Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire: Barriers to Securing Human Rights for People in Immigration Detention in the UK

When people flee their homes to escape conflict or persecution, it is not a decision taken lightly. Having weighed up the obvious costs of leaving (for example, separation from friends and family, loss of property or business capital, or leaving a familiar place) the decision to uproot is based on the assumption that life will be better elsewhere. For many the decision makes itself, as to stay put is to suffer or to die.

Whether or not that assumption of improved safety and security and of having the ability to build a new life is correct depends a great deal on the actions of the people and government of the country in which forcibly displaced people end up. For those arriving in the UK without the correct travel documents, it is unfortunately often the case that they will be detained in one of the UK’s ten Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs)  either while their asylum case is being examined, or while arrangements are being made for them to be removed from the country if they are deemed ineligible to remain by the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) and the UK judiciary.

For people in detention, enjoyment of the human rights to which everyone in the UK is entitled under international law is frequently curtailed.  On 27th April I attended a non-governmental organisation (NGO) ‘fair’ at IRC Harmondsworth in Middlesex. I spoke to representatives of some of the organisations  that were present – Detention Action (DA),  the British Red Cross International Tracing and Messaging Services (BRCITMS),  and Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID)  – about the services they provide, and about their perceptions of the barriers that immigration detention constructs for people who have fled conflict or persecution and are trying to secure their human rights from inside an IRC.

DA provides emotional and practical support to people in detention. Emotional support can play an important part in improving enjoyment of the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health.  Immigration detention has been shown to play a part in causing or exacerbating mental health complaints including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.  In particular, the absence of a limit on the amount of time that someone can spend in immigration detention means that many people in detention have told me that it is “worse than prison”. At least in prison each day that passes is a day closer to one’s release date. DA also provides practical support such as assistance with applying for a bail address (which is a prerequisite to applying for a bail hearing for people who do not have somewhere they could stay if released) and facilitating contact with solicitors, UKBA, other government departments or family and friends.

BRCITMS work around the world to restore and maintain contact between families who have been separated by armed conflict, political upheaval, natural disaster or migration. This service is available to people held in immigration removal centres, who may experience particular difficulties in contacting family members they have lost contact with. BRCITMS’s free and confidential services include tracing family members, delivering family news and issuing certificates of detention. These services can help people in detention to try to secure enjoyment of the right to family life  and can also play a part in effective integration into UK society for those who are in the end granted some form of leave to remain.

BID works to improve access to bail for people in detention, which is one means by which people can attempt to be released.  Assistance with getting out of detention can prove invaluable in securing the right to liberty of the person, in particular the right not to be deprived of one’s liberty unless in accordance with law  and the right to have said lawfulness examined promptly by a court.  Unfortunately for many people in detention, the UK’s international legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfil these rights are not realised, even with the assistance of NGOs like BID.

Applying for bail can be a confusing and frustrating process, not to mention the fact that many people in detention have not even received information in a language that they can understand on their right to apply for bail in the first place. BID provides legal advice and information on bail to people held in immigration detention through telephone help lines, their self-help book, ‘How to Get out of Detention’  (available in five languages), at bail workshops and through the preparation and presentation of bail applications in court. BID staff that I spoke with said that many of their clients experience problems in obtaining legal representation of an adequate standard.  The payments system for firms permitted to undertake legal aid work on behalf of people in detention and the fees available under that scheme do not work to facilitate thorough, sustained legal work.

From speaking to all of the organisations at the event, the two common and inter-related themes that arose as barriers to securing the human rights of people who have fled conflict and found themselves in immigration detention were difficulties in logistics and communications. One person I spoke to told me that it took him around four weeks to obtain passport photos that were needed in order to obtain a nationality document to be submitted as part of his fresh asylum claim. Delays occurred due to a lack of clarity on who was or was not allowed, able and willing to provide them. If I need passport photos I can walk down the road and get them in ten minutes.

Similarly, many people in detention report problems with (re-)establishing contact with family, or being able to communicate with their legal representative with sufficient ease. These problems are caused by the high costs of phone calls and postal services (bearing in mind that those people who are lucky enough to have a paid job in detention are paid approximately £1.00 per hour), the unreliability of fax and postal communications in the IRC, and the inability to simply travel to meet the person in question.

The discrepancies between the UK’s legal obligations under international refugee law and international human rights law on the one hand, and the lived experience of people in immigration detention on the other, are stark and shameful. Unfortunately with the prevailing political climate surrounding immigration being as it is, some of the most obvious actions towards securing human rights for people in detention – spending on improvements in detention facilities and processes, and ending immigration detention completely – are unlikely to attract many champions amongst policy makers.

While invaluable research, lobbying and campaigning actions towards those longer term goals is taking place, I urge you in the meantime to do what you can to alleviate the suffering that the UK’s detention system inflicts on the people who we should be making the greatest efforts to protect. If you can spare the time and you are not doing so already, please consider volunteering for one of the organisations mentioned above, or one of the many other organisations conducting invaluable work in this area.

A fully referenced version of the article can be found here.


Simon Bennett, MA Understanding and Securing Human Rights student, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London and Detention Action Volunteer Visitor