LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic leaders have joined forces with other religions to demand the British government end the use of indefinite detention on immigration grounds.
“The UK is the only European country without a statutory time limit on immigration detention. The routine use of indefinite detention is unjust, ineffective and inhumane. Evidence shows that it causes huge harm – not only to those detained, but to their family, children, friends and community,” a Feb. 14 joint statement said.
“The time to act is now. We urge the Government to put some fairness, decency and due process into our immigration system and urgently put a 28-day time limit on detention.”
The signatories included leaders from the Church of England, Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Hindu Council, the Sikh Federation, and Reform Judaism.
The appeal is being made as the British government is formulating its post-Brexit immigration policy. Although a member of the European Union, the United Kingdom had opted out of the Schengen Area, the 26-nation pact that has abolished passport controls and has a joint visa policy.
The UK has some of the most stringent immigration controls on the continent, and according to the UN refugee agency, “detains strikingly high numbers of asylum-seekers and is one of only a handful of countries without a time limit on immigration detention.”
According to the human rights group Liberty, which coordinated the religious leaders’ joint letter, the UK government holds around 30,000 people on immigration grounds every year, “including elderly people and survivors of rape, torture and slavery.”
“No judge signs off on their detention and there is no legal limit on how long they can be held purely for the administrative convenience of the Home Office,” a statement from Liberty said.
The Home Office British government department is responsible for immigration, security and law and order, similar to the tasks taken on by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster Paul McAleenan said, “It has been demonstrated time and time again that indefinite immigration detention not only violates people’s basic human dignity, but that it serves no meaningful purpose.”
The Irish-born bishop heads the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales efforts on asylum and migration, and signed the joint statement.
“It is shameful that we lag behind every other EU country in abolishing this practice and I sincerely hope that the Government will commit to introducing a more humane system at the earliest opportunity.”
Sarah Teather, the director of the UK office of Jesuit Refugee Service, said she sees “again and again how immigration detention is life-destroying for those we accompany and serve.”
“The UK is unique in Europe in having no limit on how long people can be held in immigration detention,” she said in a statement.
Teather served as a member of the UK Parliament from 2003-2015 and was Minister of State for Children and Families from 2010-2012.
During her time in government Treacher led the negotiations to stop the detention of children in the immigration system, and later chaired a parliamentary group focused on support for refugees, including the issue of detention.
“While some people are held in detention only for short periods of time, others can be detained for years before being released back into the community,” she said.
The UN refugee agency has called on the British government to “correct this anomaly” by introducing a time limit and significantly reducing its reliance on detention.
“Alternatives to detention are proven to be effective in ensuring individuals cooperate with asylum and immigration processes and have achieved high rates of voluntary return for those not in need of international protection,” the agency said in 2017. “They show that a more humane immigration detention system is compatible with national security concerns.”
Treacher said the introduction of a 28-day time limit and the implementation of community-based alternatives to detention are now more urgent than ever.
“The uncertainty caused by indefinite detention is a source of extreme stress and anxiety and contributes to a deterioration in physical and mental health, often compounding existing vulnerabilities,” she said.