Alternatives to detention

What are alternatives to detention?

Alternatives to detention (ATD) are any legislation, policy or practice, formal or informal, that ensures people are not detained for reasons relating to their migration status.

Under international law, immigration detention must only ever be used as a last resort.  As a result, states must first seek to implement ATD which allow individuals at risk of immigration detention to live in non-custodial, community-based settings while their immigration status is being resolved.

Furthermore, the many benefits of ATD have been recognized by academics, UN bodies, practitioners and states around the world, including:

Alternatives are effective. ATD have been shown to be incredibly effective at achieving migration management objectives without the need for potential human rights violations.  For example, community based ATD programs have been shown to maintain high compliance rates with a range of migrant populations, in particular when migrants are able to meet their basic needs, and are able to access the legal and social support necessary to make informed decisions about their migration journey. In contrast, prolonged or unnecessary detention has been found in some contexts to be counterproductive to government objectives of achieving compliance with immigration outcomes, including returns.


Alternatives are more cost-effective than custodial detention.  Alternatives to detention are also significantly more cost-effective than custodial detention. Significant cost benefits of on average 80% are associated with ATD. If cases can be managed in community settings without a reduction in immigration application processing times, cost savings will be inevitable. Avoiding unnecessary cases of detention, or reducing the length of time someone is detained, is a key strategy in reducing the costs associated with detention.


Alternatives respect human rights.  Finally, alternatives to detention better respect the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Appropriate non-custodial, community-based ATD necessarily reduce the reliance on detention, thus preventing unlawful or arbitrary detention practices. Effective management in the community is also more likely to respect other fundamental civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights, thereby contributing to refugee, asylum seeker and migrant well-being and self- sufficiency. The respect for fundamental human rights, therefore, allows individuals to contribute fully to society if residency is secured or to better face difficult futures, such as the possibility of return.


There are alternatives


With human migration reaching unprecedented levels, many States are struggling to respond to new refugee, asylum-seeker and migrant arrivals.

Current contexts highlight the need for alternative approaches that respect fundamental right to liberty, security, and human dignity, while still ensuring that States can responsibly govern their borders.

Over the past five years, the IDC has undertaken a program of research to identify and describe a number of positive alternatives to immigration detention (‘alternatives’) that respect fundamental rights, are less expensive and are equally or more effective than traditional border controls. The IDC has identified over 250 examples of alternatives from 60 countries.

This research, entitled There are alternatives, provides readers with the guidance needed to successfully avoid unnecessary detention and to ensure community options are as effective as possible.

The research was launched during the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva  co-hosted by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights and the the Permanent Mission of Sweden.



The IDC has an Alternatives to Detention Database which pulls together examples of alternatives being used worldwide. It allows users to search by criteria in order to find examples that work in a variety of contexts.

The IDC’s most recent publication There Are Alternatives: Revised Edition  draws upon and extends on a wealth of research and subsequent publications produced by the IDC and its members.