Our immigration system treats the most vulnerable as barely human

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Monday’s BBC Panorama, “Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets” made for disturbing viewing. It exposed systemic abuse and mistreatment of detainees in Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport, including the near strangulation of a detainee by an officer, continual mocking and abuse of detainees, and admissions of abuse of those on suicide watch.

The programme has rightly caused outcry with 10 officers working in Brook House subsequently suspended.

But the cause runs much deeper than a few rogue officers. The rot that created conditions for abuse lies in public attitudes that dehumanise those without immigration status, and in a system which is secretive, punitive and structurally unjust. This is something that should concern us deeply as Catholics, because it points to something rotten in society, standing in opposition to the values of the Kingdom.

It is also an issue Pope Francis has urged governments to tackle.

Last month the Vatican published a 20-point plan for Governments around the world to try to galvanise a more humane response to the treatment of refugees and migrants – an issue Pope Francis sees as one of the biggest global challenges of the 21st century. In the plan, the Vatican points to the need to look for alternatives to the use of detention. Today, 17 Church of England bishops added their voices to the call for reform urging an end to indefinite immigration detention in the UK.

The Pope has consistently spoken of the need to safeguard the inalienable dignity of each person, regardless of their legal status.

In contrast, public discourse about migrants in Britain often lacks such recognition of common humanity. Indeed, some are viewed with such distaste that they are seen as less than human. Those held in immigration detention are perhaps the most unpopular of all – a mix of asylum seekers, visa overstayers and foreign national offenders who have served their sentence, amongst others. The Government’s stated intention of creating a hostile environment for migrants it wishes to get rid of has eroded what little sympathy there ever was in the public’s mind. Add in an element of secrecy and shame inherent in our detention system, together with powerlessness, uncertainty and vulnerability and you have a potent mix.

The UK is an outlier – we have one of the largest immigration detention estates in Europe, and crucially there is no time limit on how long a person can be held there, which fuels intense anxiety amongst people often struggling with histories of trauma. We also detain a staggering number of people – almost 28,000 last year. Some are held for extended periods of time. A snapshot of those in detention this summer found that one man had been in detention for well over four years.

Despite the breadth of the power to detain and the scale of its use, there is very little oversight over the process: immigration detention is an administrative tool of the Home Office, not a judicial matter. Conditions look and feel like prison, but the system has fewer safeguards.

Here comes the rub: a public that has come to regard people in detention as less than human will justify affronts to their dignity that would be unacceptable towards the rest of the population.

This is the reason we must take Pope Francis’s challenge seriously. For any meaningful response to the horror we saw in the Panorama report demands a long hard look at our attitudes to migrants and the measures we are willing to subject them to, starting with ending indefinite detention.

We should urge the Government to study Pope Francis’s 20-point plan.

Sarah Teather is Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK