UK Border Force short-term holding facilities – urgent improvements needed

Read the report: UK Border Force short-term holding facilities

The first national inspection of UK Border Force-run short-term holding facilities (STHFs) found detainees were often held in very poor conditions that embarrassed local staff trying to deliver respectful detention.

At a national level, Border Force, part of the Home Office, in an “alarming” lack of oversight, could not tell HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) how many facilities it ran or for how long detainees, including children, had been held. Inspectors found that a pregnant woman had been held for more than 27 hours with “little meaningful engagement” and that in some cases children were routinely handcuffed. Overall, though, inspectors noted that staff interactions with detainees were mostly polite, courteous and respectful.

Inspectors visited STHFs at eight seaports and five airports in March 2020 – the first time HMI Prisons has assessed them on a national basis.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Individuals detained at airports generally arrived after short flights, usually from Europe. While some of those detained at seaports had arrived in cars or as foot passengers, most arrived after arduous and often dangerous journeys concealed in lorries and containers. These detainees were subsequently held in often very poor conditions. Local Border Force staff were themselves commonly embarrassed by the low standard of accommodation and lack of facilities.”

Border Force was unable to provide HMI Prisons with comprehensive information on the numbers of detainees, the length of detention and the types of detainees held. Mr Clarke added: “The available data suggested that detainees could be held for lengthy periods, occasionally over 24 hours, in facilities that were not fit for purpose.”

“The Home Office should inform HMI Prisons – and other members of the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism – of any site of detention. In 2019, we became aware that some currently operational STHFs run by Border Force had not been notified to us. Border Force subsequently supplied a list of 11 holding facilities subject to the STHF rules, nine of which were previously unknown to us. This list was amended several times in the lead up to the inspection and during it.”

A major finding for inspectors was that “there has to date been inadequate leadership and management of detention. The fact that Border Force senior managers could not even tell us with certainty which of their ports actually had detention facilities suggests an alarming lack of oversight and accountability.

“Despite receiving considerable notice, the list of facilities provided to us changed more than once in the lead up to the inspection, and during it. In many facilities, Border Force staff told inspectors that they felt like they had been ‘forgotten’ and that there was neither national guidance nor sharing of best practices.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“There is an urgent need for Border Force managers to undertake a comprehensive national audit of detention, to assure themselves and the public that all sites of detention are identified, properly equipped for holding detainees and subject to consistent management. We have been informed that work is under way to make substantial improvements, and will examine what progress has been made in due course.”

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Notes to editors
1. A copy of the UK Border Force short-term holding facilities inspection report published on 24 June 2020, can be found on the HMI Prisons website.

2. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) is an independent, statutory organisation which reports on the treatment and conditions of those detained in prisons, young offender institutions, immigration detention facilities and police custody. All inspections carried out by HMI Prisons contribute to the UK’s response to its international obligations under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). OPCAT requires that all places of detention are visited regularly by independent bodies – known as the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) – which monitor the treatment of and conditions for detainees. HMI Prisons is one of several bodies making up the NPM in the UK.

3. The task of the UK Border Force short-term holding facilities is to hold individuals and families who have been detained at the border by the UK Border Force. Inspectors visited 13 STHFs across the country, eight of which were at seaports and five at airports. There has been no previous national inspection, but four facilities have been inspected as single facilities: Harwich (2008), Portsmouth (2013), Cardiff (2014) and Bristol (2014). The escort provider is Mitie Care and Custody.

4. These unannounced inspections took place between 2 and 13 March 2020.

5. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.