Content warning: suicide and self-harm

This blog comes from A. Panquang, a Detention Forum volunteer and member of the Freed Voices. A was detained for 9 months.

I called and met up with my pub buddy. The guy is British, one of the coolest guys anyone could hang out with, as long as it is in a pub. I asked him what he knew about Immigration Detention.

“Oh yeah! I heard about something like that on the news. Is it not the thing about these guys jumping on lorries in Calais and coming and taking our jobs, benefits and our women?”

“Really? Is that all you think?” I asked him.

“No worries,” he said, “They catch them, lock them and then throw them back out later. I tell you mate, don’t worry we are SAFE here. No one will take our jobs.”

He then carries on, without realising how shocked I was about what he was saying. “But I have to say, I still don’t know why they don’t throw out the Polish and the Lithuanians. They are the worst…”

“Really? Dude!” I interrupted. “I am a foreigner too and I was in immigration detention for 9 months.” “No Way!” he said.
“Yes way!” I said.

If you have ever been unfortunate enough to fall on the wrong side of the law, irrespective of what law – civil law, law of torts, criminal law, business law, just to name a few – the judicial system will quantify your punishment and most importantly you will know for how long your punishment will be. The same doesn’t apply to immigration irregularities.

Indefinite immigration detention is costly, inhumane and ineffective

If you find yourself on the opposite side of the Home Office, here is my advice for you: just forget about time; because in the UK, there is no time limit on immigration detention. It doesn’t matter how you jeopardised your immigration status, if and when you are detained, you will be detained indefinitely. It will affect you and your family mentally, it will drain funds and resources, you will lose control and sight of your own immigration process, you’ll have no idea when your fate will be decided, even if you have the desire and power to legitimise your stay in the UK. All control will be taken away from you, you have limited legal resources at your disposal. It is the Home Office’s way of exerting mental control over you. This is mental torture: the Hostile Environment and the difficult environment (from 39 minutes onwards) and the immigration system with teeth promised by Amber Rudd.

As if that is not enough mental strain, people are never sure whether they will be deported or released back into the UK community, because it doesn’t matter to the Home Office, even if you have asked to leave voluntarily. You know why? Because the Home Office won’t allow you to buy your own return flight ticket, while you are in detention. They wouldn’t even allow you to fly to a country where you have no visa restrictions. And even if they manage to deport you, you cannot be sure you would be deported to your own country or anywhere close to your local city, town or village in your own country.

Fun Facts:

  • When in detention you have limited communication with your friends, families, and communities. You are not even sure you will be deported or released back to the UK community.
  • More than 50% of people detained are release back to the UK community. The latest statistic shows that 64% of those detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC were released back into the UK.
  • Home Office Caseworkers were given targets of people to remove.

Funny how can they have targets of people to remove, when they don’t know how many people are in the UK without formal immigration status. It is so obvious that detention doesn’t work, but the Home Office still pays £160-£320 million to private companies to detain immigrants. Someone needs to remind the Home Office of Einstein’s definition of insanity. It costs the tax-payer £33,000-£103,000 to detain an immigrant for a whole year and the government detains around 30000 people a year. These resources could put to better use elsewhere in the UK (see this). Thinking of this alone makes my head hurt, then imagine how such thoughts would affect someone in detention mentally. More money should go to cure the mental health issues caused by the misuse of these resources.

Immigration detention and mental health

Home Office Enforcement Officers arrest people diverse places: while working, at home in front of their kids, friends, and family. This traumaremains on kids’ and parents’ minds. Some are arrested at the Hospital or GP surgery while seeking treatment or accessing other services like the NHS. This humiliation adds more mental stress on them and their family, friends, and communities.

When you are detained, the many inhumane forms of torture include the humiliation of being cuffed and dragged in a van, the lack of communication facilities to keep friends and family informed, and the long hours of transits. These have an irreparable impacton people’s mental state and it only gets worse when you discover that the UK is the only EU Country to detain people indefinitely.

