Skip to content or view screen version

Britain's Detention Estate

one of noborders | 11.09.2007 11:54 | No Border Camp 2007 | Migration | Repression | Birmingham

Thousands of refugees and migrants are locked up in special prisons, disguised under various names, for committing the 'crime' of fleeing wars or persecution or wanting to improve their lives. Without trial and with no automatic bail review, they can face months and years of incarceration before being forcibly deported to unsafe countries. Detention has become an integral part of the UK immigration system and is certainly one of its most brutal and dehumanising aspects, whereby innocent and vulnerable people are interned in prison for political ends.

"Building this new removal centre at Gatwick sends a very clear message to those here illegally. We'll do everything we can to send you home." - Immigration Minister Liam Byrne, July 2007

"The worst feature that emerges from these inspections is the dehumanising aspects of the immigration removal process itself. Some of those we observed in detention had been dealt with by the immigration authorities as though they were parcels, not people; and parcels whose contents and destination were sometimes incorrect." - HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers, February 2006

Some history

The use of 'administrative detention' for migrants in the UK was more or less introduced with the 1971 Immigration Act. The decision to detain people who have been refused leave to enter the UK or who are required to submit to further examination at ports of entry was henceforth regarded an "act of administrative discretion" and these people were now liable to be detained for an indefinite period of time. At the time, however, it was never intended that these powers would be used to routinely detain asylum seekers. Rather, they were intended to briefly detain, pending their imminent removal, those refused entry to the UK as visitors, students or workers. Chapter 38 of the Home Office’s Operational Enforcement Manual stated that detention should only be used as a "last resort" and "for the shortest possible time."

By 2005, the political and public opinion had shifted so much that the government's Five-Year Strategy for Immigration and Asylum was able to flagrantly state, "Over time, as asylum intake falls and removals increase, as the UK negotiates even more effective return agreements, we will move towards the point where it becomes the norm that those who fail can be detained." In fact, the government had already looked into the feasibility of introducing an Australian-style detention system, whereby all asylum seekers are detained on arrival. It was also found that, "ignoring the legal and moral arguments as to whether that is possible," this would amount to £2 billion in start-up costs, with annual running costs of more than £1 billion. Back in 2000, a UNHCR report concluded that the UK "detains more people for longer periods and with less judicial supervision than any other comparable country in Europe. "

Gradually, a language of deterrence started to be used. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate’s 1986 annual report explicitly referred to the "use of the sanction of detention ... to deter would-be asylum seekers." An alleged commitment by the Labour government to end the use of prisons for asylum seekers was made in the Immigration and Asylum Act of 1999, but everything else seemed to testify to the contrary. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, for example, further extended the powers to authorise and prolong detention, allowing Home Office caseworkers to decide to detain someone.

In the late 1980s, existing detention facilities (Harmondsworth immigration detention centre at Heathrow Airport and the small facility at Manchester Airport) proved inadequate to cope with the rising numbers of asylum seekers who were being detained, mostly Sri Lankan Tamil. So the Home Office experimented with the use of a hastily converted car ferry to hold them. The ferry subsequently broke free of its moorings and began to sink during a violent storm in October 1987.

In the early 1990s, up to 200 asylum seekers were detained at any one time. After July 1993, the number increased sharply with the opening of further dedicated detention facilities: Campsfield House in November 1993 and two converted wings within HMP Rochester in July 1994 and May 1995. The first purpose-built detention centre, Tinsley House, was opened at Gatwick Airport in May 1996. By September 1999, the number of asylum seekers detained at any one time had increased to 750-800. They were detained for an average of 65 days with over 275-325 asylum seekers spending more than three months in detention. As of 15 September 1999, ten had been detained more than a year.

The last decade and a half have seen no less than 8 major pieces of asylum- focused legislation, where previously none had existed. This, in conjunction with media-driven asylum hysteria and carefully crafted euphemisms, paved the way for a rapid expansion of the UK's detention estate, from a capacity of 250 places in 1993 to the present 2,644. The 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act substituted the words 'detention centre' for 'removal centre' and all immigration prisons would from now on be known as Immigration Removal Centres, or IRCs.

