I thought I had recovered from my five years spent researching the treatment of asylum seekers. After a chat with my neighbour Mohammad, I’m not so sure.
Last year Mohammad spent three months in immigration removal centres (IRCs) in the UK. He has been waiting for the Home Office to decide his case for 11 years and in August last year the UK Border Agency arrested him at home and took him to Pennine House IRC, Manchester airport, then to Morton Hall, Swinderby, in Lincolnshire, and finally to Tinsley House at Gatwick Airport. He was released in November by order of a tribunal judge, the Home Office admitting that they should not have detained him in the first place. Before he left the Gatwick centre one of the staff told him, “We’ll miss you – you’ve been very helpful to us.”
“What did you do for them?” I asked him.
“Oh, not much”, he said, “just interpreting and things like that. As well as English I speak three languages.”
That did sound useful. Then he began to describe the situations where his help had been required, and they turned out too often to be shocking and distressing affairs, which are all too frequently part of the removal-centre experience. They involved self-harm and suicide attempts by detainees.
I was immediately reminded of how I discovered evidence of similar incidents during my research. I found that such horrors take place across what the Home Office calls “the detention estate”, and the response of those who run the system have often made bad situations worse. For example, in the case of John Oguchukwu, a 27-year-old Nigerian priest.
He had twice attempted suicide in Harmondsworth IRC before he was moved to Dungavel in Scotland. After eight months there, and following the suicide of another detainee, he became suicidal again. He was not put on suicide watch but transferred to Greenock Prison, amid conflicting arguments about the reason for the transfer: was it because he was suicidal (the Home Office denies this), because he had been violent (he denies this) or because he had informed refugee support groups of the suicide of the other detainee? What is clear is that, despite his record of suicide attempts, he was not given the care and attention mandatory under detention centre rules and he was not put on suicide watch, either in Dungavel or in Greenock.
Detention as exception
But the real question is whether detention should be used at all, particularly in the case of asylum seekers, which is what Mohammad is. Many asylum seekers fleeing persecution have spent periods of imprisonment in their own countries and have fled in order to avoid further detention or imprisonment. So in 2007, when considering the treatment of asylum seekers, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights took the view that detention should be the exception rather than the rule. It pointed out that Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) “guarantees the right to liberty and sets out the exceptions when detention can be lawful” and that “[t]he exceptions to liberty must be narrowly interpreted”. The committee cited the Home Office’s Operational Enforcement Manual to much the same effect:
“… there is a presumption in favour of temporary admission or temporary release. Detention should be used only as a matter of last resort … Once detention has been authorised, it must be kept under close review to ensure that it continues to be justified.”
Another Home Office manual, Enforcement Instructions and Guidance, is in tune with this approach: “detention must be used sparingly and for the shortest period necessary”.
Yet the use of detention has increased: in mid 1997 there were about 200 places in UK detention centres; ten years later there were 2,545 places. Two policy developments largely account for this rise: fast-track procedures and the stated aim of increasing the removal rates of refused asylum seekers. The Enforcement Instructions and Guidance manual recalls that in 1998 the government’s White Paper had made clear that “wherever possible, we would use alternatives to detention”. But after March 2000 asylum seekers could “be detained at Oakington Removal Centre [when] it appears that their claim is straightforward and capable of being decided quickly”. When the detained-fast-track process opened at Harmondsworth Removal Centre in 2003, the so-called “Oakington criteria” were “widened so as to be capable of applying to a fast track process at any removal centre”. This was the first of two IRCs to adopt the “super fast track” process in which, the Joint Committee noted, “the asylum applicant is interviewed on day two, served with a decision on day three, has two days to lodge any appeals, and the appeal hearing is on day nine”.
In 2004 another measure was introduced to increase removals: section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act made provision for the withdrawal of support from refused asylum-seeking families with children if they did not agree to return to their countries of origin, either by arranging their own departure or signing up to the voluntary returns programme run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). If after support was withdrawn they still did not “volunteer”, their children could be taken into care.
