Preventing arbitrary detention

Research shows that stateless people face long periods of immigration detention. Locked in limbo, they are often deprived of their liberty simply because they have nowhere to go. Across Europe a failure by states to put in place effective systems to identify stateless people and grant them protection leaves thousands exposed to repeated and prolonged detention.

It's time to end detention of stateless people

The increasing use of immigration detention and the criminalisation of stateless people is a disturbing trend across Europe. We train lawyers to use our tools to protect stateless people and campaign to strengthen protection mechanisms at country and regional level.

Will you support our work to end detention?


A consensus is building that the current use of immigration detention is unsustainable, harmful, and, in many cases, unlawful.

Our research from different European countries shines a light on systems and practices that trap stateless people in situations of irregularity. Many can find themselves subjected to lengthy periods of detention despite there being no reasonable prospect of  being able to return to another country. This cycle of refused protection, threat of removal, detention, and release without documentation can feel endless and leave people in legal limbo for years.

We are calling on European states to put in place procedures to identify stateless people and grant them protection so that they don’t end up locked up in limbo. Our Agenda for Change sets out how this can be done detailing what needs to change in four key areas.

FAR delivering training on detention
Our Bulgarian member Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) delivering a training for lawyers and practitioners on how to protect stateless people from arbitrary detention.  

What needs to be done?

  • Prevention not enforcement: the enforcement approach¬†prevalent in Europe today relies heavily on detention despite increasing evidence that detention is costly, harmful, and ineffective, and that community-based alternatives lead to better outcomes. States must recognise that people are more likely to cooperate with procedures if they can live in their communities and enjoy a dignified standard of life.
  • Better identification of statelessness and routes to protection: statelessness is not routinely considered in the decisions made by state authorities about removal and detention. This means people are at risk of arbitrary detention and ending up in limbo. Mechanisms must be put in place to identify statelessness and to refer people to dedicated statelessness determination procedures so their nationality status can be determined, and they can access protection (legal residence and rights).
  • Individual assessments that take account of statelessness: routine detention or a one-size-fits-all approach is arbitrary. States have an obligation to identify and¬†act on statelessness and other vulnerabilities, and to protect individual rights. To¬†prevent discrimination and protect those in vulnerable circumstances, states must tailor their decision making to individual circumstances and put in place mechanisms to identify and address vulnerability.
  • Better data: without accurate data about statelessness, states are failing to monitor and implement their legal obligations. Stateless people are being silenced as their plight is often invisible to the authorities and wider society. To take effective action, states need more accurate, disaggregated data on statelessness, independent oversight of places of detention and state regimes, and access to people in detention not only for international agencies and civil society, but for legal representatives, friends, family and community members.


Use our online tool to compare and assess what protections European countries have in place to prevent the arbitrary detention of stateless people.

Find out more

They said, prove that you're stateless with documents. Once I showed them documents they said, a stateless persons wouldn't have these.

Mohammed, a stateless Bidoon detained in the Netherlands

Our work on the issue

#LOCKEDINLIMBO - Our campaign to stop arbitrary detention of stateless people

Statelessness increases  the risk of arbitrary arrest and detention. Left in limbo, stateless people are often deprived of their liberty simply because they don't have access to identity documents or a country to call home.

In 2017, with support from Oak Foundation, ENS launched a campaign called #LockedInLimbo at a major regional conference in Budapest. The event and the campaign provided a platform for concerted Europe-wide advocacy aimed at protecting stateless people from arbitrary detention. The conference was attended by over 120 civil society representatives, policy makers, and international agencies from across Europe.

Following the campaign launch, a statement signed by over 100 civil society organisations, leading lawyers and academics from over 30 European countries was sent to governments highlighting that the current use of immigration detention is unsustainable, harmful, and, in many cases, unlawful.

ENS continues to work with civil society partners to highlight the damaging effect detention has on stateless people.

Launch of #LockedinLimbo campaign at a major conference in Budapest
In 2017, ENS launched the #LockedinLimbo campaign at a major regional conference in Budapest

Developing tools to support stateless people to access their rights and prevent arbitrary detention

To better understand the impact arbitrary detention has on stateless people in Europe, ENS published a series of six country reports in collaboration with national members. The reports highlight legal and policy gaps and put forward clear recommendations to policy makers on how to reform the system. 

In addition, ENS developed a¬†toolkit¬†for practitioners from across Europe who work with stateless people ‚Äď including lawyers, NGOs, community organisations, policy makers and officials or judges responsible for reviewing immigration detention. The toolkit serves as a resource for practitioners and stateless people, to challenge their detention, and realise their rights.

ENS Detention toolkit - report cover

Key resources

Read our briefings, reports and other publications on detention. 

Full list of publications