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Could EU Citizens End Up In Detention Centres?

News today that a refugee set himself alight in the Australian-run island immigration detention prison at Nauru reminds us of the dangers of the immigration detention system. There have been 45 reported deaths of asylum seekers in the Manus and Nauru island facilities since 2010, off the northern coast of Australia.

The UK already locks up thousands of people in 16 refugee detention centres each year, 11 of which are to all intents and purposes prisons, and there have been 12 deaths on British soil since 2010. Britain is one of very few countries in the world, and the only nation in Europe, to detain immigrants without a time limit, yet immigration minister Seema Kennedy recently rejected a proposal for a 28-day limit. This, coupled with Home Secretary Priti Patel’s pledge to give the immigration system a “radical rewrite”, and the £36,000 minimum salary threshold, have rung alarm bells about where we are going. A No Deal could mean everyone in the world who is not a British citizen is treated an outsider, including EU citizens.

One of Boris Johnson’s first acts as Prime Minister was to promise a review into Britain adopting Australia's points-based migration system, although he has yet to do so. While the points system for immigration and detention for asylum seekers are in some ways separate issues, they are also connected. Both rely on a common vision for how a country treats new arrivals, whether that is to welcome them or treat them with hostility.

Patel’s announcement that she wanted to end freedom of movement overnight on in the event of a No Deal – reneging on previous government promises – means the 3.7 million EU citizens living in Britain could find themselves facing hostile treatment as immigrants. Not to mention the 442 million EU residents who never imagined they would face a battle to get into Britain.

One of the main purposes of detention centres is to hold immigrants prior to their removal. Fears that EU citizens who fall foul of immigration rules might end up being deported in the event of a No Deal, combined with claims that this will be ‘Windrush on Steroids’, have added to the sense that Europeans may find themselves in a similar situation to non-EU migrants.

There is certainly a question of whether the status of non-EU nationals would be rolled-out to EU nationals whereby Europeans will be required to have an employer to sponsor them, meet the salary threshold, have the right skills and satisfy other criteria such as their age and qualifications before being let in. EU citizens who have grown up with freedom of movement will find it hard to move to a points-based system based on prioritising characteristics rather than their country’s membership of the EU.

The relationship between an Australian points system for immigration and the detention system is clear; the moment someone fails in their bid to stay in Britain they become illegal. The government would rightly say there are no plans to treat European nationals the way non-EU people are handled, however the fear of deportation is real. Currently around 16 per cent of those held in immigration detention centres last year were EU nationals, but this might increase rapidly after a No Deal Brexit.

Detention centres were the most visible manifestation of the ‘hostile environment’ long before the phrase entered the political lexicon. The Harmondsworth facility was opened in 1970 following a law the previous year, but the removals centres really began to mushroom from mid-1990’s when American firm Wackenhut, a large for-profit private prison corporation, was hired. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act formalised their existence.

Britain is one of the few countries in the world where immigrants are locked up in prison conditions. Up to 25,000 people every year are locked up against their will without proper judicial procedure for weeks or months at a time despite never having committed an offence.

Earlier this year the United Nations criticised Britain over its’ conditions in immigration centres, including ill-treatment of refugees, overcrowding, violence and the sexual abuse of children. In 2011, the Coalition government pledged to end the detention of children but there is plenty of evidence that this practice is continuing.

Having already been roundly condemned by the UN over its’ treatment of largely non-EU immigrants, the spectre of Britain locking up more Europeans in such conditions will send out a clear signal that the country has rejected a modern outward-looking stance in favour of an insular one that is fixated with protecting the borders at all costs. Such an approach will erode the UK’s remaining soft power and hamper unavoidable talks with the EU about the future trading relationship, as well as harm Britain's ability to negotiate good trade deals with the rest of the world.

  • Lester Holloway is Communications and Events Officer at CLASS