Michael had only been in detention a handful of hours when he attempted to kill himself. It was the first of several times in a more than 13-week stay in Britain’s immigration removal centres that he tried to die.
He had gone for a routine interview with the Home Office about his case in December 2014 when he was first detained.
He remembers arriving at a detention centre in Manchester after spending a day in the back of a van, telling staff he had not had his antidepressants and was not being allowed to see a doctor.
“It was very difficult,” Michael (whose surname we have agreed not to publish due to his ongoing asylum claim) told BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t have any food all that day and then in the nighttime, that’s when I decided I wasn’t going to live anymore.”
In the end it was his cellmate who raised the alarm, after he found Michael in the middle of an attempt on his own life.
Now in his thirties, Michael is still waiting on his latest asylum claim. His legal team says it is focusing on fear of religious persecution after he was tortured and held in captivity for his beliefs in his country, Cameroon. He cannot understand why he was held in prison conditions for so long when UK law stipulates that survivors of torture and those with vulnerable mental health should be released.
As he recalls the experience he trembles and fixes his eyes on the floor. “I had flashbacks to what I experienced before back home,” he said. “I said to myself, anything that put me through the same situation, I didn’t want to go through it again, so taking my life was the only solution.”
BuzzFeed News has seen previously unpublished figures that reveal the scale of the mental health crisis unfolding in Britain’s immigration detention estate. The number of detainees on suicide watch grew by 5% in 2018, to 541 people, according to a freedom of information request.
An average of 41 incidents of self-harm were recorded every month in immigration removal centres in the year to September 2018, official data released under FOI to the charity Freedom From Torture shows. In total, 489 cases of self-harm were recorded across the detention facilities in the UK during this period.
In 2016 Sir Stephen Shaw published the first government-commissioned review into the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention. He concluded that “detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability”, and recommended a “presumption against detention” of survivors of rape and sexual violence, people with learning disabilities and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Shaw’s recommendations prompted the creation of a new policy, called Adults at Risk, which came into force in September 2016. It was trumpeted as a way of ensuring that vulnerable people, such as torture survivors or those with serious mental health issues, were released from detention. But human rights campaigners say it’s not working and in some cases makes it harder to secure the release of those held inappropriately.
Since the introduction of the policy more than two years ago, 1,213 people have been under suicide watch, where the risk of serious harm is deemed so critical that guards are with them 24 hours a day. The new figures suggest large numbers of vulnerable people are inappropriately held.
Just 6% of people identified as at risk are actually released. Government figures show just 364 of 6,300 people identified by doctors and social workers are at a particular risk of harm were subsequently allowed out of detention in the year to September 2018.
Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom From Torture, said: “These shocking levels of self-harm make it clear that there are vulnerable people in these prisonlike detention centres all over the UK, and the Home Office — by its own standards — is failing to protect them. From interventions that Freedom From Torture has made on behalf of torture survivors, we know that the damage done by immigration detention is catastrophic. Detainees bang their heads against the prison cells in despair, they suffer from harrowing flashbacks and they self-harm — all too familiar stories that we document day after day.
“To make it worse, the Home Office is not centrally recording how many people on suicide watch are designated as Adults at Risk, demonstrating breathtaking professional negligence.
“The deprivation of liberty and the protection of people’s basic rights have been flouted for too long by this department. It is high time the government establishes an Adults at Risk policy that is fit for purpose. Vulnerable people and torture survivors should never be detained.”
Brook House, near Gatwick, and Harmondsworth (near Heathrow) are the two removal centres with the highest number of detainees on suicide watch, meaning they are constantly observed. Out of the 1,213 people under watch, 27% of adults were detained in Brook House, and 21% were detained in Harmondsworth, compared to 9% in Yarl’s Wood.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “The incarceration of victims of torture and abuse is not only inhumane, it breaches our obligations under international law. The government has failed to implement recommendations from the Shaw report, which would have seen many of these exceptionally vulnerable people exempt from detention. Instead the Tories have chosen to further risk people lives, and continue with their cruel and hostile policies.”
After his first suicide attempt, Michael was taken to Harmondsworth, which houses former prisoners waiting to be deported alongside regular immigration detainees.
Despite his insistence that he needed his depression medication — and the fact that he was now on suicide watch and supervised by two members of staff for 24 hours a day — he says it was more than two weeks before he saw a doctor.
When the doctor did file a rule 35 report, a document designed to identify vulnerable detainees for release, it was ignored. “The Home Office didn’t believe me," Michael said. "The rule 35 said I was a victim of torture and that I had signs of PTSD. The rules are they release without delay. But they refused and said they didn’t believe my statement was correct."
As well as filing a report that gave medical reasons for release, the doctor finally gave him his antidepressants, after a two-week wait. "That’s when I overdosed," Michael recalled. “They gave me a week’s worth and I took all of it.”
