SDV director, Kate Alexander, takes a look at the latest Home Office detention statistics
In 2019, 24,443 people entered immigration detention in the UK, according to statistics published yesterday. This figure is just 30 fewer than the previous year and marks a halt in the downward trend over the last five years. At the end of 2019, there were 1,637 people in detention, 8 per cent fewer than at the same time in 2018, but this is a far smaller fall in numbers detained than the previous year: at the end of December 2018, 29 per cent fewer people were in detention than at the same time in 2017. It seems that the welcome trend towards less use of detention may have come to an end.
The numbers for those detained at Dungavel, however, have continued to fall more dramatically. At the end of December 2019, just 42 people were detained there compared to 61 a year before – a fall of 31 per cent. In fact, we need to go back as far as the end of the first quarter of 2018 to see occupancy at Dungavel at more than 100. This trend probably accounts for the recent news that capacity at the centre has been reduced from 249 to 125.
In a continuation of a now familiar pattern, the figures show that detention does not achieve its stated purpose, which is to remove people from the country. In fact, it appears that detention is increasingly ineffective. In 2019, 63 per cent of the 24,512 people leaving detention were released back into the community, the highest proportion in the last 10 years. Again the question must be why these people were detained in the first place, at great cost to the exchequer and to them personally, only to be released again.
Very long term detention continues to show a welcome decline. Two per cent of those detained at the end of the year had been detained for over a year, and of those leaving detention, two per cent had been in detention for six months or longer.
But a closer look at the figures for length of detention reveals that 52 per cent of those detained at the end of last year had been in detention for more than 28 days. If the UK Government is serious about reducing the use of detention, the best way for it to do so would be to introduce a 28 day time limit. This would immediately reduce the detention population by more than half, to 790 at the end of December 2019. Coupled with community based alternatives to detention, a time limit would introduce a system that is more humane, more cost effective, increases compliance with negative decisions and assists people in integrating effectively if they receive a positive decision.
The Scottish Government has often signalled its willingness to work with Westminster on community based alternatives in Scotland. The recent very low occupancy at Dungavel raises an interesting prospect. Could basing one of the pilot alternatives to detention schemes announced in 2018 here allow the UK Government to model an immigration system without the use of detention? It’s something many in Scotland would be willing to help them explore.