Measuring the Quality of Life in Immigration Detention: A New Report

Today we publish online initial results from the detainee Measure of the Quality of Life in Detention (MQLD) questionnaire, which was distributed, consecutively, across all seven Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in operation in the UK, between July 4 and September 20, 2019 to women and in men confined within them.  We hope to administer and publish from a companion staff survey when it is possible to do so.  

As the sector responds to the coronavirus, this report offers a baseline of perceptions from people in detention before the current health crisis. Back then, levels of distress were high in all centres; it is difficult to imagine how people are feeling now.   

This is the first time we have data gathered independently about detainee perceptions of all the IRCs over the same time period. The material from this survey provides a good baseline for understanding the experience of detention. Further statistical analysis will allow us to differentiate in more detail about specific groups of detainees, as well as to try to understand relationships between the dimensions in more detail.  

The survey was completed by 459 adult men and women, who, together, represented 33 per cent of the detained population at the time of the visits. Ninety-two of the surveys (20%) were submitted in a language other than English using one of the eight language translations available.  


Quality of Life in Detention  

The quality of life in detention questions of the survey reveal key differences among the establishments in relation to key dimension of detention including questions organised around institutional decency, officer respect, immigration fairness and consistency, healthcare and trust, safety, and detainee cohesion. Some centres scored far better on all measures than others. Notably, Tinsley House scored lower (more positively) across all measures, while Harmondsworth scored higher (more negatively) across all measures. Distinctions between establishments invite further investigation.  

A number of factors contribute to the quality of life in detention, inviting further study and institutional response. Significant numbers of people state that they have nobody to talk to. Detainees also report high levels of uncertainty about their immigration case. Given the documented impact of uncertainty (and loneliness) on people’s mental health, these matters need addressing.  

It is clear that detainees’ perceptions of the IRCs in which they are held vary around key issues including perceptions of safety and healthcare. Unlike previous iterations of this survey, detainees appeared, by and large, to be satisfied with their experiences with onsite immigration staff. For the most part, as well, concerns over drug use in the Centres were lower than we had anticipated. 

The Coping Scale  

The survey includes a coping scale which has been developed for immigration removal centres based on ongoing academic research.  It provides an overview of how individuals are coping in detention. The higher the score, the less well someone is coping in the IRC, and the more distressed they feel. The lowest possible score is 0 and the highest possible score is 42. The lowest individual score on the coping scale reported during this survey was 4, while the highest score found was the maximum of 42.  

There is currently no baseline to compare mean scores on the coping scale against the general public or against other spaces of confinement. However, we suggest that centres should aim for a mean score of 14 or less. This score would represent a population who have experienced little to no distress in the week prior to the survey.  The mean score on the coping scale across all removal centres was 28.  

Wherever they are located when conducting this survey, detainees exhibited high levels of vulnerability and distress as measured in the coping scale. Further, there continues to be a worrying gap between self-reported concerns over suicide and self-harm, and the numbers who have been placed on an ACDT.  

Notwithstanding the Adults at Risk policy, detainees report experiences of victimisation including torture, domestic violence, rape, trafficking and other traumatic events. External NGOs may be able to assist in designing interventions or protocols to assist.  

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the coping scale demonstrates that the duration of a person’s detention significantly affects their well-being, with scores showing levels of distress increase the longer people are in detention, raising questions about case management and how detention could be limited in duration. 


In the report, we offer a series of preliminary recommendations, in the hope that the results presented in this survey can be used to assist in improving the conditions of detention across the estate. Variations in responses among the institutions suggest there may be potential for sharing best practice and so we urge providers and the Home Office to work together.  

Our thanks go to those who participated in this round of the MQLD, the staff across all IRCs for allowing access and assisting us during the visit, and to the wider research team, made up of Samuel Singler, Francesca Esposito, Elspeth Windsor and Dominic Aitken for their help administering the survey. Francesca Esposito, Samuel Singler, and Blerina Kellezi also provided comments and editorial support.