MPs Call for End to Indefinite Detention

Posted on Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

By Bella Lever

Last month, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report which called for a time limit on indefinite detention. One of the key reasons they list in support of a time limit is the potential for indefinite detention to ‘trigger mental illness and exacerbate mental health conditions where they already exist’. They note in their report testimony from several former detainees who described their experience of indefinite detention as akin to ‘mental torture’.

The impact of indefinite detention on mental health is well documented. René Cassin covered this topic In Jewish News last November, after a Guardian investigation into detainees revealed that over half those sampled ‘were either suicidal, seriously ill, or victims of torture’.

Many of those locked up in detention are already vulnerable people who have suffered traumas; often they are survivors of torture, human trafficking, and sexual abuse. The Government’s 2016 ‘Adults at Risk’ policy, which is intended to keep vulnerable adults out of detention is clearly failing. The Guardian reported last month that only 6% (364 out of 6300) detainees classified as ‘vulnerable and at risk’ were subsequently released from detention; they also reported that at any one time, there are over 1000 vulnerable and at risk adults held in indefinite detention. The physical and psychological impacts of indefinite detention are felt long after release, both by detainees and also, in many cases, by dependent children and other family members that they were separated from during their detention.

According to recently published Home Office data, the majority of those who are held in detention are released; moreover, Detention Forum’s analysis of this data shows that detention grows less effective as a tool for deportation the longer someone is detained. Indefinite detention clearly does not fulfil its stated purpose, and it serves only to create an environment in which anxiety skyrockets and mental health issues proliferate.

Image: Detention Forum

The UK is currently the only country in Europe which allows for indefinite detention. Fortunately, the possibility for change is strong and growing stronger. There is widespread cross-party support for an amendment to the Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill that would place a 28-day time limit on detention. Afzal Khan MP, who is pushing for a time-limit to be included in the Bill, labelled indefinite detention ‘a rule of law issue, a health issue, a human rights issue, and a cost issue’.

The injunction to welcome the stranger is spelled out several times in Jewish writings. Abraham led by example when he ran to welcome three strangers and prepare food for them. The Jewish people have a long history of seeking asylum in multiple countries. It is our responsibility to fight for people who have found themselves in the same position we have been on countless occasions in our history.


Bella Lever is currently studying for a Masters in Human Rights at UCL whilst working for an asylum seeker drop-in. She is a member of the Rene Cassin Detention Campaign Group, the Rene Cassin Modern Slavery Campaign Group, and an alumnus of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Programme.