Last updated: 26 July 2023
Please note that a new law called the Illegal Migration Act was passed in July 2023, however, at the time of writing, the law has not yet been uploaded to the government website. We will update this page as soon as we can once we have access to this law and understand its impact upon immigration detention.
If you are subject to ‘immigration control’ it is possible that at some point during the legal process, you could be held in immigration detention. If you do not have immigration status you could be detained. You could also be detained if your visa or immigration status runs out or is taken away, or even in some circumstances when you have a valid visa or immigration status. People who are British citizens are not subject to immigration control, and so should not be detained in the UK.
Detention is not prison, but it is very similar. It is a harrowing experience, and it is very important to be prepared for it. Not everyone that could be detained is detained but it’s important to learn about immigration detention – even though it’s not a nice thing to think about – in case it happens to you. It’s very important to be prepared in case you are detained, because if it happens it will happen suddenly.
On this page, you will find the following information:
- What is detention, and how long can you be detained?
- When in the legal process can you be detained?
- Where might you be detained (picked up from)?
- Who should not be detained?
- How to prepare in case you are detained
- Signing support (reporting)
- Legal options in detention
- Detention far from where you live
- If you are detained
- Immigration detention in prison
- Getting out of detention
What is detention and how long can you be detained?
If you are at risk of detention, you could technically be detained at any time, but there are several points in the asylum and immigration process when the risk is higher. This includes on entry to the UK, when a visa or leave to remain has expired, or when an application has been refused and you don’t have the right to appeal that refusal.
If you are detained under immigration powers you may be held in a short-term holding facility, or a reporting centre, to start with. You will then usually be moved to a longer-term detention centre. Some people are taken straight to a longer-term detention centre without being held somewhere temporarily. The Home Office uses the term Immigration Removal Centre (or IRC) but this term can be misleading, because most people who are detained go on to be released back into the community, and others are held in detention for long periods of time without ever being removed. So, we use the term ‘detention centre’ instead.
If you have just completed a prison sentence and the Home Office has decided that you will now be detained under immigration powers, you may be detained in prison, or you may be moved to a detention centre.
If you are detained, you cannot leave without permission and you will have very limited freedom of movement within the detention centre.
If you are an adult, you could be detained indefinitely (this means that there is no time limit on how long you can be detained). The exception to this is pregnant women, who can only be detained for up to 72 hours, unless this is extended by ministerial approval.
You can find a list of the detention centres and short-term holding centres in the UK here.
When in the legal process can you be detained?
If you are at risk of detention, you could technically be detained at any time, but there are several points in the asylum and immigration process when this is more likely to happen:
- when you enter or re-enter the UK
- when you claim asylum, if the Home Office categorises your case as a non-suspensive appeal case. This will usually happen after your screening interview.
- if your asylum claim has been refused and you are appeal rights exhausted. This means after you have been refused and either have appealed to the First-tier Tribunal and lost your appeal, or if you did not take the opportunity to appeal, or if you did not have the right to appeal. Remember that this is another misleading Home Office term and you may in fact have legal options/further appeals available to you. Read our Appeal Rights Exhausted page to learn more.
- if you do not have any immigration status or applications pending. If you have a lawyer and they are in the process of preparing an application for you (for example, further submissions to be considered as a fresh claim) they may be able to provide a letter stating this to reduce the risk of detention. You could take this letter to the Home Office when you go to report.
Where might you be detained (picked up from)?
You could be detained when you go for your regular reporting/signing at the Home Office.
This is more likely to happen if, for example, your appeal has recently been refused or your fresh claim has been rejected. You may not have been notified that this has happened before you go to report/sign. You can read the ‘Signing Support’ section below to learn how to prepare for when you go to and sign/report to the Home Office.
You could also be picked up from your home (sometimes in a ‘dawn raid’ during the night, or very early in the morning), or during immigration raids on businesses, or during stop-and-searches at train and bus stations and other public spaces.
The Anti-Raids Network has many resources in different languages about your rights in these situations. You can learn more about this below.
Who should not be detained, according to the Home Office’s own policy?
The Home Office’s Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention policy sets out experiences which will indicate that a person may be “particularly vulnerable to harm in detention”, for example if they are:
- suffering from a mental health condition or impairment (this may include more serious learning difficulties, psychiatric illness or clinical depression, depending on the nature and seriousness of the condition)
- a victim of torture
- a victim of sexual or gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation
- a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery. Read more about the legal process for victims of human trafficking here.
- suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (which may or may not be related to one of the above experiences)
- suffering from a serious physical disability
- suffering from other serious physical health conditions or illnesses
- aged 70 or over
- a transsexual or intersex person.
If you are in one of these categories it does not necessarily mean that you will NOT be at risk of detention, according to the Home Office’s point of view. It might be useful, however, for arguing that you should not be or detained or for arguing for your release if you are already detained.
The policy states that detention for people “at risk” could “become appropriate at the point at which immigration control considerations outweigh that presumption. Within this context it will remain appropriate to detain individuals at risk if it is necessary in order to remove them.”
You will probably need to provide independent objective evidence to prove that you fall within some of these categories, for example if you are a survivor of torture, trafficking or sexual or gender-based violence. You can learn more about evidence by reading our Toolkit page. This is particularly the case if being part of one of these categories forms a central part of your asylum claim.
In addition to the categories of adults at risk listed above, unaccompanied minors should also not be detained, apart from in exceptional circumstances. Sometimes children are wrongly detained by the Home Office, because the Home Office classifies them as adults.
Rule 35 report
If you have been detained despite being in one of the above categories, you may need a Rule 35 report.
Rule 35 requires detention centre doctors to report to the Home Office “any detained person whose health is likely to be injuriously affected by continued detention or any conditions of detention.”
The organisation Medical Justice supports people in detention who require a Rule 35 report for the following reasons:
- Those who report having been subjected to torture or ill-treatment and need the physical or psychological signs to be documented in a medico-legal report for it to be considered as part of a legal case (generally an asylum or immigration case or one related to their continued detention).
- Those who have a medical condition and require an assessment of their treatment and support. Medical Justice clinicians frequently draft letters outlining such significant medical concerns, the treatment that is required, and assess how they relate to whether someone is fit to fly, or whether and to what extent someone is adversely affected by continued immigration detention.
- Those who allege that they were assaulted or had excessive force used on them in detention or during an attempted removal. This area of work is particularly challenging.
Be prepared in case you are detained
If you are at risk of being detained, there are some things that you can and should do to be prepared.
Read the suggestions below of what you can do for yourself. You may also want to find out if there is a signing support group near you.
If you are being detained, make sure you don’t sign any legal documents that you don’t understand. If you have a lawyer, try to contact them as soon as possible (see below).
Read the rest of the page for information on what to do if you are detained.
If you are at risk of being detained, it is a good idea to write a list of emergency contacts, and to give a copy of this list to someone that you trust. Emergency contacts might include your lawyer’s number (and your case reference number the lawyer uses in letters to you), any close friends or family in the UK, people you have spoken to about caring for your children in case of detention, doctors or hospitals if you have a medical condition, and maybe the leader of your faith group. You might want to keep this list taped inside your phone cover so that you have it with you at all times.
Make copies of all your documents. If you are detained, it may become impossible for you to access your documents if they are in your home. This means that vital evidence that a lawyer or a friend/supporter needs cannot be reached. You should have a copy of all your documents, not just your lawyer. Give a copy of these documents to someone you trust. Scan and email yourself copies of your important legal documents, so that you can access them if you are detained. If you haven’t got an email address, ask someone to help you to set one up in advance. You don’t need to take all your documents when you go and sign/report at the Home Office – just take the important and most recent ones.
If you are on medication, take this with you when you go to report/sign at the Home Office. You should be able to keep this with you if you are detained, though you will be issued with new medication once you are detained. Also, take a paper copy of your prescription for the medication with you (you can scan the prescription so that you can access it on your phone but your phone may be taken away), and if possible, a letter from your doctor explaining why you need it and why it should not be restricted or changed.
If possible, give a friend a copy of your house or room key. If you are detained, they can go and get essential things for you from your house. This may not be possible, for example if you are living in asylum accommodation.
Only give a key to someone you trust, and make sure you are allowed to do this under your accommodation rules. Alternatively, give a consent letter in advance to a friend giving permission to access your room in asylum accommodation in case you are detained. This consent letter is also useful so that a friend can contact your lawyer on your behalf.
Your phone will probably be taken from you when you are detained. Keep your important numbers written down (you may want to write a list on a piece of paper and keep this inside your phone cover).
If you have a smartphone with facial recognition or a fingerprint and it is taken away from you, officers can ask you to unlock the phone for them, but if you use a pin code or password to unlock the phone, you don’t have to unlock it for them.
