There are no human rights here… They treat animals better in this country… I think about killing myself… I am a prisoner… I will be killed if they send me back…
People detained in immigration removal centers (IRCs) have consistently conveyed these messages to me over the past year. As a volunteer, I have spoken to scores of people in IRCs. Although the migration narrative of each person is unique, there are striking and alarming similarities in how people experience detention. Many do not understand why the UK government has placed them in high-security, prison-like facilities. Others point out the contradiction between the government’s stated commitment to human rights and the draconian policies towards people seeking protection. Nearly everyone has lost faith in immigration officials to handle their immigration claims fairly. Everyone expresses some combination of fear, frustration, isolation, and confusion.
Although I am limited in what I can practically do for people in detention, the simple act of validating someone’s experience by agreeing that detention is wrong and inhumane can provide comfort to a person in a desperate and dark place. Showing solidarity and empathy can counteract some of the dehumanizing effects of detention. That is why I am participating in a demonstration organized by Movement for Justice on March 12th outside of Yarl’s Wood IRC: to help send a message to the 2,000-3,500 men and women currently detained in IRCs throughout the UK that they are not forgotten.
The evidence base confirms what we already know: detention harms people in ways beyond the obvious deprivation of liberty. After a recent inspection, Chief Prisons Inspector Nick Hardwick stated that Yarl’s Wood is “a place of national concern” and is “failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held.” The inspection report discusses the deterioration of healthcare services within the center, the detention of pregnant women, poor care planning for women with complex needs, and long periods of detention without clear reason. Hardwick concludes that detention should be an exceptional step, subject to strict time limits. There are currently no time limits on detention.
An independent review commissioned by the Home Office into the welfare of people in immigration removal centers reaches similarly dark conclusions. The report by Stephen Shaw, former prisons and probation ombudsman, finds that detention exacerbates existing mental health problems and can itself cause serious mental health problems. Shaw argues for a presumption against detaining victims of rape and sexual assault and for a complete ban on detaining pregnant women.
While reports provide necessary evidence to advocate for change, the words of people who have experienced detention better convey the urgency of the situation:
“Detention kills your mind, it kills your soul…and sometimes it just kills.”
(Response of Freed Voices member to news of a person’s death in Colnbrook IRC)
“Tortured again. Only this time I wasn’t sure why. Back home, I knew it was because of who I was. But here, it was because of who I wasn’t. It was confusing.”
(Description from Freed Voices member and torture survivor on his time in solitary confinement)
“There was one guy in Campsfield I will never forget…He said he had been detained for 11 months. He said he was thinking of withdrawing his case. He looked completely devastated. He looked hopeless. He had uncontrollable hair. His face was very, very tired and very pale. He looked like someone in mourning, grieving over something. He showed me his leg. It had a huge scar across it. He told me he had lost his son in the same war he had got the scar. He said that since he had been in detention he had lost touch with the rest of his family. He felt desperate. His speech was angry and broken. He said he trusted no-one, nothing. And then it hit me. Am I going to spend the same amount of time here? Am I going to turn into something like this?” (Freed Voices member)
Community-based alternatives to detention exist. People do not need to suffer in detention. The Shaw report found that most people in detention do not pose any risk, let alone serious risk, to the public. Moreover, the risk of non-compliance with immigration orders for people released from detention is very low due to the strong links people have with UK. Yet the government spends £75 million per year on the long-term detention of migrants who are ultimately released. Detaining one person for one year costs £70,000.
Maintaining such an immigration detention scheme is a callous act of political theater, employed by the government to demonstrate its hardline stance on immigration. Prime Minister David Cameron has made multiple commitments to cut net migration to the UK. Detention centers provide visible evidence that the government is acting to curb migration and send back those “undeserving” of status. A powerful message, indeed – except detention does not deter people from migrating. “Unwanted” immigration will continue as long as people face persecution, conflict, or gross inequality in their countries of origin.
It is time to end the routine use and abuse of immigration detention. It is time to shut down Yarl’s Wood and other IRCs in the UK.