Point of no return

In a few days, the ordeal will be over for one group of people designated as problems by the Home Office, without trial.  Seven of the eight people subject to terrorism prevention and investigation measures (Tpims), the successor measures to control orders, will no longer have to live with the Home Secretary’s regime of restrictions on where they sleep and travel.  Their Tpims expire on the 26 January, after two years.  Unlike control orders, they have a time limit.

This will be no consolation for Abdal.  Unfortunately for him, the Home Office is after him not as a suspected terrorist, but as a migrant.  Not for him designated residence conditions – he goes to sleep every night in his prison cell.  He travels only by high security van, usually for interviews with his embassy.   Abdal is in the fourth year of his immigration detention.  For him, there is no time limit.

The UK’s practice of indefinite immigration detention is a great anomaly, in the context both of the restrictions that the government has accepted on anti-terror detention, and of how pretty much every comparable state handles these things.  The UK is unique in Europe in having no time limit to immigration detention and in actually locking people up for years for their immigration status.

Why can they not simply be put on the next plane?  The messy reality of immigration control is simply not like that.  New research by Detention Action and partners has revealed that there are a range of reasons why migrants across Europe cannot be returned to their countries of origin.  Some are stateless.  Others cannot be returned because of the administrative barriers or situation in their country of origin.  As a result, they are stuck here.  Often, they are stuck in detention.

Abdal left Darfur in a hurry.  He came on a false passport, but thought that the 263 scars on his body from torture by the Sudanese government might vouch for him when he claimed asylum at the airport.  No such luck.  Twelve years, homelessness, seven supportive medical reports and three periods of detention later, the Home Office still do not believe him. 

However, the Sudanese government will not have him back.  At the embassy, he provided his birth certificate, but was told that he might be Somali.  He was refused a travel document on which to be deported.

“I was furious!” he told me, down the telephone from detention.  Really?  I’d have been relieved, myself.  But Abdal is outraged to be accused of lying about his nationality.  He went as far as to demand that the Home Office take him back to the embassy, with all his paperwork.  On the day, he was so ill he could barely stand, but still went.  Again he was refused.  Still the Home Office claim he is not cooperating and refuse to release him.

I’ve known Abdal since 2004.  His time in and out of detention largely corresponds to my time working on the issue.  He was 21 then; now he is 30.  He remains as articulate and charismatic as ever, although I can’t really understand how.  Only when he told me the story of those ten years for the research did I find out just how bad they had been for him.

“I was not given my medication for nine days, locked up in isolation by myself.  I just could not believe it.  I tried to kill myself, I couldn’t do it, nothing in the room, it was just agonising.  For forty days I had water only when I took my medication.  I was advised by the doctor to eat, otherwise I’m gonna die.”

Abdal is still there, still detained.  “The sufferings continue”, as he puts it.  Two days after we spoke, he was suddenly transferred back to a prison, losing even the tiny luxury of telephone contact.  Almost a thousand migrants are now detained in prisons, as the Home Office claims that the 3,000 spaces in detention centres are not enough.

Abdal has a fresh asylum claim before the courts, so there may yet be an end in sight.  Ultimately, if he cannot be deported, he will have to be released.  But the Home Office still refuses to bow to international pressure to implement a time limit to detention.  The power to lock up indefinitely without trial will not be given up easily, it seems.

Jerome Phelps

First published on Huffington Post,