Avid[i] gives a good description of this “Immigration detention is the practice of holding people who are subject to immigration control in custody, while they wait for permission to enter or before they are deported or removed from the country. 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 in the UK”.


24 497 people[ii] entered immigration detention in 2021.  There are several categories of people detained under Immigration Act powers. Some individuals fall into more than one category. Data on detention can vary significantly from year to year due to other factors e.g. increase in small boat arrivals.  Previous data suggests that just under half had claimed asylum at some point and many of those will have had their claim refused.

In 2021 81% of those entering detention had previously claimed asylum – a significant increase. Some will have overstayed or breached the terms of their visas.  Some individuals detained will be newly arrived in the UK, others will have lived here lawfully for many years and will have suddenly been detained when trying to renew their visa or lifted from their homes. Individuals can be detained indefinitely because it is too difficult or too dangerous to deport them. Any foreign national who has completed a prison sentence of12 months is then automatically detainedin order to be deported. 

In 2021 only 13% of people leaving detention left the UK directly, either voluntarily or under Home Office enforcement; 86% of people leaving detention were released on bail. This figure is much higher than previous years due, the Home Office suggests, to the practice of detaining people who arrive in Dover for short periods before releasing them due to an asylum claim.[iii]  But it is generally the case that most detainees are released on bail their detention having served no useful purpose.


People are detained in immigration detention centres around the UK. The “detention estate” as this is known is made up seven Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and three Residential Short-Term Holding Facilities (RSTHFs).  People can be held in RSTHFs for up to seven days before being removed from the UK.  There are also what are termed non-residential STHFs, for instance, at airports where people can be held up to 96 hours often in very unsuitable conditions (it was 24 hours but this was changed in 2022). Much attention is rightly focused on improving the conditions in and reducing the use of IRCs but the dire situation with the other holding facilities must be addressed as well.  As noted above some people are also held in prison. 

In January 2023 AVID noted that 400-450 people were held in immigration detention in prison. Those in prison are detained under the same powers as people in the IRCs, but tend to have stricter conditions for example they are not allowed phones, have much less access to vulnerability screenings (see below) or support that should apply in IRC.

The Home Office contracts out the management of detention facilities to private providers.


The UK is the only country in Europe that does not have a maximum time limit on detention. Many are detained for seven days or less than seven days, but some will be held for much longer.

In 2021 87% of detainees were held for less than 28 days; 6% for 29 days -2 months; 6% for 2-6 months 1% for 6 months to under a year and 0.4% for a year or longer[iv].    A study in 2018 by the British Red Cross found one person had been in detention for two years and seven months.[v]    

Generally the length of time people are held in detention appears to be reducing but even being detained for a short period is very traumatic for people fleeing from in fear of their lives and as shown below there are much more effective alternatives. 


The annual cost of operating the UK detention system for the year ending March 2022 was around £94m down from £144m in year ending March 2014 due to a reduction in the size of estate. In Q1 2022 the average cost to hold one person in immigration detention was around £107 per day – or £37 000 per person in the year.  There is also a record number of compensation payments for unlawful detention totalling around £13million a year paid out in compensation for unlawful detention[vi]It has been estimated that a 28-day time-limit would save the UK taxpayer £35 million per year

The cost to the taxpayer is enormous, but the human cost is incalculable.  The British Red Cross study highlighted the enormous impact on people’s mental health at been detained – often completely unexpectedly after years of living in the UK. They don’t know when they will be released and where to (criminals have an end date to their sentence) and often find it difficult to contact friends and lawyers.  The trauma does not go away after someone is released but persists for a long time and must make it hard for the person to feel safe and able to build their lives in the UK.


In 2015 an All-Parliamentary Group of MPs chaired by former Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather published a report [vii] on detention. Its recommendations included:

  • a maximum time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be detained;
  • a presumption in favour of community-based resolutions and against detention;
  • that decisions to detain should be very rare and detention should be for the shortest possible time;
  • and that the Government should introduce a much wider range of alternatives to detention.

The Liberal Democrat Policy on Migration 2018 includes many of its recommendations. 

Following the Teather Report the Government asked Stephen Shaw, a former Prisons and Ombudsman, to conduct a more limited review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention.  His first report was published in January 2016 with 64 recommendations for reform.  He produced a follow-up report in 2018 shortly before Parliament’s summer recess meaning that there was little time for MPs to read and ask questions [viii][ix].