“The only thing in my mind was ‘I want to die’. I became very depressed and full of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep. There was a time where I became very aggressive and I would self-harm myself just to get through the day. I found I had no privacy and was being watched 24 hours.”
His cellmate’s mental health was similarly precarious. “We spoke a lot and had a lot of things in common,” Michael recalls. “He’d been in detention for six months already and was the one helping me around. He was in detention too long and he took all his heart medication in one day.”
An ambulance was called and his friend survived. Michael was transferred to another detention centre shortly afterwards, where he had another overdose himself.
By the end of his time in detention, Michael was on hunger strike and had been put on a fast track to removal. When he finally got a lawyer and was put in touch with Freedom From Torture, they were able to submit further evidence to secure his release.
“It’s just a game where you can die there and no one is accountable,” he said. “I was in detention altogether for 13 and a half weeks. It’s not a place I wish someone to be. The staff are not good. We were treated as prisoners.”
A spokesperson for Mitie, the outsourcing company which runs Harmondsworth, said the company could not comment on individual cases. In a statement they said: “Alongside professional medical staff working in the centre, our staff are trained in mental health awareness and there are comprehensive self-harm and suicide prevention policies in place to monitor and protect vulnerable detainees.”
Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, which provides health care services in Harmondsworth, said the NHS could not comment on individual cases but that processes had improved since the time Michael was in detention. A spokesperson added: “Healthcare staff approach every person with respect and compassion within the system that’s in place. As the healthcare provider we act up to our responsibilities in the policy but are unable to comment on Home Office processes once the healthcare report has been submitted. A review of the Adults at Risk Policy has taken place and multi–professional training has followed.”
The mental toll of detention in Britain is exacerbated by the arbitrary reasons — and long stretches of time — that people are being held in it. Immigration detention was intended as a last resort, a place to keep people temporarily when their deportation is imminent. But increasingly Britain’s system is gaining a global reputation for the length of time it holds detainees. In a second review of detention published last summer, Shaw wrote that the time many people spend in detention remains “deeply troubling”.
In 1993 there were just 250 detention places in the whole country. Now the detention estate is on another scale. Last year, 24,748 people were detained for immigration purposes, and more than half of them were held for more than 28 days.
Britain is the only country in Europe without a time limit on how long people can be held for immigration purposes. The government is currently reviewing its policy following pressure from across the political spectrum, but attempts from MPs to push through legislation have barely gotten off the ground with Brexit dominating the timetable.
Tulip Siddiq, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, has introduced a 10-minute bill in Parliament to limit detention to 28 days. She said: “Indefinite detention has created an epidemic of self-harm in our immigration centres, and it must not be allowed to continue. These figures reveal the shameful scale of the problem and underline why the 28-day limit on detention, as proposed by my bill, is sorely needed.
“The government could act immediately but chooses not to do so. The amount of time consumed by Brexit divisions has ensured that my bill, and the government’s immigration bill, have not received the required time for debate. It is high time that MPs got their act together and collectively supported moves to end the dire treatment of society’s most vulnerable.”
As well as the mental health toll, the cost to the state of using immigration detention for long periods is vast. Keeping someone in detention costs an estimated £86 per person per day. More than half of all detainees go on to be released into the community, rather than removed from the country, bringing into question why they were held there in the first place.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The health and welfare of those in immigration detention is of the utmost importance. All immigration removal centres have trained medical staff on hand to provide medical care to those in detention.
“Following Stephen Shaw’s second review, we have committed to a number of reforms to protect vulnerable detainees, including changes to the ‘Adults at Risk’ policy to make sure that those with complex needs receive the attention they need.
“While we have made significant improvements in recent years, the Home Secretary has made clear that he is committed to going further and faster to explore alternatives to detention, increase transparency around immigration detention, further improve the support available for vulnerable detainees and initiate a new drive on detainee dignity.”
But for those who continue to endure long stays in detention, the damage can be permanent. Natasha Tsangarides, senior policy adviser at Freedom From Torture, says the Adults at Risk policy is “creating harm”. She went on: “Whereas before a torture survivor would be released unless there were exceptional circumstances, now the guidance has changed to ‘we will release you only on the balance of immigration factors’.
“The figures are showing us that unacceptably high numbers of vulnerable people are being held in detention. We would agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the Home Office cannot be trusted with the power to detain, full stop. The Adults at Risk policy needs a complete overhaul but also we would endorse that the Home Office not be trusted with the power to detain at all.”
Michael says detention has only worsened his existing trauma — and made his life in Britain feel hard to bear.
“Since I came out of detention I’ve had four overdoses,” he said. “One was almost fatal and the doctor said she doesn’t know why I’m still alive and I have a lot of destruction… I want the Home Office to recognise that people are in a difficult situation and putting people in detention to make a decision on their case is not the best way forward. A lot of people are very vulnerable and don’t care about life.”
Describing life inside a detention centre, he said: “They just lock the door. You see a lot of people very depressed. It’s just a place where you see too much pain.” ●