Long-term detention hits lowest level since records began

Unnoticed amid the clamour over the slight dip in net migration, the Home Office today published the quarterly statistics regarding migrants in detention. Whether or not the numbers of Romanian job-seekers will determine our future as a country, the detention statistics shine a light on one of the mysteries of current immigration politics.

The mystery can be summarised as follows: what is going on with detention? The government-commissioned, scathing, fundamental critique of detention of the review led by Stephen Shaw arrived on Ministers’ desks on 24 September 2015. The government only published it four months later. No formal response to Shaw’s 64 recommendations is yet forthcoming – just a terse four paragraphs in a ministerial statement. At least three of them are pretty good paragraphs, mind, but not much to go on.
If we have few words, what of actions?

The closure of Dover Immigration Removal Centre in November 2015, the second detention centre to go in a year, is a significant step. But only with today’s statistics do we get a glimpse into what is happening to detention practice.

The picture is genuinely encouraging. Only 2,607 migrants were held in a detention centre on the last day of 2015, a drop of 26% in only three months. The detention estate has been growing steadily for many years, after the dramatic initial expansion in the early noughties. Suddenly, it has contracted back to a size not seen since 2009.

What of the ‘excessive length of detention’ that was a key concern of Shaw? The shift is equally significant here. Since the Home Office began publishing statistics in 2008, there had always been more than a hundred people detained in detention centres for a year or more. At the peak in 2010, there were 246 people detained who had lost more than a year of their lives to detention. At the end of last year, however, the number dropped to 89, a 35% decline in three months.

It should be remembered that the statistics arbitrarily exclude migrants detained in prisons – but the trend is to falling numbers there too. Paradoxically though, more migrants than ever were detained in 2015: 32,446, up from 30,364 the previous year. It is too early to say whether the drops in the last quarter of the year will reduce this figure in 2016, although there is a risk that reducing long-term detention will allow more people to be detained.

Nevertheless, these are strong signs that detention reform is happening. Much will depend on what happens next. The Minister hinted to Parliament that he would follow Stephen Shaw’s advice and announce further closures of detention centres. By the time we see the 2016 detentions statistics, we will know a great deal more about the future of detention.