Health is a recurring issue in detention, particularly mental health. In 2005, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) reported on 13 detainees referred to them across nine UK detention facilities. MSF had concerns about the mental health of all the adult detainees examined. There were “features of depressive illness” in 11 of the 13 and “features of post-traumatic stress” in nine. There were examples of self-harm and suicide attempts, one of the latter almost successful. There was “considerable illness … associated with stress and anxiety including headaches and gastro-intestinal problems”. “Seven reported to the MSF doctor that they had experienced ill-treatment prior to coming to the UK: such traumatic experiences are among those likely to be reactivated by the trauma of detention.” The Royal Society of Psychiatrists gave evidence to the Joint Committee about Campsfield House IRC:
“There were no regular visits to the centre by qualified mental health staff, no equivalent to community mental healthcare, no daycare and no outpatient care. The Society expressed concern about the lack of specialised provision for torture victims and the absence of protocols for the identification, assessment and treatment of substance misusers.”
According to the Detention Centre Rules, IRC medical practitioners are required to “pay special attention to any detained person whose mental condition appears to require it, and make any special arrangements (including counselling arrangements) which appear necessary for his supervision or care.” Yet MSF reported:
“Most facilities had no such services available, and even in the very serious cases we documented there had been no attempt to refer to outside specialist help nor any indication that medical staff had registered their concern over the impact of continuing detention on the detainee’s mental state.”
Detention can damage your health
MSF noted that there was “deterioration of the health status, in particular mental health, of detainees during detention”. The experience of an asylum seeker in Colnbrook IRC, reported by the BBC, illustrates the point. In a telephone interview from a corridor at the centre, Forard claimed: “There are people here who are mad; they were normal people when they came in but now it’s like their brains have been disturbed. They walk in circles all day …” A loud scream in the corridor interrupted the interview, followed a few moments later by the heavy slamming of a door. “This is the frustration that I have been talking about,” said Forard. “Sometimes [this man] talks, sometimes he will go and just scream like this, sometimes he will go and slash his hands – he has scars all over his hands.”
Forard had fled from torture in Zimbabwe. At the time of his BBC interview he had been detained at Colnbrook IRC for four months awaiting deportation. Forard described Colnbrook:
“The structure of this building is just like a jail. Inside the rooms there are toilets with no doors. The ceiling is dark blue, close to black and they lock us up at 10 pm and they open in the morning at 7.30, sometimes 7.45. There is no way you can get out of the room. It feels that there is no air coming in, there is artificial ventilation but it feels like it is blocked most of the time. It gets very hot sometimes and I have to fan myself with a newspaper at night and there is no way you can open windows.”
The view from his room was of razor wire and solid fences. There was
“nothing much to see, you look from the room to the fence, the way I had seen the inside of a jail on television, this is what I see here. In Dungavel the toilets are outside the rooms and you can get out of the room and go to television rooms and you come out and you can play games. Your rooms are not locked at night. Here, when they lock, you are locked in and there is nothing else you can do.”
The health of children, too, deteriorates in detention. The two-year-old girl examined by MSF
“showed regressive behaviour and some apparent weight loss on assessment. The [girl of 12 and the boy of 10] had experienced deterioration of their health since being detained … Prior to detention the parents of these children reported stability in their home and school situations.”
In 2005, Save the Children found that it was “virtually impossible to assess the extent to which children are detained in the UK or the average lengths of time spent in detention”. When Lord Roberts asked Baroness Scotland in the House of Lords, “How many children were detained in immigration removal centres in each month of 2006?” she replied that it was too expensive to provide the figures: “The exact information requested is not available; it would be available only by examination of individual case files, at disproportionate cost.” Save the Children noted that the government’s published statistics
“do not include information on the total number of children detained over a period of time, the age of these children, at what stage of the family’s case they were detained, nor the outcome of the detention, including whether or not these children are subsequently removed from the UK. Neither do they show the length of time for which the children are detained.”
Dangerous detention continues
In the case of children, although the government pledged in 2010 to end detention, in October 2012 Judith Dennis, policy officer at the Refugee Council, said: “The numbers of children in detention are increasing. The government acknowledged then how harmful this practice is for children, so why are they still continuing to do it?” In the case of adults, Mohammad’s testimony shows the continued use of detention with all its dangers intact.
Having been arrested at 7.30am at his home Mohammad was taken to a local police station and, around midnight, was transported to Pennine House, near Manchester airport. There were three detainees per room, and three bathrooms/toilets for 40 people. After three or four days he was moved to Morton Hall in Lincolnshire, and that was bad news.
