If 42 days detention was wrong, how about 548?

A new directive allowing EU states to detain immigrants for 18 months makes Britain’s new anti-terrorism laws seem liberal.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

Earlier this week, in response to the UK parliament’s decision to introduce 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects and the subsequent resignation of Conservative MP David Davis, spiked launched a campaign to slash 42 days to 24 hours, and to ‘rescue our rights’.

Freedom from this government’s incessant erosion of individual rights should not be an exclusive privilege to be enjoyed by a select few. To be a free citizen should be a universal right. Yet as Gordon Brown’s proposal to extend detention without charge to 42 days was scraping through the House of Commons, European Union (EU) lawmakers were pushing through an even greater assault on freedom. Yesterday, they ruled that EU states will have the right to lock up non-EU residents for up to 548 days.

Members of the European Parliament backed the so-called ‘return directive’, which allows the 27 EU member states to hold undocumented migrants in detention centres for up to 18 months and to ban them from re-entering EU territory for five years, by a large margin. With 369 deputies in favour, 197 against and 106 abstaining, it was hardly a ‘knife-edge vote’, as one European parliament official predicted it would be (1). The proposal has been negotiated for three years and EU interior ministers approved it earlier this month. The draft law allows children to be detained, too.

While Brown may have had some sympathy for his claim that the 14-day extension is about protecting national security and clamping down on terrorists, the EU return directive criminalises all non-Europeans who do not meet stringent criteria for being allowed to cross our borders. Their crime is having the ‘wrong’ nationality.

Currently, there are 224 detention centres with capacity to hold over 30,000 people across the EU. The detention limit varies in EU members, but across Europe ‘illegal’ and ‘paperless’ immigrants can be held in prison-like facilities for a few weeks in some countries through to years in others (2). The new 18-month detention cap is longer than the current maximum period in 18 of the 27 EU states. So in some countries, like France, where the current maximum length of confinement is ‘only’ 32 days, raising it to 18 months gives the go-ahead for heavier clampdowns on free movement. Germany already has an 18-month cap and eight of the EU states have higher upper limits or none at all.

Proponents of the new directive claim it safeguards the rights of immigrants by providing a cap on detention. Yet Denmark and Britain, which have no maximum period of detention, have opt-outs from the new legislation. According to the organisation Bail for Immigrant Detainees (BID), detention periods of six months are not uncommon in Britain, and there are cases where immigrants have been detained for two years (3).

In 2002, Britain’s detention centres were renamed ‘removal centres’, though their function remained the same; they are used to detain people who are awaiting decisions on their asylum claims or who are being forcibly removed from the UK following an unsuccessful asylum application. Other detainees include migrants facing removal and foreign national prisoners who have finished their sentence and are awaiting deportation.

Last month, the UK Border Agency announced plans to expand its detention capacity by 60 per cent, creating an additional 1,300 to 1,500 detention places. Currently, the Border Agency brags, one immigrant is deported from Britain every eight minutes and last year a total of 63,140 immigrants were kicked out. In British government-speak, it’s all about ‘fast-tracking’ processes (4). According to border and immigration minister, Liam Byrne, the sooner ‘immigration offenders’ (5) can be kicked out the better. But for asylum seekers, of course, ‘fast-tracking’ their cases means they have even less of a chance to seek legal aid, to protect their rights and to build a case for remaining here.

The terms for detention and deportation of undocumented migrants or those who have not obtained legal rights to stay in EU countries are harsh as it is. Some will already have spent some time in Europe, building a life here, and are forced to leave families, jobs or educations behind. Some have escaped gruelling circumstances in their home countries or have taken strenuous and dangerous journeys across the globe in the pursuit of a better life, only to be locked up as soon as they set foot on European territory. The new five-year re-entry ban also means that individuals will be prevented from seeing family and friends living in Europe for years; they will not even be allowed to come over here for a holiday.

That the conditions inside European detention centres are less than pleasant is evident by the many cases of protests, hunger strikes and suicides that have occurred there. Thousands of people who have not committed any offence are treated like criminals simply for having tried to visit or move to another country – something that we Europeans feel we are naturally entitled to.

Indeed, for Europeans, travel is seen as a pleasure, as an adventure or a source of personal enrichment. We move more or less freely across the world for leisure, work or to be near loved ones. To be well-travelled is seen as a sign of sophistication or of having a cosmopolitan outlook. Yet when non-European residents do the same it is viewed as a problem, as a threat to our and their own well-being. When migrants try to settle abroad, we assume they must have suffered greatly in their home countries – and if they can’t prove that they have actually suffered, they are told that they don’t have good enough reason to be here and so they are imprisoned until they can be deported and then banned.

Some campaign groups have condemned the return directive. The Green/Europe Free Alliance group, for example, campaigned for a three-month limit for detentions and Amnesty International and other human rights campaigners have slammed the law for not being ‘safe’, ‘dignified’ or ‘civilised’ enough.

Yet, just as 28 days detention without charge is as much of an assault on liberty as 42 days, so is three months detention just as much of an assault on freedom as 18 months. Moreover, it is the very presumption that migration is a criminal act which is undignified, and in a civilised world individual freedoms should be extended to everyone, regardless of nationality.

The argument for open borders and free movement cannot be won if couched in the legalistic human rights framework. After all, the EU lawmakers are insisting that this is about safeguarding the human rights of immigrants. Putting a cap on detention and fast-tracking asylum processes is, they say, a way of reducing humiliating detention periods and letting immigrants know as soon as possible that they are not welcome here.

Indeed, as the name implies, the return directive is all about telling immigrants they should go back to where they came from. Officials such as EU justice, freedom and security commissioner, Jacques Barrot, have insisted that the law was needed to make the EU bloc’s migration policies ‘credible’, and that a common policy that gives priority to ‘voluntary returns’ and ‘safeguards rights’ for immigrants, is necessary. Yet no matter how much EU officials insist that the 18-month detention cap is ‘in the interest of migrants’, this is all about standardising illiberal measures against free movement, and about reducing the opportunities for those deemed ‘undesirable’ to live and work here.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) EU illegal immigration law faces knife-edge vote, Reuters, 17 June 2008

(2) EU votes to unify rules on detention of migrants, International Herald Tribune, 18 June 2008

(3) See ‘About detention’ on BID’s website.

(4) See Immigration detention capacity to grow substantially on Home Office website, 19 May 2008.

(5) Extra immigrant detention places, BBC News, 19 May 2008

Topics Politics


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