John McDonnell MP
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this debate. I wholeheartedly welcome the debate because it provides me with another opportunity to raise the plight of those who are the hardest hit victims of the delays in the asylum system—those who are detained.
As we heard, the process for claiming asylum is complex, slow and, at times, chaotic. It can be inhumane, degrading and a humiliating experience. Many of the people who reach us to seek asylum have experienced severe trauma on their journey of hope to reach safety and security in our country. In my community, the most recent arrivals have been from Iran, Syria and Eritrea—some of the most dangerous areas on the planet where human rights count for very little. Many have lived in destitution. Doctors in my local community whom I met recently have identified many of them as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the suffering they have endured and the hardships they have experienced, even on their travels to our country.
The processing of claims can be a lengthy process of uncertainty, which just piles additional worry and distress on these people whom I count as my constituents. As we have seen from reports today of the breakdown in the Aspen card system, the refusal to allow those people to work, who desperately want to work, leaves them dependent on the vagaries of financial support from the state and struggling to live on just over £5 a day. As has been said, nearly 80% of them have to wait at least six months for their asylum claim to be considered, but example after example today has demonstrated that it can be so much longer.
I want to raise the plight of those who are the hardest hit by the current system—those who have been forced into detention. I have two detention centres in my constituency—Harmondsworth and Colnbrook—which can hold more than 1,000 detainees. The UK has been described as an outlier when it comes to the scale of the number of asylum seekers that this country detains. On average, more than 20,000 people are detained every year. The covid pandemic has resulted in the numbers being reduced, but I fear that number will rise again as we come through the pandemic. Why? Well, the detention centres produce significant profits for the private companies that run them. The detainees have become valuable, profitable economic units under this system. As we have witnessed in the United States, incarceration pays for these companies.
Detention can be a brutal experience. There have been 38 deaths in detention since 2000 and self-harm is endemic within the system. We have seen the reports of brutal treatment of women at Yarl’s Wood in the past, and the suicides and deaths in Harmondsworth in my constituency. Despite the strength of the condemnation from human rights bodies across the world, the UK has retained indefinite detention. The Government have even recently, to their shame, changed the rules—it is disgraceful—and they have admitted that more people who are potential victims of trafficking will now be detained.
There is a savage irony in the fact that about 60% of those detained will be released. In the light of various UNHCR investigations and reports, Governments across the world are now promoting alternatives to detention. I urge the Government to bring forward their own strategy for developing alternatives to detention, because the aim should be to close down these monstrous institutions.