Skip to Navigation

UN working group says detention of migrants must be "last resort" and a time limit must be set out in law

Date of Publication: 
27 February 2018

UN issues revised document as UK's use of detention hits the headlines after Yarl's Wood protest

UN working group says detention of migrants must be "last resort" and a time limit must be set out in law

27 February 2018

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention yesterday released a revised deliberation document which firmly underlines that the detention of migrants and asylum seekers should be seen as a last resort and should only be used in strictly limited circumstances.

The revised deliberation is here.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says it issued the revised deliberation due to concerns over the increasing use of detention of migrants in recent years.

In its deliberation, the Working Group reaffirms the absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention and the universal human right to seek asylum.

"Seeking asylum is a universal human right, the exercise of which must not be criminalized. The irregular entry and stay in a country by migrants should not be treated as a criminal offence, and the criminalization of irregular migration will therefore always exceed the legitimate interests of States in protecting their territories and regulating irregular migration flows. Migrants must not be qualified or treated as criminals, or viewed only from the perspective of national or public security and/or health. The deprivation of liberty of an asylum-seeking, refugee, stateless or migrant child, including unaccompanied or separated children, is prohibited," the deliberation states.

It says that detention in the course of migration proceedings must be justified as reasonable, necessary and proportionate in the light of the circumstances specific to the individual case, and such detention is permissible only for the shortest period of time.

The Working Group added that the maximum period for which migrants can be held must be set out in law.

The deliberation stated: "A maximum detention period in the course of migration proceedings must be set by legislation, and such detention shall be permissible only for the shortest period of time. Excessive detention in the course of migration proceedings is arbitrary. Upon the expiry of the detention period set by law, the detained person must automatically be released. Indefinite detention of individuals in the course of migration proceedings cannot be justified and is arbitrary."

The Working Group also says migrants have the right to bring proceedings before a court to challenge the legality of their detention, and to obtain appropriate remedies if their challenge is successful.

Meanwhile, the UK's use of detention for immigration purposes was in the news this week when over 100 women went on hunger strike at the Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre as a protest against the indefinite imprisonment of migrants.

According to Sky News, 45 of the women said they were starting an "indefinite" hunger strike in protest at conditions inside.

You can read more about the protest on the Detained Voices website here.

One of the women protesting at Yarl's Wood told Sky News that she had been detained after living in the UK for 24 years and said she feels like she has been kidnapped.

"My life is just in limbo, it's the uncertainty as well. You don't how long you'll be locked up, you don't when you're getting out, you don't know where you're going, I can't describe that feeling. I feel like I have been kidnapped basically, I don't know where I am going, I don't know what's going on," she said.

Labour politicians Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti visited Yarl's Wood last week.

Chakrabarti, the Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales, told Sky News: "I think the media need to be allowed regular access to these women. They're not getting proper access to decent legal advice and that's a massive problem and the establishment probably needs to be shut down in due course."

The Guardian quoted Diane Abbott as saying: "For most of them, the biggest concern was the amount of time they had been in the centre. The striking thing was that they had no release date. These women were clearly desperate. Indefinite detention, with no release date, is just wrong."

In response, the Home Office told the Guardian: "We do not detain individuals indefinitely. When people are detained, it is for the minimum time possible and detention is reviewed on a regular basis. Any decision to maintain detention is made on a case by case basis but their welfare remains of the utmost importance throughout."