Fast-tracked injustice

Detain (verb) /dɪˈteɪn/~ To keep (someone) in official custody, typically for questioning about a crime or in politically sensitive situations

Immigrant detention facilities in the UK are some of the largest in Europe. There are currently 10 “immigration removal centres” and 17 “short holding centres” housing between two and three thousand immigrants at any one time. In the vast majority of cases these immigrants, most often asylum-seekers, are detained for administrative purposes. They are locked away while the UK Border Agency verifies their identities, investigates their claims and makes a decision on whether or not to grant leave to remain. The centres are run by private security firms and HM Prison Service and conditions are similar to those of a high security prison with immigrants given have very limited movement even within the centres.

Of those immigrants detained in 2011, 2,118 individuals were selected for the Detained Fast Track (DFT). The Fast Track, which was introduced in 2003 to speed up the decision-making process, is used in cases where UKBA believes that a decision to grant or refuse asylum can be made quickly. By detaining people with “straightforward” cases for short periods of time UKBA hoped to make removal faster and administratively easier for government. However, as often seems to be the case with Border Agency systems, the DFT is ridden with problems.

Fast track failings

According to UKBA procedure, an initial decision on the Detained Fast Track can be given within two days and the whole process can be completed within 22 days. However, UKBA has consistently failed to keep periods of detention to the stated timescales and asylum-seekers on the DFT are sometimes detained for months on end through no fault of their own. Detention Action explains:

Asylum-seekers are detained for an average of two weeks before the process even starts, due to administrative delays by the UKBA.  20% wait for over a month in detention. Most have no access to legal advice for this period. They then face an asylum process at breakneck speed, in most cases meeting their duty solicitor on the morning of their asylum interview, often with no advance notice. They are given only two days to gather evidence for and submit an appeal, for which 60% are unrepresented.

The Detained Fast Track is supposed to ensure smoother decision-making and removal. In reality, asylum-seekers are regularly being kept in detention for unnecessarily long periods of time waiting for UKBA. Research shows that 86% of applicants wait over a week before even being assigned a legal representative and for 85% the first meeting with their representative does not occur until the day of their interview. As a result applicants are given little time to prepare, often relying on a short meeting straight before their interview with a legal representative they neither know nor trust. The system moves extremely quickly when applicants need time to prepare their cases and gather evidence and yet appears to grind to a halt whenever UKBA is required to act.

Whether an applicant is suitable for fast-tracking is decided during a screening interview – often only a matter of minutes – in which the details of the asylum claim are not even discussed. Human Rights Watch and the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association have both criticised the screening process, the latter considering it a “mystery” that “the straightforwardness of claims can be adequately assessed when the screening interview elicits no or virtually no information about the substance of the claim”. The screening’s inadequacies mean that many complex cases and vulnerable people are wrongly transferred to the DFT. In 2009, 16% of DFT cases had to be removed from the Fast Track as they were later found to be too complex. It is likely that many more slip through the net each year.

Another problem of serious concern to clinicians is the effect of accelerated procedures on asylum-seekers’ mental and psychological health. Individuals suffering from traumatic experiences frequently suffer high levels of psychological distress, which may be worsened by the confusion and disorientation of sudden imprisonment with little explanation. To be considered credible, applicants are expected to present coherent, consistent and prompt accounts of their asylum claim. However, psychological distress is shown to impair an individual’s ability to recall details and disclose information on request. On the Fast Track, if psychological distress is not recognised immediately – and research suggests that judgements on clients’ mental health are often based on lay understandings that do not register all possible presentations of distress – there is little opportunity for it to be recognised as a barrier to coherent and prompt disclosure further down the line. Again, this works to the detriment of the applicant since any inconsistency or non-disclosure will count against them.

Dissenting voices

In 2008 the European Court of Human Rights held that Fast Track detention was lawful for a short period of time in the specific circumstances of Dr Saadi who was detained in 2000. Judges ruled that Saadi’s detention could “reasonably be considered to be aimed at preventing unlawful entry” and had not removed his article 5.1 Right to Liberty and Security[1]. Saadi was detained for seven days in total and even this length of time, which in comparison to other cases is a swift turn-around, was thought to be on the borderline of acceptability. In fact, six judges dissented from the decision explaining, “mere administrative expediency or convenience will not suffice” as a reason for detention. The dissenting judges expressed concern over the precedent such a decision would set and asked where the line of acceptability falls if seven days is not deemed excessive. They also expressed wider concern over immigrants’ rights, stating:

Ultimately, are we now also to accept that Article 5 of the Convention, which has played a major role in ensuring controls of arbitrary detention, should afford a lower level of protection as regards asylum and immigration which, in social and human terms, are the most crucial issues facing us in the years to come? Is it a crime to be a foreigner? We do not think so.

The court decided that non-arbitrary detention could be accepted in his circumstances, however, today most applicants on the Fast Track are detained for longer than seven days and the conditions are generally worse are generally worse than those experienced by Dr Saadi. Many DFT applicants are kept in detention for weeks, even months, after a decision in made. In 2009-2010 the average Fast Track applicant in Harmondsworth IRC was detained for 58 days between decision and release, at a cost of around £130 per person per day!

In February 2012, UNHCR’s Ronald Schilling noted his concerns over UKBA’s use of the Detained Fast Track saying,

Asylum-seekers who come to the UK have often experienced extremely distressing circumstances, which have caused them to flee. To be led off to a detention centre – sometimes in handcuffs – as soon as they arrive, is a far from humane way of being treated for persons who did nothing else than ask to be protected. There is a presumption by UKBA that most asylum claims can be decided quickly, but in UNHCR’s view, the process of determining whether someone has a well-founded fear of persecution is not only very complex but an extremely important procedure, which should not be taken lightly.

The central purpose of the asylum system to protect has been distorted by the Detained Fast Track, which inhibits and even prevents those seeking protection from making their cases effectively. The Fast Track does not give time for cases to be built, or evidence to be gathered and its accelerated timescales undermine the ability of applicants to engage with the process, particularly since they are typically only informed of their interview a few hours beforehand. Under such circumstances, it seems unsurprising that only 1% of DFT cases are approved and that Removal Centres have been nick-named Refusal Factories”. What appears to have been forgotten is that the asylum process exists for the individual, not the state.

Despite the on-going criticism of UNHCR, Detention Action and several charities and NGOs, as well as the condemnation of legal practitioners and the disapproval of European Human Rights judges, the Detained Fast Track is still used in the UK. People fleeing to the UK continue to be detained in what are effectively high security prisons for simply claiming asylum. Claiming asylum is not a crime, and asylum seekers are not criminals. It is a system which is unfair, inefficient and to the detriment of the most vulnerable. If you found yourself in need of another state’s protection wouldn’t you expect better?

In April 2013 Detention Action announced their decision to take the UK Government to court over the Detained Fast Track. Read more about the case here.

Further Reading

Alger, T. and Phelps, J. (2011) Fast Track to Despair: The unnecessary detention of asylum-seekers; Detention Action; London.

Human Rights Watch (2010) Fast-tracked unfairness: Detention and denial of women asylum seekers in the UK. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.

Silverman, S. and Hajela, R. (2012) BRIEFING: Immigration Detention in the UK; Migration Observatory; Oxford.

Vine J. (2011) Asylum: A thematic inspection of the detained fast track. Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency: London.

[1] It was found, however, that Dr Saadi’s right to proper information regarding his arrest in a language he understands under Article 5.2 of the European Convention of Human Rights had been denied.


  1. […] representing a larger struggle on the part of countries in the “North” to deter, detect, detain, and deport migrants from the global “South.” As Stephen Castles […]


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