Limits on immigration detention

2 November 2016
What was claimed

The UK is the only EU country with no time limit on immigration detention.

Our verdict

This is correct, although the courts have said that the government can’t hold people for ‘unreasonable’ periods of time.

"The UK [is] the only country in the EU with no time limit on detention"

Gavin Newlands MP, 2 November 2016

It’s correct that there’s no time limit in the UK on how long someone can be detained under immigration rules, unlike in any other EU country.

Most EU countries have to follow the so-called Return Directive, which says immigration detention cannot normally last longer than six months. That doesn’t apply in the UK and Ireland. In many countries, including Ireland, the usual limit is lower anyway.

But while there’s no explicit limit, this doesn’t mean people can be held indefinitely. Ever since a court ruling in 1983, there’s been an assumption that the state has limited powers to detain anyway. For example, detention can’t last more than what’s “reasonable” given the circumstances. The contents of this ruling have come to be used and known as the ‘Hardial Singh’ principles (after the name of the case).

That said, independent inspectors found a few years ago the application of ‘a reasonable period’ of time was inconsistent, and a group of MPs found similar cases when it gathered evidence on the practice.

The government says the protections already in place, and the fact that Parliament recently rejected a longer limit, mean a change to the rules on limits isn’t necessary, and has confirmed recently it isn’t seeking any change to the law.

How does all this play out in reality? Almost two thirds of people leaving detention in the past year were detained for less than 29 days. 3% were detained for over six months. As of 30 June, one person had been detained for over three years.

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