Officials have the right to detain anyone suspected of committing an immigration offence, as well as people in the asylum system. Locally, this may include people who have strayed across the border without the correct visa, or asylum applicants who live in the community. Others are detained if it is felt that their asylum application has little hope of success, or if the person has exhausted all appeal remedies.

During the years 2009 to 2012 between 2,000 and 3,000 people have been detained in UK Removal Centres at any one time. In the whole of 2013 30,036 people were detained. In 2013 there were 4,671 enforced removals of people who had sought asylum at some stage, and 8,380 people who were non-asylum cases. There were also 32,661 voluntary departures. www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-october-to-december-2013/immigration-statistics-october-to-december-2013

Locally, the enforcement of immigration controls, at our ports, airports and the border, is through Operation Gull, a joint PSNI, Garda Síochána and Home Office operation. Northern Ireland statistics are not available but the Organised Crime Task Force Annual Report and Threat Assessment for 2013 indicates that in the year 2012/2013, almost 300 people were intercepted by Operation Gull trying to use N Ireland ports in order to travel illegally across the UK. www.dojni.gov.uk/index/publications/publication-categories/pubs-policing-community-safety/community-safety/organised-crime/octf-annual-report-2013.pdf

In addition, the UKBA/Home Office conducts ‘traditional’ enforcement raids on homes and work premises where it has a suspicion it may find immigration offenders and a number of people have been arrested for working here illegally – 41 in 2009–10 and 2 in 2010–11. www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm100617/text/100617w0015.htm

A number of visitors have had to be compensated following their detention. Jamiu Omikunle, a Nigerian student, travelling from London to Belfast to act as godfather at a baptism, was stopped by immigration officers. He was awarded £20,000 in February 2009 because of unlawful detention in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland. www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/columnists/eamon-mccann/eamon-mccann-why-some-deportations-are-a-black-and-white-issue-14184389.html This is not an isolated case. In 2013 a refugee from Afghanistan, now living in Belfast, received £85,000 in damages, for detention under threat of removal, when it was Government policy for people in his circumstances to be given Exceptional Leave to Remain. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-22967878

See also Larne House Short-Term Holding Centre

Criticism of the policy and practice of detention
While there is a single national detention system, Immigration Removal Centres are run by a number of private company providers and the prison service. Some give limited access to recreation or advice and all rely heavily on the work of voluntary groups and a number of reports have expressed concerns about conditions. The mental health of detainees is a problem, especially as there is no limit to the length of time for which people may be detained. (People should only be detained if there is a prospect of their removal but, because removals are contested, some people have been in removal centres for years.)

In 2009 it was revealed that 1,300 children had been held in UK removal centres during a recent 15-month period. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8335602.stm Following criticism by doctors about the mental and physical health problems when children are detained, the new Government announced its intention to end child detention in 2010. The Home Office contracted the children’s charity Barnardo’s to run a holding centre for families, near Gatwick airport. Inevitably, secure ‘pre-departure accommodation’ can be seen as detention under another name.

Local research on immigration enforcement
NI Human Rights Commission research published in 2009 (see below) examined how Operation Gull operated and painted a disturbing picture of insufficient legal safeguards and oversight, a need for human rights training, greater awareness by magistrates, inconsistent practice in informing people about their legal rights and access to interpreters, sometimes determined by cost. In 2010 the local Refugee Action Group (RAG) report, Distant Voices, Shaken Lives (see below) included the first hand accounts of detainees and suggested alternatives to detention.

Further reading

Migration Observatory briefing 
Migration Observatory ‘policy primer’ on detention in the UK
Liz Griffith, Prison by another name in Frontline Social Welfare Law Quarterly, 81, Autumn 2011
Refugee Action Group (RAG) Distant Voices, Shaken Lives; Human Stories of Immigration Detention from Northern Ireland
NI Human Rights Commission Our Hidden Borders: The UK Border Agency’s Powers of Detention
Law Centre (NI) briefing on Operation Gull, 2008
Right to Remain (formerly the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns) online information on immigration detention