The Reality of Indefinite Detention in the UK

Following yesterday’s welcome announcement that pre-charge detention for suspected terrorists  is to be reduced from 28 to 14 days, Hsiao-Hung Pai takes a look at the reality of indefinite detention of immigrants. She is a journalist and the author of Chinese Whispers: the True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour, Hsiao-Hung was shortlisted for the Orwell prize for her fantastic coverage of the Chinese cockle-pickers tragedy in Morecambe Bay in 2004.

Dover Removal Centre

Li Ming sounded particularly anxious when he called me from Dover Immigration Removal Centre. He said that his fellow detainee, a quiet man from Mongolia, had attempted suicide. “He’s been locked up long enough to lose hope,” Li said.


As they sent the Mongolian man away to another removal centre, Li thought about his own future. This will be the third year he spends in detention. “I can see the blueness of the sea from the windows here,” he said, “It reminds me of the freedom that we can’t reach.”

Dover is Li’s last stop. In the past two and a half years, he has spent days and nights in the removal centres all over Britain.

Like many detainees here, Li had left home to give himself a chance for a better livelihood. “I used to work in a manufacturing factory in a northern Chinese city. I used to earn 800 yuan (£74) per month, insufficient to maintain a reasonable living and to support my elderly mother who has needed long-term hospital treatment under the much-privatised healthcare system in China.” Li plucked up his courage and borrowed 170,000 yuan (£15,700) to come to Britain.

Cheap Labour on the Outside

In London, after working in the lowest-paid catering trade, he resorted to an agency who charged him £90 for a document that they said would be sufficient for him to get work anywhere. Then, among the Chinese newspaper job ads, he spotted a job in a bar in Stranraer.

Li was full of hope when he travelled all the way to Scotland. A new job. Higher earnings. But as he arrived in Stranraer, several immigration officers were doing their checking just outside the station. He was searched – and they found the document he bought. This was in March 2008.

Li was subsequently given a two-month sentence for using a forged document. He was hoping that they would release him soon afterwards. Like many Chinese migrants, he has borrowed a huge amount of money to come to find work in Britain. He has a mission here – to improve life for his family. Until his mission is accomplished, he simply cannot afford to return home.

Li was soon to realise that he was to spend a much longer time in detention. “When I was sent into Dungavel removal centre, I began to panic. I was sharing the room with seven others – It’s like an overcrowded tavern. That May, they suddenly transferred me to Campsfield removal centre in Oxford.”

Li heard that Campsfield is run by a US company called GEO, and it’s notorious for its poor management style. During his detention there, he witnessed the fourth riot started by some of the long-term detainees. “They were frustrated and angry with the way they were treated…Some wanted to escape.” Months after he left Campsfield, over 100 long-term detainees went on a hunger strike, demanding freedom.

Then Li was transferred from Campsfield to Lindholme, and then to Oakington removal centre, without notice or an explanation. The frequent transfer of detainees to different locations has deepened their anxiety, and is seen as a cruel way of psychological abuse.

In Oakington, many detainees suffer from depression and other mental illness as a result of their indefinite detention. Last July, a detainee attempted suicide. “The only way I could fight depression was to work,” Li said, “I took up work in the canteen, washing dishes and cleaning.”

Cheap Labour on the Inside

That November, he was sent back to Dungavel removal centre and had since spent twenty months there. “This time, they got me and another two Chinese to work as cooks and dish-washers in the canteen. It was £1 per hour – and £15 per week. I worked a total of 84 weeks in Dungavel. I didn’t care that it was cheap labour – to work is better than not work. It brings a sense of purpose in my incarceration. I know I would go mad otherwise.”

“There, I became acquainted with two Chinese women who were pregnant but didn’t receive proper treatment at the centre. I often made dumplings and cooked them egg soup… I also met a Chinese man who’d lived in England for six years and have his family here. He was forced to be parted from his family for a long time.”

In November 2009, Li was sent into Colnbrook removal centre near Heathrow where more than 300 people were detained. “We were treated without dignity. Every day, our doors were locked for 23 hours and we weren’t allowed to leave our room. This is exactly like a prison where you’re deprived of your basic freedom.”

“When I was at Tinsley, three Chinese police officers came to interview me. They tried to identify my origin. According to the mutual agreement between China and Britain, China must take back a certain number of undocumented Chinese. But the reality is that many of us cannot return. The Chinese authorities can’t identify me. But the British authorities continue to detain me.”

The scale and nature of the problem

There are hundreds of hard-working Chinese migrants – who have contributed the best years of their life to this country – who have found themselves detained for an indefinite period of time. According to LDSG’s (London Detainee Support Group) research report, ‘No Return, No Release, No Reason: Challenging Indefinite Detention’, over 3,000 migrants – mostly from Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Somalia – are being indefinitely detained in the UK. Among those detained for over one year, a third was eventually deported.

Due to cuts in legal aid, the majority of long-term detainees don’t stand a chance of presenting legal opposition to their detention.

“The attitude of the British authorities is that they will remove immigrants by any means necessary, and the failure to identify deportees wouldn’t stop them. They care only about their target, not immigrants’ safety and well-being.”

Li has now been detained in Dover, with forty other Chinese migrants, the majority of whom have been detained for over a year. Some over two years. Many had been pushed out of their catering jobs as a result of intensifying crackdown on “illegal working” and had taken up DVD street selling work and were consequently arrested.

Li said: “Dover is the worst removal centre I’ve stayed in. Our doors are locked three times a day when we couldn’t leave our rooms – not even to fetch some drinking water…And they don’t provide enough bedding. I was often woken up by the cold during the night.”

“This centre ignores detainees’ health problems. When we get sick, we need to fill in an application form and wait for the nurse to contact us in two or three days. One night, I had a fever and a sharp pain in my appendix. I wasn’t able to see a doctor.”

His friend Mr Zhang, from Fujian, has been detained for three years, transferred between Lindholme, Dungavel, Campsfield and Dover. Zhang said: “I keep myself occupied by doing cleaning work here, for £3 a day…I’m a Christian and the only way to keep me going is to go to church at the centre every morning and pray…I keep myself hoping. I hope that I will resolve my status issue and reunite with my family here.”

Li doesn’t know when his freedom will come. He’s been refused bail six times and his legal aid application has also been refused. “The authorities gave us their reason for continuing to keep us here: It is likely that we might ‘re-offend’. (My ‘crime’ is to try to work, to support my family.) Britain’s detention system is not only wasting British taxpayers’ money, but has also violated our human rights. It has done huge damage to the individuals, who’re all someone’s children and parents. The damage, in my eyes, can never be repaired – How many 30 months do you have in your life?”

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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