Call for an end to the UK’s indefinite detention of immigrants

Robert Wilcox

People fleeing war and persecution, torture survivors, and victims of rape and human trafficking, are just some of those being held in immigration detention centres across the UK for months and, in some cases, even years, without knowing when they will be released. 

The UK detains tens of thousands of people in immigration detention centres each year. The authority to detain a person for reasons of immigration control is found in sections 3 to 5, and schedules 2 and 3, of the Immigration Act 1971. A very small list of exceptions notwithstanding, there is currently no statutory time limit on the detention of immigrants in the UK; paragraph 55.1.3 of the Home Office’s Enforcement Instructions and Guidance merely states that detention should be for “the shortest period necessary”. Without a clearly defined time limit in place, individuals are being detained, even though they are not accused of committing a crime, for time periods which can outstrip the length of certain prison sentences. Some of those are individuals who have legally resided in the UK for many years. 

The right not to be arbitrarily detained by the state is fundamental, and enshrined in both Article 9 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also found in Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The reasons underlying it are obvious; it cannot be right in a fair and civilised society to detain people for unspecified periods of time and simply for the sake of administrative expediency. This is especially so when one considers that the authority to detain a person is discretionary. 

The effects of indefinite detention on a person cannot be overstated. It can have serious consequences for a person’s physical and mental health. Between 2010 and 2017, there were 13 cases of suicide and nearly 2,000 incidents of other forms of self-harm reported at immigration detention centres. In the case of R (on the application of MD) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2014] EWHC 2249 (Admin), the High Court found that the mental health of a 24-year-old woman, who had no pre-existing mental health conditions, had deteriorated to such an extent, as a result of her detention, that her detention “amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of Article 3 of the ECHR”. She had come to the UK to join her husband under a refugee family reunion visa and had been detained for 17 months. It is clear that the system is not only failing already vulnerable people (or, perhaps more accurately, people who have been through terrible ordeals), but is itself responsible for the onset of mental disorders in those who are detained. Just being detained without knowing when you will be released is likely to do significant psychological harm.   

Independent research by Matrix Evidence has found that £75m is wasted every year because individuals, who ultimately are released into the community, are detained for unreasonably long periods. Then there is also the question of compensation for unlawful detention. Between 2015 and 2017, the Home Office was required to pay out £7.4m in compensation to people who had been unlawfully detained. These figures are, perhaps, less shocking in their demonstration of the extent to which tax-payers’ money is wasted than in their indication of the scale of the injustice caused by immigration policy in this country. Not only are people being arbitrarily detained for longer than necessary, but some people have been detained in immigration detention centres who should never have been there at all.

Apparently, this practice is justified on the basis of immigration control. But it fails even according to its own rationale. Over half of the people held in immigration detention centres are eventually released into the community. This means that they have a legal entitlement to reside in the UK but have, nevertheless, been held in detention without knowing when they would be released. It is nothing short of shameful that we are the only country in Europe that has failed to establish a time limit for detaining immigrants. 

This cruel practice has no place in a fair and civilised society. We must stop punishing immigrants simply for wanting to build a better life. MPs are expected to be given a vote on this issue in July. Please write to your MP now, urging them to oppose the indefinite detention of immigrants.