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 and undocumented people 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. But in reality, many thousands are held each year, and some for very lengthy periods, causing serious mental distress.

Our collective experience of visiting these centres for the last 29 years and the testimonies of people with lived experience of this system had taught us one thing - Immigration detention is abusive by its own design. 


Who is detained?

Around 24,000 people are held under Immigration Act powers every year, for a range of reasons. In 2019, 24,443 people entered detention. Some are asylum 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 non-British national may claim asylum from prison. Around 50% of the people detained will have claimed asylum at some point.

At the end of 2019, there were 1,637 people in detention.

Whatever the circumstances, being held in prison-like conditions without a time limit causes anxiety and distress. Many people in detention 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 seven IRCs in the UK. Harmondsworth, near Heathrow, is the largest detention centre in Europe, holding up to 630 people at any one time. Residential STHFs can hold people for up to seven days. There are three of these facilities: in Manchester, in Northern Ireland, and inside Yarl's Wood. There is also a unit for families within Tinsley House, near Gatwick Airport, 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 2,802. Including people detained in prison this total is closer to 3,302.

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 2019 26% were held for more than 28 days. This includes 167 people who were held for more than six months and 13 people for more than 18 months. 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 2019, 24,512 people left detention. 30% were removed from the UK, which means that 70% of those detained were released back into the community, their detention having served no purpose. 

In 2019, the longest recorded length of detention was 1,002 days. That's over three years.