How getting tough on asylum seekers cost the taxpayer millions

Article updated: See below

Until last year, immigrant detention centres used to have a system for getting people home with dignity. It was called the assisted voluntary return programme (AVR) and it was run by Refugee Action. They tried to offer people a respectable way of leaving Britain.

Refugee Action would take their time building relationships with those in detention, earning their trust and finding out what scared them about returning home. For those who were destitute, they offered them a bit of money and training to help set up a business. For those who were afraid someone wanted to hurt or kill them, they would help them start up again in another town.

It wasn't a perfect system. The detention centres are a moral mess and it's not easy to work in them without getting some of it on your fingers. There will be those who would criticise Refugee Action for being complicit in returning people who were scared and damaged. But these returns were happening anyway and the group at least helped it happen in a compassionate and respectful manner.

Then the Home Office stopped it. The ostensible reason was to save money, but the statement they eventually put out suggested it was much more stern than that. Because detainees cost a lot of money to find, arrest and detain, "it is not appropriate that they should receive the same level of assistance as an individual who has complied with the Home Office earlier in the process".

The scheme was brought to a halt last April. No voluntary return programme was set up in its place.

Last week, ONS migration statistics were released showing a 24% increase in the number of people in detention, up from 2,796 in December 2013 to 3,462 in December 2014. Of course, that's just a snapshot – it doesn't reflect the churn in detention centres, where the average stay is two months. But it remains a striking increase.

Correlation does not equal causation, but it is telling that the numbers spiked after the programme was brought to a halt. After all, Refuge Action forecast it would help 2,500 people return home before the Home Office cancelled the scheme. They did not pick that forecast out of a hat. The year before, they had helped 2,200 leave the UK.

"In the last year we did so, we supported more than 2,200 detained people to return to their home countries," Louise Calvey, director of operations, said. "We did this by listening to their fears, by understanding the trauma that they may have experienced at home or during their arduous journey to the UK. We helped them to begin to see a future for themselves outside of detention, and to plan for it."

The cost of keeping someone in immigrant detention varies wildly, between £73 per detainee per day to about £192, depending on the centre. But recent government data suggests the current price is an average of £97 per detainee per day. That means the decision to close the programme cost the taxpayer millions, not including the average £15,000 cost of each forced removal.

The Home Office's rationale doesn't even make sense on its own terms. Anyone on detained fast-track, the programme which funnels so many thousands of people into detention, is immediately detained in order to have their claim processed. Many are detained at their port of entry – they never had a chance to apply for voluntary return before they were detained. Quite how the Home Office incurred these imaginary "costs to locate and arrest them" is anyone's guess.

And there is something even more pernicious in the Home Office's explanation – the idea that those applying for asylum or appealing refusal decisions are being intentionally non-compliant. They are not. They are seeking asylum. It's in these slips of language and reasoning that we find much of the explanation for the culture of brutality which pervades the Home Office's treatment of asylum seekers.

What's remarkable is that this isn't even some scheme for helping people claim asylum or stay in the UK. It is literally designed to help them leave. And yet even that is now considered excessively liberal by the Home Office. Their cancelation of the programme didn't just cost detainees their dignity. It cost the taxpayer millions.

Update 05/03/15

A Home Office spokesperson responded to the report, saying:

"The increase in the number of people detained in the last year is entirely unrelated to the decision to cease assisted voluntary returns (AVR) for detainees.

"The government does not have a target for the number of people given assistance through the AVR scheme."