Immigration detention is the practice of holding asylum seekers and other migrants in purpose built centres where their freedom of movement is severely limited, security levels are similar to that in prisons and life is completely institutionalised. Decisions to detain are not made by court or judge, as they are in criminal proceedings, but by the Home Office. Throughout the UK there are over 3,000 detention spaces and over the course of 2015, 32,000 people were detained in the UK.
Detention can be indefinite. Unlike most other European countries, the UK has no upper limit to the amount of time someone can be detained for immigration reasons. People can, and do, end up being detained for years.
People are not being detained as punishment for any crime. Their detention is because they either lack the right kind of immigration status or they are what the government calls foreign national offenders. Some may have been in the UK for most of their lives, others may be newly arrived. Whatever the reason for their detention, the absence of a time limit causes mental anguish. Detention following a prison sentence is a “double punishment” and can often mean breaking up a family whose parent has been in the UK for many years, has a job, partner and children and who may have never even lived in the country the government wants to deport them to.
Most people being detained are asylum seekers whose claims have been refused. Others are waiting to find out if they will be allowed to stay in Britain. Others may have family living far away in another part of the UK.
Many experience extreme isolation, knowing no-one in the UK and with very limited understanding of the law or their rights and entitlements. Many people have been traumatised by their experiences in their home country and are further scarred when they find themselves detained with no release date, and with the prospect of being forcibly returned.
The reason given by the Home Office for detaining people is that, if released, they will go underground. In reality, many people being detained are awaiting appeals and hope they will be given the right to legally live in the UK, others have children, partners and families so have strong reasons not to disappear.
Detention, according to the Home Office is for those whose deportation is said to be imminent, but statistics prove time and again that the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported. In many cases, people that are supposedly awaiting enforced removal or deportation are unable to return to their countries of origin. Their countries might not be willing to accept them back or they have no valid passport for that country (and it’s impossible to get one), while others have been in the UK legally for so long that they cannot prove their original nationality. Other people in detention are from countries that are too dangerous for them to be returned to.
The sense of powerlessness that many people experience while detained takes an inevitable toll on their mental (and physical) health and the trauma of detention often stays with people even after they are released.
Although people in detention are entitled to the equivalent healthcare to that available on the NHS, problems with healthcare are commonplace.
- Denying wheelchair access to a person in detention unable to walk after an assault during a forced removal attempt, meaning she could not go to eat.
- A terminal cancer patient being denied the special diet his doctor had recommended for him (Morton Hall, 2016).
- A Kenyan person in detention, Eliud Nguli Nyenze, died in Oakington IRC after an ambulance called for him by other people in detention was turned away by staff.
According to the rules regarding detention, victims of torture and people with psychiatric conditions should not be detained. However, visitors will often come across people struggling in detention who have survived torture or have a mental illness. It is now widely understood that the experience of detention can even precipitate poor mental health. Ahmad Javani, an Iranian national detained for over thirteen months comments: “If any single normal person came to this place you’d go mental, mad in this place. I was a normal person before coming to this place, and now, I’m forgetting things always. Like old people that forget things… I’m a different person. Who gives this power to them to keep these people here for years and years and years, to make them mental and crazy?”
Levels of self-harm and suicide attempts in detention centres are high; ‘there were 393 recorded suicide attempts in 2015, up 11% on the previous year’ (Guardian, 4th. April 2016).