According to a report published in 2019 the number of self-harm incidents in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) has tripled since 2016. In 2015, 393 suicide attempts were reported in UK immigration detention centres. That same year, 2957 people in detention were put on suicide watch. In 2018, more than one person a day needed medical treatment for self-harming in detention, with the number of detainees on regular suicide watch still on the rise. Yet, the risk of suicide in detention is barely on the Home Office agenda.
In 2016, the Home Office called upon Stephen Shaw, former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, to use his expertise and write a review on the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention. As a former government employee himself, he openly criticised some of the most irrational aspects of the Home Office’s policy towards vulnerable detainees.
In his report, Shaw highlighted some of the issues with the UK handling of Foreign National Offenders. These are the people who, once they finish their custodial sentence and are released from prison, often get stuck in detention for the longest periods of time. These are also the people who the Home Office have insisted on keeping in detention during the nine-week long (and counting) COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, even though there has not been a realistic prospect of removal for months as planes were grounded all over the globe.
It is therefore on Foreign National Offenders that the effects of detention often weigh the most. Case in point is Michal Netyks, 35, who jumped from a first-floor window in HMP Altcourse in Liverpool on 7 December 2017. He had been due to be released from prison, having just completed his short criminal sentence. An inquiry found that Mr. Netyks had packed up his belongings and was waiting for his release when he was informed that he would continue to be detained under immigration powers pending possible deportation to Poland. He took his own life that very same day.
The Coroner’s report outlined numerous concerns with this practice, echoed in Shaw’s report. By de facto depriving ex-prisoners of their liberty indefinitely beyond their custodial release date, the Home Office shatters any hope and expectation of rebuilding and rehabilitating after a criminal offence. This is made infinitely worse by not giving prisoners any prior notice that they will be detained upon release from prison. In his review, Shaw wrote that this practice is most detrimental to the detainees’ mental health, fuelling suicidal tendencies and tragedies like Mr. Netyks’. Nevertheless, the Home Office made no changes to its policy; the responsibility for the horrendous consequences of this failure to act rests entirely on the government’s shoulders.
As a response to Shaw’s findings, the Home Office developed a new Adult at Risk policy for people held in detention under immigration powers. This new policy is underpinned by the rule 35 mechanism, which supposedly ensures that potential vulnerable adults are examined by a medical practitioner and that their detention is only maintained when there is absolutely no other option.
But the numbers tell us otherwise. In 2018, an average of two suicide attempts a day happened in UK detention centres. 56% of these attempts were committed by individuals who had a rule 35 report and were recognised vulnerable adults. Clearly, the rule 35 regime is not effective, despite the Home Office’s continued argument that they do everything in their power to flag up potential concerns about detainees’ suicidal tendencies.
Shaw also raised concerns about the concealment and coverups of deaths in detention. Generally, when someone dies in an IRC, the Home Office does not conform to the Ministry of Justice’s practice of publishing data on deaths of immigration detainees who passed away under Home Office supervision. That is why numbers and explanations are elusive, and thus, exacerbations of harm even harder to prevent. In Mr. Netyks’ case, the Coroner’s report found that files had actively been deleted and redacted by senior management, an alarming example of how non-transparent the Home Office is regarding death in detention.
Between 2000 and 2015, at least thirteen people committed suicide in detention. This accounts for 36% of the deaths that happened in detention in that same period of time. The high rate of self-inflicted deaths reflects the high rates of mental despair among immigration detainees caught in a system which is difficult to understand, and seems arbitrary and unfair. To prevent these horrible and inhumane results, it is not a question of improving the management of vulnerable people. Rather, the Home Office should ensure that they are not put in detention in the first please so as to avoid unnecessary and inhumane deaths and trauma.
In March, the PM promised that destitute migrants would receive the necessary accommodation and funding during the coronavirus pandemic. Six weeks later, food banks are struggling to meet demands, asylum seekers are moved out of their flats without warning, and local authorities fail to offer guidance on how to offer shelter to rough sleepers during the crisis.
Under Theresa May’s “hostile environment” rules, individuals without immigration status in the UK do not have access to public funds. The hostile environment prevents them from accessing many benefits, ranging from healthcare to housing to public authority assistance of any kind.
In an open letter to the Government, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) asks the Prime Minister to grant all immigrants who currently do not have status a period of Leave to Remain for the time of the pandemic, to avoid the hostile environment’s detrimental effect on public health. The letter is signed by over 30 organisations and charities who work with asylum seekers, refugees and other individuals with insecure immigration status, including Bail for Immigration Detainees, Women for Refugee Women and many others.
The JRS’ letter asks the PM to “to grant a period of leave to remain, with recourse to public funds and access to the labour market, to all those with insecure immigration status,” stating that “This is a vital step to protect public health during the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when public health demands that everyone has ready access to housing and healthcare, insecure immigration status acts as a barrier and puts everyone’s health at risk.”
Although the government has made all COVID-19 treatment free of charge irrespective of the patient’s immigration status, many people with precarious status are reluctant to get help. They fear that data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office, another pillar of the hostile environment policy, will lead to their deportation if they go to the hospital. If they think they might be sick, many migrants prefer staying under the radar so as to avoid the risk of getting into trouble, leading infected people to remain untested and at large.
In order to avoid a crisis of exploitation, destitution and homelessness on top of the coronavirus emergency we are already going through, all migrants should be encouraged to access public funds and especially healthcare.
As charities which normally support vulnerable asylum seekers have been forced to shut down, destitute and vulnerable asylum seekers have been left out in the cold. A #HumaneMigration system including temporary amnesty and leave to remain for migrants who are in the UK during the pandemic is the only viable solution not only to help all the people who are currently slipping through the cracks, but also to limit the spread of the virus in the wider community. Only unprecedented measures can reflect the unprecedented nature of this crisis, and ensure the health and safety of the nation as a whole.