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An Overview of the Immigration Detention System, May 2020

Irfan Chowdhury, researcher and HCoS Web Administrator, describes the history and current practice of immigration detention in the UK.

An Overview of the Immigration Detention System


  • Immigrant – according to the International Rescue Committee, an immigrant is “someone who makes a conscious decision to leave his or her home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there”.
  • Person seeking asylum – according to the International Rescue Committee, a person seeking asylum is “someone who is also seeking international protection from dangers in his or her home country, but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t been determined legally”.
  • Migrant – according to the International Rescue Committee, a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning”.


The government’s current policy of subjecting immigrants to indefinite detention can be traced back to the 1971 Immigration Act, which authorised the detention of immigrants and did not place a limit on the length of time for which they could be detained. However, it was not until Tony Blair’s premiership that indefinite detention was introduced as a widespread policy. Blair’s government opened the now notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre in 2001, and a Home Office document that was leaked to The Guardian in 2002 revealed that he was planning a massive crackdown on people seeking asylum in the UK. In 2000, detention centres could hold around 475 people – that number has since risen to around 3,500. According to Amnesty International, 24,748 immigrants were detained in 2018, including survivors of sexual assault and torture and those suffering from serious medical problems. Of the total number of detainees, 3,641 were women and 63 were children. Around half of people in immigration detention centres are people seeking asylum, many of whom have family ties in the UK. The other half consists of people who have previously had visas or other forms of leave to remain that have expired without being renewed (renewing and extending visas can be very difficult and costly), people who have served prison sentences and are now facing deportation (including those who came to the UK at a very young age and have committed minor crimes, such as non-violent burglary and drug offences), and undocumented immigrants (people who have not been able to obtain the correct paperwork, for a variety of reasons).

As of April 2019, there are seven immigration removal centres (Brook House, Colnbrook, Dungavel, Harmondsworth, Morton Hall, Tinsley House, Yarl’s Wood – both Brook House and Yarl’s Wood have been plagued by abuse scandals), two short-term holding facilities (Manchester Residential STHF, formerly Pennine House, and Larne House – people can be held in these facilities for up to seven days), one pre-departure accommodation facility (self-contained apartments where families are held for up to 72 hours before being deported), and 30 holding rooms (where people detained by border control are held, sometimes for over 24 hours without fresh air or natural light). According to the NGO Global Justice Now, indefinite detention has become a central component of the Conservative Party’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration strategy, which is aimed at making life for people without leave to remain as difficult as possible so that they ‘voluntarily leave’. The UK is the only country in Western Europe where there is no maximum time limit on immigration detention.

Official Parliamentary Reports: Findings and Recommendations

In January 2016, a report commissioned by then Home Secretary Theresa May on the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention was published. The report was authored by Stephen Shaw, the former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales. Shaw discovered that pregnant women were not being detained for exceptional reasons only, as was the legal requirement, and that immigrants were subjected to widespread mistreatment by staff at detention centres, such as inappropriate invasions of privacy, the use of searches as a means of intimidation and other forms of harassment, alongside being denied access to adequate healthcare and legal advice. He concluded that pregnant women and survivors of sexual assault and/or gender-based violence should never be detained, and that major reforms must be implemented in order to protect detainees, particularly female detainees, from abuse while they are imprisoned.

Shaw authored a subsequent review in 2018 into what progress the government had made in implementing his initial recommendations; he stated that although he was “pleased to note a reduction in the average length of detention since 2015”, the “number of people held for over six months has actually increased” and the “time that many people spend in detention remains deeply troubling”. He further noted that “virtually all of the population reduction has been on the male side, while the number of women in detention (who do of course make up a far smaller proportion of the overall detained population) has fallen by a much smaller percentage” which is concerning given “the levels of vulnerability amongst women detainees”.

In February 2019, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), which consists of twelve members from the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party – appointed from both Houses of Parliament – published a report on the government’s immigration detention system. The JCHR interviewed former detainees, who described the arbitrary nature of their detention and the uncertainty that it involved as “mental torture”. The report made five recommendations for reforming the current system:

  • 1) The decision to detain should be made independently, rather than by the Home Office.
  • 2) A 28-day time limit must be introduced in order to end the trauma of indefinite detention.
  • 3) Detainees must be given access to better and more consistent legal advice.
  • 4) More needs to be done to identify vulnerable individuals so that they can receive proper treatment.
  • 5) The Home Office must improve the oversight mechanisms within the immigration detention system so that any mistreatment or abuse of detainees is immediately dealt with.