Immigration prisons

A recent legal study exploring the difference between prison and immigration detention concluded that "there is little practical difference between many of the features of immigration detention and imprisonment" and that "those held in immigration detention are in many ways treated like prisoners even though they have neither been convicted of, nor charged with, a criminal offence." (Groves, M. Immigration Detention vs. Imprisonment: Differences Explored. Alternative Law Journal, 2004 ). Even the private companies running these centres see their involvement in immigration detention as being firmly within the penal sphere. Group 4 Falck, for example, lists immigration contracts under its 'justice' sector and has called its involvement in immigration detention a "natural extension" to its custodial work. In 1995, nobody was able to explain to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) what the difference was between a "secure hostel" (the contractor's description of Campsfield House immigration detention centre) and a "prison" (Report of an Unannounced Short Visit by HMIP: Immigration Detention Centre Campsfield House, 1995).

As of July 2007, the UK's 10 existing immigration prisons had a total capacity of 2,506, broken down as follows:

Detention Centre


Persons held on 30 Dec 2006

(figures rounded to the nearest 5)

Campsfield (Oxfordshire)



Colnbrook (Heathrow, London)

273 (plus 40 STHF)


Dover IRC (Dover)



Dungavel (Prestwick, Scotland)

188 (male, female & family)


Harmondsworth (Heathrow, London)



Haslar (Portsmouth)



Lindholme (South Yorkshire)



Oakington (Cambridgeshire)



Tinsley House (Gatwick, West Sussex)

146 (male, female & family)


Yarl's Wood (Bedfordshire)

313 (plus 40 STHF)

90 (20 children)

With the exception of Oakington, the rest are all 'removal detention centres' run under the Detention Centre Rules, although three of them (Dover, Lindholme and Haslar) are actually prisons run by the Prison Service and staffed by government prison guards. The other seven are run by private contractors.

Oakington is known as a 'reception centre', where people arriving in the country are held for up to six months while their asylum applications are processed under the new Fast Track system, which came into force on 4 April, 2005. There are also two Detained Fast Track (DFT) units at Harmondsworth and Yarl's Wood. The latter was opened in May 2005 as a result of the former's 'success', which had been open since April 2003. Oakington was supposed to close down by the end of 2006 but the contract has been extended for another 3 years.

The most recent Home Office statistics (Second Quarter 2007) showed that, as on 30 June, 1,435 people who had sought asylum at some stage were being detained in the UK solely under Immigration Act powers (including 40 at so-called Short-Term Holding Facilities). This accounted for 68% of all detainees and excludes those detained in police cells and prison establishments. It also excludes those held at Oakington and Harwich as these are not controlled by the same part of the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) as the 'removal centres'. The figure is roughly the same as that at the end of 2006 (2,010 overall, 1,455 asylum seekers). In total, 21,045 people left detention during 2006, of whom 12,545 were asylum seekers. 14,360 of those leaving detention were 'removed' from the UK.

There is a considerable number of asylum seekers and 'immigration defaulters' held in UK prisons for indefinite periods but figures for these are not included in the detention estate statistics. In December 2005, the number was estimated to be around 190. There is also a considerable number held in police cells for up to 7 days before being transferred to detention centres or remanded in prison. Again, no figures are available.

The average length of detention for each detention centres ranged between 16 days (Tinsley House) and 61 (Dover). These figures, however, are almost meaningless as detainees are so frequently moved around between detention centres. At Campsfield, for example, there were 36 movements per day in 2005, many of which would have been to and from other detention centres.

According to Home Office statistics, of the 21,045 who left detention in 2006, 90 had been in detention for more than one year and 280 between 6 months and one year. Only 10,580 were detained for less than 7 days and 2,190 between 8 and 14 days.

At Oakington, the average time for the initial decision to be made is 12 days, following which claimants may be further detained after they have been served with a decision in accordance with general detention criteria or released on temporary admission. The average length in detention for asylum seekers subject to the fast-track process who were removed from the UK in 2005-6 was 65 days at Harmondsworth DTF and at 57.5 at Yarl's Wood DFT.

Short-term detention centres

Short-term detention is used in the UK when further investigations are needed on individuals arriving in country, or, if an individual is refused entry, pending their removal. So-called Short-Term Holding Facilities (STHFs) typically consist of one or more secure rooms attached to ports, airports or Immigration Reporting Centres and hold those who have either been detained there or 'snatched' in so-called enforcement operations. Some are also held there temporarily while being transferred between detention centres across the country.

Short-term detention centres could be either residential, which means people can be held there for up to seven days, or non-residential, where people are normally held for a few hours before being transferred, released or deported, although it is quite common that detainees are held for up to 36 hours. Police stations are also classed as short-term residential holding facilities, which means that immigration detainees should not be held there for more than five days before their transfer or release, or seven days if removal is imminent.

