Immigration detention is putting asylum seekers in the UK at risk of suicide and self-harm

21 Dec, 2020 | Asylum and Detention, Blogs, Latest

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By Reanna Smith

Immigration detention is putting asylum seekers in the UK at risk of suicide and self-harm.

Two years ago, the Guardian revealed that there was an average of two suicide attempts every day at immigration detention centres across the UK. They obtained this information from a Freedom of Information request, and whilst these figures revealed a clearly significant issue of suicide amongst asylum seekers in the UK, little has been done since to formally address this issue. In fact, despite these shocking figures, the Home Office has failed to regularly publish statistics surrounding suicide in immigration detention centres.

Whilst statistics surrounding suicide in immigration detention are not available, the statistics surrounding self-harm indicate that this is still a prominent issue. In fact, despite concerns over suicide attempts in 2018, the number of people self-harming in immigration actually increased the following year, with  474 self-harm incidents in immigration detention were recorded in 2019, compared to 398 cases the previous year.  

Whilst the official data is limited, there is still a vast amount of evidence to suggest that suicide amongst asylum seekers is a significant issue, particularly amongst asylum seekers experiencing time in detention. A report released by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) last year, claimed that being detained in an immigration detention centre directly led to an increased risk of suicide. So why is this happening?

The report highlighted the abuse faced by detainees as the reason for this, with many experiencing significant trauma whilst being held in detention. Abuse allegations within UK immigration detention centres are not new. For years human rights charities have been concerned with the way that asylum seekers are treated in detention. Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, is perhaps most notorious for claims of abuse after a BBC documentary in 2017 revealed the horrifying situation that detainees faced there.

Since then, personal accounts continue to tell the same story. When speaking about his experience in Brook House, one man told Detained Voices: “The treatment in detention was very bad, humiliating and degrading. I despised myself and felt that my life was destroyed”. He further detailed the abuse experienced there when describing an attempt to deport him, saying “Four large-bodied people, wearing armour similar to riot police and carrying protective shields, violently took me to the large hall at the ground floor of the detention. I was exhausted, as I had been on a hunger strike for several days. In a room next to me, one of the deportees tried to resist and was beaten so severely that blood dripped from his nose.”

Another reason for the growing issue of suicide and self-harm in immigration detention is due to a failure by detention staff to recognise those who are at risk. When it comes to the process of preventing suicide within immigration detention, there have been significant failings. A clear example of this can be seen when it comes to ‘Rule 35’ reports. Rule 35 reports are supposed to be issued by a detention centre GP’s when a detainee faces risks to their safety, so that the Home Office can consider, under the Adults at Risk policy, whether that person should be released from detention. It is an important part of the immigration detention system when it comes to ensuring the safety of detainees. Rule 35 reports are issued in three types of circumstances, with Rule 35 (2) reports indicating that a detainee could be at risk of attempting suicide.

Despite an increase in instances of self-harm within detention last year, only five Rule 35 (2) reports were issued across all of the detention centres in the UK. In Brook House, for example, where many detainees have reported attempting suicide themselves or witnessing suicides, no Rule 35 (2) reports were issued throughout the year. This means that not only is immigration detention creating an environment where the risk of suicide increases, it is also failing to identify, and thus protect, those who are most at risk. 

Suicide is an issue that can affect anyone, but it can be prevented. When it comes to tackling suicide attempts within immigration detention centres, many steps need to be taken. The Home Office’s Hostile Environment, which aims to make entering and remaining in the UK as difficult as possible, it inhumane and comes at a human cost.

This became evident in 2016 when the Shaw Review, which was commissioned by the Home Office, found that the UK’s immigration detention system damaged the physical and mental wellbeing of detainees. The review recommended that the use of immigration detention should be reduced considerably, calling for a ‘smaller, more focused, strategically planned immigration detention estate’. Despite this, four years later the UK is still the only country in Europe to allow indefinite immigration detention. Since the Shaw review, cross-party politicians, organisations and NGO’s have been campaigning for this to be reduced to a maximum detention period of 28 days. Last year, over a third of people in immigration detention were held for over 28 days, with the longest detention period standing at 1002 days at the end of the year. Until the government takes action on this inhumane system, they will continue to be responsible for the deteriorating health of asylum seekers who deserve to feel safe.

Reanna Smith is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal team who support those claiming asylum in the UK.

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