New guidance highlights why pregnant women should never be detained

Posted by Sam Hawke on 24 August 2016

Last week, Liberty responded to Home Office proposals to place migrants and refugees in solitary confinement for being “stubborn”.

But there’s more. This week, we’re responding to its new proposals to keep detaining pregnant women as it’s done before – flying in the face of a Government-commissioned review which recommended pregnant women never be imprisoned for immigration purposes.

As the Immigration Bill went through Parliament, campaigners wrung from the Government a commitment to do better.

Under section 60 of the 2016 Act, they may only be detained for up to 72 hours, and only when they can be removed “shortly” or where “exceptional circumstances” justify it. Detention may – even more exceptionally – be extended for up to seven days.

Far short of the absolute ban Liberty called for – but its message is clear: the detention of pregnant women will be rare indeed.

Groups like Medical Justice and the Royal College of Midwives have long pointed out the serious health risks pregnant detainees face.

The stark reality of detention is severely stressful, and manifestly inadequate detention centre healthcare does little to ease this. The removal process presents serious risks of its own.

And only five per cent of pregnant detainees end up being removed. As the public and Parliamentarians asked during the passage of the Immigration Bill, what could possibly be the point of detaining them?

Culture of disbelief

But reading the Government’s proposals you’d think nothing had changed.

Review after review has found existing Government guidance to be completely insufficient. Yet this latest document – for all its nearly 4,000 words – makes no attempt to clarify when it thinks pregnant women may be detained.

Instead, it primes detention centre staff to disbelieve pregnant women at every opportunity. Its bizarre, repeated references to the evidential standards it expects pregnant women to meet seem designed to foster a culture of disbelief.

Never mind that a pregnancy can be identified as soon as a woman is detained – either by sight or by a pregnancy test. And never mind that this culture of disbelief was found to be a leading cause of the detention of pregnant women by the Government’s own review.

As far as the guidance is concerned, refugee and migrant women are to be routinely detained until they can prove themselves pregnant. Business as usual.

This is shocking – but it shouldn’t be surprising. The Government has been telling itself for years that pregnant women should only be detained in exceptional circumstances – but study after study has found it has done the exact opposite.

Severe stress

As for treatment of pregnant women once detained – the guidance gets worse.

The Government proposes leaving them for 24 hours before properly checking on their welfare. Risk assessments can be postponed for up to a day, as can GP appointments.

Yet it is when first detained that pregnant women suffer most. Often grabbed in dawn raids, they face morning sickness in the back of a van, along with severe stress from the prospect of detention and forced removal. The journeys themselves can last several days.

And the guidance refers to the International Air Transportation Association’s recommendations for deciding how pregnant women can be forcibly removed from the UK. But there’s just one problem: these guidelines are for tourists and business travellers only.

The absurdity is palpable. The risks inherent to the removal process – carried out by private security companies with extremely dubious records – were exemplified by the death of Jimmy Mubenga during his attempted removal to Angola in 2010.

This is light-years from the vision of an orderly – even leisurely – removal process implied by the Home Office.

The changes in the Immigration Act are plainly not enough. As this new guidance shows, the Home Office still cannot be trusted to treat pregnant women with humanity and decency.

As a first step, the Government must make the detention of pregnant women something only contemplated in the most exceptional circumstances. 

But this isn’t enough. The immigration detention of pregnant women, as with all migrants and refugees, must end for good.