Q&A: immigration detention in the UK by Charlotte Rubin

What is immigration detention?

Immigration detention refers to the Home Office practice of detaining foreign nationals for the purposes of immigration control. It is supposed to be the final point before removal.

How does immigration detention in the UK work?

The United Kingdom has one of the largest immigration detention systems in Europe, confining over 30 000 people a year in 10 detention centres or immigration removal centres (IRC). The IRCs are run by private, sub-contracted companies. Since they are managed by different companies, they vary immensely in the way they are managed, as some of them are run by charities and others by private security companies.

The Home Office has the discretionary power to detain a person at any point of their immigration process: upon arrival in the UK; upon presentation to an immigration office within the country; during a check-in with immigration officials; once a decision to remove has been issued; following arrest by a police officer; or after a prison sentence.

Once in immigration detention, there is no upper time limit to how long individuals can be detained.

Is the UK truly the only country in Europe without a time limit on how long people can be detained?

The short answer is yes. All European countries except for the UK have statutory time limits on how long someone can be administratively detained and deprived of their liberty, whereas in the UK, that is not the case. Rather, the rule in the UK is that detention with a view to removal is lawful only if there is a realistic prospect of this occurring within a reasonable period. The reasonable period, however, is not defined.

How does immigration detention work in other European countries?

In most countries, asylum seekers can be detained for a time period ranging from four to six weeks. Some countries, such as Spain and Hungary, allow for an initial detention period of only 72 hours. After those 72 hours, continued detention needs to be investigated and approved by the judiciary. In the Netherlands, the time limit is six weeks for asylum seekers. For non-asylum seekers who are placed in immigration detention centres, a longer period of up to six months may be allowed. Generally, the average length of detention is about 3 months before cases are resolved and people are either removed or released. In France, the law does not differentiate asylum seekers from other detainees; instead, there is a general time limit of 90 days.

In Germany, the rules regarding how long individuals can be detained is tiered. The standard rule is that individuals can be held for up to six weeks whilst deportation is prepared. Deportation and detention pending exit can then be court ordered for up to six months, and if the detainee actively sabotages or hinders deportation, it can be extended to 18 months. This extension is only possible in exceptional cases. In comparison, BiD, a London-based charity which helps people get out of immigration detention in the UK, have at least 4 clients at any given time who have been in immigration detention for over 18 months.

Have there been many changes to immigration detention practices in recent years?

On the continent, there have been many reforms to detention centres in recent years. In Germany, for example, the immigration detention system has undergone major changes since 2014, when the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that using prisons for immigration detention purposes was unlawful.

Contrastingly, in the UK, several hundred individuals are still being held in prisons under immigration powers today. In addition, many of the UK detention centres are ex-prisons refashioned as immigration facilities. Most famously, Morton Hall, of which the government announced its closure this week, used to be a female-only prison complex.

What about countries outside of Europe?

Other common law countries such as Australia and the USA don’t have a statutory time limit either. But considering both those systems have been subject to intense criticisms and increased scrutiny of their human rights abuses, maybe the UK should hold itself to a higher standard.



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