention. There is great concern within the Zimbabwean community in the UK for the safety of Zimbabweans sent to Malawi by the Home Office. They have no family or friends in the country and have never lived there. They fear they will be expelled by the Malawian authorities as having no right of abode and returned to Zimbabwe.
I hope the Minister will give a positive response to the comments from my noble friend Lord Hylton. Can he also make a statement on Zimbabwe that would help regain the confidence and co-operation of the Zimbabwean in the UK? That co-operation is an essential precursor to a positive engagement in preparing individuals for voluntary return to participate in rebuilding Zimbabwe when the time is right.
"The legacy problems with unreturned foreign national prisoners and asylum seekers may have accumulated under previous administrations, but they continued to be ignored for too long on our watch ... Like many other countries, we struggled to contain the huge surge in migration-legal and illegal-that emerged from countries such as Kosovo, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Somalia".
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, about seven weeks ago when I was flying from Pittsburgh to Chicago, I sat next to a very staunch Republican. What he thought of President Obama could not be repeated in this Chamber. He thought the healthcare proposals were totally not required. They only affected, he said, 36 million "illegals". We are on dangerous ground if we take the attitude that people can be disregarded and pushed to one side because they are different from us. They are only asylum seekers, they are only refugees, they might only be migrants-but they are people, and people are people whatever their background. Whatever their situation, they are people who should be respected and treated-especially if they are children-with compassion and love. When we treat them in such a way that their life becomes intolerable and harsh, we are creating a tremendous bomb that could explode in the future and affect every one of us. Wherever people are from, whatever their background, whatever their
4 Nov 2009 : Column 324
A little while ago the Watoto children's choir was singing in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, and it was a tremendous concert. At the end, the children, who ranged from six to 13 years of age, were asked what they would like to be when they grow up. One said, "I want to be an airline pilot"; another said, "I want to be a lawyer". A little lad of 10 said, "I want to be President of Uganda". Children have dreams and, whatever their situation, they need to be nurtured in such a way that there is a possibility that those dreams, in time, will be realised.
The Refugee Council has done a tremendous amount of work, which I welcome. The council is opposed to the detention of asylum seekers and believes that the current use of detention during and at the end of the asylum process is disproportionate and unnecessary. As has already been mentioned, it is wrong that there is no time limit on how long an asylum seeker can be detained and that administrative detention on such a scale can happen without scrutiny by an independent body. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on that.
I have already mentioned my unhappiness at the detention of children: I believe that children should never be detained. Would we ever subject our own children to the conditions and the hopelessness that we allow other people's children-asylum seekers' children-to be subjected to? It is alleged that in Yarl's Wood-the Minister may say that my figure is not correct-83 children last year were detained for 28 days or more. That is horrific. The Children's Commissioner for England said:
"The UK should not be detaining any child who has had an unsuccessful asylum claim. Not only is there no reason to continue the administrative detention of children, we present evidence in this report to demonstrate that it may be harmful to their health and well-being".
The commissioner went on to outline a range of concerns about the experiences of children during detention and removal, such as their feelings of loss and anxiety. Imagine a little child whose whole life is dark and hopeless, and then consider that we are adding to that through their detention in our centres. The commissioner says that there is a lack of counselling and emotional support and that there are issues related to healthcare.
Those who suffer particularly when they are detained include youngsters whose age is in dispute: they are asked, "Are you an adult?" "Are you a child?" Pregnant women, survivors of torture, people with serious health problems and those whose removal from the UK is not imminent continue to be detained. Here I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Avebury-unfortunately he is in hospital-who has led the way on many of these concerns over the past few years.
We are concerned that when people are detained they cannot access legal representation or exercise their right to apply for bail to be let out of detention.
4 Nov 2009 : Column 325
There have been repeated reports by Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons which highlight inadequate welfare arrangements and a systematic failure to deal with concerns about detention. We are concerned about the ending of the country policies which gave a list of acceptable countries to which people could be returned. That has gone and now there are returns to countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka where such returns are not sustainable. About a year ago I invited the Minister to come with me to Heathrow Airport, where the first deportations to Zimbabwe were to take place. That time has gone but I still invite him to share the concern of these ordinary people whose lives are among the most vulnerable.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for introducing the debate. He is one of the great standard bearers for this issue in this House. We need constantly to monitor our immigration and asylum procedures.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for introducing this important debate. It is imperative, given the serious effect that our country's policy has on thousands of people's lives that we get it right and employ regulations which allow genuine refugees to be welcomed into our country and ensure that those who should not be here, and who can go home, are required to go home quickly. However, I regret to say that the system, although much improved over the past decade, still has a long way to go before it strikes this balance. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Sheikh for highlighting the problems of getting this balance.
There are serious problems with holding asylum seekers in detention. There is the huge cost-around £10 million a year; there does not seem to be suitable accommodation; there are concerns that those held are not receiving adequate legal advice and information; and when they are required to leave there do not seem to be any of the necessary arrangements in place to prepare them to go home.
The Government are well aware that they have a problem on their hands and they have identified the need for better organisation to prevent delays in the asylum system. In 1997 the Government created the new asylum model; more than 10 years later, although there have been some improvements, the system is still too slow. The evidence speaks for itself: the Government figures fall far short of their own targets. For example, the target for processing cases within 30 days in 2007 was 50 per cent; the figure completed was 16 per cent. The Government hoped to resolve 75 per cent of cases in 2009 in six months; currently only 65 per cent of cases are achieving that goal.
That at least was frank. It is reported by the Centre for Social Justice on asylum that just 3 per cent of claimants leave the country within three months of the determination of their case. What, in plain terms, are the Government doing to address that failure?
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|