Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Strip Home Office of power to indefinitely detain migrants


It is so dismaying that EU citizens who have been such an important part of our community, who have had families here and lived in Southwark for decades are now facing the anxiety of having to ‘settle their status’ as the UK leaves the EU.

The Government says that EU citizens are “our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues and we want them to stay.”  They will only have to prove they are existing residents.

That is, of course, exactly what was said to the Windrush Generation. But everyone now acknowledges that terrible mistakes were made and people who were here for years were wrongly detained as illegal immigrants.

With no independence or accountability in the system Home Office mistakes are inevitable. So it’s vital that as the Government subjects 3m EU citizens to our immigration system, they make sure lessons have been learnt from Windrush and those injustices are not repeated.  

As Chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights I’m leading an inquiry into this. We heard harrowing evidence from people wrongly detained, separated from their children and threatened with deportation. The evidence on their files that they were long term residents was ignored, the pleas of their families swept aside.

I have helped countless people in Camberwell and Peckham challenge Home Office decisions. Like one Chinese man who was detained for 33 days and threatened with removal. He is now back home with his partner.

Those we get to hear about are only the tip of the iceberg.  But we know that £21m was paid out by the Home Office in just 5 years to compensate people for wrongful detention.

If you are suspected of a crime you can’t be detained by government - only by the police - who are independent of government.  If the police need to detain you beyond 36 hours they have to bring you to court - also independent of government.

But if the Home Office suspects you of being in breach of immigration laws, there is a complete absence of independence in the decision-making. A civil servant – nameless and faceless behind closed doors - ticks a box to detain you.  The first you’ll know about it is there’ll be a banging on your door in the early hours of the morning, you’re bundled into a van and taken to a detention centre.

You have no idea whether you’ll be in the detention centre for a day, a month, or a year. The Criminal Justice System imposes time-limits at every stage of detention. But the Home Office can hold you in immigration detention indefinitely. 

It should not be the case that you have fewer protections as an immigrant than you would if you had actually committed a crime. For any individual traumatised by indefinite detention, that’s reason to change the policy. But it is now happening on such a scale that it is really important to deal with it. 

In the 1990s there were only 250 detention places. Now there are over 2,500 and more than 27,000 people are detained every year. 

I am working with Yvette Cooper MP, Hilary Benn MP, Dominic Grieve QC MP, David Davis MP and Andrew Mitchell MP to amend the Brexit Immigration Bill to ensure that in future no-one is deprived of their liberty unless the decision is taken independently and to make it illegal for anyone to be held in an immigration detention centre for more than 28 days.

In light of the injustices exposed by Windrush and the fear that this could happen to EU nationals after Brexit, I am confident the Government will accept this change which has widespread support across Parliament, from the SNP, Lib Dems, the DUP and the Labour frontbench.

Unaccountable, arbitrary, indefinite detention is a human rights abuse. It’s long overdue to end this historic injustice.


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