In March 2019, the Home Affairs Committee published a report on the treatment of detainees in the immigration detention system; it concluded that “too often the Home Office has shown a shockingly cavalier attitude to the deprivation of human liberty and the protection of people’s basic rights”. It also noted that “the indefinite nature of detention traumatises those who are being held”, and “it also means that there is no pressure on the Home Office and on the immigration system to make swift decisions on individuals’ cases”. It repeated the JCHR’s call for a maximum 28-day time limit on indefinite detention, and advised that any extension on this time limit “should only be made in exceptional circumstances and with prior judicial approval”.

The Human Cost of Indefinite Detention

In the wake of the Shaw review, the government introduced a new ‘Adults at Risk’ policy, which is ostensibly meant to prevent particularly vulnerable individuals from being detained. A 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women was also introduced. Between May-September 2017, the advocacy group Women for Refugee Women investigated whether these reforms had made the immigration detention system more humane. They spoke to 26 women who were indefinitely detained at the time; 85% said they were survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence, while 88% said their mental health had deteriorated while they were detained. Twelve had thought about killing themselves, and two said they had attempted suicide. 23 of the women had been detained for a month or more, nineteen of whom had been detained for three months or more. The investigation found that the number of pregnant women being detained has fallen substantially since the 72-hour time limit was introduced, but the majority of pregnant women who are still detained end up being released back into their communities, as was the case prior to the introduction of the time limit; fewer than 20% of them go on to be deported from the UK.

The report features the testimony of a woman named Gabby, who had been the victim of sexual assault and rape since she was a child while she was in her home country. She managed to get a visa to come to the UK, and once she was here she describes how she “finally felt safe”. However, her visa eventually ran out. All of the solicitors who she subsequently spoke to about sorting out her immigration status were men, so she didn’t feel as though she could tell them what she been through. In 2017, after two years of reporting to the Home Office, she was arrested and detained. The following is an extract from her testimony:

“When it happened I was in complete shock; I’d never heard of Yarl’s Wood before, and I had no idea they could do this to me. When I arrived there, I had been in the van for hours, and I was exhausted. They asked me a few questions about my health, but that was it. For the rest of my time there, no one asked me any questions about my previous experiences. I called my previous solicitor, and he said he would help, but he didn’t do anything. Eventually, after three months in detention, I did my own bail application and the judge released me.

“I started reporting to the Home Office as I had before, but just a few weeks later, I was detained again. I was kept in a room in the reporting office all day and then eventually, in the evening, I was put in a van and taken to Yarl’s Wood. I finally arrived in the early hours of the morning; they asked me general questions about my health again, but nothing more”.

Gabby was helped by a women’s support organisation, who managed to get her a new solicitor, and she was eventually released. She says this of her experience in the immigration detention system:

“I feel angry that the Home Office has said they aren’t going to detain women who have been raped and trafficked, but then they don’t even try to find out about what women have been through before they lock them up. I still think about detention, and when I report to the Home Office I feel sick; I’m so scared that they will take me back there again. Now that I’ve talked about what happened to me when I was younger I’m having to relive that, which is so hard, but I also can’t forget about Yarl’s Wood: it’s there with me, every day”.

The report also features the testimony of a woman from East Africa named Miriam, who for years was repeatedly raped by her husband and his friends. She escaped and was trafficked to the UK; once in London, her traffickers took her to a warehouse and raped her. She escaped the following day, and subsequently managed to get a job as a nanny, during which time she was paid 15 pounds a week. Shortly thereafter, she got a job as a carer. However, when the agency that hired her asked to see her ID, she showed them the passport that had been issued to her by her traffickers, which she had no idea was fake. She was subsequently arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. After those six months had expired, instead of being released, she was transferred to Yarl’s Wood, where she was detained for a further five months. The following is an extract from her testimony:

“Yarl’s Wood is a secret, torturing place. They take you there in a van with no windows; you don’t know where you are going, and when you get there, you cannot get out. I was screened by healthcare when I arrived at Yarl’s Wood, but it was just a case of being asked what medications I was on. I didn’t have the opportunity to tell them about all the things I had been through; they didn’t ask me anything about this at all.

