Death in detention: Suicide attempts soar in the UK

Some 393 refugees and migrants locked up tried to take their lives in 2015 – a record-high average of one a day.

UK detention centres
While all eyes are on the US, campaigners say the UK has a brewing detention scandal of its own [Eoin Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Glasgow, United Kingdom – The Kurdish Iraqi man’s unsteady voice recalls the desperate situation that led to his failed suicide attempt.

“They came to my house and detained me like I was a criminal. It’s not safe for me to go back to Iraq, but they’ve locked me [up] and want to put me on a flight. They are playing with my mind. I’ve had enough, so I tried to hang myself,” says Ahmed over the phone. 

This is not a story from Donald Trump’s America. It’s a tale from Theresa May’s Britain.

While the world’s gaze has been fixated on the extraordinary immigration measures implemented in the United States, campaigners say the UK has a brewing detention scandal of its own.

Ahmed, whose name has been changed like others interviewed for this story to protect their identities, is being held at the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow Airport. He spoke in a broad English accent, having been in the UK since fleeing war-ravaged Iraq in 2002 at the age of 22.

Now 37, Ahmed has a story that is far from an isolated case. 

READ MORE: Foreign students targeted by UK anti-migrant policies

In 2015, the number of suicide attempts in UK detention centres averaged more than one every day, with 393 people trying to take their lives, a record high.

Britain is the only country in Europe that does not have a time limit for how long it can detain people. According to a report published by British MPs, this leaves people’s lives in limbo and can create or accentuate psychological conditions and mental health problems.

“You live here two months and you get mental,” says Hatem, another detainee at Colnbrook. He told Al Jazeera about an Algerian man who also attempted to take his own life recently, after receiving no response about his status from the authorities. 

“He has been in here a long time, 18 months maybe. What he did was get a blade and cut through his face, his leg, everywhere. I’ve never seen so much blood. The guy was screaming … ‘I want answer. Why no one give me answer?'”

 Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre is a detention facility in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, near the town of Strathaven [Eoin Wilson/Al Jazeera]
 Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre is a detention facility in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, near the town of Strathaven [Eoin Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Hatem says he is constantly scared and nervous because of his incarceration. He often does not shower for days as there is no hot water, and complains that the food makes him sick. 

Colnbrook is one of 12 detention centres dotted around the UK. Some 30,000 people are held across these centres every year. They are often in isolated parts of the country, making it difficult for detainees to receive family or lawyer visits.

In January, a Polish man committed suicide at the Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre in Lincolnshire, the third such death in a matter of weeks. According to the Unity Centre immigrant support group, he had asked for bail to see the birth of his son but was refused by the Home Office.

He died on the same day his son was born.

READ MORE: UK – How deportations are tearing families apart

The organisation Medical Justice, which assists sick immigration detainees, said it was “deeply disturbed” by the latest death.

“Year after year, investigations into these deaths reveal ongoing systemic healthcare failings. We fear that as long as these failings continue to go unaddressed there will be more deaths. We call for urgent action,” it said in a statement. 

The charity is not the only group to demand action. Before becoming prime minister, Theresa May was the UK’s home secretary. In that post, she commissioned an independent review of immigration detention.

The findings of the Shaw Review urged the government to “drastically reduce” the number of people detained and end the detention of certain vulnerable groups. Despite now leading the government, May has failed to implement any of these proposals.

May was also widely criticised for the “go home or face arrest” billboards pasted on vans that were driven around the UK in 2013. The campaign to deter undocumented immigrants was eventually deemed a failure and scrapped.

‘Inhumane and barbaric’

Widespread protests have taken place in the UK calling on May to rescind a state-visit invitation made to Trump. However, human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar says that May’s priorities are not all that different from the US president’s.

“People seem to forget that Theresa May [when home secretary] was the individual who operated a policy that was regularly described as inhumane and barbaric,” Anwar told Al Jazeera.

“The detention policy in the UK has been deteriorating for quite a considerable period of time. We are incarcerating people who are victims of sexual violence and torture. They come to this country for safety, but find a system that starts from the premise that they are liars. It’s hardly surprising that people are driven to suicide,” he said.

“I’ve watched in horror at what’s happening in the United States but Theresa May, of all people, is hardly in a position to preach.”

READ MORE: In limbo – Inside Britain’s detention system

Since the Conservatives came to power in 2009, the number of EU nationals detained in the UK has increased fivefold. It’s feared this figure will only get bigger once Britain’s exit from the European Union is finalised. 

But despite the widespread concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants, the UK government insists it does provide sufficient support to detainees.

When asked about the recent spate of deaths in detention, the Home Office told Al Jazeera in a statement: “Detention is an important part of a firm but fair immigration system, helping to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily.

“But it is vital detention and removal are carried out with dignity and respect and we are committed to ensuring that all detainees with mental health issues are given the treatment and support they need.”

This is refuted, however, by someone with direct experience of what it is like to be held.

Pinar Aksu, 24, was locked up in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre as a child when her family first arrived in the UK. Now living in Glasgow, she is a passionate advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants.

“Detention centres are designed to destroy people’s soul and their hopes for the future,” said Aksu.

“It affects your mental health in every shape and form. As there is no time limit in the UK, you have no idea when you’re going to be out. That causes stress and makes you think too much.”

‘Bloody hands’

It is not just the lack of a time limit for detention that has proven controversial. Seven of the 12 centres are run by private companies – Serco, G4S, Mitie and Geo Group – raising questions about profiting from incarceration.

Detainees in some centres work for as little as £1 ($1.20) a day, sparking criticism that the companies are using cheap detainee labour as a means to maximise profits.

Meanwhile, staff at one centre, Yarl’s Wood, have been suspended over allegations of abusing detainees.

Aksu has no doubt where the blame lies for the situation.

“Every person who dies in detention centres is because of the immigration policies pursued by this government,” she says. “The blood of all of these people is on the hands of the British government.”

'Detention centres are designed to destroy people's soul and their hopes for the future,' says Pinar Aksu [Eoin Wilson/Al Jazeera]
‘Detention centres are designed to destroy people’s soul and their hopes for the future,’ says Pinar Aksu [Eoin Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera