As in previous general elections, in the 2015 General Election, migration is at the top of the political agenda, appearing (often as a security issue) in the manifesto of each of the main political parties. Migration is a topic that provides all parties with a chance to show that they understand the concerns of the electorate, that they are capable of being in control of a situation and that they can deliver effective policies. The focus is, as usual, on immigration control. The themes addressed include: border controls, employment, the health service, welfare benefits, English language, the ability (or otherwise) of other parties to ‘control immigration’ and European Union free movement policies. This is, thanks to the work of concerned NGOs, the first General Election in which the topic of immigration detention has been picked up by multiple parties. What is still missing is an overall vision of ethical and just proposals to achieve fair and effective migration policies.
‘British values’ and ‘European values’ are held up by different sides as being under threat from migration. How do the political parties suggest that the UK and the EU meet this challenge? If we take just one value, the ‘right to life’, two examples exemplify the gap between political rhetoric and action: a) the UK’s part in the EU response to deaths in the Mediterranean and b) immigration detention in the UK. It could be that the biggest threat to the right to life lies in the consequences (intended and unintended) of government actions and inactions in these two policy areas.
The EU and the Mediterranean
None of the party manifestos mention the crisis in the Mediterranean, which has seen the deaths of more than 25,000 people in the last 20 years. During April 2015, this issue can no longer be ignored, as the whole world has been alerted to the deaths by drowning and related incidents in and near the Mediterranean of (an estimated) 1500 people within two weeks. These deaths have exposed the ineffectiveness of migration policies based on border control. The actions and inactions of the EU and its Member States have now been criticised by many politicians, NGOs and others, including the UN Human Rights Commissioner and (unusually) the International Organisation for Migration. It remains to be seen what action will take place and whether or not this issue will become a deciding factor when decisions are made about who to vote for. One way or another, this is a time for voters in the UK to make their views known to those wishing to represent them.
It appears that eventually, the need for search and rescue of human beings at sea has become an aim of the official response (as expressed by the European Council), however the emphasis on a civil/military response, already proven to be ineffective, remains. Instead of restoring the Mare Nostrum operations of the Italian Government, which rescued around 150,000 people in 2014, there is a proposal to triple the tiny Triton operation, described by the Head of Frontex which runs it, as being entirely unsuitable for search and rescue. More recent pronouncements on the need for stability in Libya also ignore the wider causes of migration movements, including the wars and political crises in Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Palestine and North and West Africa. Any solution is going to require a) immediate action to save lives and to offer protection to hundreds of thousands of people; b) longer term solutions to the geo-political crises across the Middle East, in Syria, Eritrea, the ‘failed state’ of Libya and many parts of North and West Africa. There is a policy vacuum in which these problems have been ignored. Political leaders face a choice of not confronting the crisis, offering more of the failed policies which criminalise migrants, inaction, or presenting the electorate with moral and more sustainable migration policies.
How does this policy vacuum compare to another issue concerning the health (and deaths) of migrants – namely immigration detention in the UK? The UK is the only EU Member State in which immigration detention is unlimited in duration. Numbers of people held in detention have been increasing but this has largely remained off the public and political agendas.
Immigration detention is a process by which non-citizens are deprived of their liberty whilst the authorities pursue an immigration-related goal, such as their removal. The number of people detained has increased rapidly over the last few years. It is largely thanks to the coordinated efforts of NGOs through the Detention Forum, that immigration detention has – for the first time – made it into the manifestos of multiple political parties in this year’s General Election.
It is also a reflection of the March 2015 launch of the report of the first ever parliamentary detention inquiry and subsequent media interest. This was a cross-party panel, chaired by Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather. The report called for an end to indefinite detention, through the introduction of a 28-day time limit, and for a fundamental change of culture in the practice of detaining non-citizens and greater use of community-based alternatives.
Although the Conservatives and UKIP do not explicitly address immigration detention in their manifestos, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the SNP all refer to the practice. The SNP call for an urgent review of detention whilst the Green Party pledges to ensure that no ‘prospective immigrant’, pregnant woman or child is detained. Labour have also said they would end the detention of pregnant women and the victims of sexual abuse and trafficking.
More radically, however, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have called for the end of the practice of indefinitely detaining people. Although neither party gives a figure for such a time limit, the Liberal Democrat manifesto notes that other European countries have limits ranging from 18 months to 45 days and states that the UK should aim towards the lower end of the range. They have also outlined a community-based alternative to detention, centred on a case manager system.
An end to indefinite detention in favour of community-based alternatives would be a fundamental change to the system, potentially far more radical than ‘tweaks’ that focus on conditions of Immigration Removal Centres or the detention of certain, specific, groups of people. We will have to wait to see whether or not such change actually takes place, but the fact that immigration detention is mentioned in the manifestos of four major political parties heralds a significant shift from previous General Elections.
The example of immigration detention shows that it is possible to appeal to public support to defend the human rights of migrants. It is to be hoped that the political parties will see that an appeal to common human values can also bring about a change to the UK and the EU’s migration policies and actions in the Mediterranean.
The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.