Skip to Navigation

Are lousy conditions in UK detention centres just another part of the 'hostile environment strategy'?

Written by Awale Olad, Migrants' Rights Network, 19 August 2015

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) launched a scathing attack on the government's detention policy and focused specifically on the plight of pregnant women detained in Yarl's Wood.

The Inspector said that Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre was 'a place of national concern' with the facility's ability to give adequate healthcare to all its detainees deteriorating 'severely' in the last 2 years. The HMIP report also attacked the length of time people were detained, the delays and backlogs of applications, and the fact that the UK was the only country that did not have a time-limit for detainees.

The concerns raised by the Inspector were closely scrutinised by a group of cross-party parliamentarians earlier this year who called for a radical shift in the way the government currently detains migrants by introducing a time-limit of 28 days and only ever using detention very rarely. The cross-party recommendations received widespread public praise and support but was drastically rejected and ignored by the government. The MPs who led the campaign have now secured a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 10 September for 3 hours to hold the Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, to account.

Home Office Ministers have had little to say in response but I suspect newspaper headlines of irregular ('illegal') migrants being subjected to hardships in migrant prisons will not keep government MPs or civil servants awake at night. Given that the government's long-term strategy has been to prepare the ground for a 'hostile' campaign against the "swarm" of "marauding" migrants, whatever permitted rights protected undocumented or irregular individuals before has now surely been eradicated. The conditions vulnerable migrants find themselves in is the grim reality we were promised that would eventually reduce migration to the 'tens of thousands' – primary legislation has followed – with more changes to the law set to come in this autumn.

Prime Minister David Cameron has now taken reducing migration as a personal crusade and he feels confident that the court of public opinion is very much firmly on his side. He has the strong backing of senior cabinet ministers including Theresa May, the Home Secretary, and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. The Chancellor George Osborne has kept a strategic silence on the issue but is understood to be at odds with the current trajectory of policy, in particular the proposals to crack down on skilled migrants. The vast majority of Conservative MPs are generally in favour of more drastic measures taken against irregular migrants.

The view from the top of the Conservative Party has been to neutralise the ever-present threat of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who have in recent years benefitted from the proportional representation electoral systems in mid-term elections but have fared very badly in parliamentary elections, even with 4 million voters backing the party at the last election. The UKIP threat is real and seems unlikely to dissipate. The challenge therefore will be for the Conservatives to show real results in reducing net migration but with a growing economy attracting a greater number of workers to the labour market, this is a challenge the Conservatives will likely fail to overcome.

Leaving migrants in difficult conditions in prisons, fencing up Calais, and reducing rescue operations in the Mediterranean is part of the long-term plan to focus the public's attention on the Government's outright rejection of migrants and refugees while also taking the sting out of the net figures debate, which is more harmful to the Conservatives than pregnant women in detention centres with poor healthcare. The message is: the UK is no longer a welcoming place and even skilled migrants should think twice about coming here.

Focusing on presenting the UK as anti-migrant, anti-skilled workers, hostile to asylum seekers, and closed off from the rest of Europe is exactly the kind of narrative or message that would allow the Conservatives to move from the 'metropolitan elite' label to an anti-immigration view point while still holding firm in the centre-ground of politics. It also projects the Conservatives as ultimately 'anti-Labour Party', the party of open-doors immigration and metropolitan arrogance. This certainly puts Labour in a difficult position and also puts the process of pressuring the Labour Party to oppose the erosion of migrants' rights out of reach of the human rights lobby.

It will be down to civil society and a handful of MPs to stand up for migrants. The upcoming debate in Westminster Hall is the first step in this parliament to counter-punch some of the serious rights broaches we have seen the past few years, which have culminated in the concerning report published by the HMIP. It will also be a crucial moment for the public to start pressuring their MPs to start speaking out for migrants' human rights.

The debate will be held on Thursday 10 September. Write to your MP and ask him/her to attend and speak up for immigrants and human rights. Tell us what they say in response.

About the author: Awale Olad is Migrants' Rights Network's Public Affairs Officer and parliamentary liaison officer for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration
This blog post originally appeared on the Migrants' Rights Network blog and is reproduced with our thanks to Migrants' Rights Network.

Any views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EIN