Detained lives. The real cost of indefinite immigration detention

Author: N/A

Author Organisation: London Detainee Support Group

Date: 2009



To explore whether indefinite detention achieves its stated aims of deporting people, through analysis of London Detainee Support Group’s (LDSG) case files and interviews with ‘indefinite’ detainees. This research was undertaken with the intention of exposing the ineffectiveness and the human impact of the UK’s practice of immigration detention without time limits.



The research adopted a case study approach employing both qualitative and quantitative techniques. For the purposes of this research, the term ‘indefinite detention’ is used to designate detention without limits lasting for more than a year. The quantitative section analyses the extent to which the policy of indefinite detention achieves its legal obligation of generating deportations. The qualitative section explores the perspectives of detainees themselves in order to throw light on the human impact of indefinite detention as well as the systemic factors that generate it. A list of people detained who have accessed services between April 2007 and November 2008 was extracted from LDSG’s casework database, which was analysed by a number of factors including length of detention, nationality and outcome of detention. The intentional sampling on these particular dates serves thee purpose of analysing cases dealt with after the introduction of the policy of ‘presumption of detention’ from April 2006.  24 semi-structured qualitative interviews were held during November and December 2008. 21 interviewees were held at the time in Colnbrook detention centre, 2 in Harmondsworth and 1 in Dover. Selection was based on assessments of the length and relationship with LDSG. For ethical and practical reasons detainees exhibiting serious psychological disorientation or extreme distress were not asked to participate. Informed consent was obtained in all cases and the interviews were conducted in English in all cases but one.


Key Findings

Policy on indefinite detention in the UK and the EU

  • Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to liberty and security of person. However, it allows the deprivation of liberty of a person against whom action is being taken with a view to deportation.
  • In the UK, the 1971 Immigration Act allows for deportation of non British citizens where the Home Office deems it to be conducive to the public good.
  • All detainees have the right to apply for bail to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, which is required to presume in favour of release. In other words, the burden of proof is on UKBA to justify detention. However, rates of release are low, particularly for detainees with criminal convictions
  • The presumption of liberty has been undermined after the High Court’s recent finding that the Home Office was operating a ‘secret policy of presumption of detention from April 2006 (Abdi and Others vs. Secretary of State for the Home Department, [2008] EWHC 3166 (Admin)

Inefficiency of indefinite detention

  • Of the 188 people that LDSG has supported over the last 20 months, only 18% have been deported. This has cost the taxpayer around 22 million pounds.
  • Britain is one of the few countries that practices indefinite detention, yet still has one of the lowest rates of removal of refused asylum seekers.
  • The bail system does not use the baseline standards applied by the criminal justice system and the probation service. Probation reports on all foreign nationals on completion of their sentence are not produced and hence is not possible to produce evidence-based risk assessment

 The human cost of indefinite detention (emerging themes from interviews)

  • Experience of work , destitution and homelessness in the UK
  • Exclusion from social and legal standards and expectations of British society at large.
  • Disproportionally of the detention (disjunction between their treatment and that of British offenders). This can amount to discrimination according to the European Convention of Human Rights  
  • Inadequacy of life conditions and facilities within the detention centres
  • Psychological deterioration which may amount to torture, according to the Convention Against Torture)
  • The impact on personal relationships, separation of family, children and friends
  • Frustration with the bail system
  • Barriers to return which can amount to de facto statelessness
  • Poor communication with the Home Office
  • Bleakness of their future prospects



  • Indefinite detention is a reality and may even have become a routine. In no other corner of society does anything comparable take place: the criminal justice and mental health systems only hold people indefinitely in rare and extreme cases.
  • The interviews made clear the devastating human impact of indefinite detention. British ex-offenders are assumed to have been rehabilitated, so are released; yet stateless foreigners can be incarcerated many times longer for the same offence.
  • Britain’s lack of attention to the situation of these detainees calls into serious question its commitment to human rights, which by definition must be universal.
  • To asses the costs of indefinite detention (both human and financial), the detention of immigrants must be justified by the pursuit of deportations. In this, the policy is a failure. LDSG findings suggest that prolonging detention only rarely succeeds in overcoming the barriers to deportation.
  • The reasons for refusing bail rarely address the obstacles of deportation, according to interviewees. The perceived ‘risk to society’ that these detainees pose appears to be given more weight in decision making. Likewise, the political need to appear tough seems to have taken precedence over the development of a policy that actually works.
  • This appears to coincide with UKBA justification of automatic detention by reference to the importance of public protection, a factor that in itself cannot justify detention.



Recommendations provided for the Home Office include:

  • To end its derogation from the EU Returns Directive and adopt a maximum time limit for detention
  • To use detention only as a last resort for the shortest possible time pending removal, in line with the requirements of the 1971 Immigration Act
  • UKBA should accept the decision of the High Court in “Abdi and Others” and reinstate the presumption of liberty for all detainees
  • Likelihood of imminent deportation should have priority in decision by UKBA and AIT to initiate and continue detention
  • The detention of mentally ill people should end
  • Decision-making by UKBA and the bail courts must be evidence based
  • Where deportation is not imminent, community based alternatives to detention should automatically be used
  • Where detention is used, on site Immigration Officers should be reintroduced in detention centres in order to improve communication with detainees
  • The UK should meet its obligations under the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and introduce a statelessness determination procedure
  • Immigrant residents in the UK should have a basic right of participation

Title Information:

Research funded by the Doughty Street Chambers

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