What is immigration detention?

Information last updated on April 28, 2020

Indefinite immigration detention is inhumane and an extreme human rights abuse. Detention Action exists to defend the rights of those held in UK immigration detention centres and end the Government’s inhumane detention policies.

Immigration detention is the practice of holding people who the UK Government wants to remove from the UK in detention centres. Around 24,000 people are detained every year in seven detention centres, or Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) as they are officially called, located across the country, some of which are run for profit by private security companies.

The purpose of immigration detention is supposed to be to facilitate imminent removals from the UK. It should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. It is not a punishment and is not for the purpose of public protection (which is the job of prisons and the criminal justice system).

People can be detained at different points in their immigration journey. Some people are detained on arrival to the UK or when they claim asylum. Others can be detained when they try and renew their visa having lived here for years.

In reality, the net is cast widely and immigration detention is used far beyond its stated purpose. The British Government holds people in immigration detention centres for periods ranging from days to several years – this includes people who have lived in the UK since childhood, people fleeing war and persecution, LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, torture survivors and victims of human trafficking.

The majority of people in detention do not need to be there. More than 60% of people taken into detention are eventually released, their detention having served no purpose.

Many people in detention cannot return to their countries, even if they want to.

Some are stateless, because their country will not accept them back. Most asylum seekers come without a valid passport. But countries like Iran and Algeria will not normally allow people to return unless they have a passport. Other people in detention have lived in the UK legally for many years or decades, and can no longer prove their original nationality. Under international law stateless people have similar rights to refugees and should be allowed to stay, but many find themselves detained indefinitely.

Other people are detained indefinitely because their countries are too dangerous for deportations to take place. For example, people from much of Iraq and Somalia cannot be deported because of the dangers involved in traveling there. Instead of being allowed to live in the community, many people are detained indefinitely. Unlike many other countries in Europe, there is no time limit on the length of time some one can be detained in immigration detention centres.

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