Intended for healthcare professionals


Indefinite detention: the implications of the Illegal Migration Bill for pregnant women

BMJ 2023; 381 doi: (Published 18 May 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;381:p1138
  1. Kirsty Kitchen, head of policy and communications1,
  2. Gemma Lousley, policy and research manager2
  1. 1Birth Companions, London, UK
  2. 2Women for Refugee Women, London, UK

The Illegal Migration Bill plans to remove the 72 hour limit on the detention of pregnant women, to the detriment of their health, safety, and wellbeing, write Kirsty Kitchen and Gemma Lousley

For many years it was legal to hold pregnant women indefinitely in immigration detention centres in the United Kingdom—sometimes for weeks or even months on end. This continued until 2016, when the government introduced a 72 hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women.1 This was a direct response to evidence of the huge risks and impacts of detaining these women, and campaigning by our organisations and many others. A major review of immigration detention by the former prisons and probation ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, commissioned by the government, stated: “detention has an incontrovertibly deleterious effect on the health of pregnant women and their unborn children . . . I take this to be a statement of the obvious.”2

The government is now planning to remove this vital protection. Under the Illegal Migration Bill,3 those arriving in the UK by means deemed “irregular,” such as on small boats or by lorries, will not be able to claim asylum. Instead, they will be detained indefinitely and threatened with deportation to their country of origin, or a so called “safe third country” such as Rwanda.

A substantial number of those impacted by this change will be women. Home Office statistics show that in 2022 women accounted for more than 5000 of the 45 000 people who arrived in the UK by small boats.4 Women are forced to undertake these dangerous journeys for many reasons. Most women seeking asylum in this country are survivors of rape and other forms of gender based violence, including domestic violence, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.5 In fleeing this violence and persecution, they are forced to take irregular routes to reach safety. This is in part because there are so few safe routes.

Some of these women will be pregnant when they arrive in the United Kingdom. Under the new bill, they would be locked up indefinitely while the government attempts to remove them from the country. They will not be protected by the current 72 hour time limit, nor will they be allowed to apply for immigration bail in the first 28 days of their detention, and they will not be permitted to have the lawfulness of their detention examined through judicial review.

Before the introduction of the 72 hour time limit, Women for Refugee Women and Medical Justice spoke to many pregnant women who had been indefinitely detained. They described the damage and harm that being locked up with no end in sight had inflicted on them. Research conducted in Yarl’s Wood, which until 2020 was the main detention centre for women, found evidence of problems with access to midwifery care and missed antenatal appointments and ultrasound scans, meaning important clinical needs may be overlooked.6 Given the complex health needs and past experiences of many women seeking asylum, and the generally poor provision of wider healthcare in detention, this was deeply concerning. The imposition of a time limit on holding pregnant women mitigated many of these concerns,7 so the prospect of that protection being removed is truly shocking.

There can be no doubt that the “Illegal Migration Bill” will compromise the health, safety, and wellbeing of women and their babies.

On 26 April 2023 the bill was passed through the Commons, with a vote of 289 votes to 230. It will now be examined in the House of Lords, where we and many others hope it will be amended, if not entirely overturned, to ensure the 72 hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women is preserved. By upholding the time limit, we can ensure women who have been forced to flee their homes are afforded a small, but vital protection.


  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

  • The authors of this article, and their associated organisations, are part of a joint campaign with the British Medical Association, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Medical Justice, and Maternity Action, opposing the proposed new powers for indefinite detention of pregnant women. Further details can be found at