Seeking asylum is not a crime. The human face of detention.

Lodorice and her daughter Imelda - detained for two months

There has been much, often ill-informed, comment on the airwaves over the last couple of days on the proposed immigration (temporary) detention centre planned by the UK Borders Agency in Larne.

Much has come from local residents that foreign nationals being held in secure detention might escape, might take people’s jobs, might lower property values … who knows, they might even start barbecuing swans given half the chance.

Of course, the quality of the discourse was hardly helped by the BNP distributing racist leaflets in the Larne area showing a (mocked up) picture of two Muslim women on the town’s Glenarm Road with the caption ‘Are you ready for the benefits that an asylum centre will bring to your town?’

The BNP will no doubt be further heartened that this morning’s Stephen Nolan show on BBC Radio Ulster featured the BNP’s Graham Glass as a ‘concerned resident’, given the airwaves to further stoke fears about the centre.

What is largely missing from the debate is concern for those, who it is proposed, will be held in the detention centre, the latest expansion of facilities used to detain immigrants – sometimes illegal, sometimes, not – across the UK. The Larne centre would hold up to 22 detainees, for periods of up to a week, before they are moved on to larger detention centres in England and Scotland.

A recent report from the Refugee Action Group in Northern Ireland, showed the inhumane side of immigration detention here, not just in terms of the conditions of detention – and of course, these could actually be improved by new facilities, when the alternative is a police cell – but by the very fact of, often wholly unnecessary, detention.

Most people will not object to the removal of illegal immigrants from the UK; the government has a legal right and indeed obligation, to control its borders. Some of these individuals may need to be temporarily detained before removal. Again, that is not particularly in dispute. But Amnesty research has previously found that that many who were held in immigration detention centres across the UK — like those who may be held in Larne — ended up not being removed after release, begging the question as to why they had been detained in the first place.

The Refugee Action Group report, penned by Robin Wilson, notes that in 2009 the Home Affairs Select Committee at Westminster elicited the information that detention cost £130 per day per person, equivalent to more than £47,000 per year. In 2008 an Independent Asylum Commission called for a ‘root and branch review’ of detention and ‘an independent evaluation of viable long-term alternatives to detention, and of the likelihood and motivation of asylum seekers absconding’.

In short, those seeking asylum in Northern Ireland, including those whose claims have been refused by the authorities, should not be detained unless, for example, the UKBA can demonstrate that they would otherwise abscond, and that other measures short of detention, such as reporting requirements, would not be sufficient.

Detention is an extreme sanction for people who have not committed a criminal offence. It violates one of the most fundamental human rights protected by international law, the right to liberty. Here are a couple of recent examples from Northern Ireland, quoted in the Refugee Action Group report, of people having that right violated – unnecessarily – by the UKBA:

Jamiu was a Nigerian citizen studying in London, who visited Belfast for the christening of a friend’s baby girl. He said: “Instead of spending eight lovely days in Belfast I spent 10 days detained in an airport, a police cell, and a detention centre for illegal immigrants.” At Belfast International Airport, Jamiu was stopped by an immigration officer. He noted that the only other person taken out of the queue was a black woman. “I was very uncomfortable about this fact as other people were looking at us.”

Reflecting on the experience which saw him being held in a detention centre in Scotland prior to his release, Jamiu said: “I have never been in any trouble of any kind in my life… No matter how long I live, this ordeal will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Lodorice, a refugee from Cameroon, estimated that 15 police and immigration officers took part in a 7am raid on her Belfast home, which removed her and her baby daughter to a detention centre in Scotland, where they were kept for almost two weeks before being moved to detention in England. Lodorice and her baby were held for nearly two months in a single room before being returned to Belfast and given three years leave to remain here.

So these are the human faces behind the high fence of the proposed Larne centre. The bogeymen and women of the media reports and the hate-mongering BNP leaflets.

Before the go-ahead is given for the centre, doesn’t the UKBA owe them and the people of Northern Ireland, including those in Larne, an explanation of why it wants to be able to detain more such visitors to our shores?