“I had heard the word “asylum” before, but I didn’t realise it was something I could apply for. But then I heard one of the other women talking soon after I arrived at Yarl’s Wood, and I realised that I might be able to claim. In my asylum interview, I told them about what had happened to me in my country, how I had got here, and what happened to me when I first arrived in the UK. But the Home Office said they didn’t believe what I had told them.

“In Yarl’s Wood, my physical and mental health got worse day-by-day. When I went to healthcare, they saw that my blood pressure was getting higher and higher, but they just told me I should try to relax. They asked me, “why are you worrying?” I felt depressed all the time, and I wasn’t sleeping. I asked for sleeping tablets, but they said no, and told me to go to Wellbeing, where you can get counselling. Eventually I got an appointment, but then it was postponed for two weeks. I was released before I got seen”.

After she was finally given a doctor’s appointment and her health was evaluated, the Home Office decided to believe her story and she was released. She says this of her experience in the immigration detention system:

“If you ask me what’s worse, prison or Yarl’s Wood, I say Yarl’s Wood. You don’t know what you’re doing. You wonder if you are safe. The way the Home Office treated me was awful. They didn’t believe me when I first told them what had happened to me. It just felt like there was no respect for me, as a human, at all”.

In April 2019, the BBC published a report on conditions in Yarl’s Wood featuring the testimony of a woman named Alice, who fled to the UK from her home country in West Africa, where she faced threats to her life due to being a widow (which was considered cursed by the community). She was detained at Yarl’s Wood in late 2018 on account of not having a passport. In the report, she describes being subjected to racial abuse at the detention centre, and says of the food that detainees were given: “we can see the expiry dates; even the milk has gone off”. She describes Yarl’s Wood as “not a place for a human being. People leave here with more problems than when they came”. Conditions in Yarl’s Wood have become so inhuman that in 2018, women being held at the facility staged a mass hunger strike. The Home Office responded by threatening hunger strikers with deportation.

Prospects for Change

There have been some improvements in the immigration detention system over the years, as a result of pressure from advocacy groups and human rights organisations. For example, in 2011 the government introduced the Family Returns Process, which means that families who are due to be deported but who refuse to leave are referred to the Independent Family Returns Panel, which scrutinises UK Border Agency plans for their removal; as a last resort measure, families with children can be kept for 72 hours prior to their removal in ‘family-friendly’ pre-departure accommodation. This is located at the Cedars centre near Crawley, West Sussex, where Barnardo’s provides social care services. Since the Family Returns Process was introduced, detention of children has been reduced by 96%. In 2013, a Home Office investigative committee interviewed 14 children who were subject to this new process; it found that “these children felt safe despite their current circumstances; they were generally happy with their lives apart from the threat of return, although one commented that he/she was very distressed as a result of the family’s situation; they were currently in school and had access to GPs and dentists”, and “they participated in local community life, for example, playing football, swimming and using the library”.

Furthermore, as illustrated by this graph produced by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, the number of people entering the detention system has fallen since 2016. According to the Observatory, one reason for this that in 2015, the government suspended its Detained Fast Track policy, which had previously enabled the detention of people seeking asylum if a quick decision on their case was likely. Another reason is that Dover IRC and Haslar IRC were closed in 2015 (which together accounted for approximately 600 places), while The Verne IRC was closed in 2017 (which accounted for an additional 600 places). Moreover, the further reduction in the detained population from 2018 onwards may have been caused by the commencement on 15 January 2018 of Schedule 10 to the Immigration Act 2016, which introduced automatic bail hearings for detainees four months after they enter detention. In addition to this, pressure on the government to reform the immigration detention system has intensified following the Windrush scandal, and this has led to some reforms being implemented; for example, caseworker decisions are now being checked by colleagues, and face-to-face contact time between caseworkers and detainees has increased.

These examples illustrate that change is possible, so long as sufficient pressure is exerted on the government. It should also be noted that the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Scottish National Party have committed to ending indefinite detention; the then Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbot reaffirmed this position in a speech in 2018, in which she announced: “The hostile environment will go. ‘Deport first, appeal later’ will go. Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres will go. Indefinite detention will go”. Such changes would go a long way towards transforming the current immigration system into one that is both humane and fair.

Irfan Chowdhury (BA Hons Philosophy and Theology)