Not Enough Attention to the Needs of Young People in UK Immigration Detention



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5 Minutes

Post by Hindpal Singh Bhui. Hindpal is Inspection Team Leader at HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and leads inspection of the immigration detention estate. He is also a Research Associate at The Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford and has published articles and book chapters on prisons, probation, foreign prisoners and immigration detention as well as an edited book on Race and Criminal Justice. This blog post is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily represent the views of HMIP. This is the third post of Border Criminologies’ themed week on 'Young Arrivers in Immigration Detention' organised by Dan Godshaw

HMIP has found that attention to the needs of young people in immigration detention is generally limited. There is even less focus on the specific group of detainees who arrive in the UK as children and are then detained as adults. 

Most detainees are held in prison-like conditions and the general experience of immigration detention can be difficult enough for mature adults. Detention centres vary in the degree to which they care for people held there effectively. Some do it well, but regardless of the support they provide, the level of reported despair and distress among detainees remains high. For example, in the last three centres that HMIP has inspected, 41%, 43% and 55% of detainees respectively reported feeling depressed or suicidal.

Residential Unit, Morton Hall IRC (Credit: HMIP)
The recent rise in detention-related deaths is worrying. This increase needs to be better understood and addressed across the detention estate. Since the beginning of 2016, there have been 12 detention-related deaths in or immediately after detention, compared to nine in the previous four years combined. The recent deaths include at least four that appeared self-inflicted and a homicide. Of the nine deaths between 2012 to 2015, all but two were due to natural causes.

The Home Office’s new adults at risk policy was intended to reduce the number of vulnerable people held in detention. However, since it became operational, HMIP has seen large numbers of detainees classed as being at higher levels of risk; and in many cases, detention is maintained even when the Home Office accepts that an individual has been tortured. The impact of this general context is likely to be worse for a young person starting out in life. 

Dan Godshaw’s valuable research finds that young arrivers who end up in detention are likely to have been in the care system and to have arrived in detention via the criminal justice system, where resettlement support, understanding about the legal status of foreign nationals and access to legal advice are often poor. 

Information is always an important commodity in relation to immigration detention, and the report’s recommendation that the Home Office collate data on length of time in the UK is particularly important and, if implemented, could increase visibility of people in detention who arrive in the UK as children.

HMIP regularly comes across young people whose specific needs and levels of maturity and vulnerability are not recognised well enough. We met a young man at one centre recently who had arrived as a three-year-old, was placed in foster care, but had never been supported to apply to regularise his status in the UK. He said that he started to get into trouble at the age of fourteen, and his criminal history had eventually led to his detention and probable removal to a country of which he had no memory. Similarly, during a recent inspection of a charter flight removal, we met a twenty-three-year-old man who was refusing to cooperate and was held in the separation unit before the flight. He had come to the UK when he was one and also had no memory of Jamaica. 

I have come across many men like this in detention. They appear to be young British men, have grown up with and sometimes gone to prison with British young men and, whatever their misdemeanours, find it hard to understand why they should be treated differently from their peers. 

The routes for a young person to apply for citizenship are complex and expensive whether they are under or over 18. Many, understandably, are not aware of what the consequences may be if they do not apply. A significant number of young detainees come directly from the youth custody estate, which is itself particularly troubled at the moment. HMIP findings in young offender institutions suggest that foreign nationals often do not know how uncertain their immigration status is. Even if they do, they do not know how to get legal help at an early stage. 

At two young offender institutions (Feltham and Wetherby and Keppel) HMIP visited in 2017, staff did not realise how critical it was for young people to take prompt advice on regularisation of status and on citizenship applications, and could not therefore advise the children. In 2014, we found that children held at Hindley young offender institution were often ‘confused, anxious, in panic or in denial’ about their immigration status. Barnado’s staff were doing some good work to support them, but a lack of legal representation was a serious problem. These problems are compounded by factors such as a lack of knowledge around trafficking indicators, demonstrated by recent inspections at Parc and Feltham where we found poor awareness of trafficking among custodial staff.

Hostility to migration creates pressure on countries to increase removals and contributes to greater use of detention. Migrants considered illegal have arguably come to embody a threat that helps to legitimate what in other circumstances might be considered a disproportionate response. In this context, we can begin to understand the process by which young people are removed, despite the fact that they feel British themselves, look and sound like ethnic minority British people and have little idea of what to expect in their countries after removal. 

There is in any event no justification for failing to provide rehabilitative services for foreign nationals in prisons. Removing young people who have offended without helping them to address the causes for their offending is, at the very least, irresponsible. Bearing in mind that around half of those detained end up being released to the UK community, it is also in the self-interest of UK citizens. Albeit very belatedly, some promising, coordinated work is at last being done by HM Prison and Probation Service on this issue. 

There is little research on what happens when people are returned to other countries, but what little there is suggests that even for those people who remember their countries and feel safe there, reintegration is very difficult. They may, for example, be stigmatised or victimised on their return, and be unable to pay off their debts.

I would like to make a final point: detention itself is often a painful and damaging experience, which centre staff can only do so much to mitigate. In some, but still few cases, detention staff may lack the temperament or ability to do such a complicated job, as demonstrated by the recent revelations about Brook House IRC. But, judging by HMIP evidence, it is much more likely that staff will lack the training or time to help detainees, especially the most vulnerable including those who have arrived as children. That is an issue that the Home Office and detention contractors could usefully look at closely in future.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bhui, H. (2018) Not Enough Attention to the Needs of Young People in UK Immigration Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Found within

Detention centres; immigration detention; border control
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