If it is possible to still use your own sim card, it’s a good idea to have saved important numbers to the sim card beforehand (rather than to your phone handset) so the numbers will be still available in the replacement phone. If you have a smartphone, the sim card is unlikely to work in the detention centre.
Rough guide to immigration detention
This “zine” is a hand-made guide about preparing in case you are detained. It talks about practical things that you and supporters can do, as well as giving you some insight into what the experience might be like – although it is different for everybody. The zine was made by Rosie in Sheffield using accounts from experts-by-experience (people who have been detained) and the Right to Remain Toolkit.
Note – the zine was published in 2019, so it is best to check back on this Toolkit page for the most recent updates to detention law and policy.
Signing support (reporting)
Many people who have applied for asylum or other immigration status and have not had a positive decision have to regularly report at their local Home Office reporting centre or a police station.
At every reporting visit, you may be at risk of detention, particularly if your application has been refused, which you may not know until you go and report.
Some people call a friend just before they enter the reporting centre, with instructions for what to do and who to contact if they are detained. If the friend does not get a call within an hour or two to say they are safe, the friend can call their lawyer and/or support group if they have one.
In some areas, local support groups have set up systems to help with this. The person going to report will check-in with the group first, who keep a record of everyone’s contact details and emergency instructions of what to do if they do not come out.
A system like this can save valuable time: friends/supporters can start finding out exactly where you are, what has happened, and what can be done to help straight away.
A signing support system also means that when you go to sign, you know that people are looking out for you, and that there is a plan in place if things go wrong and they are detained.
This can reduce the psychological burden of reporting/signing at the Home Office. Signing support groups can also provide a safe space for valuable or sentimental items that you don’t want to keep with you in case the Home Office seizes them.
Legal options in detention
If you are detained, there can be big difficulties in accessing the legal advice you need to challenge your detention or carry on with your asylum or immigration application.
Many people find that the lawyer that was previously representing them can no longer do so once they are detained, because the detention centre is too far away from where the lawyer is based. This isn’t because they can’t be bothered to travel. It is because legal aid lawyers are very limited in the time and travel they can claim for under the legal aid funding scheme.
Some lawyers will continue working with you if they are in the middle of working on an aspect of your case, but communication will generally only be phone, email, and fax.
If there is a new legal issue to work on once you are detained, your previous lawyer may not be allowed to represent you. This is because in England, only certain legal aid law firms are able to give advice to people in detention.
Legal aid contracted firms
At detention centres in England, legal aid advice is provided by contracted legal firms at each centre. These firms each have days allocated to them on a rota system, called the duty advice scheme. You can sign up for an advice session with one of these firms if you are in detention, often in the detention centre library or another communal space. Ask the staff at the centre, or other people detained there, how to do this.
The appointments get booked up very far in advance, and the quality of legal advice is variable.
If you experience problems signing up with the rota, or with the legal advice you receive, you can make a complaint to the solicitor firm, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner or the Legal Ombudsman.
In general, there is no legal aid in England for immigration matters, apart from some cases involving domestic violence or trafficking.
If you have a non-asylum immigration case, you will probably not be able to get legal aid advice on your substantive case (this means the main part of your case), though you may be able to get legal aid to challenge your detention.
Detention far from where you live
Nearly all removals/deportations take place from London airports. If you apply for asylum or other immigration status and live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and you are detained, you will very likely be moved to a detention centre in England if the Home Office is trying to remove/deport you.
This makes it very difficult for your Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish lawyers to continue to advise you. This is also a problem if you live in England and you are moved to a detention centre a long way from where your English lawyer’s office is located (see above).
If you claimed asylum or other immigration status and lived in Scotland or Northern Ireland, there is the additional problem of restricted legal aid in England if you are moved to a detention centre there.
If you are unable to get legal advice from one of the contracted firms in immigration detention, you could think about these alternatives:
If you are detained
The procedure in each detention centre is different. You may not be able to rely on the staff there to give you helpful information about procedure and your rights, so it could be a good idea to contact a local visitor group, like those coordinated by Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) (see more below).
If you feel that your rights are not being respected, let someone know. You may want to tell a visitor group, your lawyer, a friend or supporter, or make a complaint to the detention centre or the Home Office.
Each prison or detention centre should have an Independent Monitoring Board complaints box where you can submit your concerns too.
It can be difficult to keep in touch with people if you are detained. At some detention centres the mobile phone signal is very bad. If you have your mobile phone and sim cards taken from you and you are given a detention centre phone, the cost of calling can be very expensive.
