Scared, confused, alone: the stark truth behind immigration detention

Last updated 20 September 2023

People seeking asylum can be held indefinitely and without warning – leading to permanent fear. The UK’s damaging system must change.

What is immigration detention?

The use of detention is one of the most controversial aspects of the UK immigration and asylum system.

'Detention' refers to the government practice of detaining asylum seekers and other migrants for administrative purposes. These could be to establish a person's identity or to facilitate their immigration claim and/ or their removal (Migration Observatory 2017).

It is an administrative process rather than a criminal procedure, despite the name. Powers to detain are exercised by Home Office officials rather than judges.

Detention can happen at certain points in the asylum and immigration process. This includes on arrival to the UK, when a visa or leave to remain has expired, or when an application has been refused, and there is no right to appeal.

Where are detained people taken?

At first, people are usually held in a holding facility or a reporting centre. They might then get taken to a longer-term detention centre such as Brook House immigration centre near Gatwick Airport. Sometimes, people get taken straight to a longer-term detention centre.

The UK has one of the biggest detention estates in Europe, located near Heathrow airport. It's also the only European country without a maximum limit on the length of time someone can be detained.

But there are others in Northern Ireland and across the UK, vast, imposing buildings fringed with barbed wire.

When a person is held, there is no telling how long they will be there for. The only exception is pregnant women, who have to be released after 72 hours. 

How does immigration detention affect people seeking asylum?

A 2018 British Red Cross study found one person had been kept in detention for two years and seven months, and that another had been detained four times.

The effects on detainees are wide-ranging, but the impact on mental health can be extreme.

Of the 26 former detainees interviewed for the report, four said that they had considered suicide, and five said that they had actually attempted it.

The uncertainty over how long they would be held, and the question of whether they would ultimately have to return to the place from which they were fleeing, was the biggest worry.

In 2017, 27,000 people were held in immigration detention centres in the UK. Of these, only 45 per cent were ultimately removed from the UK. The rest were allowed to stay, which raises questions as to why they were held in the first place.

Of course, a person’s problems are not over once they are released. Detention has a known lasting impact on mental health, including a fear of attending scheduled appointments at the Home Office.

“Many of my clients have that experience of being detained at reporting, which has induced that fear that anything can happen,” said one Red Cross staff member in Glasgow. “No matter how many times they have gone for reporting without being detained, that fear will never go away.”

Our recommendations for change

Following the report, the British Red Cross made a series of recommendations to the Home Office. This includes making detention a last resort and placing a 28-day limit on anyone’s time in detention. We also recommended that vulnerable people, including pregnant women, should never be detained.

Evidently there is still work to be done: in July 2019, the government rejected the same recommendation made by the Joint Committee of Human Rights for an introduction on a 28-day limit.

Ahmed from Sudan, who spent time in detention and was included in the report, perhaps sums up the feeling of indefinite detention the best: “Prison is a prison, it doesn’t matter what you call it. I think that [freedom] is the only thing that I’ve got now. If you want to take that, you might as well take my life as well.”

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