Immigration detention FAQs

Find out more about immigration detention in the UK

Two women in an immigration detention centre hold a sign out of their window that says "We want freedom"

Picture: Women inside Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire.

The UK is the only country in Europe that locks people up with no limit on how long they can be held. Find out more about immigration detention in the UK.

What is immigration detention?

Every year the Home Office locks up around 30,000 people who are in the process of seeking asylum or have been refused permission to stay in the UK.

They include children, elderly people and survivors of rape, torture and slavery.

People are held in 10 prison-like buildings across the UK called ‘immigration removal centres’, as well as a network of short-term holding facilities.

Immigration detention is inhumane, unnecessary and ineffective. It doesn’t control immigration, costs huge amounts of money and destroys lives.

The Government should only use it as an absolute last resort – but the Home Office now uses it as a matter of routine, purely for administrative convenience.

Thirty years ago, we only held a few dozen asylum seekers in the UK every year – now the Government subject tens of thousands to this brutal practice.

Who decides who goes into immigration detention and how long they’re held for?

No judge authorises people’s incarceration in immigration removal centres. The Home Office alone makes the call.

Worse: there is no legal limit on how long they can be held. The UK is the only country in Europe that locks people up with no time limit – meaning they enter detention with no idea when they will be freed. Many are held for months. Some are held for years.

This lack of a time limit means the UK’s immigration detention regime isn’t just one of the largest in Europe – it’s also the most draconian.

How long are people held?

Of those who left detention in June 2017, 17 per cent were there for between 29 days and two months and 11 per cent for between two and four months.

Of the nearly 2,000 detained for more than four months, 172 had been incarcerated for between one and two years, and 28 for two years or longer.

At the end of June 2017, one person had been held for 1,514 days – more than four years – with no idea when or if they would be freed again.

Liberty – along with many other organisations – is calling for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention to be put into UK law. Add your voice now.

What are conditions like?

In recent years, investigative journalism and unannounced inspections have lifted the lid on immigration removal centres.

They are chaotic, filthy and overcrowded and rife with abuse and neglect. There are regular cases of the unlawful and fatal use of restraint and denial of essential medical care.

Staff have been filmed assaulting those they supervise and calling them “animals”. Women who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence are guarded by male officers who can enter their cells at any time. Sexual abuse allegations are widespread.

On at least six occasions since 2010, UK courts have found that the Home Office has violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right not to be tortured.

Most detention centres are run by private companies such as G4S and Serco. Many of these companies have track records of discrimination and abuse.

How does immigration detention affect people?

Not knowing when they will be free again destroys people’s mental health. Medical evidence shows mental health deteriorates significantly after just one month in detention.

Self-harm and suicide attempts are common. In 2015, there were 393 suicide attempts in UK detention centres. In the same year, 2,957 people – including 11 children – were on suicide watch.

Between April and June 2017, 663 people in detention were referred to the Home Office under Rule 35 – which requires medical professionals to report cases where people’s health is likely to be harmed by continued detention, detainees have suicidal intentions or a person may have been a victim of torture. The Home Office released just 145.

Reports suggest 10 people died in detention centres in 2017 alone. Most took their own lives.

A recent report from Amnesty International exposed how immigration detention causes serious harm – not just to the people detained, but to their loved ones and children.

Is immigration detention effective?

The human cost of immigration detention means its routine use could never be justified. But the system doesn’t even achieve the gains politicians seek.

Instead of being removed from the UK, most people in detention are later released. The Government wastes around £76 million of taxpayers’ money every year on the long-term detention of people who are ultimately released – causing them and their families huge suffering by doing so.

Are there alternatives?

Yes. Alternatives to detention are used effectively in many other countries. In Sweden, intensive case management and engagement in the community has led to low rates of detention and high rates of voluntary return.

An approach which prioritises engagement over traditional immigration enforcement would preserve people’s dignity and enable them to understand their cases, reducing human rights violations, increasing cooperation, building trust and confidence in the system and saving huge amounts of public money.

Who is calling for an end to indefinite immigration detention?

There are many powerful voices calling for an end to the routine use of immigration detention.

They include the UN Refugee Agency, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry and Stephen Shaw, the Government’s own reviewer, who condemned it as dehumanising.

There are also many organisations doing extraordinary work providing services for people who are or have been detained or campaign on issues around detention.

They include Bail for Immigration Detainees, Amnesty International, Women for Refugee Women, Medical Justice, Detention Action, Migrant Rights Network, Right to Remain, Medical Justice and Refugee Council.

The British Medical Association and the Bar Council are among many others who have raised serious concerns about immigration detention.

Liberty is a member of Detention Forum, a coalition of groups that work on these issues.

  • Find out more about the voices calling for a time limit on immigration detention.

What can I do to help?

This is happening in our name – and we need to send a clear message that we want this state-sanctioned suffering to stop.

This year, the Government will publish a draft law establishing our post-Brexit immigration system.

That’s a chance to put a time limit on immigration detention into UK law.