If you are supporting someone in detention, remember that some phone networks charge to pick up voicemail messages. If you don’t get through to the person in detention, it could be better to send a text message which they can read for free.
You should have access to the internet in detention, but you may have limited time to use the computers. Certain sites such as Facebook and Skype are blocked.
You are entitled to healthcare in immigration detention, as you would be in wider society. AVID has further information about your right to healthcare and what to do if you are not satisfied with the healthcare available here.
At every detention centre there will be one or more chaplains who can provide support in many different ways. There are usually several chaplains from different faiths who work in rotation.
Chaplains can provide religious support, emotional support, or help in practical ways too. The place of worship where the chaplain is based may provide a quiet place for reflection or prayer.
There are usually prayer groups in detention centres, which some people find very comforting.
Friends and family can visit you in detention.
They will need to find out the visiting times, notify the centre in advance that they will be visiting, and bring ID with them on the day.
They can call the detention centre to find out what form of ID they will need to bring. They will have their photograph taken at the centre, and their fingerprints may be scanned as well. See the Home Office website for details of visiting each detention centre.
There are also visitor groups set up for each detention centre and some prisons. The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) has a list of visitors’ groups on its website.
“Having someone to visit you is so important. If no one comes to visit you, you think you belong in that place. Having visitors gave me something to reach for. It reminds you there’s a world out there. After a visit, I felt like a human being.”
Ed from the Freed Voices group
If someone you know has been detained, you might want to arrange visits to see them. The isolation of detention can make it very difficult to keep spirits up. Keeping engaged and communicating is essential not just for wellbeing but also for continuing with the legal process.
If a member of your community group has been detained, you might want to think about fundraising to pay travel costs so group members can visit the person in detention. Detention centres are often difficult to reach by public transport, so sharing lifts in a car and splitting petrol costs may be the easiest way of visiting.
Some groups also organise letter-writing sessions, where everyone gets together to write to someone they know (or even someone they don’t) in detention. If a member of your group has been detained, you might want to take photos of the group getting together to write the letters or taking other actions for them, and send the photos to the person in detention so they know people are thinking about them.
Detention in prison
If you have served a prison sentence after a criminal conviction, you may continue to be held in prison after you have finished your sentence, under immigration powers.
This can be very difficult as you have less access to services than people held in detention centres.
If you are detained in prison, you do not usually have access to a mobile phone or the internet. You are only allowed to call people whose numbers have been approved by the prison, which can take some time.
At the time of writing, there is also no legal advice surgery available in prisons (unlike in detention centres). However, the organisation Prisoners Advice provides resources, outreach and legal advice clinics to people who are in prison, and they have a number of resources for prisoners who are foreign nationals here.
If you are being held in prison under immigration powers, you can request that the Home Office transfers you to a detention centre. The Home Office may refuse this request if you were convicted of a serious crime or you are considered ‘dangerous’ in other ways.
The organisation Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) has a team that works specifically with people in prison, and produced a guide for people held in prison, which includes a template letter for requesting a transfer to a detention centre. You can find contact details for BID, including their prison team, here.
Getting out of detention
People should only be detained for what the law calls a “reasonable” period of time, and the power to detain only exists when there is a “realistic prospect of removal”. The Home Office must undertake regular detention reviews to justify continued detention. However, a new law called the Illegal Migration Act has just passed, and may change this process significantly. We will update this page as we learn more.
Whether or not your removal/deportation is imminent (this means about to happen) may depend on whether emergency travel documents can be issued for you allowing you to be admitted back into your country, or if other barriers exist to your removal or deportation.
If you have been detained, you can apply to be released by immigration bail. This page refers specifically to immigration bail when someone is detained.
You can apply for bail if you have been in the UK for 8 days or more.
You can apply for bail from the Home Office, although this is not likely to be granted unless your application provides significant information about why you should not be detained according to their own rules that they were not aware of when they decided to detain you. Applying to the Home Office can be useful, however, for getting the Home Office to explain their reasons for detaining you and this might be useful for the next step.
To apply for bail from the Home Office, you need to fill out a ‘Home Office Form 401’ which you can access here, and you can also get a copy of the form from the Welfare Office in the detention centre in which you’re being held. Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) has a step-by-step guide to applying for bail which you can access here.
If your application for bail to the Home Office is refused, you can apply to the First-tier Tribunal to have a bail hearing in front of a judge. The Tribunal cannot grant bail when removal is within the next 14 days.
