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Indie review blasts detained immigrants' Facebook, Skype ban

Social networking ban should be struck down, says one-time ombudsman

An independent review into the welfare of immigration detainees has suggested that current restrictions on internet access – including preventing access to immigration claims help sites, and blanket bans on Skype and Facebook – are irrational and counter-productive.

The 349-page review (PDF) by Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, was published today.

The review into Home Office policies and operating procedures was initially announced last year by the Home Secretary, for the stated purpose of identifying what improvements could be made to safeguard the health and wellbeing of detainees.

Shaw observed that detainees' restricted access to the internet was currently counter-productive. "I do not believe there is any rational case for continuing the blanket ban on Skype and Facebook and like services, or for preventing access to websites that support detainees in their immigration claims," the former ombudsman wrote.

A report by human rights NGO René Cassin found that among the sites detainees had often been prevented from accessing were those of Amnesty International, the BBC, immigration removal centres (IRCs) visitors' groups, foreign language newspapers and other NGOs.

This contributed to detainees' sense of isolation and limited their ability to access support services and legal assistance, according to René Cassin.

Steve Symonds, Amnesty International UK's refugee and migrant rights expert, told The Register that "The denial of access to all social media is a significant constraint for people in immigration detention, many of whom may have no or little other contact with friends and family. Their detention is not supposed to be a form of punishment, yet this exclusion is in practice punitive."

"However, the denial of internet access goes further than merely to social media," Symonds added. "Across the immigration detention estate, Amnesty UK has encountered many examples of people unable to access information relevant to their case – including Amnesty’s own website – despite many being in particular need of such access because legal aid cuts have left them without legal assistance."

Shaw further took into account a study of over over 20 European countries' policies, which found:

More than anything, detainees either want activities that enable them to connect to the ‘outside world’, or they want nothing at all. Asylum seekers and minors especially wish for greater access to the internet and telephone. When asked which activities they would like to have, a startlingly large minority of detainees said that they want ‘freedom’ or ‘nothing’.

These issues were borne out by Shaw's own research. Alongside the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Shaw found that "legitimate sites were blocked inappropriately, and that staff were often as bemused as detainees as to why certain sites were unavailable."

He added that there was no security objection on the part of centre operators to detainees' accessing Skype or social networking services.

A government statement, attributed to Home Office minister James Brokenshire, accepted "the broad thrust of his recommendations" but did not comment on detainees' access to online information.

The statement claimed that "the vast majority of those in detention are, accordingly, those who have made their way to the United Kingdom unlawfully or breached their conditions of entry, have failed to make their case for asylum, or are foreign criminals."

More information is expected to be provided when the government publishes the Immigration Enforcement Business Plan for 2016/17. ®

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