The Impact of Detention Time on Migrant Mental Health in the UK: Prioritising Children’s Welfare

The UK’s immigration detention facilities are among the largest in Europe. Here, immigration detention refers to the Home Office’s practice of detaining asylum seekers and applicants for asylum and humanitarian protection for immigration-related purposes.

It is an administrative process rather than a criminal procedure and is often carried out by young workers of the Home Office who may not necessarily have the relevant experience to deal with complex cases. The UK is the only European country without a statutory limit on detention, making this policy analysis particularly timely and relevant.[i] It is also the state with one of the most prominent immigration detention systems: between 2,000 and 3,500 migrants are detained at any given time.[ii] Many countries detain asylum seekers in immigration detention centres whilst their applications are processed or after a rejection.[iii] The time spent in immigration detention in the host country is a prevalent post-migration stressor, as it can trigger feelings of loss of liberty, coupled with the impeding threat of mandatory return to the country of provenance. Often asylum seekers arrive at detention centres with a history of major trauma, and the unfamiliar living conditions are not conducive to recovery. [iv]

The toughening of attitudes to immigration in recent years has been reflected in policy statements from numerous British government officials. There, declarations have partly been formulated in response to groups which pressure for harsher migration policies and perpetuate racist rhetoric around refugees.

One of the EU’s strategies to deter the influx of asylum seekers involves confining migrants in detention centres.[v] Arguably, this is the most controversial measure to discourage individuals from seeking asylum. Information on why people are detained is scarce and there is no legal framework dictating the use of detention under international human rights law or refugee law.  Detention policies are murky, implying a certain degree of arbitrariness in the decision-making process. Previous research shows that detention is dehumanising experience, in an environment characterised by confinement, deprivation, injustice and escalating hopelessness. Within the sub-population of asylum seekers, there are certain types of people regarded as vulnerable and particularly susceptible to harm in detention: younger detainees, particularly younger women, appear to acutely suffer. Overall, women are more susceptible to trauma during their journey to the UK, and are more vulnerable to elevated risks of violence.

Evaluating the current immigration detention policy in the UK

This paper focuses on the mental health of those detained under immigration laws in the UK. Asylum seekers who are detained in the host country experience a set of stressors. These range from the excruciatingly long and laborious process of detention to the environment in which they are detained. There is growing evidence that the detention of asylum seekers is associated with substantial mental health problems. Detention is expected to be for short periods only, classified at the start or the final part of the immigration assessment by the Home Office. Realistically what happens is that, detainees are held for weeks, even months and years at a time. There are limited options for detainees when the rapid resolution of an immigration case is not viable, including the application to the immigration tribunal for release on bail; release of the detainee on temporary admission in the UK was scrapped in 2018.[vi] Since then, any migrant lawfully in the UK without leave to remain (including asylum seekers) is theoretically on immigration bail and automatic bail hearings are provided when a person, who is yet to apply personally or through a lawyer, has been detained for four months. If for bureaucratic reasons, detainees can’t access these other options they are in turn held in a limbo worsening their mental health.

Although Section 35 was last amended in 2018, the overall Detention Centre Rules were last updated in 2001. According to the legislation in The Detention Centre Rules 2001, ‘the Secretary of State shall, within a reasonable time following any request to do so by a detained person, provide that person with an update on the progress of any relevant matter relating to him’.[vii] But this declaration fails to specify a time-line for action.

Policy proposals

          1. Prioritise the role of children in the decision to detain parents

Children are the most vulnerable group; their mental health will be affected disproportionately the longer they spend in detention centres, independently of their parents’ own health.[viii] Under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, the Home Office is required to make decisions with the safeguarding and promotion of child welfare in mind. Evidence shows that when a decision about whether to detain an individual is made, the children’s welfare is rarely considered. Forced family separation is currently common practice in the UK.[ix] It inevitably has catastrophic consequences on children’s mental health as they grow older.

The UK government should tailor detention times and introduce a limit maximum that could be concerned to various type of detainees, taking into account the status of vulnerability.[x] For example, there should be a limit of 72-hour detention time incorporating families with children, similar to the “Adult at Risk” policy. There is also a need for a more family-focused detention regime.

