Facts: UK immigration detention and the impact on refugees who’ve survived torture

The Government has admitted that its immigration detention system needs reform. What’s the human cost of immigration detention on vulnerable people, like the refugees who’ve survived torture that we work with? Why are vulnerable people, like torture survivors, still being detained when all the available evidence shows us that it is profoundly harmful for people with pre-existing mental health problems?

Detention poses a serious threat to a torture survivor's safety and recovery and this is why we, Freedom from Torture, and other charities like Medical Justice and the Helen Bamber Foundation, are pushing for a change to protect survivors.  Below are some things you need to know about immigration detention in the UK.

What is detention and how is it used?

Immigration detention is part of the UK’s immigration system. The official purpose of detention is to hold people, such as refused asylum seekers and sometimes those with an active asylum claim, for administrative convenience before they are removed from the UK. Immigration detention is not part of any criminal sentence.

However, detention results in the return of individuals in fewer than 50% of cases. The rest of those detained are released back into the community.

How many people are detained in the UK?[1]

In the UK, the Government detains approximately 30,000 people for immigration purposes per year. At any one time, there are approximately 3,000 people in immigration detention. 

The UK is the only European country to have no time limit on immigration detention.

What is the impact of detention on torture survivors?

Immigration detention has a profoundly damaging impact on the mental and physical health of detainees, especially those who have survived torture.  

Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are commonly reported in detention, as are self-harm and suicidal thoughts. [2] 

In the Survivors Speak OUT submission to the Shaw review, one torture survivor said,

"When I got to detention I saw the nurse and explained that I couldn’t sleep and I was suffering from bleeding… It was three sleepless nights because of pain and depression. During the day, I cried almost all the time, I could not control it."

The longer someone spends in detention, the more severe the distress. Immigration detention makes vulnerable people feel less safe and can be a painful reminder of past trauma.

In his blog, Borry, an activist from Survivors Speak OUT said:

"Being detained brought back memories. The sound of the locks, the footsteps, the four walls, the not knowing what was happening – this was all mental torture."

Detention interrupts medical treatment and can exacerbate existing medical conditions. For example, a detained torture survivor we worked with saw the doctor in the detention centre four or five times to request specific prescription medication for insomnia and back pain, which was not provided for several weeks.

The indefinite nature of detention can be incredibly damaging to the mental health of torture survivors, creating despair and a sense of injustice.

What is the Adults at Risk Policy?

Following a number of High Court rulings that found immigration detention in the UK amounted to ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ and an independent review of Home Office detention policy (the Shaw Review), the Government introduced their new Adults at Risk policy in September 2016.

Because detention can be so damaging to vulnerable people, it has been long-standing Home Office policy that certain groups of people, including survivors of torture, should not be detained except in exceptional circumstances. However, as the Shaw Review highlighted, the safeguards the Government had in place to offer some protection against inappropriate detention of vulnerable people were not working.  

The Adults at Risk policy introduced a case-by-case assessment of the appropriateness of detention for any individual who is considered vulnerable, including torture survivors, balanced against immigration factors that apply in their case.

Far from increasing protection to vulnerable detainees, the policy actually increased the risk of harm.

What are the problems with the Adults at Risk policy?

1) The policy included a narrowed definition of torture, which excluded many vulnerable individuals, such as trafficking victims. This was found to be unlawful in a recent case brought by Medical Justice.

2) The new policy allows for vague and undefined ‘immigration factors’ to be a greater factor in decisions to release or not to detain, when weighed against evidence of a person’s vulnerability.

3) The policy stipulates that a detainee must produce specific evidence that detention is likely to cause harm. This demand for evidence is not supported by effective mechanisms for obtaining it, and encourages a ‘wait and see’ approach where vulnerable detainees are allowed to deteriorate until avoidable harm has occurred and can be documented.

What can I do to help stop torture survivors and other vulnerable people being detained?

This year, the Government has promised to review its policy. Freedom from Torture will be calling for the improvement of the protections in place to identify and secure the release of torture survivors so that no-one with a history of torture or severe physical, psychological or sexual violence or other ill-treatment is detained for immigration purposes except in very exceptional circumstances.

In December, following close work with Freedom from Torture, Joan Ryan MP presented a House of Commons motion calling for survivors of torture and other vulnerable people to be granted stronger protections. This motion is an important opportunity to highlight current mistakes and make sure they are addressed by the Government’s review.

The Home Office has recently introduced a new definition of torture behind closed doors, inviting input from only a small number of organisations and without the benefit of the findings of Stephen Shaw’s independent review of vulnerable people in detention. We fear that, without comprehensive consultation with experts in international law and clinical practice, the new torture definition will not protect survivors.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-july-to-september-2017/summary-of-latest-statistics

[2] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/mental-health-implications-of-detaining-asylum-seekers-systematic-review/D5BE178EDE1219503F263C15BF5B57CE