Frequently asked questions

What is immigration detention?


Immigration detention is the practice of holding people who are subject to immigration control in custody while they wait either:

  • for permission to enter - or -
  • to be deported or removed from the UK.

It is an administrative process, not a criminal procedure. This means that migrants and undocumented people are detained at the decision of an immigration official, not a court or a judge. Unlike most other European countries, there is no time limit on immigration detention in the UK.

Home Office policy says that detention must be used sparingly and for the shortest possible period. In our experience, detention is the norm rather than the exception: many thousands are held each year, some for very lengthy periods, causing serious mental distress.




How long are people held in detention?


The majority of those in detention will be held for less than two months. In 2017, however, 20% were held for more than two months. This included 225 people who were held for more than a year and 31 people for more than two years.

The longer someone is detained, the less likely it is that they will be removed from the UK.

The UK is the only country in Europe that has no time limit on detention.

In 2017, 28,244 people left detention. Of these, 44% were removed from the UK – meaning that 56% of those detained were released back into the community, their detention having served no purpose.

The longest recorded length of detention in 2017 was 1,845 days. That is over five years.




Who can be detained?


Anyone subject to UK immigration control can be detained. While about half of those detained are seeking asylum, there are also people who have been in the UK for many years whose visas have expired, ex-offenders, and disputed age and identity cases. Young adults who arrive as unaccompanied minors can also be deported once they turn 18. Government guidelines say that certain people should only be detained under very exceptional circumstances. These categories include:

  • people with serious mental and physical health conditions
  • those who have been tortured.
We know that these people are often detained, nonetheless.




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