Scared, confused, alone: the dark truths of immigration detention
People seeking asylum can be held indefinitely and without warning – leading to permanent fear. The UK’s damaging system must change
When Isabella arrived in the UK from her home of Namibia, she thought she had finally found safety. As a lesbian, she had faced restrictive laws and prejudice at home, and came to the UK in October 2017 to seek asylum.
Her troubles should have been over. But on a routine appointment at the Home Office – standard practice for people seeking asylum – she found her application had been denied, and she was put into immigration detention.
“I was terrified,” said Isabella. “I came here to be safe but instead I was locked up in detention, but didn’t commit any crime.”
I FELT SO ALONE AND DEAD INSIDE.ISABELLA, FROM NAMIBIA
Isabella was held for two scary, confusing weeks. Her mental health deteriorated and she says she met “very vulnerable and mentally unwell” women who should never have been detained in the first place.
Unfortunately, Isabella and the women she met are far from the only ones.
Immigration detention is the name given to the government practice of detaining people seeking asylum and other migrants for administrative purposes – usually to confirm their identity or to decide whether their claim will be accepted. If the claim is denied, people may be ‘removed’ and sent back to their home country. This was Isabella’s biggest fear.
“I have a friend who was deported back to Namibia because she could not provide enough evidence for her asylum claim,” she said. “I felt so alone and dead inside there.”
A long-lasting impact on mental health
The UK has one of the biggest detention estates in Europe, and it is the only European country without a maximum limit on the length of time someone can be detained. When a person is held, there is no telling how long they will be there for.
A 2018 British Red Cross study found one person had been kept in detention for two years and seven months, and that another had been detained four times. The effects on detainees are wide-ranging, but the impact on mental health can be extreme.
Of the 26 former detainees interviewed for the report, four said that they had considered suicide, and five said that they had actually attempted it. The uncertainty over how long they would be held, and the question of whether they would ultimately have to return to the place from which they were fleeing, was the biggest worry.
David, who is gay, fled his home in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal.
Before coming to the UK, David was attacked and stabbed, having spoken out about LGBTQ+ rights. He is currently claiming asylum here. But while his application is processed, he must attend regular appointments at the Home Office. He never knows whether an appointment will result in detention.
“If you are a documented immigrant and you are complying with reporting, why should they tell you that you can be detained?” he said. “It’s very humiliating. The next thing you are thinking is, yes, I could be put on the next flight. Then they [might] deport you to the place you are running away from.”
In 2017, 27,000 people were held in immigration detention centres in the UK. Of these, only 45 per cent were ultimately removed from the UK. The rest were allowed to stay, which raises questions as to why they were held in the first place.
THAT FEAR WILL NEVER GO AWAYRED CROSS STAFF MEMBER, GLASGOW
Of course, a person’s problems are not over once they are released. Detention has a known lasting impact on mental health, including a fear of attending scheduled appointments at the Home Office.
“Many of my clients have that experience of being detained at reporting, which has induced that fear that anything can happen,” said one Red Cross staff member in Glasgow. “No matter how many times they have gone for reporting without being detained, that fear will never go away.”
Our recommendations for change
Following the report, the British Red Cross made a series of recommendations to the Home Office. This includes making detention a last resort and placing a 28-day limit on anyone’s time in detention. We also recommended that vulnerable people, including pregnant women, should never be detained.
Evidently there is still work to be done: in July 2019, the government rejected the same recommendation made by the Joint Committee of Human Rights for an introduction on a 28-day limit.
Ahmed from Sudan, who spent time in detention and was included in the report, perhaps sums up the feeling of indefinite detention the best: “Prison is a prison, it doesn’t matter what you call it. I think that [freedom] is the only thing that I’ve got now. If you want to take that, you might as well take my life as well.”
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