Immigration Detention: An Overview

Purpose-built detention centres have existed in the United Kingdom since the Harmondsworth Immigration Detention Unit opened with 40 beds adjacent to London’s Heathrow Airport in 1970. At that time, Harmondsworth housed Commonwealth citizens denied entry at the border who were given in-country right of appeal by the Immigrant Appeals Act 1969. Much has changed since then.

Most obviously, the immigration detention system is significantly larger; from the original 40 beds in a single establishment, there are now 10 centres (11 if we include the ‘pre-departure accommodation’ used for families) holding between 200 and 615 people each. Detainees may also be kept in prison post-sentence, or for up to five days in a police cell or a short-term holding facility (STHF).[1] In total, 3,000 men and women, as well as a handful of children, are confined in IRCs and STHFs, while as many as 800 ex-prisoners remain in prison after their sentence ends (Vine 2011: 19). There are no available statistics for those in police custody, nor is there consistency in the time detainees are held. Although the duration of their detention should be restricted by the likelihood of deportation, the varying period for which people are confined suggests that this legal requirement functions haphazardly. While the majority of detainees are removed, deported, or released within six months, a growing number are held for much longer (Phelps 2009; Home Office 2012).

IRCs confine a diverse mix of people. As a designated fast-track site,[2] Harmonds- worth still contains some recent arrivals whose claims are being assessed, though today they identify as asylum seekers rather than as visitors or prospective workers. It also holds ex-prisoners, visa-overstayers, the undocumented, and those whose asylum claim has been rejected. In all IRCs, some detainees are long-term British residents with friends and family members in the local community. Others have just arrived. The primary factor such people have in common is their lack of British citizenship. Most of them—around 90 per cent—are adult men.

The immigration system itself, armed with its tribunals, judges, and caseworkers, has also grown in size, in response to numerous pieces of immigration and asylum legislation (Thomas 2011; Wilsher 2011). Matters that used to be considered purely administrative—overstaying or working without a visa—have been criminalized (Aliverti 2013), while any non-EEA national sentenced to more than 12 months in prison faces mandatory deportation. All foreigners with a criminal record of any sort can be considered for deportation (Bosworth 2011b; see Gibney, Chapter 12 in this volume).

Some key elements, however, have remained constant. As Harmondsworth was in 1970, most detention centres today are contracted out to the private sector. Indeed, the same company—then called Securicor, now known as G4S—still runs two of them: Tinsley House and Brook House, as well as Cedars, the institution for families. So, too, the lingering effects of empire remain visible in the disproportionate numbers of Commonwealth citizens held under Immigration Act powers. although the population in detention is drawn from all over the world, those from former British colonies make up the majority (Bosworth 2012; Kaufman and Bosworth 2013).[3]

  • [1] Others may also be detained in hospital or, if under 18, post-sentence in a juvenile prison.
  • [2] For a small number of individuals, removal centres enable the state to ascertain people’s identity orto rule on their asylum claim. Since March 2000 the UK has operated a fast-track asylum process. Thefirst processing centre was Oakington, which has since closed. From 2003 a detained fast-track processbegan at Harmondsworth for men and, in 2005, at Yarl’s Wood for women. Men on the fast track mayalso be held in Colnbrook and Campsfield House. Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth both include anAsylum and Immigration Tribunal adjacent to the detention accommodation, where such cases areheard and determined, usually within a matter ofweeks. (For more details, see Refugee Council 2007.)
  • [3] In March 2011, for instance, the largest population in detention was from Pakistan followed byIndia, China, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.
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