Immigration detainees don’t have reliable access to legal advice

Although it is reassuring to hear that immigration removal centres are basically safe centres where many detainees are well cared for, it is distressing to hear that there is no reliable access to legal advice.

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This is the fifth in a short series of posts exploring the final annual report of Prison Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick published on 14 July 2015. This post looks at Hardwick’s findings from the inspections of immigration removal centres.

Immigration removal centres

The Chief Inspector’s conclusions on how illegal immigrants are treated are based on the inspection of three immigration removal centres (IRCs), one pre-departure accommodation centre and 10 short-term holding facilities (STHFs), and five overseas escorts. The highly critical inspection report on Yarl’s Wood was not published until 12 August 2015, so isn’t included in last year’s annual report; if it had been conducted earlier, it would have significantly changed the emphasis of the chapter on immigration detainees.

At the end of 2014, there were 3,462 detainees held in the immigration detention estate. Just over half of those leaving detention in 2014 were removed from the UK.

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Main findings

Overall, inspectors found that the three IRCs they inspected (Campsfield House, Haslar and Dover) were generally safe places. Detainees were well cared for in a respectful manner at Campsfield House and Haslar, although less so at Dover. Dover looked and felt like a prison – there was unnecessary razor wire on top of all security fencing and the roof of most buildings, and the sports pitch in the centre compound was enclosed by a locked security fence. The punitive rewards scheme was inappropriate for an IRC.

However, the good care that many received did not offset the insecurities they experienced while in immigration detention. The inspectors’ main conclusions are reproduced below:

  • IRCs were safe with few fights and assaults, and use of force was low, but some security procedures were disproportionate.
  • Some welfare services required development, not all detainees were adequately prepared for removal or release, and detainees were still not permitted access to Skype or social networks to maintain contact with family and friends.
  • Inadequate casework meant that some detainees who may have been tortured or who were accepted as children were detained contrary to policy. Some detainees were held for very long periods despite no realistic prospect of their removal.
  • Cedars was a good facility for families facing removal, and inspectors’ previous recommendations regarding the most vulnerable detainees had been implemented.
  • The quality of STHFs varied, and some people were detained there too long, but detainees generally felt safe.
  • Overseas escorts were generally efficient, but we had concerns about some staff conduct and disproportionate security measures.

I highlight two issues of particular concern below.

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Prolonged and probably illegal detention

Inspectors found some cases of prolonged detention without any apparent reason. In one example at Campsfield House, a man who had arrived at Gatwick Airport in
September 2013 on a false passport in breach of a deportation order and then  claimed asylum was not interviewed by the Home Office about his asylum claim until May 2014. By the time of the inspection in August 2014, a decision on his asylum claim had not been made and he had spent almost 11 months in detention.

At Dover, four detainees had been held for over two years.

Some decisions to maintain detention were not in accordance with the law. For example, in a case seen at Haslar, an Iranian had been detained in July 2010 and since October 2010 the prospects of removing him had become increasingly remote. In October 2011, government lawyers advised the Home Office of a possible action for unlawful detention by the detainee, but he continued to be detained. The detainee was only released in February 2014 to bail accommodation provided by the Home Office.

There were many more and many more extreme examples of prolonged detention in the Yarl’s Wood report; for instance inspectors discovered 99 pregnant women had been held in the Bedfordshire centre in 2014, of whom only nine were removed from the UK, despite Home Office policy stating expectant women should not normally be detained.

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Access to legal advice

Inspectors found that increasing numbers of detainees did not have a lawyer to assist them with their immigration cases or to apply for bail. In some cases this was because legal aid was no longer available. In others, entitlements to legal aid were not well understood by staff and arrangements to ensure detainees had access to representation
were not working effectively.

In the inspectors’ survey, 10% of detainees said they did not require an immigration lawyer; of those who did, 28% said they did not have one. The Legal Aid Agency had contracted lawyers to provide legal advice surgeries to detainees at all the IRCs, but waiting times could be up to two weeks, which was too long given the rapid turnaround of some decisions.

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Conclusion

Although it is reassuring to hear that most immigration removal centres are basically safe centres where many detainees are well cared for, it is distressing to hear that there is no reliable access to legal advice.

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