Alternatives to detention

We were commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to evaluate Action Access.
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  • Publishing date:
    24 January 2022

We were commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to evaluate Action Access.

About the study

Action Access was the first alternative to detention (ATD) being piloted in the UK under the Home Office’s Community Engagement Pilot (CEP) series.

The Action Access pilot was designed by the Home Office and Action Foundation, a charity based in Newcastle, with input from UNHCR and other stakeholders working in the field of asylum and migration management. It was delivered by Action Foundation and aimed to support female asylum seekers in a community-based, engagement-focused ATD through the provision of one-to-one support from a support worker, shared accommodation, and legal counselling from a qualified legal professional.

 Action Access was the first planned ATD pilot under the CEP series. NatCen is also evaluating a second pilot, being run by the King’s Arms Project.


The pilot model

  • The support offered through Action Access, adapted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, included meeting basic subsistence needs for women who were at risk of destitution, providing legal and pastoral support and providing links to the community.
  • Participating in the pilot meant that women were in a better place emotionally and mentally to work with legal counsellors and support workers to achieve outcomes. Support workers also facilitated links to other support through signposting, referrals and supporting participants to self-refer.
  • The pilot did not reach its full capacity, which was attributed to the impact of the pandemic, lower than anticipated numbers of eligible participants, set-up of recruitment routes and the time necessary to build on cautious levels of trust and engagement with the pilot.
  • Participants spent longer on the pilot than originally planned, with both delivery and cost implications for the pilot. The Home Office and Action Foundation worked together to identify and reduce delays. The importance of timely movement of participants through the pilot in terms of both participant wellbeing and expectations, and cost effectiveness, was highlighted as a key learning point.


  • The cost of the pilot was less expensive per participant per night than holding an individual in detention. Reductions in rent on longer-term leases and running the project at capacity could mean that a future ATD programme could be less than half the cost of holding an individual in detention.

Legal counselling

  • The legal counselling model provided pilot participants with three meetings with a legal representative and was designed to allow the pilot participants to fully explore their immigration options. The pilot’s legal counselling model is an important example of promising practice in terms of providing pilot participants with the opportunity to have their case reviewed by an independent legal representative and to feel that they had been treated fairly.

Holistic outcomes

  • The holistic support offered in parallel with the legal counselling was integral to the delivery of the legal counselling model. Our evaluation found qualitative evidence that participants experienced more stability and better health and wellbeing outcomes whilst being supported in the community than they had received while in detention. Evidence from this pilot suggests that these outcomes were achievable without decreasing compliance with the immigration system.

It is hoped that that Action Access pilot will be used as evidence that ATD can offer an effective way to support people seeking case resolution, without reducing compliance with the requirements of the system.


The evaluation comprised the following elements:

  • Desk research: A review of pilot documentation and relevant literature; analysis of management information (MI) data and costs data provided by the Home Office and Action Foundation.
  • Research with pilot participants: In-depth narrative interviews with 7 women who took part in the pilot, at 2 time points.
  • Research with delivery and strategic stakeholders: Ongoing delivery and follow-up interviews with 4 delivery stakeholders from Action Foundation; final reflection interviews with 4 strategic stakeholders from Action Foundation and the Home Office and 1 legal representative who provided legal services to pilot participants.
  • Research with key informants: Interviews with 6 key informants from civil society working in asylum and immigration; an online workshop with key informants.