What is immigration detention?

What is immigration detention?

Immigration detention is the practice of holding people who are subject to immigration control in custody, while they wait for permission to enter or before they are deported or removed from the country. It is an administrative process, not a criminal procedure. This means that migrants are detained at the decision of an immigration official, not a court or a judge. Unlike most other European countries, there is no time limit on immigration detention in the UK.

Home Office policy says that detention must be used sparingly and for the shortest possible period. In our experience, detention is the norm rather than the exception: many thousands are held each year, and some for very lengthy periods, causing serious mental distress.

Who is detained?

Around 30,000 people are held under Immigration Act powers every year, for a range of reasons. Some are asylums seekers who have had their claim refused. Others are asylum seekers who have a claim in process, and are being held while that decision is made (under what is known as the Detained Fast Track). Some will have overstayed or breached the terms of their visas, or will be foreign nationals who have completed a prison sentence and are to be deported. Some will be newly arrived in the UK, others will have lived lawfully here for many years. These categories are fluid and can overlap, for example a foreign national may claim asylum from prison.  The single most common category of immigration detainee is asylum seeker. Around 45% will have claimed asylum at some point.

In 2014, 99 children were held in detention, despite the government’s claim to have abolished child detention in 2011.

At the end of 2014, there were 3,462 people in detention. The top five countries of origin were Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Afghanistan.  

Whatever the circumstances, being held in prison conditions without a time limit causes anxiety and distress. Many detainees already have traumatic backgrounds, and the psychological impact of being held is absolutely damaging.

Where are people held?

The UK is one of the largest users of detention in Europe. People are detained in detention centres known as 'Immigration Removal Centres' (IRCs), Short-Term Holding Facilities (STHFs) and prisons.

There are 9 IRCs in the UK, two of which (Yarl’s Wood and Colnbrook) have residential STHFs within the facility. Harmondsworth, near Heathrow, is the largest detention centre in Europe, holding up to 630 people at any one time.  There are a further two residential STHFs (in Manchester and Northern Ireland), and a unit for families called Cedars which is known as ‘pre departure accommodation’ – it operates as a STHF. There are also many detainees held in non-residential STHFs for up to 24 hours – at various ports and airports- and several hundred detainees in prisons. The total capacity of these bed spaces excluding prisons is about 4270. Including prison detainees takes this total to closer to 5,000.

The Home Office contracts out the management of detention facilities to private providers, and to the Prison Service.

How long are people held?

The majority of those in detention will be held for less than two months, but in 2014 19% (11,293 people) were held for more than two months. This includes 161 people who were held for more than a year and 27 people for more than two years. The longer someone is detained, the less likely it is that they will be removed from the UK. 

The UK is the only country in Europe that doesn’t have a time limit on detention.

In 2014, 29,655 people left detention. 53% were removed from the UK, which means that 47% of those detained were released back into the community.