Alternatives to Detention Briefing 2024

17 Jun, 2024 | Stop the hostile environment

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Immigration Detention and What Is Wrong With It

Immigration detention is the practice of holding people (asylum seekers and migrants) 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.

Each year, roughly 30,000 people are detained across the UK in nine immigration removal centres (IRCs) and five residential and non-residential short-term holding facilities (RSTHFs) in prison-like conditions for an indefinite amount of time. The financial cost is huge, and the human cost is unjustifiable.

Immigration detention is detrimental to the mental and physical health of those arbitrarily detained. The suicide attempt rate is extraordinarily high in immigration detention centres, and the Home Office is unable to confirm how many people who have died under its watch.

Many asylum seekers and migrants are detained without regard to their family situations, leading to the separation of families and the destabilisation of communities. This can have long-lasting effects on children, spouses, and other dependents.

In the past year, 428 complaints were made to the Home Office over staff behaviour in these facilities and a further 463 complaints were made about the lack of adequate meals provided. This number only reflects a fraction of the real damage caused because most asylum seekers are too afraid to report inhumane treatment whilst in immigration detention centres, exposing them to a serious risk of human rights

There is little evidence to suggest that immigration detention effectively deters irregular migration. Instead, it often pushes asylum seekers and migrants underground or leads them to seek riskier routes. The fact that immigration detention is so costly and has such little evidence of effectiveness makes this an inefficient and unjust policy. Alternatives to immigration detention prioritise human rights, individual dignity, and community well-being while still ensuring compliance with immigration laws and an effective system.

Jewish Experience of Immigration Detention

As a Jewish community, we are reminded of the history of detainment of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and their internment on the Isle of Man. The detention of Jewish refugees of the past, shares many similarities with the detention of many refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants today. Both included a public and media discourse that demonises foreigners, creating a narrative of ‘them’ vs ‘us’, with little if any interest to the circumstances that lead people to seek asylum, such as conflict and persecution.

Alternatives to Immigration Detention

If people are afforded their liberty, they will have more access to support from their family, friends and communities. Alternatives to detention work similarly as workers would provide thoughtful, comprehensive support to people to address their needs. As a result, the outcomes for people when not in detention, it is more human and less stressful (enabling them to take better decisions on the advice received) and it is more cost-effective.

Community Placement and Support

Individuals can live in the community and receive regular check-ins from the authorities. Community support programmes engage local communities, non-profit organisations, and volunteers to provide housing, transportation, and other forms of support to those awaiting immigration proceedings. Community-based detention alternatives can take deprivation of liberty out of the immigration system.

Employment and Education Programs

Providing opportunities for employment and education can help integrate asylum seekers and migrants into society and reduce the likelihood of future immigration violations. Providing support services, such as legal assistance, housing assistance, and access to healthcare, can help individuals comply with immigration requirements without resorting to detention.

Case Management

This involves assigning asylum seekers to case managers who assist them with navigating the process, accessing legal resources, and ensuring compliance with immigration requirements. The case manager ensures that the individual has access to information about the immigration process and can engage fully, and that the government has up-to-date and relevant information about the person. This is an individualised approach, which takes away the need for blanket detention policies that treat all asylum seekers as criminals.

Successful Pilot Projects in the UK

These policies can be carried out in conjunction with each other, where asylum seekers are about to access adequate accommodation and are informed about how to navigate the processes they find themselves in.

From 2019 to 2021 the Action Foundation delivered the Action Access programme, which supported women with asylum-seeking status with one-to-one support from a support worker, shared managed accommodation, and legal counselling from a qualified lawyer. The legal counselling model provided the participants with at least three supported opportunities to reflect on their options outside of the stressful environment of detention. The scheme cost less than half the price of immigration detention per person per day and participants reported an immediate improvement to their health and wellbeing and increased their trust in the immigration system.

In 2023 the King’s Arms Project ran a pilot called the Refugee and Migrant Advice Service, which provided case workers and legal aid to asylum seekers. The scheme was found to be two-thirds cheaper than a detention centre and resulted in 80% of clients being offered viable options to regularise their immigration status.


Alternatives work when asylum seekers and other migrants:

  • Are treated with dignity and respected throughout the procedure.
  • Are provided with information on their rights and duties and consequences of non-compliance.
  • Are referred to legal advice.
  • Can access adequate material support and accommodation.
  • Are offered individual ‘coaching’.

Read the full briefing here.

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