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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.

Detention itself is incredibly damaging to already-vulnerable people. Photo: Getty

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.