Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Protest against immigration detention.

Lives in limbo: the injustice of indefinite immigration detention

A few days ago Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that she has accepted all 30 recommendations of the Windrush Lessons Learned review. This is a chance to unravel the Hostile Environment, which has destroyed so many lives for so many years, and with it, one of its central pillars, indefinite immigration detention. Felicity Laurence, campaigns lead for Hastings Community of Sanctuary, describes this destructive policy, and the imminent opportunity to end it for good when the new immigration bill is debated in the Commons in the coming days.

A few weeks ago the film Sitting in Limbo was shown on the BBC. It is a heart-stopping story of the unspeakable trauma of the people caught up the Windrush scandal, and it takes you into deep into the nightmare of the Hostile Environment, honed for years under successive governments, targeting people seeking asylum, and eventually inflicted upon thousands of people who were in fact British citizens. Anthony Bryan was among them, and the film chronicles this one man’s hellish journey through that labyrinth.

One particular moment stands out for its pure cruelty.

Early one morning, with no warning and no explanation, he was taken from his house and family, bundled into the back of a windowless van, driven for hours into the middle of nowhere, and delivered to a bleak place of incarceration – with no inkling if or when he would be released.

The film shows the brutality of detention and the colossal indifference of those throwing people into it. This is a devastating glimpse of a reality generally hidden from view – that for nearly two decades, albeit in another category than the Windrush detainees, thousands of people who have sought asylum have been locked up indefinitely, held for weeks, or months, or even years.

Like Anthony Bryan, they live a terrifying existence, out of sight of the rest of us – of whom most have absolutely no idea that this is happening. Up to 70% of those detained have committed no crime whatsoever. Many are survivors of trafficking and torture; indeed, many such survivors are being detained at this moment, and have been all through lockdown.

The Home Office’s hostile environment carried onto the streets.

No judicial oversight

Detention is an administrative procedure, with no requirement for judicial oversight – a matter, in effect, of ticking a box. The cross-party Home Affairs Committee report last year noted: “It is extremely troubling that in the immigration and asylum system people can be deprived of their liberty through an entirely paper-based exercise by officials where no one involved in the decision ever interviews the potential detainee.”

Detention is supposed to be for as short a time as possible before deportation. But in reality, large numbers are held for an indeterminate time which can stretch on and on. And even if someone is released, they can be picked up and detained again at any point.

And here’s the thing: more than half of those detained are eventually released, their detention having served no purpose whatsoever. Last year, that number was over 14,000 people.

In the hundreds of case studies of people who have been through this process, it is the ‘not knowing’ – the complete lack of any sense of when this will end – that emerges time and again as the most unbearable aspect of all. The harm done to mental health is incalculable.

Indefinite detention goes back to the 1971 Immigration Act, but took shape as a key immigration strategy from around 2000. As Government policy became increasingly harsh, so the detention estate expanded. By 2014, with Theresa May’s “really” hostile environment rampant, thousands were finding themselves detained in the notorious Detention Fast Track – in which people had to mount their asylum claim while in detention, with 99% of those claims failing.

The final court judgement on that process was that over the years it operated, at least 10,000 people had been wrongly detained – many deported back to countries where they were simply not safe.   No one knows what happened to most of them. That policy was finally abandoned in 2018.

One person who experienced the injustice of the fast track system is John Baptist, our guest at the recent Festival by the Lake Online, broadcast by Isolation Station Hastings. John Baptist was detained on the day he claimed asylum and held in conditions that have left him with enduring trauma – despite which he told his story with courage and grace.

He said: “As an asylum seeker, detention is the worst place I have ever been in my life, especially when I needed help the most. It gives me nightmares knowing that another person has to go through the same experience every day. But I believe we could put an end to this, and this can only be achieved by putting an end to indefinite detention.” You can watch him tell his story here.

Protest against the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

What you can do

Right now, the long-awaited Immigration Bill has started its passage through Parliament. To that bill, the MP David Davis has tabled an amendment which would fundamentally change immigration detention.

David Davis is a long-time advocate of ending indefinite detention, on the grounds that it is utterly contrary to any notion of a liberal, civilised society whose consensus must be that people may be incarcerated only after due judicial process. His amendment calls for:

  • a limit of 28 days to Immigration Detention;
  • automatic judicial oversight of detention decisions after 72 hours;
  • an end to the detention of vulnerable people.

The amendment might be debated as early as next Tuesday, 30 June. Hastings and Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart will be looking carefully at what it is proposing. To stop this injustice, please ask her, as a matter of urgency, to support the amendment in the name of justice and humanity. You can email her directly or via Write to Them.


Further information on Hastings Community of Sanctuary website here and here, and on our Instagram page.

Detention Action

The Detention Forum

All images courtesy of Hastings City of Sanctuary.






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Posted 11:42 Friday, Jun 26, 2020 In: Campaigns


Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Jill Fricker

    There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in ANY COUNTRY that has signed the 1951 Convention, and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

    “Nobody asked them to come?” It’s not a party invite, DAR, it’s a right that anyone fleeing persecution has – and it is recognised in the 1951 Convention that people may have to use irregular means in order to escape and claim asylum in another country.

    Are “all and sundry” coming to the UK? No, DAR, the UK is home to approx. 1% of the world’s 29.6 million refugees – the great majority taken in by very poor neighbouring countries to those that refugees have had to flee from.

    Comment by Jill Fricker — Sunday, Jul 5, 2020 @ 22:37

  2. DAR

    A genuine question for those who support all asylum seekers/illegal migrants: do you have in mind a numerical limit on numbers, or are you happy for all and sundry to settle here, no matter how many there are? It’s all very well talking about sad cases, but nobody asked them to come here, did they? And what about the “first safe country” protocol – we all know that’s been abused time and again.

    Comment by DAR — Monday, Jun 29, 2020 @ 13:45

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