A brief history of immigration detention: Prologue

October 30, 2019

By Izzie McIntosh, Detention Action Campaigns


In 1970, Harmondsworth immigration detention centre opened with a capacity of just 44. Today, in 2019, we have seven such centres and are on course to lock up 24,000 people for the second year running.

I’ve worked in organisations that help people in detention for nearly three years. In that time, I’ve watched every new colleague go through the same process – the one I went through myself. Arriving thinking you know a decent amount about detention and what it means, quickly realising it’s a system that creates human misery on a scale you couldn’t really have imagined.

How did we get here? Would anyone would have voted for the system we see today had it been proposed back in 1970?

Detention on this scale is a feature of the last few decades, but the idea of depriving people of their liberty in ‘exceptional circumstances’ has been around for a while.

From modest but ominous beginnings to the sprawling, untethered edifice we see today, the story of our immigration detention system is a cautionary tale for modern times – one about starting in one place and ending up in another entirely.

In five acts, we’re taking a look at the UK’s detention system, where it came from, where we are right now, and where we’re going. Every day, a new bitesize instalment from Detention Action staff and Freed Voices members.

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A brief history of immigration detention in five acts

Coming up:

Act I: The arch-enemy >>>

Act II: The beginning of detention as we know it >>>

Act III: From exception to routine >>>>

Act IV: Increased exposure leads to hope for reform >>>

Act V: This is where we are in 2019 >>>

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