72 hours too many: how pregnant women are let down in immigration detention


About the authors: Patrick Page is a senior caseworker at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who, through litigation at the High Court and lobbying, helped force the UK government to place a time limit on the detention of pregnant women. Joanne Vincett is a doctoral candidate at The Open University and a member of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. Joanne was briefly detained whilst on holiday in England eleven years ago and taken to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, the main centre for detaining women in the UK. This experience was so unsettling and traumatising that she could not talk about the incident for years, but it now drives her doctoral research on voluntary befriending support for immigration detainees.


Two years ago a time limit was placed on how long a pregnant woman could be detained under immigration powers in the UK. Coming into force on 12 July 2016, the limit of 72 hours (or one week with ministerial authority) was a mean and inadequate response to the medical experts, senior civil servants and Parliamentarians who had been calling for an absolute ban on the detention of pregnant women. As can be seen from the experiences of Patrick’s clients, who were detained while pregnant, the first 72 hours can be the most traumatic and harmful period of detention.


The first 72 hours in detention


The ‘absolute exclusion’ of pregnant women from detention centres was one of 64 recommendations on detention reform made by the senior civil servant Stephen Shaw in his January 2016 report to the Home Office. Later, on 12 April 2016, the House of Lords voted in favour of an all-out ban, but Theresa May, the Home Secretary at the time, overruled it with a 72-hour limit legislated for in Section 60 of the Immigration Act 2016.




Patrick’s clients at Duncan Lewis, who were detained while pregnant before the time-limit was imposed, shared some of their experiences with the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA), who, in turn, used these anonymous accounts to lobby Parliament in banning the detention of pregnant women. Further accounts of pregnant women in detention can also be found in the comprehensive 2013 reportExpecting Change: The Case for ending the detention of pregnant women’ by the NGO Medical Justice. 

These testimonies make for bleak reading. Many pregnant women are arrested without any notice when, in compliance with UK immigration authorities, they are reporting at a police station or immigration office to demonstrate that they have not absconded. They are often detained with no personal belongings except the clothes on their backs. After the shock of being arrested, and a confusing time in a police station or immigration office, they are then taken to a short-term holding facility, which notoriously lack basic facilities, or are ‘transferred’ directly to Yarl’s Wood.


Some pregnant women, nervous and nauseous, are sick during the long journeys to Yarl’s Wood. By all accounts, these caged vans are hot and stifling and the detainees sit in the back where the windows are sealed. There are not always enough sick-bags which means that pregnant women are forced to be sick in their hands or on themselves. They are not offered comfort-breaks, on the premise that there is no ‘safe’ place to stop. One pregnant woman was given a bag and told to urinate in it in the back of the van.


The situation does not improve once they arrive in detention.  Like other detainees, pregnant women suffer from stress and sleeplessness, lying awake wondering if and when they are going to be taken by the officers, and removed from the UK, hearts racing every time they hear the officers’ footsteps approaching their rooms. Women have complained that the mattresses are thin, the rooms are cold, and the food is of poor quality. In addition, pregnant women must obtain permission from detention staff for any special dietary needs as a result of their condition, which can take several days. 


Inadequate healthcare


One hour in detention, let alone 72 hours, being held against one’s will and separated from one's partner, family and support networks is long enough to cause harm to anyone; it is deplorable for pregnant women. This harm is compounded by the fact that detention staff are unable to meet the needs of such a vulnerable cohort of people. As Stephen Shaw declared when he appeared before the Home Affairs Committee on 9 February 2016:


“It is simply impossible, inconceivable, to deliver care, whether it be maternal care or care for pregnant women or mental healthcare, that is equivalent to the very best in the community. The very nature of detention speaks against that.”


Pointless suffering


Even by reference to the Home Office’s own agenda, this suffering is pointless. As Women for Refugee Women found when looking at figures post-12 July 2016, after the new policy was enforced, fewer than 20% of pregnant women who were detained were removed from the UK.


While the imposition of a time limit for this extremely vulnerable group of people has been welcomed as a situation preferable to the absence of such a limit, we need to revisit the harmful impact of detention on all those affected. The UK’s leading medical association, the BMA, has stated its concerns for the mental and physical health of those detained, calling for immigration detention to be phased out altogether, and a report commissioned by the Bar Council has damned the legal and policy framework of the system as “flawed” and “an expensive effort to create a hostile environment.”


Every year, around 30,000 women, men and children are deprived of their liberty by the UK government simply for the purpose of administrative ease. Immigration detention is inherently harmful and unjust, and the detention of pregnant women is ultimately just one example of the system’s more repugnant features.