Immigration detention: how the UK compares with other countries

  • United Kingdom
  • 10/10/2018
  • The Guardian Law

The UK has one of the largest immigration detention systems in Europe – and is the only country in the region without a statutory time limit on length of detention.

Other developed nations including Australia and the US do not have limits, but critics say the tendency to lock people up indefinitely just makes a bad system worse.

“Indefinite detention is a waste of money and human life,” said Sam Grant, policy and campaigns manager for Liberty. “Mental health deteriorates dramatically after just one month, but some people are held for years – and over half are released back into the community.

“Imagine being locked up anywhere and not knowing when you will be able to leave,” he added. “Working alternatives exist and there are many equivalents of viable time limits on detention in the criminal justice sphere. Detention must be an absolute last resort strictly limited by law to 28 days.”

Here’s a sample of countries across the world and how their policies compare, according to the Global Detention Project, a Geneva-based non-profit organisation.

UK

The UK has one of the largest immigration detention systems in Europe. In the year that ended in March, 26,541 individuals entered detention centres, a figure down 8% compared with the previous year, and 27,429 left detention, down 5% on the previous year.

At the end of March, 2,400 people were being held in detention centres, excluding prisons, a fall of 18% compared with 12 months earlier. Additionally, 358 individuals were held in immigration detention in prisons.

There is no statutory limit on immigration detention but the courts have held that detention with a view to removal is lawful only if there is a realistic prospect of this occurring within a reasonable period. Campaigners say this is not closely adhered to.

Germany

Germany has a tiered approach to immigration detention time limits. Custody to prepare deportation should not exceed six weeks, while custody to secure deportation and detention pending exit may be ordered for up to six months. If an immigration detainee hinders deportation, detention may be extended up to maximum of 18 months.

Asylum-seekers coming from countries deemed to be safe can be confined in the airport transit zones for up to 19 days.

The detention of persons who apply for asylum while in custody should be terminated as soon as the decision on the asylum application has been delivered.

France

As at 2016, France had 45,937 immigration detainees. The legal maximum length of detention was raised in 2003 from 12 days to 32 days.

Hungary

According to the interior ministry and UNHCR, Hungary detained 8,562 non-citizens in 2015, up from 1,989 in 2009.

The law provides that non-citizens held on grounds provided for “alien policing detention” can be kept in custody for an initial period of 72 hours.

Within 24 hours of arrest, the immigration authority must file a request to the local court for extension of detention beyond this initial period. The court may extend detention for consecutive 60-day periods, but for no longer than six months.

Once this six-month period ends, the court may in exceptional circumstances extend detention for an additional six months.

US

The US operates the world’s largest immigration detention system and has no time limit on immigration detention. On any given day, the country has 30,000 people in administrative immigration detention.

Australia

In 2015, Australia held 8,588 immigration detainees. The system is restrictive, making use of offshore detention facilities, all run by private firms. It has no time limit.