*An article cross-posted from Committee on the Administration of Justice NI publication ‘Just News’ by End Deportations Belfast.*
In 2019, 65% of people surveyed in the Northern Ireland Life & Times Survey agreed that it is our duty to provide protection to refugees who are escaping persecution in their home country, with only 10% disagreeing. Furthermore, 65% of respondents agreed that the culture and traditions of different minority ethnic groups add to the richness and diversity of Northern Ireland society with only 14% disagreeing. These statistics show the population’s views in Northern Ireland to be completely at odds with that of the UK Home Office, which appears to peddle negative misinformation whilst proffering migrants, people seeking asylum, refugees and new communities as easy scapegoats for whatever social and economic ills befall the UK.
The very presence of a Home Office immigration detention centre in Northern Ireland comes as a shock to many, with people horrified to hear that a place of degradation, trauma and harm exists so close to home.
So what is Larne House? Larne House is a Short Term Holding Facility (STHF). Detention Action refers to STHFs as the “the darker, harsher, less regulated and more secretive corner of our immigration detention system”. Larne House is located within the compound of PSNI Larne and is part of the UK’s carceral estate used for immigration detention. From its inception in July 2011 until the end of Q4 in 2020, 4860 people entered immigration detention through Larne House. People can be held there for five days before being deported, transferred to indefinite detention in England or Scotland or released. According to the UK Home Office, immigration detention is only used to facilitate a person’s removal from the UK and is used as a last resort, immediately prior to a scheduled deportation.
But the reality is different. Immigration detention is used far beyond the UK Home Office’s stated purpose. In the year ending in June 2021, 17,088 people were placed in immigration detention. Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) calculated that 77% of people detained in immigration detention in the last year were released back into the community – their detention having served no purpose whatsoever. We have people from Northern Ireland taken to Larne House, transferred to Dungavel in Scotland or an immigration detention centre in England then released and needing to make the journey back to Northern Ireland alone, often traumatised. In many cases, immigration detention removes an individual’s eligibility for asylum support and so their accommodation may have been withdrawn leaving them homeless & destitute upon release, even if the person is detained by Home Office error. Charities and other asylum seekers step in to provide help while the person makes a new application for asylum support which should not have been stopped in the first place.
In a submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into immigration detention in 2018, Law Centre NI responded that they did not consider that Alternatives To Detention (ATDs) had been properly explored or used in Northern Ireland, exploding the Home Office myth that it is used as a last resort.
At End Deportations Belfast, we campaign to raise awareness of Larne House and to garner support for community based ATDs. We endorse a complete rejection of the normalisation and existence of immigration detention in any form. Other than performative politics, what purpose does immigration detention serve when cases can be successfully resolved with people continuing to live in their communities with their families and support networks?
In the 2015 Immigration Bill debate, DUP MP Gavin Robinson raised the issue of Larne House in the House of Commons saying:
“Anyone with any knowledge of security arrangements in Northern Ireland will know that the police stations there are not the most welcoming or inviting places. That is a consequence of our history. Anyone who is detained for immigration reasons in Northern Ireland is held there [in Larne House], in what looks like a military compound, with sangars, high fences, security lighting and security cameras. It is not an acceptable place”.
Yet, Larne House continues to play an integral role in the Home Office detention and deportation machinery. It is operated by a Home Office contractor, Mitie. The profits extracted from the detention and deportation industrial complex are immense. Companies such as Mitie, GEO, G4S, Easyjet, BA, TUI are recipients of lucrative government contracts. Every night in detention, every transfer to another facility and every (often cancelled) plane ticket purchased is a cost to the taxpayer. Many directors of these companies are simply too close to politics. Baroness Couttie of Mitie sits in the House of Lords and saw no conflict of interest in voting through the Immigration Bill in 2020. Lisa Tremble, the corporate affairs director at British Airways met with Priti Patel in August 2021 without any officials present, breaking ministerial rules.
The current system is ineffective and unjust. Immigration cases can be successfully dealt with in the community without detention or tearing people away from their families. Immigration detention, with its lack of adequate healthcare, restricted legal support and extreme trauma and emotional distress simply create further impediments in progressing people’s immigration cases. The immigration detention and deportation systems are also institutionally racist , with analysis by Detention Action of nationalities of those recently held within the immigration detention estate finding that citizens from countries with predominantly black and brown populations are held for substantially longer periods than those from predominantly white countries.
The lack of Rule 35 / Rule 32 releases from Larne House seems to indicate that people are not being assessed as vulnerable in Larne House and released. These rules are intended to ensure that particularly vulnerable detainees are brought to the attention of those with direct responsibility for authorising, maintaining and reviewing detention. Larne House relies heavily on self-identification of vulnerability, with Mitie providing a privately hired nurse, separate from a GP practice and NHS, this is not good enough. Furthermore, we discovered through Freedom of Information Request that staff at Larne House do not routinely record protected characteristics under the equality Act of 2010 such as the sexual orientation of detainees. This places vulnerable people, who are forced into shared spaces, at further risk and made invisible to, for example, LGBT+ organisations who can offer support. Perhaps most disturbing is Larne House continuing to hold women and men together with shared communal spaces despite the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons repeatedly recommending that this stop. Women too often resort to isolating themselves in their rooms because of this practice.
Immigration detention is beyond recommendations and reform, it must end.
At what point in the drafting of the Good Friday Agreement did we envisage a new Northern Ireland that locks people up without charge? Or with a new police force providing militarised barrack facilities as an entry point for a system of indefinite immigration detention? In 2011 Anna Morvern prophetically wrote for the Institute of Race Relations that “once opened and operational, Larne House may no longer be seen as a shocking place to exist here, but as a familiar and accepted feature of the landscape in the north”.
At End Deportations Belfast, we need everyone to be shocked and horrified again by the existence of Larne House. We want Larne House shut down, we want everyone being held under immigration powers in the prison estate throughout the UK released and we want all immigration claims to be dealt with fairly and humanely in the community with caseworkers, support and full legal access. If we are ever to be a human rights based society, Larne House needs to be consigned to history.
Photo credit: Emmet Thornton