A Death in Detention: Life Inside UK Immigration Removal Centres

On 3rd October 2017, Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) – an ominous, high-security, 392-room deportation centre based in Lincoln – became the site of the third detainee death in UK centres in less than a month. Carlinton Spencer, aged 38, had apparently repeatedly called for medical assistance, while his health deteriorated. He was eventually taken to hospital, where he died within 24 hours. Detainee witnesses say that Mr Spencer’s death was a ‘result of gross negligence by the health professionals…and staff’ at Morton Hall.

By the end of 2016, around 3,000 people, including children, were detained under the Immigration Act. Detention powers can be used for a number of reasons, including holding asylum seekers who have had their claim refused, or those who have a claim in progress. Some detainees are held because they have breached the terms of their visas, while other are foreign nationals who have a criminal record and are in the process of being deported. However, 45% of the detention population are asylum seekers (those who seek refuge in the UK because of persecution in their country of origin). Detention centres up and down the UK vary in terms of detainee population and their management. Such centres are generally built near airports and modelled on prison standards, but differ in terms of detainee access. For example, IRC Campsfield near Oxford allows detainees to walk freely with access to an outdoor area, whereas detainees at Colnbrook and Brook House spend far more time locked in units with no fresh air.

Morton Hall IRC. Source: WikiMedia Commons

While tragic in its own right, Mr Spencer’s death is part of a wider and increasingly disturbing problem of detainee treatment within the UK immigration system. In September, a Chinese man died in a Scottish immigration removal centre, while in London, a 28-year old Polish man attempted to hang himself in a removal centre. He died four days later. Following his death, detainees in the same detention centre signed a letter of protest to the Home Office, asserting that it was “a disgrace that no one has been held accountable for such poor care. We are human beings not animals”. The charity Medical Justice also issued a damning statement: ‘Year after year, investigations into these deaths reveal ongoing systemic healthcare failings. We fear that as long as these failings continue to go unaddressed, there will be more deaths.’

These deaths may seem like extreme cases, but a recently aired BBC Panorama investigation also revealed serious mistreatment of detainees by the private security firm G4S, who, alongside a number of other corporations, are employed to provide security in the complex network of immigration centres around the UK. During this undercover documentary, security officers employed by the private company were seen choking, mocking and abusing detainees at Brook IRC near Gatwick. When one of the distressed detainees tried to strangle himself with a phone charger cord, the on-duty custody manager could be heard saying “Plug him in and he’ll be a Duracell bunny”. After the Panorama investigation aired, nine G4S staff were suspended from Brook House. Taken together, the deaths, abuse, and the apparent lack of engagement by the government demonstrate a worrying trend in the UK immigration system.

Unsurprisingly, the weight of the prospect of possible deportation back to a country where someone may face severe persecution or death, coupled with the uncertainty of their detention and the mistreatment in immigration removal centres, results in many detainees developing severe mental health problems. In 2015, 393 detainees tried to take their own lives, and a total of 2,957 detainees were on suicide watch during 2015, including 11 children. In an interview with Al Jazeera, one detainee at Colnbrook IRC talked about an Algerian man, detained for about 18 months, who had attempted to commit suicide, having received no response about his asylum status. The man cut his body with a blade screaming, “I want answer, why no-one give me answer?”.

The UK is the only country in Europe were indefinite immigration detention is allowed. To be clear, many of the detainees have not been charged with any crime, other than awaiting an immigration decision. In 2016, the longest recorded length of detention was over three and a half years. All this is despite a cross-party Parliamentary inquiry in 2015 denouncing this practice and advocating for a 28-day limit on detention for those fleeing persecution. The UK has also been warned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that the Government’s policy on detaining asylum seekers risks breaching international human rights law.

Protesters outside of Dungavel IRC in Scotland. Source: WikiMedia Commons

More recently, the Home Office has come under pressure from the UK High Court, when it ruled that the government had unlawfully detained people who had been tortured in their home country. The Home Office’s narrow definition meant that only those who had been seriously abused by official state agents could be considered torture victims, and therefore safe from detainment. This disregards any abuse conducted by traffickers, terrorists, and other nonstate forces. The case was brought by seven victims of torture, amongst whom were two men tortured because of their sexuality, and another who had been captured by the Taliban. The judgment is likely to encourage dozens of claims against the Home Office, with human rights campaigners and immigration lawyers calling for the immediate release of torture victims from detention centres.

With Donald Trump’s astonishing immigration measures in the US making global headlines almost daily, it is imperative to remember how immigration is being handled closer to home. As Brexit looms in the distance, the Home Office’s resources is already stretched to the limits, impinging on its ability to make positive changes to the immigration system. The events described in this article highlight the dangers of systematically detaining immigrants and asylum seekers in the UK. Perhaps we should not require such tragedies like Mr Spencer’s death to make us pay attention to the thousands of innocent people detained around the country.

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