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Immigration Detention in the UK - children and vulnerable people

Speakers: Emily Burnham, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) Legal Officer; Sarah Cutler, BID Policy and Research Office
Panel member: Emma Cole, author of A Few Families too Many: Asylum seekers and their children in immigration detention, published April 2003
Chair: Helena Cook, Centre for the Study of Human Rights
May 2003


Children in asylum seeking families can be detained indefinitely at any stage of their claim to remain in the UK. There are around 40 family places in detention centres (now called 'removal centres') but no routinely available statistics about the number of children detained, at what stage of their case, or for how long. In answer to a recent parliamentary question, the government revealed that there were 56 children in immigration detention on 2nd April 2003. These children are detained under the same criteria as single adults.

In April 2003, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons recommended that "the detention of children [in immigration removal centres] should be avoided wherever possible, and only take place for the shortest possible time, in no case more than seven days."

Yet during a recent debate in parliament, the responsible Home Office Minister defended the use of detention for children, describing it as "...a necessary element in the effective enforcement of immigration control, and it has to be applied to some families".

Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) works to obtain release from detention for families. BID also conducts research and campaign work with the aim of ending the use of immigration detention for children. A recent report by researcher Emma Cole, published by BID, gives examples of families being detained for long periods, such as 161 days, 111 days, 87 days and 81 days.

This lecture will explore the present use of immigration detention for children. In particular, the speakers will consider:

  • Why the policy on detaining children has changed
  • What effects this change is having on asylum seeking families
  • The ways in which campaigners are fighting the policy of child detention

There will be a chaired, panel-based discussion after the speakers. It is hoped that some families who have been detained and subsequently released will also be able to take part in the discussion.

About immigration detention

There are currently nearly 2000 spaces in UK immigration detention centres (now officially called "removal centres"), an increase from 250 spaces a decade ago. Detention is administrative, without statutory limit and those held are not accused of any crime. Asylum seekers and migrants can be detained at any stage of their claim to remain in the UK- on arrival, with appeals outstanding and prior to removal. The decision to detain is made by an individual immigration officer and is not automatically subject to independent review at any stage. Legislation providing automatic bail hearings was passed in 1999 but never implemented, and has been repealed by the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act.

In BID's experience, the detention of asylum seekers and migrants gives rise to situations of arbitrary detention, as defined by the United Nations and violates principles of liberty enshrined in international human rights law. It causes suffering and injustice on a level utterly disproportionate to the government objective of immigration control.

About BID

Bail for Immigration Detainees is a London-based, registered charity set up in 1998 to provide a free dedicated bail service to asylum seekers and migrants detained by the Immigration Service. BID has a staff of four and a team of trained volunteers who carry out the casework in our three small offices, London, Portsmouth and Oxford. BID has obtained the release of over 500 detainees since its inception. In addition to casework, BID also conducts policy work, research and awareness-raising about detention policy and practice. BID is funded by charitable trusts, private donations and membership income. In 2001, BID was awarded the Liberty/Justice Human Rights Award.