The immigration detention of vulnerable individuals is frequently raised as one of the key concerns by our member organisations who support these individuals on a daily basis.

Two recent reports by IDC members in Europe investigate the effectiveness of mechanisms designed to prevent vulnerable individuals from entering and remaining in immigration detention.


Centre for Legal Aid, Voice in Bulgaria’s report, Vulnerability and Protection, looks at how vulnerable asylum seekers are identified and the Bulgarian asylum system applies the PROTECT Questionnaire (Process of Recognition and Orientation of Torture Victims in European Countries to Facilitate Care and Treatment) which was developed by a group of civil society organisations specialising in rehabilitation of torture survivors. According to the report, the State Agency for the Refugees in Bulgaria endorsed the Questionnaire as a vulnerability identification tool in 2012.

The recast EU Reception Conditions Directive (Directive 2013/33/EU) requires that Member States (except Denmark, Ireland and the UK) take into account vulnerability of asylum applicants and ensure that they receive the necessary support to address their needs. The Directive does not specify how such vulnerability should be assessed.

The research team carried out 478 interviews with asylum seekers in Bulgaria between September 2013 and December 2014.

While the current Bulgarian law does not permit detention of asylum seekers, in reality many end up in detention. In Bulgaria, asylum seekers are considered to be in the territory illegally until their asylum claims are formally registered with the authorities. Because of the delay in registration, many are detained in Busmantsi and Lyubimets detention centres while they wait for their claims to be registered.

Key findings of the report include:

  • 39.5% of those interviewed in the research period stated that they belong to one or more of the vulnerable groups as defined by the EU Reception Directive (Directive 2013/33/EU). The figure was as high as 88% for those interviewed between September 2013 to January 2014, who were mainly from African counties, Iran and Afghanistan. (In the later period the research interviewed a large proportion of Syrian nationals, reflecting the changing nature of migration flows into Bulgaria.)
  • However, only 7.1% said they were specifically interviewed by the authorities to identify their vulnerability. 56.7% said that they were asked during their asylum interviews about whether they had survived trauma or violence. The report author considers this to be inadequate in identifying vulnerability because 1) asylum interviews only take place some time after individuals enter into the refugee determination procedure, while vulnerability identification should take place as soon as possible and 2) since the purpose of asylum interviews is to determine their asylum claims, it does not provide an appropriate space to identify individuals’ vulnerabilities.
  • Interviewees said they had serious illnesses, mental health disorders, were victims of physical violence, victims of torture, or victims of psychological violence.
  • 67 of those interviewed were minors, of whom 50 were unaccompanied minors. They received same treatment as adults whilst in detention.
  • 41.8% of those interviewed between September 2013 and September 2014 were detained; this declined to 14 – 15% between September 2014 and mid-November 2014. 63% of those interviewed between September 2013 and January 2014 were detained, on average for 106 days, with several cases exceeding 7 months. The report suggests that this fluctuation could be explained by the increased level of resources available to the authorities to register asylum claims and the changing profile of the asylum population (as Syrian cases are considered prima facie acceptable).

One of the recommendations made by the report is that the vulnerability identification process take place in detention, since in reality many asylum seekers start their asylum procedure in detention. This would require training for the employees at the detention centres. The report also recommends that the Bulgarian government transpose the recast Reception Conditions Directive (2013/33/EU) and the recast Asylum Procedures Directive (2013/32/EU) in full to ensure effective identification of vulnerable asylum seekers.

A summary of the report in English is available here. The full report in Bulgarian is available here.

The United Kingdom

The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees and Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group published a report, Rethinking ‘Vulnerability’: Crisis of Harm, as part of their work with the Detention Forum.

The report was prepared against a mounting crisis of harm in detention. Over the last three years, the UK High Court has found on no less than six occasions that the detaining authority (the Home Office) had breached its responsibilities under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to freedom from torture, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment) for those who are in immigration detention. All cases involved individuals with severe mental health disorders.

The report is based on analysis of 31 individual case studies and a survey of various vulnerability identification mechanisms that are deployed in other contexts.

The average length of detention of the 31 case studies was 13 months, and the longest period of detention was 65 months: there is no time limit on immigration detention in the UK and extreme long-term detention is not uncommon. At the end of the research period, two had been removed from the UK, eight remained in detention and 21 were released into the community.

The key findings of the report include:

  • 77% (24 people) experienced a mental health issue, with eight developing suicidal ideation at some point. Five had been diagnosed with severe mental health illnesses prior to detention.
  • 30% (nine people) had a history of torture.
  • Four people had had a serious disability – three with a physical disability and one a learning disability.
  • The Home Office (the detaining authority) has failed to follow its own guidance and continues to detain individuals they have recognised as members of ‘vulnerable groups’.
  • Detention centres are inadequate to meet the basic care needs of these individuals.
  • Reliance on the categories of vulnerability within the current UK policy guidance overlooks the dynamic nature of vulnerability, shaped by individual characteristics and changing over time. This means that detainees who do not fit within the pre-existing categories remain invisible and at risk. Also this creates an impression that those who do not fit neatly into the existing categories are not and will not be vulnerable in detention.
  • The UK’s narrow, static and category-based approach to vulnerability contrasts starkly with a holistic approach recommended and used by researchers and other specialists. A more holistic approach to vulnerability acknowledges a range of personal, social and environmental factors which may affect or indeed cause a person’s vulnerability. Such an approach also highlights the need to monitor how individuals’ vulnerability may change over time.

The report authors conclude:

We do not think this can be resolved by an expansion of the number of categories used to identify and describe vulnerability. The Home Office should develop a vulnerability assessment tool and practice which enable a more thorough approach to screening of individuals before detention but is also adaptable to changes over time in detention. This should be based on good practice developed by researchers and other practitioners. The primary purpose should be to prevent detention of vulnerable people and the occurrence of vulnerability in detention. (…) Such a vulnerability tool should be engaged at regular intervals to enable changes over time to be reviewed. People identified as becoming increasingly vulnerable over time should be released immediately. ‘

The report also recommends that the UK government develops community-based alternatives to detention that utilise a case-management model so that vulnerable and potentially vulnerable people can go through the immigration system without experiencing detention.

Case study – Jacques*

Jacques was detained for the purposes of removal to Denmark where he had previously claimed asylum. He had a traumatic history as a child soldier and was severely impacted by PTSD. Despite being visibly unwell, and despite anecdotal evidence of staff feeling unable to manage the situation, he was detained for over two months before being removed to Denmark.

During detention, Jacques suffered periodic blackouts and dizziness, which at least once led to injury. He was unable to communicate with staff or other detainees and exhibited erratic behaviour, at times running naked out of his room or speaking in what was understood by staff as gibberish. In response, Jacques was regularly placed in isolation, which appeared to exacerbate his confusion and paranoia.

The local visitors’ group made efforts to raise concerns with the detention centre staff, but got no response from the healthcare centre. Attempts to support Jacques were made by a fellow detainee who spoke the same language as well as a solicitor who was willing to represent him for a temporary admission application and for unlawful detention. Jacques’ paranoia made him unwilling to enter the room with the solicitor, and so it was impossible to represent him. Communication was so difficult that his fellow detainee was unable to do much to support him either.

*The name was changed to protect the individual’s identity.

You can read more about the report here.