UK immigration detention: a potted history

How the UK immigration detention estate grew to over 4,000 spaces in less than half a century

Photo by James Gordon - Wikimedia Commons

Photo by James Gordon – Wikimedia Commons

When did the first centre open?

The UK’s first immigration detention centre opened in 1970, according to Oxford University criminologist and detention expert Mary Bosworth in her new book Inside Immigration Detention,

It was called Harmondsworth Detention Unit, and was housed in a converted “road research laboratory” near Heathrow Airport.

Why was the system created?

At the time Britain was experiencing a large influx of would-be settlers from its former colonies. Many of these people had their citizenship applications rejected, and were held in prisons before being ejected from the country without trial.

The government had just passed the Immigration Appeals Act 1969, which gave these people the right to appeal this system. But the government didn’t know where to put the appellants, and prison no longer seemed like an appropriate place. Harmondsworth was opened as an appeals centre, from which people could challenge their removal order.

How has it grown?

In 1970, the same year as Harmondsworth opened, another 18 bed facility was added in Dover, and in 1974 another site was introduced in Gatwick Airport.

When Campsfield Detention Centre opened in 1993, it raised the total UK immigration detention capacity to 250 bed spaces across the UK. By 2007, there were over 2,600 spaces, and in 2015, there are over 4,000 bed spaces across the country for the detention of migrants.

You can watch Professor Bosworth talk more about the inception of immigration detention in a 2014 video interview:

Have they always been run by private companies?

Yes. Not all are run by private companies – some are run by the prison service – but private companies have been involved from the very beginning. When Harmondsworth Detention Unit was first opened it was run by Securicor, which has since merged with Group 4 to become G4S, which now operates Gatwick Airport’s Immigration Removal Centres.

The original logic behind contracting out the centres to private companies “was that the use of prison or police officers would be seen as too oppressive for non-prisoners,” says detention scholar Christine Bacon.

How has it changed?

In 1983 a man named Hardial Singh brought an appeal through the UK courts. He was being kept indefinitely at Durham Prison under Immigration Act powers even after his prison sentence there had expired, and argued that he should be released.

In his judgement on the case Lord Justice Woolf introduced what are now known as the “Hardial Singh principles”. Clarifying the rules for the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State responsible for the immigration detention system, they state:

“The detainee can only be detained if he is subject to a deportation order, or is awaiting his removal. Further this period of waiting is limited to what can be deemed reasonably necessary for the Secretary of State to act to remove the detainee. If he is not acting with reasonable speed, then the Secretary of State must cease the detention.”

In 2002, the government re-named the centres “Immigration Removal Centres” to emphasise that removal is their primary purpose.

In spite of this, according to Home Office data releases only 47% of the 13,997 people who left detention in 2014 were removed from the country. The rest were released back into the UK, after being held indefinitely, in some cases for several months.

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