Morton Hall holds between 300-400 people. The rooms are small (about 6ft by 12ft) with a small bed and a TV. If you choose the non-smoking area, your toilet and shower are in the room. You are locked in your room from 8pm till 8am, with no opportunity to associate with others and with only a small window which opens only slightly. After 8am you are free to go into the garden or the gym, or to the “college” area if you are doing, say, an English course. But you are locked in again around midday while the other block goes to lunch in the canteen. Then they are locked in while you go to lunch. This happens again at around 6pm and 7pm for the evening meal. Then at 8pm you are locked in once more for the night. Mohammad chose the non-smoking area at first because he doesn’t smoke. But he changed to the smoking area because he felt restricted and isolated: “The place was like a graveyard”, he said.
In the smoking section your room is not locked, and people can socialise and smoke in the corridor. Mohammad began to suffer from the smoke, as well as from noise caused by other people (shouting, loud TV, etc.), but stayed there because there was at least some form of social life in that section, a chance to engage with other people. There were three showers/toilets at the end of the corridor for the 50 detainees in that section.
Stress and mental health
Everyone there is under stress. Everyone has a whole range of problems: fear of being deported and what will happen when they arrive back in the country they fled from, worries about family, especially about children. The place itself is stressful because of the restrictions, the isolation – and a sense that you are actually in prison for committing a crime. As in a prison, if you go from one part of the establishment to another you are accompanied by a warder who searches you, unlocks and locks doors as you move along corridors and into and out of rooms. “Maybe people should be there if they have broken the law”, said Mohammad, “but I haven’t.”
There are jobs available that might take your mind off your troubles and relieve the stress. You might do cleaning, catering, cooking, dishwashing, or work in the library, to a maximum of 16 hours a week. But there is a downside to this. Apart from two managers, the kitchen is staffed entirely by detainees, who are paid £1.50 an hour. So, busy as you may be, you are also conscious that you are the cheapest of cheap labour, and held in the lowest of low esteem.
There were people who clearly had mental health problems at Morton Hall. Like Forard in Colnbrook, Mohammad believes that there were people who had no mental health problems when they arrived but developed them while they were there, precisely because of the conditions and stresses under which they had to live. He also believes that the condition of people who had such problems before going to the centre deteriorated while they were there, for the same reasons.
After a month Mohammad was moved to Tinsley House near Gatwick airport. He spent one night at Brook House, also at Gatwick. He was relieved it was only one night: “Most of the people there were crazy,” he says. “They should have been in hospital, not in a detention centre.” He shared a room with “a man who was angry all the time, and I could hardly speak with him.” For food, detainees “went to the kitchen to bring food back to the room on plastic plates”. The shower/toilet was in the room, and the room was locked at night. Clearly, one night was more than enough.
Compared to Brook House, Tinsley House was better news. The place was small and closed in, but with a small garden at the centre of the complex. “It was clean”, said Mohammad, “the staff was friendly, and the food was better. You couldn’t see outside, but the doors [to the garden] were open from 6am till 10pm.” The accommodation was spread over two floors. “There were about 80 people upstairs, 20 downstairs, with five or six shared toilets/bathrooms on each floor.”
Suicide attempts and hunger strikes
The stress took its toll here, as in Morton Hall. In Morton Hall two people had tried to commit suicide by throwing themselves from a roof. In Tinsley House an Afghan tried to do it by drinking shampoo. Mohammad was asked to translate for him and the man was put on a 24-hour watch by a security guard. A Pakistani man stabbed himself in the throat with a plastic knife he had smuggled out of the kitchen. A Turkish man went on hunger strike.
So did Mohammad. He was told he would be moved back to Brook House. Mohammad said he would go on hunger strike rather than go back there. He refused to eat for 24 hours, and in the end the order to move him was cancelled.
Self-harm and suicide attempts continue right to the end of the process in removal centres. Some detainees self-harm or attempt suicide when being deported. In 2005, security guards showed a BBC undercover reporter at Heathrow airport an album of photographs of the inside of a van covered in a detainee’s blood. These kinds of things happen because the government’s default position on asylum seekers is to treat them not as people who need protection but as targets of immigration control. This approach sees them as guilty of lying until proved innocent. It undermines the government’s commitment to the Refugee Convention as asylum policy is placed in the context of immigration controls rather than of protection. A discourse therefore develops, laws are made and bad practices arise, which undermine the right to asylum and deny protection to many who need it. As long as this is the case, immigration removal centres will remain in existence – places of cruelty where people like Mohammad are punished for seeking safety and justice.
 Detention Centre Rules 2001, Rule 35 (3).
 Not his real name.
 Lords Hansard, 8 January 2007, col. WA22.
 Detention Under Cover, BBC-1, 2/3/2005, BBC, London.