We urgently need to rethink the unsafe discharge requirements of U.K. immigration detention centres to prevent putting detainees at greater risk of mental ill-health

By Aileen Voit

The Home Office has the discretionary power to detain persons at any point of their immigration process: upon arrival in the UK; upon presentation to an immigration office within the country; during a check-in with immigration officials; once a decision to remove has been issued; following arrest by a police officer; or after a prison sentence.

Thereby, it operates one of the largest systems of immigration detention in Europe, holding around 3,500 individuals at any one time with no limit on the duration of detention for people detained under immigration powers. Between 2009 to 2018 the number of people entering detention per year has ranged from approximately 25,000 to 32,000.

They constitute one of the most hidden groups from the public eye. Of the 25,487 leaving detention between 2009 and 2018, 11,152 were deported from the UK to another country; 13,945 were released on bail; 47 were granted leave to enter or remain in the UK; and 343 were either returned to criminal detention, released unconditionally, absconded, were sectioned under the Mental Health Act, or died in detention.

The discharge of detainees is ordered by the Home Office or the courts. Once a ruling has been made, removal centres such as the infamous Brook House Immigration Removal Centre must release the detainee within four hours of the ruling as per memorandum with the Home Office.

If immigration detention centres unlawfully prolong the detention of individuals past the four-hour mark, they risk a considerable fine of 986 pounds per day. Compensations paid to individuals wrongfully detained in England reached over four million pounds each your from 2012 to 2017 and include payments to individuals like the Iranian national AKE whose mental illness was failed to be treated in immigration detention.

Only when an immigration detainee support group visited AKE he was offered assistance to secure his release from immigration detention, thus breaching the Home Office’s duties under the Equality Act 2010. (Other serious problems in the healthcare of detainees are documented in expert reports from BMA, Medact, and the House of Commons Immigration Detention Inquiry.)

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann- Pixabay


To avoid the accusation of unlawfully prolonging detention and potential fines, immigration detention centres are put under substantial pressure to release detainees immediately after their court ruling. However, serious concerns have arisen about the medical safety of individuals released under current discharge regulations.

In a recent publication by the British Medical Journal, doctors have warned that the regulations perpetuate an unsafe environment that ‘put detainees at serious risk of relapse or deterioration of their wellbeing once released from immigration detention’.

This is because many detainees, around half of which have sought asylum in the U.K. at some point, are released from immigration detention without being registered with a General Practitioner and, in many cases, are not provided with the crucial medication.

For diverse migrant populations, this issue is of particular concerns as they already face considerable difficulties in accessing community care in the U.K. and are likely to be particularly vulnerable given their various complex health needs as the result of past traumatic events and time in detention; limited knowledge about the U.K. health system; and lack of English language skills.

Clinical experts, including the Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine, are therefore advocating for a change in the current discharge requirements to assure that, at a minimum, discharge documentation provides information on:

  • The nearest primary care to the new address
  • The patient’s condition, results of any investigations, further investigations or outpatient appointment scheduled and current treatment plan
  • Provision for access to prescriptions

It is of utmost urgency that their efforts are heard, as the due date of contracts for healthcare services in immigration removal centres is coming up this June. We must assure that detainees not only realize their right to timely liberty but that their release is also medically safe.

A precedent model was put in place by NHS England last year, which now requires prisoners to be registered with a General Practitioner before their release and to receive follow-up medical care by prison health care services up to one month before their release date.

The model provides a first step in assuring that detainees are equipped with the essential resources to look after their health and wellbeing when released from immigration detention and that both the Home Office and doctors working in detention centres are not prevented from complying with their professional duties when discharging detainees.


The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.

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