Every year at Seder I try to find new ways to make the story relevant to the issues of the day and there is no shortage of Pesach supplements to help! Over the years we have used a supplement from Tzedek about international development, one from JCORE (Jewish Council for Racial Equality) about racism, another from Tikkun about modern day conflicts. When I worked for RSY-Netzer (2008 – 9) I even wrote one for our members to use. This year I did not have to download my dose of Pesach-inspired-moral-outrage from the internet, instead, at a meeting of rabbis from Tzelem: the Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice, I heard Michael’s story.
He came to the UK from Ghana with his father and siblings in 1997 at the age of 12. At the age of 16, his father abandoned him. While his younger siblings were taken into care by social services, he was left on the streets of London, deemed old enough to look after himself. With no way to support himself and no permission to work, he resorted to petty crime and identity theft to be able to secure a job. He was caught and tried and given a 10 month prison sentence. Having served his sentence, he was not issued with a probation officer but was instead detained while awaiting deportation. The problem was the Home Office was actually unable to deport him, but instead of dealing with Michael’s case quickly, he was detained for two and a half years before simply being released.
Talking about his time in detention Michael said: “When I first went to a detention centre, I wanted to go back to prison. In prison, you’re counting down the days until you can go home, but when you go into a detention centre, you’re pretty much left to rot.” He describes how detention affects the mental health of detainees, with many becoming suicidal. As Michael put it: “When you are not being treated as a human being, you start thinking that you are not worthy of being a living human being.” Michael too suffered the effects of his long detention: at first he was afraid to leave the house and the sound of a big bunch of keys caused him panic attacks.
Unfortunately, Michael’s case is not unique. According to figures quoted in the Independent last month, 3,462 people were in detention at the end of 2014, almost 400 of them had been detained for more than 6 months. A report by a cross-party group of MPs and peers published last month noted that the UK is the only country in the EU which has no limit on the length of time that asylum-seekers can be detained. For comparison, in Ireland the time limit is 21 days.
Indefinite detention isn’t just immoral it is also a huge waste of tax payers’ money. According to Home Office Statistics for 2013, only 37% of migrants leaving detention after more than a year inside were removed or deported; almost two-thirds are simply released like Michael with their protracted detention having served no purpose. Independent researchers Matrix Evidence found that the UK wastes £76 million a year on the unnecessary long-term detention of people who are ultimately released in the UK, because just one detainee costs the UK tax payer £40,000 a year and in many cases, the Home Office will be required to pay compensation for unlawful detention in 2009-10 the total sum of compensation claims was £12 million!
Taking all this into account the cross-party group therefore recommended that the UK should introduce a time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be detained in immigration detention and calls on the government to learn from international best practice.
How this will be implemented will depend on the results of the upcoming general election. If you get the chance, ask your parliamentary candidate what their position is on indefinite detention.
In the haggadah we read that we should feel as if we ourselves had been taken out of Egypt: as if we ourselves had been strangers in a foreign land. Having been strangers ourselves we should know, as Exodus 23:9 teaches, the nefesh, the soul – the experience – of the stranger. But actually, most of us are lucky enough to have a home, to not be strangers. However, Pesach demands that we continue to identify with the stranger. And so we retell our story in the hope that it can better enable us to listen and be open to other strangers’ stories.
And so this chol hamoed Pesach, inspired by this season of our freedom and Michael’s story, a group of rabbis from Tzelem have arranged to visit individual detainees at Harmondsworth detention centre with the hope that our visit will help raise awareness of their situation, offer some comfort to them and truly honour Pesach.
I wish you a moed tov, a chag sameach for 7th day and the hope that the retelling of our story of freedom this Pesach can give us the capacity to hear the stories of others and the inspiration to take action.
For more information go to http://detentionaction.org.uk/.
Thank you to Rabbi Lea Muhlstein for sharing the text of her sermon with me (first day Pesach, Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue).
Daniel Lichman – Student rabbi Leo Baeck College
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.