          2. Introduce a time-limit on detention in line with neighbouring European countries

The Receptions Conditions Directives[xi] put forward as part of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) aims at ensuring better as well as more harmonised standards of reception conditions throughout the EU. The UK has never subscribed to the reception standards of the CEAS. A new directive was introduced in late 2016 and is almost finalised. It’s still in negotiations – the exchanges between the Council, Commission and Parliament have created a political agreement which is not yet public. Following the introduction of the new directive the maximum detention time has been shortened to six months in EU States and detention of children hasn’t been banned altogether, despite pressure from several NGOs. One of the consequences of this directive has also been to add detention grounds as a disincentive to secondary movements – such as detaining people a member state considers to be at risk of committing a secondary movement.

Although the directive aims to standardise conditions, it still leaves a considerable degree of discretion to define what constitutes an adequate standard of living and how it should be achieved. Thus, reception conditions continue to vary considerably between Member States both in terms of how the reception system is organised and in terms of the standard provided to asylum seekers.

There is also an economic argument to be made also for reducing detention time. As of 2017, the estimated cost of detention per day in the UK is £86.[xii] Brexit conversations continue to be up in the air and the possibility of a no-deal is looming; it might be a challenge to coerce the Home Office into replicating EU country immigration detention times in the UK. Moreover, as the UK is set to leave the EU, legislation that has been designed in Brussels will have little leverage. The UK government may argue that there is no need to emulate neighbouring countries, despite the evidence suggesting that shorter detention time, or abolishing detention time altogether, is the most humane plan. As mentioned above, the maximum detention time is six months in the EU. The UK could not adhere to this limit as it may stunt further progress. Alternatively, British decision-makers could consider 28-day limit that is currently being lobbied for in Parliament.

         3. Create specialised mental health services for migrants in detention centres

 This policy proposal should be introduced in conjunction with the policy proposals above to directly target mental health issues. However, this proposal focuses specifically on migrants that have been detained for longer. There is some evidence to suggest an independent adverse effect of detention on the mental health of asylum seekers.

Mental health services in general are underfunded, so garnering funding for specialist services might prove challenging, particularly when considering that it would require evidence of a causal effect between detention and mental problems in asylum seekers[xiii] There is concern that diagnostic difficulties can arise in a multicultural context, predominantly when applying some Western mental health diagnoses to other cultures.[xiv]. In order to address the diagnostic challenges a pilot project was launched in Germany in 2017.  The pilot aimed to train refugees as peer counsellors, able to recognise the most precarious cases and teaching other asylum seekers coping mechanisms for mental health conditions, like anxiety. Proposing a similar training service in the UK may aid in dismantling cultural and language barriers and serving as a patch for the severe deficiency of mental-health resources.

One of the biggest challenges this proposal would face is budget allocation and commissioning responsibilities. Given the already stretched mental health budget, there would probably lack clarity regarding whether funding comes from the Department of Health/NHS or the Home Office budget. Nevertheless, it would be a worthwhile initiative in the long-term. During an investigation carried out in 2013, when responsibility of prison health care was transferred to the Department of Health and the NHS from the Home Office, a high rate of mental illness was flagged. This shift in responsibility was not replicated for immigration detainees, but there is still work that shows mental health is a priority.


It’s time to introduce new and fairer legislation regarding immigration detention centres in order to prevent migrant mental health conditions from worsening. Usually, migrants already suffer from mental health problems upon entering these centre. If the UK is the open, liberal country it claims to be, it must treat its migrants in a more humane manner. As a priority, a limit on detention time, specifically for vulnerable sub-groups is required.

Failing the above there are other options the UK can pursue. Commissioning proper investigative research, as was done by the European Commission, is one way to find alternatives to detention in the context of immigration policies[xv]. The UK should aim to reveal a more in-depth understanding of the effect of detention time on migrant mental health. Solidifying the causal effects of detention time will pave way for the acceptance of new policies that challenge the current status quo.

By Francesca Monticelli

















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