For most detainees, STHFs would be their first, unexpected experience of detention. In the words of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers (August 2005), "though they hold detainees only for short periods, they do so at a time of maximum anxiety and uncertainty, outside the public gaze." 'Airside centres' (at airports) are particularly unreachable as you would need a permission from the airport authorities to get in.

It was only in the summer of 2004 that an inspection programme for short-term holding centres began, the first time these facilities had been exposed to independent scrutiny. The first set of reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, which covered Communications House (London), Lunar House (Croydon), Electric House (Croydon) and Dallas Court (Manchester), found that "there is little external supervision or regular monitoring of these centres." Ever since, the "systemic deficiencies" common to most, if not all, STHFs have become all too familiar in their inspection reports: prolonged detention (due to over-crowdedness in 'normal' detention centres) despite the facilities' not being fit for staying overnight; use of force and segregation; lack of information and healthcare; inadequate facilities; untrained or inadequate staff (especially in dealing with children, self-harm and the like); women and children being kept in the same room as single men and so on and so forth. Even the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its 2006-7 report on the treatment of asylum seekers, expressed its "concerns" about "key human rights issues that emerge from inspection reports."

At the time of writing this article, all but a few STHFs were run by Group 4 Securicor Ltd. (G4S), which took over from Global Solutions Ltd. (GSL) at the beginning of the financial year 2005.

The residential STHFs at present are:

  1. Colnbrook STHF at Colnbrook IRC, Heathrow (London), run by Premier (Serco), capacity 40

  2. Harwich International Port, Essex, run by Abbey Security Ltd, cap. 12

  3. Manchester Airport, Manchester, run by G4S, cap. 16

  4. Port of Dover, Dover, run by Dover Harbour Board, cap. 20

The non-residential STHFs, all run by G4S, are:

  1. Becket House, south-east London

  2. Birmingham International Airport, Birmingham

  3. Communications House, London

  4. Dallas Court, Manchester

  5. Dover Asylum Screening Centre, Dover

  6. Eaton House, Middlesex

  7. Electric House, Croydon

  8. Festival Court, Glasgow

  9. Gatwick North Terminal, West Sussex

  10. Gatwick South Terminal, West Sussex

  11. Glasgow International Airport, Glasgow

  12. Heathrow Airport Terminals 1, London

  13. Heathrow Airport Terminals 2, London

  14. Heathrow Airport Terminals 3, London

  15. Heathrow Airport Terminals 4, London

  16. John Lennon Airport, Liverpool

  17. London City Airport, East London

  18. Lunar House, Croydon

  19. Luton Airport, Bedfordshire

  20. Portsmouth Continental Ferry Port, Portsmouth

  21. Queen's Building, Heathrow Airport, London

  22. Reliance House, Liverpool

  23. Sandford House, Solihull, West Midlands

  24. Stansted Airport, Essex

  25. Waterside Court, Leeds

to be continued...

Further reading:

Amnesty International. Cell Culture: The Detention and Imprisonment of Asylum Seekers in the United Kingdom. 1996. (link)

Amnesty International. Seeking Asylum is Not a Crime: Detention of people who have sought asylum. 2005. (link)

Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID). Immigration detention in the UK: Key facts and figures. (link)

Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID). Fit to be Detained? Challenging the detention of asylum seekers and migrants with health needs. May 2005. (link)

Chapman, N. Detention of Asylum Seekers in the United Kingdom. Norwich, Social Work Monographs, 176. 1998.

MigrEurop. Detention in the United Kingdom. June 2003. (pdf)

Colin Harvey and Margaret Ward (ed). No Welcome Here? Asylum-Seekers and Refugees in Ireland and Britain. Belfast, Democratic Dialogue. 2001. (pdf)

Jane Hughes. Detention of Asylum Seekers in Europe: Analysis and Perspectives. 1998. (book)

Weber, L. and Gelsthorpe, L. Deciding to Detain: How Decisions to Detain Asylum Seekers are Made at Ports of Entry. Cambridge, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. 2000.

Leanne W. The Detention of Asylum Seekers as a Crime of Obedience. Critical Criminology. Volume 13, Number 1 / January, 2005.

Barbed Wire Britain. Voices from Detention II. 2006. (link)

Hayter, T. Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls. 2nd edition, London: Pluto Press. 2004.

one of noborders