LD4SOS noted that in the 2.5 years between the Reports only 31 of its 64 recommendations had actually been implemented.  As Shaw says “There is a big gap between intention and practice”.  We say much more must be done, as outlined in a number of his latest recommendations, so that policies are carried out as intended.

Whilst welcoming and supporting all moves from improvements in conditions, LD4SOS continues to say that the Government must not let small improvements distract detention from there being very little need at all for immigration detention.


We agreed.

  • Detention to be subject to judicial review within 72 hours, and to be no more than 28 days overall
  • Detention to be used only as a last resort, for as few days as possible, for as short a time as possible
  • Better conditions in detention
  • A drastic reduction in the detention estate from what was then 10 sites to 2
  • An end to the detention of all vulnerable people.  This includes victims of torture, those with mental illness and PSTD, victims of gender-based violence, pregnant women, and people with learning disabilities
  • Alternatives to detention through case-worker support in the community

In the last couple of years Liberal Democrats have taken every opportunity to work cross-party to reduce the use of detention including in 2019 when we worked with others to support an all-party amendment to the Immigration Bill, to bring in a 28-day time limit to detention.   Sadly the amendment was defeated despite substantial cross-party support.


The use of detention and number of detention places had actually been decreasing and some sites had been closed.  But Government policy is now going in the other direction with a new IRC for women at Hassockfield (Derwentside) and the reopening of Campsfield and Haslar being discussed.  This is as well the insidious development of accommodation centres often in disused army barracks where asylum seekers are held in extremely poor conditions, with limited access to support, away from communities and not allowed to leave.  These are detention centres in all but name and their continued development needs to be opposed.


One of the recommendations of the Shaw Progress Report was that the Home Office establish an Alternatives to Detention (AtD) project. The Detention Reform Program, started in 2018, set out proposals for developing AtD pilots.

Working closely with UNHCR the Government subsequently established the Community Engagement Pilot (CEP) Series to test approaches to supporting people resolve their immigration case in the community. The approach included meeting basic subsistence needs of participants who were at risk of destitution, providing legal and pastoral support and providing links to the community.  

UNCHR commissioned an independent evaluation of the first pilot in the CEP Series – Action Access which was focused on providing community based support, including access to legal advice and housing, to asylum-seeking women and published an evaluation in January 2022[x]

It was a small pilot and experienced particular challenges due to Covid.  Nevertheless, the evaluation found qualitative evidence that participants experienced more stability and better health and wellbeing whilst being supported by Action Access in the community than they had received in detention.  The vast majority of participants still had to return but some did so voluntarily and with better support – reducing the trauma of forced return.  The pilot suggests these outcomes are achievable without decreasing compliance with the immigration system.   The small numbers meant that there were limited savings, but it is believed that if fully implemented AtD projects would achieve substantial savings. 

The true outcome is treating individuals more humanely and supporting them to understand what is happening to them. 

A key criterion for the success of these projects is partnership – both the Home Office and the voluntary sector need to be committed to making it work.  There have been other pilots which have also demonstrated positive outcomes for individuals including one the Kings Arm Project which offered tailored support to people who didn’t have immigration status.  A final evaluation report is awaited but Detention Forum notes that it is believed that the project has enabled 65 people to access legal advice; 80% of these had viable options to regularise their status.[xi].

This way of working needs to be extended across the country and must be a key plank of Liberal Democrat campaigning.


In 2009 over 1000 children were detained for immigration purposes.  When establishing the Coalition the Liberal Democrats insisted that ending child detention should be legislated for and succeeded in radically reducing those numbers so that in 2015 there were only 12 children detained but these numbers are increasing now. 

In 2021 100 children were detained[xii]. There is a special unit within Tinsley House IRC for children and parents. Liberal Democrats continue to oppose the detention of children. We are also extremely concerned about any separation of children and parents.


This campaigning Forum is doing excellent work in keeping up the pressure on the need for detention reform.  It works across all political parties and organisations and produces informative reports.  LD4SOS is a member of the Forum.

[i] Association of Visitors to Immigration Detention’s (AVID) website

[ii] commenting on government statistics.  Can also look at 

[iii] Migration Observatory ibid Also information on Detention Action’s website

[iv] Migration Observatory opt cit.


[vi] Migration Observatory opt cit.

[vii] Teather Report 2015 “The report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom A joint Inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration”

[viii] 2016

[ix]  2018

[x]  UNHCR – Evaluation of “Action Access” an alternative to detention-pilot-executive