Alternatives to Detention

The current immigration detention system is expensive, ineffective and unjust. It destroys lives. We need an immigration system based on cooperation, not coercion, that respects people’s liberty and ensures them access to justice.

The mass detention of migrants does nothing to help the immigration system or to manage people’s cases with dignity. It destroys trust between the immigration authorities and the individuals and communities affected. In detention, people are subject to a lack of adequate healthcare, restricted legal support and overwhelming emotional distress. Whether they are trying to return home, make an asylum claim, or otherwise be released on the basis of their unlawful detention, detention prevents people from accessing the resources they need to move quickly through this confusing process, instead causing further distress. 

Government ministers have previously justified the use of immigration detention by arguing that people abscond, or attempt to evade the government by leaving, but this is simply untrue. Rates of absconding are extremely low: between 1 and 3% in recent years. Working with people on their immigration cases in the community, rather than in detention, produces better outcomes for everybody and has been shown to reduce absconding rates even further. If people are afforded their liberty, they have more access to support from family, friends and communities, making it easier to work on their legal case.

Alternatives to detention work similarly to social workers. Workers provide thoughtful, comprehensive support to people to address all their needs. This people-centred approach acts as a stable foundation for people going through the immigration process and prevents them from experiencing the unnecessary harms of detention.Internal Home Office guidelines urge officials to develop and rely on alternatives to detention when possible.

Several small alternatives to detention programs have been piloted by the Home Office, the UNHCR and independent charities. The program piloted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2019 to 2021 proved to be both “more humane” and less expensive per day than detention.

In 2023, a two-year pilot run by the King’s Arms Project, called the Refugee and Migrant Advice Service, demonstrated a cost-effective and more humane alternative to detention centres. The pilot showed that its community-based support:

  • Was two-thirds cheaper than a detention centre.
  • Resulted in 80% of clients being offered viable options to regularise their
    immigration status.

Detention Action runs an alternative to detention for men who have experienced or are at risk of long-term detention. Find out more about our Community Support Project here.