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Immigration Detention and Migrant Health in the UK

Key points

  • Immigration detention in the UK is one of the largest in Europe

  • Some UK detention centres have very poor conditions with allegations of abuse from staff

  • Immigration detention has adverse consequences on health, such as:

  • Mental health implications;

  • Lack of healthcare access.

Image credit: Channel 4

Immigration detention has hit the headlines over the summer, as criticism of Trump's “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has mounted. Under the policy, officials are required to prosecute or detain migrants who may have entered the country without documents, including children and asylum-seekers. While many in the UK have condemned US immigration policy, less attention has been paid to the ongoing practice of immigration detention in the UK and its implications for migrant health.

In 2017, 27,300 people entered immigration detention in the UK (figures quoted from the Migration Observatory). Individuals subject to immigration control under UK law can be taken into detention in order for immigration officials to examine their immigration status or to enable their removal or deportation from the country. The UK's immigration detention system is one of the largest in Europe with up to 3,500 held in detention at any given time.

While the detention of unaccompanied children (for more than 24 hours) was banned by the Immigration Act in 2014, children are still detained in some circumstance such as in 'age dispute' cases where the the Home Office or local authority consider that they are in fact over the age of 18 .

There is currently no upper limit to the time in which someone can spend in immigration detention in the UK and individuals often do not know when they will be released or deported. While most are held for shorter periods of time, around 3% of detainees are held for between six months and a year and 1% for more than a year.

While the physical environment of immigration detention centres varies, some have been described by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons as “indistinguishable from prison units.” Yarl's Wood detention centre for women has attracted particular criticism following allegations of abuse by staff in 2015 and concerns at the number of women who have experienced torture and sexual violence being detained.

There is substantial evidence that immigration detention has a negative impact on mental health and that this effect increases with the length of detention with victims of torture and women at particular risk. The indeterminacy of detention and loss of self-determination experienced by detainees in particular have been found to be a major cause of anxiety. In 2015, 393 incidents of self-harm requiring medical attention were recorded in immigration detention (British Medical Association).

While detainees are formally entitled to the same range and quality of healthcare provision as the general public, there is significant variation in the quality of services available across detention centres and many centres suffer from staffing shortages. Healthcare professionals face significant difficulties in delivering high-quality services in detention centres and often face a lack of professional support and oversight (ibid).

A wide variety of public bodies and civil society groups including the British Medical Association have argued for an end to immigration detention and (in the interim) an end to indefinite detention and improvements in the conditions at detention centres. Widespread criticism of US immigration policy provides an opportunity for these ideas to be debated more widely and a greater emphasis to be placed on the health and well-being of migrant groups.

Further reading

About the author

Megan is currently a postgraduate student of Social Policy at the London School of Economics with a special interest in migration and social security. Before beginning her Masters, Megan studied Law at Oxford University where she also conducted research on the law and policy relating to Female Genital Mutilation for the NGO, 28TooMany. Megan has also worked as a paralegal in the legal aid sector, assisting low-income clients with housing and social security problems.


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