Numerous researchers, GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other health professionals have attested that being detained indefinitely has a massive impact on one’s cognitive abilities. Even those with well-developed mental resilience are at risk of succumbing to some form of mental instability after being locked up indefinitely. The UK is the only EU country with indefinite detention.

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that can cause life to spiral out of control. That is because mental illness affects thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and general interactions with the world and oneself. Assess anyone that has been detained – especially those detained for more than 28 days – using
the symptoms of mental illness, and you would see the majority of them show many of these symptoms.

How does detention affect your mental health?

While working for £1.00 per hour serving food to other detained immigrants, I was lucky enough to gather worrying statistics that would be a cause of alarm in many other institutions. For example; an average of 17 people are absent for meals in each block. This means that more than 10% of people miss meals each day. Why is this? Depression, stress, suicidal thoughts and symptoms of poor mental health come to mind. Mental illness increases the longer one is detained, particularly when receiving a rejection letter from the Home Office. There are also increasing cases of self-harming and suicide.

The worst part about everyday life in detention is the awareness that one is never in control. Like many others, I suffer from teeth sensitivity, waking up every morning meant starting my day by brushing my teeth in pain. I bet you wouldn’t think of that. This is a rigorous torture, which could be avoided, if basic needs are met, if humane conditions were maintained in IRCs. I was taking my shower with parts of my body exposed to the guards (males and females) and other people in detention. The same breakfast; don’t let me start on the food. Almost everyone nowadays has a smartphone to keep up-to-date and to remain in contact with friends, family and community. I guess the fear of missing out (FOMO) is often used flippantly, but in detention it’s real; the fear of missing out on your children’s birthdays, for example.

Lack of control plays a massive part in people’s mental state. No control over how your immigration process will go; limited access to legal advice. Duty solicitors try their best to ‘help‘. There are 2 firms which come twice a week and see a maximum of 10 people. There are about 300 people detained in Colnbrook, 80 would be lucky to see a solicitor in a month. So one needs private representation. If you were living in the community with family, you could take care of the kids, food and other basics, so that money for luxuries like a childminder, takeaway and cleaners could be diverted to legal representation. In detention these family and friends will not be there, meaning there is no money for legal representation. This creates more mental pressure and limited access to legal advice and evidence

There is limited communication with the outside world; not only the lack of social media. You only get a mobile phone that can be used for voice calls and sending short messages. Family and friends have to help you top up your phone, No credit means no communication, except if you are lucky enough to use another person’s phone to request call back from solicitors and other people vital to fighting your case. There are just 15 computers for more than 300 people detained in Colnbrook, It feels like one has been sent back to the age of no technology and this is another way the Home Office mounts pressure on one’s sanity.

Some of the guards who have been doing this for a while understand they are just there to facilitate people’s time in detention. They go about their jobs as expected. But most of those who come from the prison system think they are still running a prison. They are power hungry and treat people in detention as invalids. The work as Home Office tools to increase the mental torture of people who are detained. They don’t respond to an emergency medical request for more than 2 hours. They threaten people with writing bad reviews on their record. These reviews are used by the Home Office to create people’s bail summaries and monthly reports. These officers make people feel dehumanized. They add more impact, standing there in your face making it not only a mental torture but also a living hell.

The lack of clarity keeps people stressed and frustrated. The lack of time limit, the lack of knowledge about who can or might be detained, the lack of control over people’s own immigration process, lack of communication with friends, family and community, the lack of legal advice, access to legal evidence, lack of proper healthcare and the lack of basic humane treatment are instruments used by the Home Office to maximize the mental torture of people in detention.

The Stephen Shaw Report commissioned by the government, as well as many reports from Amnesty international, Red Cross, Detention Action and other organisations have pointed out the mental torture people detained are suffering. You would imagine the Home Office would rather reduce NHS spending on curing problems caused by immigration detention.