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In this blog, SDV Director, Kate Alexander, takes a look at the latest detention figures from the Home Office. She looks at the issues for the whole of the UK but also at the particular issues for Scotland.

The UK picture

Today’s release of the latest detention statistics from the Home Office provide an opportunity to check the extent to which the UK Government has delivered on its promise of detention reform.

There is some good news. At the end of June 2019, there were 1,272 people in immigration detention, 22% fewer than at the same time last year. Any reduction in the number of people in detention is to be welcomed. However, the fall in the number of people entering detention over the course of the year is far smaller – just 8%. In the year to the end of June 2019, 24,052 people entered detention. All of those people were detained on the authority of a civil servant, who had probably never met them, and none of them had any idea when they would be released.

If the UK Government decided to round up the entire population of Shetland or Orkney or Renfrew or even Witham, the constituency of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and lock them up indefinitely without a trial, there would be an outcry. But each of these places has a population of a similar size to the number of people detained in the course of the year in the UK. The human cost of this in incalculable, but we know it is a colossal waste of public funds. Research from Liberty has shown that a more humane system could yield net savings to the exchequer of £25-£35 million.

The number of people leaving detention also fell (by 11%) to 24,467. But a look at the reasons for leaving shows that detention has become even more ineffective in achieving its stated purpose of removing people from the country. Well under half (41%) of those leaving detention in the year to the end of June 2019 were removed from the UK compared to 45% the previous year. Once again, the question arises as to why these people were detained in the first place, only to be released.

It is when we look at the length of detention that what the UK Government must do to deliver the change required becomes clearest. The UK remains the only country in Europe without a time limit on detention. Over recent years, the calls to end this injustice have grown louder. Earlier this year, an inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights called for a 28 day time limit, and more than 80 MPs from all parties have supported an amendment to that effect to the latest immigration bill. These calls have been rejected by the UK Government.

At the end of June 2018, 48% of the people in detention had been detained for more than 28 days. So it’s clear that a 28 day time limit would immediately halve the numbers detained. It would also end the scandal of long-term detention. On the same date, 131 people had been detained for more than 6 months and 37 people had been detained for over a year. One person had been detained for more than two years (818 days).

The picture in Scotland

The number of people being brought to Dungavel as their initial place of detention fell by 32% (from 1,524 in the year to 30 June 2018 to 1,026 the following year). It’s important to remember that these figures do not include everyone who was detained in Dungavel in each period, as some people are brought to Dungavel after having been detained elsewhere. Nevertheless, this drop is striking as in the year to 30 June 2018, the number of people being detained in Dungavel as their initial place of detention actually rose by 8% compared to a fall in the UK as a whole of 6%.

At the same time, the population in Dungavel has been very low. At the end of June 2019, 66 people were detained there, compared with 88 at the same time in 2018. At the end of December 2018, the number of people detained there fell to 61, and intelligence gained during our visits to the centre suggests that the number detained has fallen below 50 on several occasions. The capacity of the centre is 249.

It is not possible to say from the figures how many people detained in Dungavel were living in Scotland before their detention, but the figures certainly suggest that the UK Government is managing immigration in Scotland with far less use of detention than in previous years. Meanwhile, interest in and support for community based alternatives to detention (ATDs) has been growing. A motion in the Scottish Parliament supporting ATDs has so far garnered the support of 15 MSPs from across the political spectrum.

In his 2018 report, Stephen Shaw referred to the failure of the UK Government’s plan to close Dungavel and open a Short Term Holding Facility at Glasgow airport, and argued that this meant there was more detention in Scotland than there would have been. This missed an important part of the picture. Without a significant change in Home Office policy in other areas, the closure of Dungavel would not have resulted in fewer people in Scotland being detained, or living in fear of detention. It would simply have meant they would have been detained elsewhere.

ATDs, coupled with a time-limit, present an opportunity for that significant change. As the motion in the Parliament suggests, Scotland, with its wide devolved powers, its well-developed migration voluntary sector and its existing strategy for welcoming New Scots from the moment they arrive in Scotland, is the ideal place to pilot ATDs. With a commitment that people living in Scotland would not be moved to England to be detained, introducing alternatives could enable the UK Government to close Dungavel after all.

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