ICAR Focus On March 2011: Ex Foreign National Offenders

29 March 2011

Julie Gibbs argues that it is time for a rational debate on foreign national ex-offenders.

Two men had their freedom taken from them under a secret and unlawful Home Office policy for more than two years, all the while told that their imprisonment was to be ‘indefinite'. On Wednesday this week, they were given just £1 to recompense for their suffering.

There was no cry of outrage about this however, no uproar at the injustice from the general public. Why? Because the two men were foreign nationals who had already served sentences for crimes committed in the UK. But then, if these men were British, they would have been released into the community years ago and allowed to continue with their lives. 

According to this logic, a foreign national who commits a crime in the UK is more of a threat than a British person who has committed exactly the same offence. Often the explanation given is that foreign nationals present more of a danger to society because they do not share ‘British values'. However this term, thrown around by politicians and repeated in the tabloids, is one that no one seems able to define. Even a representative of the anti-immigration headline machine Migration Watch was unable to come up with a description of what constitutes a ‘British value' at an event I attended last week. Perhaps this is because British values per se do not exist. Of course we have certain customs and national traits. But the principles of tolerance and fairness are not exclusively British, they are human values taken up by people who care about their fellows, wherever they are from.

The Home Office policy that allows foreign nationals to be detained indefinitely was drawn up after the resignation of then home secretary Charles Clarke in 2006. This followed a national outcry, particularly in the right-wing press, about the release of foreign national ex offenders without them being considered for deportation. What resulted was a blanket policy that any foreign national should be automatically considered for deportation after a 12-month prison sentence. So those who are not British are punished twice for their crimes, or possibly three times, including indefinite detention after their sentence and deportation to a country they may not have seen for years, or even decades.

Many of those ‘foreigners' now languishing in detention have in fact been in the UK since childhood, and do not think of themselves as foreign. They may have no family in or links to their country of origin and may not even remember having been there, as I explain in a longer article for the Runnymede Bulletin.

We know that criminal behaviour is inherently complex, and so we cannot assume, as some do, that criminal acts can be the result of people taking the ‘privilege' of living in this country for granted. All criminals, wherever they were born, should be punished for the crimes they have been convicted of, and nothing more, particularly not something we assume without a reasonable basis.

Research has shown that the effects of indefinite detention on a person's physical and mental health can be devastating. Foreign nationals report that they have few visitors in prison or detention and find it hard to telephone families abroad due to the cost and limits on calls. Isolation and frustration can lead to self-harm, depression, and other mental illnesses. This can make it difficult for detainees to feel sufficiently motivated to progress with or challenge their immigration situation and exercise their rights, which in turn may prolong their imprisonment.

The British justice system is widely lauded as being one of the best and fairest in the world, and not without reason. So why don't we trust it to do its job? If we punish a foreign national unduly harshly for committing the same offence as a British national this undermines our laws and guidelines, which already determine the appropriate sentence for a crime. It also sends a clear message out: that if you are foreign, you are beyond rehabilitation and redemption. So much for tolerance and fairness.

Part of the problem is perhaps that the prevailing rhetoric suggests that foreign national criminals are worse than our home-grown ones. In a House of Commons debate about this issue, for example, MPs consistently used the term ‘nasty people' to describe foreign national offenders. Statistics show that drugs offences, are the highest category at 28% of offences that foreign national offenders got put in prison for in 2010, so we are not talking about rapists and murderers, but the majority who are in jail for non-violent crimes. In fact 23 per cent of foreign nationals were imprisoned for violence against another person in 2010, compared to 30 per cent of British inmates.

It is time to hold a rational debate about the types of foreign national ex-offender that we keep behind bars after their sentences, or put up for automatic deportation. And it is important that this debate is not hijacked by hysterical ‘throw them all out' arguments that put a tolerant society to shame.

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