Palpable desperation: Inside the invisible world of immigration detention

The reports of sexual abuse at the Yarl's Wood detention centre were sadly not much of a surprise to people who work with immigration detainees.

Recent reports of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood shine a small spotlight on the otherwise invisible world of immigration detention. They detail how guards preyed on isolated women, subjecting them to unwanted advances, using their positions of power to coerce them into sexual acts. Shocking yes. But sadly not much of a surprise to people who work with immigration detainees.

As a trustee of a small charity, Bail for Immigration Detainees, I visited Yarl’s Wood late last year. The desperation was palpable. One of the women I met had heavily bandaged wrists. She was on 24-hour suicide watch after one failed attempt to take her own life. She, like others I spoke to, was desperate to get out of what is little more than a prison. With 30,000 people detained per year, these women are far from rare.

Many people in detention - both men and women - are incredibly vulnerable. They are often fleeing violence and persecution. About half have claimed asylum. Some have been the victims of torture and rape.  To have faced and survived such trauma, to have undertaken a difficult journey to get away, to have left behind loved ones and the world that you know, to then reach supposed safety only to be locked up is a cruel irony. And to be detained with no release date and no time-limit must be utterly hopeless.

It is little surprise that detention is incredibly damaging. Self-harm and detention go hand in hand, with studies suggesting there are higher levels of suicide and self-harm amongst detained immigrants than amongst the prison population. The impacts on physical and mental ill health are well-documented - severe distress and depression as a result of detention are common.

In the words of Luisa, one of the women BID has worked with, “In the night time I can’t sleep, and you don’t have anyone to go to; and you don’t have anywhere to go out, and get some fresh air, and maybe have a walk or something, we are just inside, I think that really is depressing. I’ve seen other people suffering, because you think you are suffering, and then you see someone else suffering even more than you."

Yet despite the clear vulnerability of many detainees, low standards of care and poor treatment are not uncommon. Detainees are treated with suspicion, with one healthcare worker commenting to BID that “cutting, self-strangulation, food refusal, hair-pulling, head banging” can be used as a “tool to raise profile”. There are incidents of mentally ill people being segregated as a means of “behaviour control”. And four separate legal cases have found the treatment of severely mentally ill men in detention to be inhumane and degrading in breach of their human rights, as well as unlawful.

Immigration detention is only meant to be used in limited circumstances. According to the Home Office’s own guidance, “Detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary.” The guidance states that detention is appropriate where a person’s removal from the country is imminent. But instead people are frequently held even when they cannot be removed because there are outstanding legal proceedings, they are unable to access travel documents, or because it is unsafe to return them to their country of origin.

The most recent figure of 30,000 people detained in the UK over the course of the year is an increase of five per cent on the previous year and the highest figure since records began. It seems increasingly detention is being used only because it is administratively convenient, with little regard to the impact on people’s lives and health.

In reality detention means lives on hold, sometimes for years. One of the worst things is the not knowing. Detainees are held indefinitely with no idea when they will be released. It may be one week, one month, one year. Many are detained for years.

Detention also means families separated, children in care. A recent BID report found that 40 per cent of children whose parents were detained were being fostered or were in local authority care. One can only imagine how scary that must be for those children – with no idea when their mother or father will be released. The report found that these parents were detained on average for 9 months and then the vast majority (80 per cent) were eventually simply released, their detention having served no purpose, save causing their children unimaginable distress at huge expense to the taxpayer.

And on the subject of children, despite Government promises to end the practice of detaining them, last year 242 children were themselves locked up.

All of this is not happening in some far away country renowned for its terrible record on human rights but right here on our doorstep, in the twelve detention centres across the UK and increasingly in the prison estate.

Detention is not the only option for immigration control. There are alternatives, which are not only more humane but also less costly. Release with conditions, regular reporting, community-based case management are all approaches which have been shown to be effective. Of course such a highly politicised issue is not about the evidence of what works, or even the cost. It is about political expediency. It is far easier for the Government to lock people away, out of sight and out of mind.  

These are people serving a sentence for which they have committed no crime. It is a sentence with no end date. It is expensive, unnecessary and frankly inhumane. And it is high time that we took a long hard look at how we treat people who are amongst the most vulnerable in our society.

Katharine Sacks-Jones is a trustee of Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) an organisation which provides legal advice, information and representation to detainees on getting release from detention. Last year BID supported 3,367 people.

Detention itself is incredibly damaging to already-vulnerable people. Photo: Getty
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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.