back to the Immigration Detention Monitor

15 July 2020 – United Kingdom

Immigration Removal Centres Sign, (E. Hayward,
Immigration Removal Centres Sign, (E. Hayward, "Calls for Release of Detainees in UK Immigration Centres," 16 June 2020,

Although the UK did not issue a moratorium on new detention orders at the height of the pandemic, the Home Office ceased issuing new detention orders for people who, under normal circumstances, would face removal to one of 49 specified countries. This was confirmed in a GDP Covid-19 survey completed by a UK government official who asked to remain anonymous but whose identity was verified by the GDP.

According to the source, the 49 countries are: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Austria, Bulgaria,Cameroon, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, India, Iraq, Ireland, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Latvia, Lichenstein, Lebanon, Libya, Luxembourg, Mauritania, Morocco, Netherlands,Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, Zimbabwe.

While large numbers of immigration detainees were released from UK detention facilities at the height of the pandemic (see 11 May update), according to Home Office statistics some 295 people were placed in detention (Immigration removal centres (IRCs), Short-term holding facilities (STHF), or Pre-departure accommodation (PDAs)) between 23 March and the end of April. This figure does not include people brought into detention centres from UK prisons, so the exact number of new arrivals is likely higher. In spite of this, the total number of people in detention at the start of May was far lower than in previous months: 313 compared to 555 at the end of March 2020, and 1,278 at the end of December 2019. However, numbers are higher when one considers non-nationals detained in prisons: according to Avid Detention, approximately 700 persons remained in detention at the end of May.

Like in many European countries, including notably Spain, there is an emerging debate in the UK over future measures for those who were released from detention during the crisis. Some of those released have been staying in Home Office accommodation or private housing, and have been required to stay in regular contact with government authorities.

The UK is the only country in Europe where immigration detainees can be held indefinitely, a fact that has been the subject of considerable scrutiny and criticism in recent years. In June, as Parliament prepared to debate the new Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill — the purpose of which is to end free movement for people from the EU due to Brexit — the Conservative MP David Davis tabled an amendment that would cap the detention time limit at 28 days. The proposal coincided with the release of a highly critical report from the Jesuit Refugee Service investigating the impact of indefinite detention on migrants and asylum seekers prior to the pandemic. The report found that of those interviewed, many had found the prison-like conditions and lack of a release date deeply traumatic, with many reporting suicidal feelings and psychological damage. One former detainee said, “The most awful thing was an uncertainty: Not knowing whether I will be released and what they’re going to do to me.” Despite the amendment receiving cross-party support, the proposal was rejected.

Although the Ministry of Justice has published daily briefings on the number of persons teste and the number of confirmed cases across the entire prison system, the Home Office has not published information on testing in immigration detention settings. As such, exact figures detailing those with symptoms and confirmed cases have remained unavailable. Avid Detention stated on 28 May, “It is not clear why this same level of transparency is not being applied to detention, given the heightened risk both prisons and detention environments pose.”

In the United Kingdom, due to Covid-19, vulnerable children in prisons are left waiting for months for their postponed trials. In some cases, trials are postponed indefinitely. In addition, according to CNN, Covid-19 prison restrictions mean that children are put in solitary confinement for up to 23.5 hours a day and provided with little education, exercise, and cannot receive any visits.

The latest figures, from May 2020, show that 614 children are in custody in England and Wales. These children have been detained in what UN guidelines define as “solitary confinement”: 22 hours a day without any meaningful human contact. These guidelines stipulate that this level of confinement should never be used on children. The prison service of England and Wales claim to want to relax solitary confinement measures in the coming weeks stating it knows the restrictions are difficult for children, but they claim these measures are based on expert advice and that they help save lives.

Labour MP David Lammy argued that while Covid-19 is a challenge to the system, it is not a call for democratic countries to abandon norms that have been fought hard for. Lammy’s review of English and Welsh prisons found that black and other minority children are overly represented in the prison system, making up over half (52 percent) of children in prison, while minorities are only 14 percent of the UK’s population.