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Alternatives to immigration detention: providing support and reaching case resolution within a more humane environment

Posted on 02 March 2022 by Gayle Munro, Deputy Director
Tags: crime and justice, detention, immigration, refugees

Alternatives to detention can provide a more humane environment for people seeking asylum, could be significantly less expensive and do not reduce compliance with the immigration system.

NatCen have recently evaluated Action Access, the first government-funded alternative to detention pilot in the UK, which was run by Action Foundation. Our research, available here, found that supporting asylum seekers in the community, rather than detaining them, enables such individuals to make informed decisions about their immigration status and their future, in a more humane environment.   

The Action Access pilot offered supported accommodation to women who would otherwise have been detained; legal counselling to support with their immigration case; financial subsistence; and wider support with health, wellbeing and social inclusion.

We found that significant cost savings could be realised when compared with the detention model. The Action Access pilot was affected by COVID-19, with participants staying longer than originally envisaged at the design stage. Running the alternative model at full capacity would bring further cost savings, showing there are further opportunities for offering better value for money compared to detention.

The design and delivery of this pilot has modelled a successful way of working which brings together organisations from the voluntary sector, working closely with the Home Office and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to demonstrate the benefits of alternatives to detention.  

Action Access achieved this in an environment which is more conducive than detention to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of participants. Action Foundation’s history of being embedded in the local community, its long-standing work supporting migrants with no recourse to public funds, and its relationship with other local organisations were all key factors in making this pilot a success.

Response from the immigration sector

The findings of the evaluation were launched at an event on 27th January. Attendees at the event, who represented a range of organisations across the immigration sector, welcomed the findings and encouraged the sharing of the report’s recommendations with policy makers across the political spectrum. Discussants at the event were particularly appreciative of the way the Action Access pilot afforded dignity and respect to participants who would otherwise have been in held in detention.

The Home Office have accepted all the recommendations of the evaluation. Attendees expressed an interest in next steps, how the recommendations of the report can be incorporated into ‘business as usual’, and whether or not there are plans to move away from pilots into establishing a more permanent alternatives to detention model. Concern was expressed that there may be more people liable to detention through measures put forward in the Nationality and Borders Bill. Attendees also questioned the extent to which the wider political environment on immigration encourages implementation of an alternatives to detention model, noting that a shift in the political climate would be required for these pilots to be mainstream and adopted at scale.

However, the response to the evaluation findings indicates a hope that Action Access might be used as evidence that there are positive alternatives to the detention approach, alternatives which can offer a more humane and cost-effective way to support people seeking case resolution, without reducing compliance with the requirements of the immigration system.

This evaluation was the first of two by NatCen in the Community Engagement Pilot series, launched by the Home Office working closely with UNHCR.

The second pilot, run by the King’s Arms Project, is ongoing and findings related to that evaluation are due in September 2022.

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