If your application for bail has been refused by the First-tier Tribunal, the Tribunal will automatically refuse any further applications for bail made within 28 days of the last refusal unless you can demonstrate there has been a material (this means significant) change in your circumstances. You will have to convince the Tribunal of this change in writing when you make your application.
If you cannot find a lawyer to help you with these applications, you can apply for bail yourself using the BID guide mentioned above.
If your bail application or hearing is successful and you are released on bail, there will usually be conditions attached. For example, providing a specified address, having financial condition supporters, and a requirement to report regularly at a police station or reporting centre. Sometimes people are released with the condition of being fitted with an electronic tagging device.
If a period of your detention has been found to be unlawful by the High Court, you may be able to seek financial compensation.
If you have been in detention for 4 months or more and you have not applied for bail to the First-tier Tribunal, the Home Office should automatically refer you for bail on your behalf. This is called an automatic referral for bail.
The Home Office will not do this if you are detained “in the interests of national security” or if they are taking action to deport you from the UK (following a criminal sentence).
Successful bail applications will include a particular address to live when you are released.
If you do not have an address to stay at (for example with a friend, family member or supporter), the Home Office has the power to provide accommodation in exceptional circumstances.
There are different processes for applying for accommodation because of exceptional circumstances, depending on whether you have ever claimed asylum and whether you have been convicted of a criminal offence. You can contact BID for more information here.
You will need to try to show that you meet the test for exceptional circumstances for accommodation when you apply for bail from the Home Office or the Tribunal. The BID bail guidebook says you must show that:
- You do not have any friends, family, people in the community, charities or other organisations who can accommodate you if you are released on bail
- You have no other way of finding accommodation
- You will have nowhere to live and you will have no way to support yourself if you are released
- You will be forced to live on the streets and this will be inhuman treatment.
BID also points out that it’s important that the information you argue to support the points above doesn’t contradict (this means go against) what you have said in your immigration case.
Financial condition supporters
A financial condition supporter is someone who provides a sum of money to guarantee that the person applying for bail will keep to their bail conditions. If the person being released doesn’t keep to the conditions, the supporter is liable to lose the money they have put up. This role is called a cautioner in Scotland.
Usually no money is handed over when someone agrees to be a financial condition supporter, but if bail conditions are broken the money will be taken from their bank account. The amount promised may be a significant amount – it can be thousands of pounds (and if the supporter has a high income, it may be even higher as it is meant to be an amount which would be difficult to lose).
The bail application form has space for two supporters, though you only need one. The supporter(s) will need to attend the bail hearing and provide ID, proof of address, occupation, financial status and immigration status. A criminal record check and immigration record check can be undertaken of all people who act as financial condition supporters.
You do not need to be a British citizen to act as a supporter, but if you have problems with your immigration status, you need to consider whether it is safe for you to be a supporter for someone else.
Good financial condition supporters are close friends or colleagues, rather than family members, or supporters who do not know the person in detention well, but this is not always possible.
Bail hearings take place in front of a judge at court, but you are likely to stay in your detention centre and only join the proceedings via video link.
The bail hearing will consider things such as the release accommodation, financial conditions, whether you are likely to abscond (this means break your bail conditions), immigration history, family or community ties and factors such as health conditions.
It’s important to check the bail summary provided by the Home Office as there are often mistakes in this that could be challenged. The bail summary should be made available to you and your lawyer (if you have one) the day before the hearing.
If someone is acting as your financial condition supporter, they will usually need to attend the bail hearing.
You may want a friend or supporter to attend the bail hearing with you as an observer. If your bail hearing is taking place via video link, your friend would sit in the Tribunal with the judge, while you give evidence by video from detention. It is unlikely you will be able to see them or speak to them, but it may be comforting to know that they are there
After you are released on bail
There are a number of organisations that provide support to people who are released on bail.
- MiCLU has made a map of resources and support services of organisations across the UK that may be able to help you. You can access the map here.
- You can contact Samphire’s Ex-Detainee Project helpline if you are in need of support on Monday – Friday between 10.00am and 1.00pm. The contact numbers are:
Tel: 01304 201535
Text: 07714 490981
Freephone (landlines): 0800 9179397
- The Life After Detention group is a group of experts by experience based in Scotland with first hand experience of the detention system. You can contact them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The No Accommodation Network (NACCOM) is a national network of members preventing destitution amongst asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants. This organisation may be able to help detainees who are refused asylum seekers and need an address to be released to, if it means getting out of detention. You can access their list of members who provide accommodation here.